FEATURE International Women’s Day (IWD) is fast approaching … Are you ready? 

The day has become widely celebrated, yet what we see in the mainstream is a commodification of the day into catchy slogans printed on tote bags, vague calls for women’s empowerment and an encouragement to treat yourself with goods and beauty services because “you’re worth it”. 

The dominant narrative simplifies this day to become a celebration of individual women’s well-being and achievements, as opposed to a celebration of women’s collective struggle for emancipation and equality. Rather than being told we are “worth it”, should this day not be about our inherent right to enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms? 

Even more telling is the change of name from its original form — the International Working Women’s Day. The day was founded from working class and migrant women’s struggles for fairer wages and safer working conditions. This history seems increasingly forgotten in favour of an “easily digestible” neoliberal co-optation of feminism.

Geographically, there were multiple points of origin for the day. In New York City in 1908, more than 15,000 women workers launched a strike for better wages, shorter work hours and the right to vote. This was a major outcome from the critical debates and unrest growing among working women. In 1910, the second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Here, Clara Zetkin proposed an internationally recognised day to press demands for women’s rights. This proposition was met with unanimous approval from over 100 women representatives from various socialist movements, unions and working women’s clubs.  

The first International Women’s Day was then held on 19 March, 1911. A million women across the world participated in rallies to demand their rights. Tragically, only a week after the marches, young immigrant women working behind locked doors were trapped in a factory fire in New York. In the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, 146 women lost their lives due to abhorrent safety standards and a failure of the factory to recognise their rights. The fire brought debates about women’s working conditions to the fore, and subsequently established a working class ethos to the International Women’s Day celebrations.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was not without precedents nor was it the last of its kind. Now, over a century later, women are still not guaranteed basic labour rights and decently paid jobs. Unpaid care work falls unfairly on the shoulders of women and yet, is invisible in the broad view of economists. Globally, austerity policies often in the form of budget cuts to the public sector are harming most ‘single mothers, young women, women with disabilities, older women, refugee and migrant women’ and LGBTIQ+ women. Women in conflict zones such as Amani Ballour, a doctor in an underground hospital amidst Syria’s civil war, are working in precarious conditions at extreme risk to their lives.

All of these inequalities play into the marginalisation of women and come at a detriment to sustainable and just peace. 

Sustainable peace cannot be achieved without socio-economic justice as inequalities readily feed into existing conflicts as well as creating new ones. Uneven distribution of resources and opportunities have huge implications for women’s abilities to participate in peacebuilding. If one is ‘focused on surviving, putting food on the table, finding means to educate your children, not being able to take care of one’s health because there is no affordable health care’ among other struggles, participation in public spaces in general becomes ever the more difficult.

It is these issues we must not lose sight of on International Women’s Day. While there are definitely a number of reasons to feel discouraged, let’s not lose sight of our collective strength. What we need is system change, and we can reclaim this day for that purpose!

For this reason and for those with the ability to do so, we call on you to strike for change. The Women’s Global Strike on 8 March 2020 is an opportunity to honour the activists whom we can thank for the existence of this day and your participation is welcome in all its forms — whether that means withdrawing from formal and/or care work, slowing down your work, or organising a meeting of feminists in your living room. 

What is key in our efforts is a self-reflective approach, making our movement for women’s rights and peace beneficial to women from all backgrounds. We must not forget that not everyone has the privilege to strike, and any advocacy efforts must place the needs and voices of marginalised women in the frontlines.

Together we are stronger and can keep pushing for our demands to be met so that each and every woman is guaranteed her human, economic, social and cultural rights. Naming oppressive structures – including capitalism, patriarchy, racism, neoliberal globalisation and militarism – and shaming those that uphold them is already a start. 

We are a force to be reckoned with… let’s keep on going! 

We would like to thank Edith Ballantyne who provided the historical context and focus for this blog post. You can find out more about how to participate in the strike on the Women’s Global Strike website