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Why I’ll be striking for International Women’s Day

With women’s human rights under threat, strikers across the globe will be revealing the costs of a ‘world without women’.

Roosje Saalbrink
6 March 2020
Image: quisnovus, CC by 2.0

Spending time with my nieces, aged one and four, last week and seeing them discover the world has reminded me of that blissful time when I was just a kid too. I use the word kid here deliberately. I went about my day as a little person, not identifying with my gender as being a girl. I loved reading, climbing trees, playing football, dresses with flowers in the brightest colours, and cooking with my dad. Well, I liked to eat things while watching him cook.

I remember the first time I was picked on because I was a girl vividly. I was nine, a boy in my class kicked me in the crotch – surprisingly painful – because I scored too many goals playing football. The teacher made me listen to his insincere apology, rather than speaking with him about why he felt angry at me enjoying playing football. Both my classmate and me were let down on that day, let down by the patriarchal approach to our education and the teacher’s failure to support us to challenge gender stereotypes, with my voice was silenced and his feelings of aggression unaddressed.

Since that moment I have learned that despite how I feel about my capabilities or needs, others will have opinions on what I should or shouldn’t be doing and saying, simply because I am a women. This is not only incredibly tiresome, but also has a real, lasting impact on my life and the lives of women across society. It impacts the jobs we get hired for and what we get paid for them (on average women are paid 77% of what men get). It impacts the quality of health care and education we receive.

It impacts our incomes and our future economic security. As we spend time fulfilling the disproportionate unpaid care and domestic work women do (76.4% globally), our time available for paid work is limited, negatively affecting our incomes as well as our pension pots (the global gender pension gap is 30-40 per cent). A broken global economic system that lets tax evasion rob countries of the resources they deserve further exacerbates these economic inequalities for women – something I explained recently during a Brexit tax haven tour.

Women experiencing intersecting discriminations have it even tougher. Research by the Women’s Budget Group found that in the UK Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women are more likely to be living in poor households. In 2015/16, 50% of Bangladeshi households, 46% of Pakistani households and 40% of Black African/Caribbean households were living in poverty compared to 19% of White British households.

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Laxmi Ghalan, President and founder of Mitini Nepal, is one of the #AllNotSome campaign trailblazers, working to improve the rights of LBTQI women and girls in Nepal. | Image: Womankind Worldwide / Sajana Shrestha

That is why I passionately believe an intersectional approach to women’s human rights is key to creating a world that works for everyone one of us. No one will be truly free or see their human rights met if the specific needs for all women and girls in their many diversities are not factored in from the outset.

This is especially true for macroeconomic policies, as they tend to be developed around a ‘rational actor’ or ‘homo economics’, and don’t recognise that the work people can provide or the resources the planet can give are finite. Any genuine conversation about how national budgets are raised and spent and how policies are designed must consider the needs and aspirations of women and girls. Governments have systematically failed to prioritise financing for women’s human rights, with unfair tax systems hitting women and girls the hardest.

I was seven when feminists from all over the world gathered at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, attended by 50,000 women’s rights activists, demanding better for the future. The resulting Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, endorsed by 189 governments, was groundbreaking. Yet in 2020, 25 years later, women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and violence in every part of the world and there isn’t a single country where women have all their human rights met. While there has been progress for some women in some countries for some rights, women the world over are still denied their human rights, particularly those often the most marginalised by society. In fact, there is an growing backlash against women’s human rights, especially around bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health rights, and in some cases this has meant a rollback on women’s rights and civic space.

2020 is a milestone year for women’s rights. Governments, UN representatives and activists are meeting throughout the year to review the current state of women’s rights across the world. This is why Womankind Worldwide has launched the #AllNotSome campaign. In this landmark year for women’s rights, we have the opportunity to hold governments to account and make the voices of women heard once and for all.

Strikes and protests have been a powerful catalyst for change, making invisible voices heard. A century before I was born, the Match Girls’ Strike took place in London in 1888, when 14,000 women working for the Bryant & May company walked out over a pay cut. After 10 days of striking, the women negotiated better working conditions and built on their organising success, forming the Union of Women Matchmakers.

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The Grunwick Strike, London, 1976-78. Most of the srtikers were women of South Asian origin. | Press Association Images/PA Archive/PA Images

International Women’s Day (IWD), taking place yearly on the 8th March, is the day when women have risen up and protested, putting their lives at risk to demand equal pay, defend their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The protest demonstrates women’s collective power to demand our human rights. This year, women are claiming back IWD through the Global Women’s Strike - away from depoliticising “lean in” feminism that focuses on corporate advances to benefit individual working women and taking us back to one of the key feminist demands, to recognise, redistribute, remunerate and reduce unpaid and domestic care work.

Under the slogan “when women stop, the world stops”, women will be striking from all their work, making visible to all that women contribute to society and the economy. With this broader meaning of ‘strike’, including unpaid care and domestic work, the Global Women’s Strike is rejecting the narrow legal application of strikes by trade unions to very confined regulations in the UK and globally.

The strike re-establishes the right to assembly and freedom of speech as key civic rights that are specifically recognised in international human rights law and are a cornerstone to other human rights. It redefines what is valuable ‘work’ from narrow neoliberal economic doctrine to include all work that sustains life, including the reproductive economy, and reconnects with an analysis of the systemic roots of oppression of women in capitalism and the free market. Put simply, by withholding their unpaid care work, women are striking from the very thing that underpins the economy.

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Global Women's Strike, March 8, 2020. | Image: Global Women's Strike

It is time to value each and everyone of us. Not because of how much money our jobs pays us. Value all of us because we are all human, no matter our gender, race, abilities, our nationality or who we love.

For my nieces and all young kids around the world, my wish is for a preserved natural world where we can all be human beings and pursue those things that feel right for us – maybe playing football or reading – while receiving the support we need to do so, and to love those we love – all without judgment.

So I hope you can join our call to all women, to put down your work, where possible, – in all its forms, paid and unpaid – for the day to demonstrate the costs of ‘a world without women.'

As women strike a pose, it’s time for the world to get in motion for women’s rights

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As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

Hear from:

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

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Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

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