International Women’s Day: Covid and economic depression threaten women’s gains

March 8 is International Women’s Day, when across the world the struggle for women’s rights is stepped up

Joint statement by International Socialist Alternative and ROSA International

While 2019 was a year of massive revolt, in which women and particularly young women — and their demands — formed an integral part and were often at the frontlines, creating hope for women all over the world, the pandemic and the developing economic crisis that was triggered by it in 2020 pose a real threat to the gains women have made in previous decades.

Referring to the rise in domestic chores and family care, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia states “The coronavirus pandemic could wipe out 25 years of increasing gender equality”. It poses a “real risk of reverting to 1950’s gender stereotypes”. (BBC, November 26)

More unpaid work, less paid work — women’s financial independence under attack

Before the onset of the pandemic, women were on average doing three times more unpaid work than men. That inequality has only grown in the last year. “More alarming is the fact that many women are actually not going back to work. In the month of September alone, in the US, something like 865.000 women dropped out of the labour force compared to 200.000 men, and most of that can be explained by the fact that there was a care burden and there’s nobody else around”, A. Bhatia goes on explaining.

The International Labour Organisation suggests that the equivalent of 140 million full-time jobs may be lost due to Covid 19, with women’s employment 19% more at risk than men. The damage is massive in the informal sector, in which 58% of women are working globally. According to UN Women, informal workers have lost on average 60% of their income. A staggering 72% of domestic workers, 80% women, have lost their jobs, while these jobs lack basic worker protection like paid leave, notice period or severance pay.

“But even in the formal sector the virus seems to be widening inequality, the report (of UN Women) found, with women in Bangladesh six times more likely to lose paid working hours than men.” (The Telegraph, November 26). According to a census survey in September 2020, nearly 7 million Americans aren’t employed because of childcare. “Since women earn less than men on average, it’s often the mother who steps back. Women lose valuable skills during the time they aren’t working, which can make finding a job in the future harder and damage family finances, according to Center for American Progress analyst Malik.(Bloomberg, September 30)

Figures in India show that the alarmingly low participation of women in the workforce before the pandemic — only 20% — has even worsened. In April and May at least 4 in 10 women have lost their jobs, 39% compared to 29% of men, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

According to official data, in Brazil more than half of the female population over 14 years of age will be left out of the labour market. The labour force participation rate was 45.8%. According to data from the General Register of Employed and Unemployed, while in 2020 230,200 vacancies created were occupied by men, women lost 87,600 jobs. From April to December, women had 94,900 placements eliminated.

The present economic crisis is devastating working people across the globe, and its disproportionate impact on women could carry long-lasting setbacks. UN Women warns that the poverty surge will hit women hardest, especially women aged 25 to 34. “In 2021, it is expected there will be 118 women aged 25 to 34 in extreme poverty for every 100 men aged 25 to 34 in extreme poverty globally, and this ratio could rise to 121 poor women for every 100 poor men by 2030.”

The sudden surge of mass structural unemployment will have a more feminine face than ever before. This will throw many women into poverty and dependence. As we’ve seen in the 1930’s however it can also lead to determined struggle around demands for social aid and social security systems — with a good chance to win concessions — and in the longer run to struggles for a shorter working week without loss of pay.

Economic depression will worsen the shadow pandemic of gender violence

The first lockdown in China showed a huge rise in domestic violence. This became an international feature with the spread of the pandemic. In 2019, according to UN Women, 243 million women aged 15–49 (18%) reported that they had experienced sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner in the past year, rising to 30% when measured over a lifetime. This has increased significantly in 2020, in regions like South-East-Asia it is estimated to have risen to 40% according to the World Health Organisation.

A World Bank Blog published on the 1st of October 2020 points out that domestic abuse killings in the UK had more than doubled in the first 2 months of lockdown. Research in the US showed an increase in domestic violence, as well as an increase in the severity of the injuries reported. In Cameroon and Nigeria women workers are more exposed to sexual harassment and abuse as loss of economic opportunities had pushed women even more in the informal sector where their vulnerability is higher. In India, women’s groups revealed that there is pressure on girls to rethink child marriage, as access to education and livelihood is uncertain.

A study issued in October by the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women showed that all types of violence against women and girls have intensified during the pandemic. This is most of all the case with domestic violence, with so many women being locked down in their home with abusive partners. This rise is fuelled by health and money worries, creating tensions accentuated by cramped living conditions, while social services, care and support for victims were already largely insufficient before the lockdowns.

UN Women also points to a rise in online violence everywhere women have access to technology. Before the pandemic 1 in 10 women in the EU reported having suffered cyber-harassment since the age of 15. The use of online platforms has increased significantly this last year with millions of women using video conferences frequently to work or study. Several experts speak about a rise in online stalking, bullying, sexual harassment and sex trolling.

Only one way to prevent the rolling back of women’s position: organise and fight back!

At the same time, however, the women’s movement showed remarkable resilience and the brake put by the development of the pandemic was very short-lived. At the end of January activists in Argentina obtained a victory in their years-long and massive fight for legal abortion up to 14 weeks.

Notwithstanding a high infection risk and lockdown restrictions, Polish women reacted massively to the new step in the direction of a total ban on abortion, receiving more support from wider layers in society than before. This struggle will continue and future protests against the right wing Polish government are assured of the fighting power of women.

In every big revolt of the last two years women, and particularly young women, have played a massive role, often in the forefront of the struggle. That was clear again in the uprisings in Thailand and Belarus. Their specific demands merged organically with the economic and social demands of movements against the massive inequality that was present everywhere already before the pandemic and has only been exacerbated by it. They merged with the political demands to get rid of governments that are responsible both for this growth in inequality and for the disastrous handling of the pandemic, in which the interests of the capitalist class prevail over the interests of the masses.

For many workers in highly feminised essential services as health and education it was clear from the start that it was the decades of cuts and underfinancing of their sectors, including commercialisation and privatisation, that had had a massive impact on the capacity to deal with this health crisis, in terms of the number of deaths but also in terms of the impossible working conditions and the massive sacrifices imposed on staff. Even before Covid these sectors were involved in struggles all over the world against the effect of neoliberal policies on their working conditions and on the quality and accessibility of their service. Their support in society has grown immensely. In those essential services, struggle will go on to assure there’s no return to the “normal” of before: being underpaid, undervalued and overworked.

The disastrous handling of the pandemic is now repeated with vaccination. Internationally, the slow pace of vaccination and unequal distribution pose the very real risk of COVID-19 dominating our lives for still a long time to come, as new variants continue to develop. Liberating the patent and spreading the technology and know-how to assure that the vaccine can be produced everywhere would be a logical and necessary step, but this clashes with the interests of Big Pharma. To distribute the vaccine in the whole world at sufficiently high speed further requires creating a health service capable of universal quality care, with sufficient infrastructure, staff and means at their disposal. Today’s problems of vaccination point to the same need as the whole handling of this health crisis: we fundamentally need to get rid of the logic that makes private profits prevail over human needs.

Massive investment in public high quality healthcare, accessible for all, is urgently necessary. Health workers all over the world have been fighting for more means to go to their sector and in many places they were able to get extra investment and the kind of pay rises that could only be dreamt of in the pre Covid period. Under pressure from workplace struggle in the sector and the massive support for health workers in society, in Belgium federal and regional governments released around 3 billion euro, most of it going to pay rises and bonuses; in France health workers obtained 7.5 billion euro in the wage agreement last summer. Massive sums, but not nearly enough to deal with the shortages in infrastructure and the low staffing levels. The problem of commercialisation and privatisation also remains on the table and will be part of the struggle in the coming years: nowhere have the numbers of deaths been so high as in commercialised residential care.

Struggle against sexism in all its forms has continued. In the last year Me Too has spread to new regions like the Balkans and China, where in the autumn of last year two cases of domestic violence led to widespread public outrage on social media and the censoring of social media. In the case of Fang, who was beaten to death by her husband and his parents over her infertility, the wave of public anger over the lenient sentence for the killers prompted the judicial authorities to promise a retrial. In other countries we’re witnessing a second wave. In France there was “je dis non chef!”, with thousands of hospitality workers denouncing sexual harassment in the workplace, but also a specific Me Too demanding attention for the problem of incest.

Workers’ struggle for health and safety at work couldn’t be stopped, even with the brake trade union leaderships put on it. But whereas in most places struggle adapted itself to be corona-proof, when under direct attack mass movements erupted notwithstanding the risk of infection or lockdown restrictions. There is no way the women who were involved in the women’s movement in the last 10 years, nor those involved in the struggles of highly feminised sectors as health care and education for the revaluation of their work or in retail and cleaning for decent contracts and wages, will stop. We will not take this threat lying down!

Socialist feminism needed more than ever!

In the last year, sections of ISA and Rosa groups have played an important role in countries like Ireland, Russia, Brazil, Austria and Belgium in translating women’s anger in active struggle in the streets, in schools, and in workplaces. We are fighting to build solidarity and to involve working class organisations in the fight against all forms of discrimination in the understanding that capitalism is at the root of every one of them. In fighting against every attack and for any reform or concession we can obtain in the present situation, we also point to the need to fundamentally change society, to get rid of the profit-hungry elite that rules society in their own interests at the cost of hundreds of thousands of human lives.

Last year’s 8th of March protests gave us the magnificent and huge strike in Mexico and massive demonstrations in a whole number of countries. This year many mobilisations will be restricted by the virus situation and lockdowns, but we call on everyone who wants to fight for a world in which women are no longer second class citizens and can take their rightful place in society to mark this date with actions around the demands that are imposed by the dreadful crisis capitalism has brought us in.

These include a vaccination strategy to assure there is a light at the end of the tunnel: quick and universal vaccination by taking the healthcare and pharmaceutical companies into public hands, installing workers’ control to assure they function to respond to the needs of the majority of the population. Massive investment is necessary to restore a quality public health service that is accessible to all and doesn’t use its staff as martyrs, but provide decent working conditions and wages.

The same goes for essential services as education and childcare. Schools had to be closed not just because of the development of the virus, but also because decades of underinvestment and cuts meant there was not the kind of infrastructure and staffing to be able to open safely. Massive investment is needed to create safe schools, and also to create safe ways of getting to school by investment in public transport.

The struggle against gender violence has been a growing feature all over the world in the last decade. Governments have provided temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence — women, children, LGBTQI youth — but so much more is necessary. Gender violence didn’t come about as a result of the pandemic and won’t be solved with temporary measures. Decent public services such as shelters, social and psychological aid to victims, training for staff in all services dealing with this problem, including police and staff in the justice system, decent LGBTQI-inclusive sex education in schools emphasising consent, working out therapy for perpetrators to counter recidivism are immediate demands we need to fight for to react to the problem as it poses itself today.

But to prevent gender violence requires a determined struggle for women’s financial independence: decent jobs with secure contracts and decent wages for all, including the struggle for a minimum wage one can live on; reduction of working hours without loss of pay to fight unemployment; public services to assure women can participate fully in society by collectivising big parts of what is seen as domestic chores; social security systems that assure that those people who can’t work get benefits that don’t condemn them to poverty; affordable housing that will only come about through massive investment in social housing.

The lockdowns have reduced social life to almost nothing, creating massive mental health problems as humans are not meant to be alone all the time. Entire sectors such as the hospitality sector, the culture and event-sector are now undergoing a wave of bankruptcies, which will accelerate once state support stops. These sectors have a big importance in people’s recreational and social life, but they have been almost entirely privatised in the decades of neoliberal dominance, leaving young people and ordinary workers in the cities with only their own four walls. Support to small businesses in these sectors on the basis of proven need should be fought for, just as the creation of public recreational facilities to provide these services to the population, but also to create jobs for a workforce that risks mass unemployment.

In order to have the means to pay for such a program, we fight for the nationalisation of the financial sector and the key sectors of the economy so that the means that are produced by the international working class can actually be used to democratically plan production to serve the interests of the majority of the world population. In a capitalist society profits are the prime concern, leading to precarity and misery for wide layers of the population, with systematic discrimination of all kinds as an inherent aspect of society, but also to environmental destruction.

These are demands we want to put forward on International Women’s Day and struggles to which we commit ourselves. In order to obtain them we need the highest possible unity among the working class and the oppressed layers in society: workers, women, youth, people of colour, LGBTQI people and other oppressed minorities. To win them all we need to take power and control away from the ruling elites who have become even richer on the back of this massive crisis that hit humanity last year and bring state power in the hands of the majority of the population to reorganise it completely to serve the interests of the majority and of the planet — only the working class, unified in its large diversity, has the potential power in production and in society as a whole to do that.

We commit to a struggle for socialism, a society in which democracy is not limited to being able to vote every couple of years, but means that the majority of the population is involved in decision making about what is produced and how. We call on everyone who wants to fight to join us in these struggles and in building the movements and organisations we need to win.