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International Women’s Day A Century On

In the 100 years since the Socialist International established International Women’s Day the women’s movement has come a long way, but a long road remains to be travelled, according to Amanda Richards.

Within Ireland women have won key rights in their workplace and their homes; martial rape is now defined as a crime, and women can get barring orders against violent partners. Even forty years ago women could not sit on a jury or remain in employment in the public sector after marriage. Now women have the right to equal pay and access to the workplace.

In 1990, at a time when only two women in the world held the office of ‘head of state’ Mary Robinson was elected president. In her words,

“I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle rocked the system.”

This fight for change has been on many levels. It is important to recognise that many key gains for women have been made when they have organised collectively and have worked alongside, or been supported by, men in their workplaces, the trade union movement and in nationwide struggles.

The ripples caused by acts of bravery by individual women can grow into giant waves of social change. Look what was achieved when one, stubborn and strong black woman, called Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a bus in segregated Alabama or when a young Irish woman, Mary McGee, fought for her right to import contraception and won a landmark case in the Supreme Court, changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of women across the state.

Just as we must recognise the achievements, we must also look ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women. There is still a great distance to travel. Women continue to perform two-thirds of the world’s work for one third of the world’s pay.

In many countries, women still cannot vote or access work or education on an equal footing with men; domestic violence against women continues to be prevalent; eating disorders are growing amongst teenage girls who struggle to conform to media stereotypes; women are trafficked and forced into the sex trade.

Within Ireland, there is continuing prejudice against women who choose to have a family and work; women continue to support the economy in unpaid work, with women in employment spending twice as many hours as men on cooking and housework and a third more on caring for children or elderly relatives.

Women continue to face a double discrimination brought about due to their economic, political and social circumstances. As James Connolly expressed it:

“The worker is the slave of capitalist society and the female is the slave of that slave.”

Wherever in the world there is injustice you will find women, and women living in poverty in particular, suffering to the greatest extent. It is probably just as well that women are credited with the ability to multi-task because women continue to do battle on a number of fronts; they fight battles for domestic, personal and economic freedoms at the same time as battle for general social change. If there is a race towards social change; the starting line for women is some way behind that of the men and life is always more challenging; as Ginger Rogers said of Fred Astaire “I do the same as him, but I do it backwards and in heels.”

In looking at future gains it is important to recognise that the struggle for women’s equality and the struggle for general social freedoms and human rights are intertwined.

The Beijing Platform of Action United Nations Fourth World Conference on women held in 1995 stated:

“Empowerment of women and equality between women and men are prerequisites for achieving political, social, economic, cultural and environmental security among all peoples.”

At the same time, the continuing fight for women’s emancipation must not be limited to certain economic sectors, where only wealthy, educated women gain a level of equality and women in the poorest sectors of society are ignored. If we fail to recognise the link between economic circumstance and social freedoms and we develop women’s rights in isolation from the human rights of the whole society, we are in danger of creating a world where “all women are equal but some are more equal than others.”

Without equality for women, there can be no just and fair society and without a just and fair society there will be no equality for women.

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