Eighth March, 2010 marks the centenary of the International Women's Day, celebrated as a day of solidarity, consolidation and unity of the exploited, oppressed and marginalised sections of women of the world. A brief recapitulation of the historical background of this memorable day is necessary to highlight the significance of 8th March.
Nineteen hundred and nine was a turning point in the women's movement of the world. It was the year which saw the first ever strike of the working women when women garment workers struck work in New York to protest against their low wages and deplorable working conditions. This did not happen all of a sudden; rather it was the outcome of a long-drawn-out struggle by the shirt-waist makers. Their union was formed in 1906 and within three years it had a hundred-strong membership. But it was because of Clara Lamlich, a fiery militant woman, that a picketing for 13 weeks could be organised. This strike subsequently became an inspiration for women workers across the world.
Later in 1910, the Second International Conference of Socialist Women took place in Copenhagen, where they united against war, militarism, hunger and poverty. Clara Zetkin along with other women trade union leaders gave a call from this Conference to observe 8th March as the International Women's Day. It was unanimously approved and since then 8th March is celebrated as the International Women's Day, a day of struggle against injustice and exploitation of women.
With the defeat of the fascist forces in 1945 came the end of the Second World War, in which women had made tremendous sacrifices. Thereafter women in every continent resolved to fight for lasting peace. They met in Paris in a conference on 1st December, 1945 and decided to form the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF). At the outset 40 women's organisations from 106 countries and later 121 organisations joined it. From India, the Mahila Atma-Raksha Samiti (MARS) was the only one to join the Conference. Since then 8th March is being observed initially by the Mahila Atma-Raksha Samiti (MARS) women in Bengal and also in Delhi, and some other parts of India as a day of struggle for women's empowerment and equal rights. It became a rallying point to draw women from all sections and create awareness in them to assert their rights.
Therefore, even before the inception of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) in 1954, Communist women in some parts of the country have been celebrating 8th March as the International Women's Day with varied slogans on issues of women's livelihood, equality and empowerment in accordance with the country's political and economic situation. In this sense, they have been the pioneers of this celebration of 8th March in our country, much before it was declared by the UNO as the International Women's Day in 1975. In fact, it was Herta Kuusinen, President of the WIDF, who proposed for the first time at the 24th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the idea to declare 8th March as the International Women's Day and 1975 as the International Women's Year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the defeat of fascism and Hitler. It also coincided with the 30th anniversary of the founding of the WIDF. The UNO then decided to observe 1975 as the International Women's Year on the slogans of "Equality, Development and Peace". At the first UN Conference for Women held at Mexico in 1975, it was felt that a single year was not enough to fulfil such a formidable task. It was, therefore, announced that the entire decade from 1976 to 1985 would be observed as the International Decade of Women. There could be no real democracy in any country without women having economic, political, social and cultural rights.
Since 1975, 8th March has become a rallying point in our country to bring all progressive and secular women's organisations on a broad platform to struggle for equal rights and social justice, to build stronger joint action of all women belonging to the marginalised, disempowered sections - organised and unorganised working women, housewives, the peasants and working class. Hence, celebration of 8th March has helped to forge a broad unity of those forces which have the same approach to solve women's problems as a basic pre-condition for ensuring the progress of India. Each year, 8th March is observed to help deepen and broaden this unity.
Long years of ceaseless campaign and wider mass struggles, and battles within and outside Parliament by our women have brought about changes in legislations in favour of women. A wide spectrum of laws have been passed, amended, enacted and so on. However, large sections of women are still deprived of these legal benefits due to social and political impediments at all levels. There are multiple burning issues related to women's deplorable socio-economic conditions in our country - increase in female foeticide resulting in skewed sex ratio (927 females per 1000 males) and maternal mortality (second highest in the world, approximately between 385 - 487 per 1,00,000 live births). Added to this are increasing incidences of violence against women, ranging from rape, molestation, sexual harrassment at workplace, domestic violence, honour killing to trafficking in women and children. Moreover, judicial and legal measures have failed to check the deep-rooted social problems of child marriage and dowry. Laws enacted specifically to protect women have neither put an end to dowry demands or domestic violence against women.
India figures in the index of the world's largest number of unlettered women: 54.16 % women are illiterate. Various educational schemes and programmes of the Government have failed to check the rates of school drop-outs of girls: 50 % of them move away from schooling by the time they reach middle schools, because this problem of drop-out is linked to the larger and more fundamental issues of food security, poverty and unemployment. About sixty per cent of women suffer from anaemia due to malnutrition. In fact, 50 per cent of villages have no health centres and many of the existing primary health centres are not functional. The latest data gives an estimate of 13.6 million more people in India having become poor in 2009.
The advent of the market economy along with the entry of the corporate sector with intensification of globalisation and privatisation since the early nineties has compounded the problems for our women. The homebound women workers are worst affected. There is even a shift in the nature of the work of agricultural women in the post-1990 scenario. According to the Census of 2001, the work status of rural women has become the same as that of agricultural labourers and not of cultivators. Disparity in wages of men and women has also widened. The agricultural women, including tribals and dalits, are in a pitiable condition, denied of social benefits and deprived of equal wages, earning 30 % lower than men. Their survival is at stake due to the setting up of SEZs in different parts of the country and forcible acquisition of land. Only 4 per cent of the women workforce is in the organised sector and the rest in the unorganised sector, where they are denied minimum wages, provident fund, gratuity, maternity benefit and such other benefits. Therefore there is an urgent need to strengthen and broaden the women's movement to meet these difficult challenges.
Women also face growing danger from social turmoil, military conflicts and war. Our women are the worst victims of religious fundamentalism, communalism and terrorism. The women's movement across the globe and campaign against the politics of war and communal violence had always moved beyond gender issues. Today an atmosphere of peace, tranquillity and democracy in the subcontinent is necessary for the overall development of our country and for the welfare of women at large.
Another important issue is the political empowerment of women. Thirtythree per cent reservation of women in legislatures still remains an unfinished task. Reservation in panchayats is not enough. It is only the beginning, the foundation. The struggle continues as this reservation is imperative for women's political participation in nation-building and decision-making at all levels from Panchayats to Parliament.
These are tasks not merely for women and the women’s organisations. They are not just women’s issues. They are issues before the entire progressive and democratic movement, before the Communist Movement. The communist and democratic parties have to struggle for these issues alongside of women and their organisations.
Today when our women along with the women of the world are celebrating the centenary of the International Women's Day on 8th March, the new situation with mounting challenges demands a new vision and perspective to take forward the women's struggle for a just society. It is time to ponder over various questions - what did they achieve in their struggle all these years? How should they conduct the fight against social oppression, economic exploitation and political disempowerment in the coming days? At the same time it is imperative to strengthen our solidarity with the fighting women in different parts of the world, especially those of Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.
It is also a day to remember our women pioneers and thousands of others who had sacrificed their lives and battled for peace, freedom, equality and progress.
* This article is written in collaboration with and with inputs from Ms. Gargi Chakravarty, Working President, NFIW