DR. V. MOHINI GIRI
Guild of Service
A century after that first call for an International Women’s Day, on this March 8th we remember the second International Conference of Socialist Women held at Copenhagen in 1910 where Clara Zetkin, great pioneer of the socialist women’s movement proposed that women throughout the world should focus on a particular day each year to press for their demands. We remember those 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women's clubs, who supported Zetkin's resolution that read “the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women's Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women's suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women's question according to Socialist precepts. The Women's Day must have an international character.”
We remember the first celebration of International Women’s Day in 1911 in the words of the revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai about its observance in Germany, “one seething trembling sea of women. ..Men stayed home with their children for a change and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings.”
On this March 8th, we remember that many of the issues that dominated the early years of the International Women’s Day movement, - the fight for universal suffrage for women, the fight against war, the fight for social security and care for mother and child, the fight against price rises are still part of the movement today. From the demand for suffrage we have moved forward to the demand for representation. For the rest, we need to remember that they remain with us because the system that keeps them alive has still to be brought down. It is for this struggle that the great banner of Women’s Day continues to call for solidarity, assertion of rights, and that driving force of militant struggle. For we cannot forget the latent power of March 8th etched forever in history on that most famous March 8th of 1917, when women in Petrograd went on strike demanding Bread and Peace, a strike that heralded a revolution and an end to the oppressive Tsarist rule in Russia. It is with the memory and striving of that great force that we continue to carry the message of March 8th each year. Not as ritual, not as mere formalistic observance, not as slaves to empty rhetoric, but as a day to press forward for women’s rights.
On this March 8th, we reiterate the commitment of the International Women’s Day movement to peace and against war. From India we send our message of international solidarity to women fighting against imperialist aggressions and wars. If the first years of the International Women’s Day raised the banner of peace against world war imposed by rivalry within imperialist powers, we today raise the banner of peace against the concert of war by imperialist powers and its renewed attempt at neo-colonial domination.
On this March 8th, as women of India, a country that leads the world in hunger, we demand a universal right to be free of hunger and food deprivation. We demand food security as part of a basic right to life. We demand employment and the right to livelihood. We demand the right to a life free of violence within and outside the home.
In all corners of the country, women are today concerned, frightened and angry at the tremendous increase in prices of food. Almost two decades of neo-liberal policies - of deliberate wrecking of the public distribution system, of withholding of food stocks while millions remained hungry, of imposing flawed and arbitrary divisions into BPL and APL thus depriving millions of the poor from access to cheap foodgrain, of cutbacks in state investment in agriculture, of tardy and inadequate price protections to farmer producers and of pushing them into export crops dependent on the vagaries of international markets – have all resulted in increasing levels of hunger and an erosion of the self sufficiency in food production that was one of the primary objectives of decolonization. Experience has shown that cutbacks in subsidies to Indian farmers have only resulted in the government paying higher prices to multi-national agribusiness companies for imports required to meet the needs of the country, and rising prices for common people. This year we have been promised the enactment of a National Food Security Act, although in the Union budget, food subsidy has been reduced by over Rs. 400 crore, and the fertiliser subsidy cut by Rs. 3000 crore. The bill that has been proposed by the Government seeks to confine the entitlement to families with BPL cards, and to 25 kg of rice or wheat a month at Rs. 3 a kg. Today a family with an Antyodaya card is entitled to 35 kg of wheat at Rs. 2 a kg, paying Rs. 70 a month. If the Food Security Act is implemented in its present form, this sum will rise to Rs.75 and the family will get 10 kg less of subsidised foodgrain. On this March 8th, we demand that the allotment of 35 kg should not be cut to 25 kg in the Food Security Act. We demand that the entitlement of Antyodaya families to receive wheat at Rs. 2 a kg be continued. We demand that the benefits of a mandated food security framework be made universal and not confined to those who have a BPL card. At a time when controlling the rise in prices of food has become the most urgent need of the day, we demand withdrawal of the proposed increases in the price of petrol and diesel.
In a context of growing food insecurity, more and more women are in search of employment. If in the 1990s rural women were hardest hit by growing unemployment leading to a drastic fall in their work participation rates, in the first decade of the 21st century, increasing unemployment rates can be seen among both rural and urban women. Where open unemployment rates increased in the first half decade of this century from 1.5 per cent to 3.1 in rural areas, among urban women it increased from 7.1 to 9.1 per cent. It needs to be remembered that in our country, these open unemployment rates hide the much larger proportions of workers who might be able to find employment for just a few days in the year or are forced to accept incomes below subsistence, especially among the 96 per cent of women workers who are unorganized workers. Nor does it include the army of unpaid workers who are counted as employed. While NREGA has offered some relief to rural women in search of work, insufficient financial allocations, delayed payments, unrealistic task targets and financial irregularities have been subverting rural women workers’ entitlements. The problem of urban women’s unemployment has remained unaddressed and we demand employment guarantee for women in both rural and urban areas at minimum wages.
Addressing issues of food security and work and livelihood are critical necessities for providing a safe environment for women to access their rights and entitlements. Even as the movement has pushed for better laws for women, the implementation of existing laws such as against Dowry and the more recent Domestic Violence Act, as well as PCPNDT Act to check sex selective abortions leave a lot of scope for improvement. As of now, existing provisions as per these laws are not being implemented and those guilty of violations continue to go scot free. More recent incidents of violence have pointed to the critical need to bring in new legislation as well as amendments to address issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment. While recent pronouncements by government have accepted the need for speedy trials and fast track courts the urgent issue of definitions of assault continue to be evaded even as government took speedy measures to propose amendments which have effectively diluted provisions with regard to crimes against women over the last one year.
In addition to violence at home, we note that the biggest threat to women’s participation in the democratic process comes from the forces perpetuating terror, and inflicting violence on women in multiple ways. This has to be countered. Moreover, growing attacks on women in conflict situations, including by state agencies continue to be a matter of concern. Be it in Kashmir or the North East, the Armed Forces have shown scant respect for the civil rights of the people of these states, least of all the women. Women continue to be made the target of attack in caste and religion based violence as also in situations of ethnic and political conflict, as well as state violence.
It is imperative that women are not made victims of false notions of ‘honour’ and that those responsible for implementing and upholding the law not be allowed to walk away free even as they collude in its violation in their respective areas of jurisdiction. Further, self-proclaimed proponents of the moral brigade inflict their views and retrogressive notions on all and sundry enjoying immunity from the law even as the social climate gets vitiated by their acts of violence as per fundamentalist prescripts.
We demand that existing provisions with regard to violence and crimes against women be implemented. The definition of crimes be expanded to effectively address the lacunae that exist in the law and that state agencies be made more accountable for violations that occur.
On this the 100th anniversary of March 8th, we, the national women’s organizations and groups fighting for equal rights and gender justice resolve to continue the fight against imperialism, and terrorist violence. We resolve to strengthen the struggle for food security, right to work, and women’s rights to a life without violence. We call on all peace loving forces to unite against war, and for a just, humane and equal society.