As the women’s movement today confronts the challenges of this day and age, we find that the slogans, struggles and experiences of our sisters in decades and centuries past continue to inspire us with their relevance.
We have seen how, on March 8, 1917, thousands of Russian women flooded the streets of Petrograd raising the slogan of ‘bread, land and peace', demanding bread, land for peasantry, and an end to the imperialist World War I.
As we look around us today, do we not find that this slogan resonates with renewed relevance and force today? In the pages that follow we take a look at some of the contemporary challenges that the women’s movement in India faces.
The question of bread ('roti') assumes explosive proportions in India in the IWD Centenary year of 2010-2011, as prices of food break all records.
According to the Global Hunger Index and the India Hunger Index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute in October 2008, India’s record on hunger is worse than that of nearly 25 sub-Saharan African countries and all of South Asia, except Bangladesh.
The Global Gender Gap Report 2009 had ranked India bottom (134th among 134 countries) in terms of the ‘women's health and survival’ index – i.e. Indian women suffer worse hunger, malnutrition and maternal mortality than women in the poorest of the world’s countries.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2005-06, more than half of India’s women are anaemic. What will be the impact of steep (nearly 20%) rise in food prices on women who are already hungry and under-nourished?
Let us intensify the struggle against the government policies that result in price rise and render women vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition. Let us protest against the UPA Government’s draft of the ‘Right to Food’ Bill that makes a mockery of right to food by restricting rations to BPL families and pushing out large numbers of the poor from the BPL lists. Let us protest against corruption in the rationing system, and demand the guarantee of the right to food for all.
Land Reform in India is an agenda that the ruling class has systematically betrayed; and in times of liberalisation, governments are seeking to reverse any land reforms that did take place. In recent times, land has come again to political centre stage, with militant movements all over the country against corporate land grab, and struggles for sharecroppers’ rights and homestead land. Women in land struggles [Tapasi Malik at Singur, many women at Nandigram and more recently, adivasi women at Narayanpatna (Orissa)] have been targeted with rape and murder. In Punjab, hundreds of dalit women agricultural labourers were jailed in 2009 because they struggle for homestead land. No doubt this is linked to the fact that in India, women constitute 40 percent of the agricultural workforce and 75 percent of all women workers are in some way dependent on agriculture. Even when women peasants do a major share of agricultural work, they are rarely issued pattas in their own name; the male peasant is taken as the head of the family. Eviction and displacement take an even higher toll on women than men; lack of homestead land in the strengthens feudal relations – the brunt of which, again, is borne by women.
Women's unequal access to land and property, as well as livelihood, is a major factor in their social subjugation. An 'Expert Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms' appointed by the Ministry of Rural Development submitted its report some months ago. This Report notes the sheer neglect of women's rights to land and blatant anti-woman bias in the government's policies relating to displacement.
In the IWD Centenary year, the time is ripe to intensify the women's struggles against land grab, for sharecroppers' rights and homestead land, and, as part of the struggle for land reform and redistribution of land to the and landless, to fight for from women's equality in access to land.
In Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, women continue to be devastated by imperialist wars – while women are at the forefront of huge anti-war mobilisations in the US and its allied countries.
The image of the women of Manipur in 2004 protesting in the nude against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) with the slogan 'Indian Army Rape Us' is a reminder that women are the worst casualties in the state's war on its people. Be it at Bastar, Shopian (Kashmir), Lalgarh (W Bengal) or the North East, women suffer brutalities, rape and murder at the hands of security forces.
As Lalgarh and Nayaranpatna have reminded us, 'combing operations' for so-called 'insurgents' has invariably meant sexual abuse of women, usually adivasi women, by security forces.
In Bastar, Sodi Sambho who received a police bullet in her leg when she witnessed the Gompad massacre (where 7 were killed, one old woman's breast chopped off, and a baby's fingers and tongue chopped off) by security forces. She and other witnesses have been kept in illegal custody by the Chhattisgarh police and prevented from meeting lawyers or even moving freely. This is obviously to intimidate her into changing her testimony. Women raped by Salwa Judum and SPOs have been intimidated by police – while the accused have not been arrested.
We have witnessed how a middle class girl like Ruchika found herself helpless in the face of the power mobilised against her by a police officer Rathore. What, then, is the fate of women from socially and economically more vulnerable sections? Women like Sodi and her adivasi sisters, whose accusations against police and security forces in Bastar threaten not just the individual prestige of a Rathore, but the very legitimacy of an anti-insurgency war waged by none less than the Government of India?
The legacy of the slogan of 'peace' on Women's Day in India can only mean a call for a halt of these wars on people in the name of war on terrorism.
Advertisements issued by the UPA Government show photographs of smiling women working at NREGA worksites – with the slogan that thanks to the Government, women have found dignified work. Such rosy pictures are very different from the reality. Take one example – the 5-year-old son of a young woman worker at a NREGA worksite in Mirzapur drowned in a pond in March 2010. He was unattended because of the violation of the NREGA regulation mandating a creche at every site. Hardly any NREGA worksite provides for creches; and at most sites, women are denied work and turned away, in violation of the provision for 33% jobs under NREGA. Further, the nature of the work is often unfair to women, and women are often paid less than men. The NREGA experience is no exception – women in all areas of work continue to be denied equal rights and opportunities.
The 8-hour work-day which women won a century ago is now being widely violated, with workers in the informal sector having to work much longer hours.
Women’s labour force participation in India, at 36%, is less than half of the labour force participation rate of men (85%).
Women’s estimated earned annual income is less than a third of men’s income.
If adult women are underrepresented in the workforce, girl children are overrepresented in child labour: according to NSSO data of 2004-05, while women aged 15 and above comprise only 27 per cent of all employed persons in India, girl children account for 42 per cent of all children in employment.
At all levels of employment, women are paid less than men for the same work, and also face other forms of gender discrimination as well as sexual harassment.
The Global Employment Trends for Women Report 2009 (released by the ILO on Women's Day last year) showed that the global financial crisis had a worse impact on women as compared to men, in a scenario where women are 'last hired, first fired.' This is especially true of developing economies.
Women tend to be overrepresented in the agricultural sector: barring some of the more industrialized regions, almost half of female employment globally can be found in this sector alone. The share of employment in agriculture globally has declined from 40.8% in 1999 to 33.5% in 2009; this decline has hit women's employment badly.
One-third of India's urban women workers are employed in the sectors worst hit by the recession – textile, garments and leather industries.
Women are disproportionately represented in the most vulnerable, ill-paid sectors of the economy.
In the case of rural women workers in the health sector – like ASHA and Anganwadi – it is clear that the government itself is exploiting the under-paid labour of women, promoting the patriarchal notion that women's labour is a 'voluntary' service to society.
Women workers in India, in their struggles against exploitation and discrimination, will have in their hands the banner of resistance that their militant sisters raised a century ago!
Alexandra Kollontai, leader of the Bolshevik Party and one of pioneers of the women's movement, wrote in 1920 that one of the “vital issues” of International Women's Day at the time of its origin was “the question of making parliament more democratic, that is, of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women.” The question of making representative institutions more democratic continues to be a challenge, with women's representation continuing to be low globally. In India, it is particularly shameful that for the last decade, the demand for 33% reservation in Parliament and Assemblies continues to be betrayed by successive governments. On 8 March 2010, UPA-II passed the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha with great fanfare. But immediately after that, the Congress, UPA as well as parties like BJP have fallen back on the same excuse of opposition to the Bill by SP, RJD etc, in order to once again delay the Bill.
Does not the fate of the Women’s Bill remind us of the fate of the Hindu Code Bill in the 1940s and 50s? Just as Congress and the communal forces played a game to delay and weaken the pro-women Hindu Code Bill, will the Congress, BJP, and the RJD, SP etc all play a political game to delay and weaken the 33% Women’s Reservation Bill? The women’s movement must foil this game-plan. We are not opposed to quota within quota for women from SC/STs, OBCs, or minorities – but we will not tolerate delay and dilution of the principle of 33% reservation for women in Parliament and Assemblies!
Moreover, women elected to panchayats continue to face discrimination and violence, especially if they are from dalit, working class or other deprived sections of society. Women elected to panchayats are often discouraged and even prevented from acting in their own right – with male family members and feudal forces acting as panchayat representatives 'by proxy.'
In gram sabhas where decisions regarding issues of land acquisition, forest rights etc are to be taken, people are large and women in particular are often prevented from participating. The same goes for decisions regarding projects to be taken up under NREGA. Be it the participation of women in democratic decision-making or that of 33% reservation in Parliament and Assemblies, women's rights to political participation are being denied.
We have seen how the women’s movement resisted feudal forces to fight for women’s right to study and work, against child-marriage, dowry, sati and other feudal practices, and so on. In many ways, this struggle continues even today. Though women have won legal equality and rights, feudal culture is still very strong and continues to militate against women’s freedom. Female foeticide and infanticide are still rampant and India’s sex ratio is shameful. Khap panchayats, feudal families as well as Sangh Parivar outfits coerce, imprison and even kill couples who choose partners in defiance of caste/gotra/community norms. Hindutva groups like Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene, as well as Muslim fundamentalist outfits impose ‘dress codes’ and other moral codes on women and attack women who defy these codes. Casteism and patriarchy are deeply interlinked – controlling women’s right to choose partners is one way of maintaining the oppressive and discriminatory institution of caste.
Women are also targeted in communal and casteist assaults. In Gujarat 2002, Muslim women were raped en masse. A young college student Ishrat Jehan was killed in cold blood and passed off as a 'terrorist' by the Gujarat police. Incidents like Khairlanji – where a dalit woman and her daughter were gang raped and brutally killed along with their whole family – are no aberration. Recently, in Mirchpur in Haryana, a young dalit woman and her father were burnt alive by a mob belonging to a dominant caste.
The women’s movement will continue to resist all forms of feudal obscurantism, fundamentalist attacks on women’s personal freedoms, and all forms of communal and casteist discrimination and violence.
In the pages above, we have got a glimpse of how women made history by demanding equality and freedom, and how that striving for liberation continues even today. In our continuing battle for women’s liberation, what can we learn from the historic women workers and socialist and communist women leaders who began the tradition of International Women’s Day?
Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, and the women workers of so many countries who began celebrating International Women’s Day as a day of struggle, believed that women’s complete liberation from oppression was possible only in a world free from oppression of human beings by human beings – i.e a communist world. At the same time they believed that no world could be truly free and just if the women in it did not enjoy untrammeled equality and freedom. As a result, they believed that the struggle for women’s liberation and the struggle for socialism and communism went hand in hand, and in this struggle, it was women of the oppressed class who would be at the very forefront. All around us, the experience of the women’s movement confirms this belief of the pioneers of International Women’s Day. True tribute to the historic pioneers of IWD can be paid only by our spirited pledge today to take forward their struggle – onwards towards women’s liberation, onwards towards socialism and communism, onwards to a world free from oppression and inequality!