Social Action Office

International Women's Day 2001

Circle of Solidarity - Working Women's Struggle


The Journey of Solidarity: Reclaiming the Memories of IWD

International Women's Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women's groups around the world. This date is also commemorated at the United Nations and is designated in many countries as a national holiday. When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.

International Women's Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. In ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war; during the French Revolution, Parisian women calling for "liberty, equality, fraternity" marched on Versailles to demand women's suffrage.

The idea of an International Women's Day first arose at the turn of the century, which in the industrialized world was a period of expansion and turbulence, booming population growth and radical ideologies. Following is a brief chronology of the most important events:

In accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman's Day was observed across the United States on 28 February. Women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month through 1913.

The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Women's Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women's rights and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, which included the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. No fixed date was selected for the observance.

As a result of the decision taken at Copenhagen the previous year, International Women's Day was marked for the first time (19 March) in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded the right to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination on the job.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, the tragic Triangle Fire in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working girls, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This event had a significant impact on labour legislation in the United States, and the working conditions leading up to the disaster were invoked during subsequent observances of International Women's Day.

As part of the peace movement brewing on the eve of World War I, Russian women observed their first International Women's Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held rallies either to protest the war or to express solidarity with their sisters.

With 2 million Russian soldiers dead in the war, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February to strike for "bread and peace". Political leaders opposed the timing of the strike, but the women went on anyway. The rest is history.

In Australia
At the same time as these events were happening overseas, in Australia the fight for women's rights was also happening here. Just prior to Federation, a number of colonies had given women the vote and this was granted soon after Federation - except for Indigenous women, that is. Women like Emma Millar in Queensland took a lead in securing better working conditions for women. Equal pay was a long way off but the origins of this struggle began at this time. Over the decades women continued to work for their rights and social equality.

Since then
Since those early years, International Women's Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing international women's movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nations women's conferences, has helped make the commemoration a rallying point for coordinated efforts to demand women's rights and participation in the political and economic process. Increasingly, International Women's Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of women's rights.

(Adapted from IWD Story, United Nations, NY - Development and Human Rights Section)

Song: We Shall Not Give Up

Quiet Reflection on Work - Catholic Social Teaching

Whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practise them than those who suffer from the injury.

- The Church in the Modern World

We consider it our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.

- Mother and Teacher

But above all we must remember the priority of labor over capital: labor is the cause of production; capital, or the means of production, is its mere instrument or tool.

- On Human Work

A Circle of Solidarity

Recalling the pioneering women who struggled to achieve some semblance of political and socio-economic equality, we now call to mind women of today who still struggle for justice and equality. we call them to mind and bring them, in spirit, into this circle. As we hear their stories we commit ourselves to solidarity with them in their struggle.

  • Thai women workers in the Nike factory
  • Filipino women who are trafficked and sold for their labour and for sex
  • Central American women illegally in the US and working cheaply as domestic maids
  • migrant outworkers in Australia
  • Aboriginal women wanting their lost wages
  • young women sexually harassed in their workplace
  • older women retrenched from jobs they have held for years
  • other.

(See the Women's Stories below)

As we call these women one by one into this circle of solidarity, we make this promise:

- Promise -

We promise to stand with you in solidarity
and to support you in whatever way we can
in your struggle for justice and equality.

Guest Speaker: Cath Rafferty from the Working Women's Service
Introduction by Coralie Kingston


Women's Stories

1. I am one of around 70,000 workers, men and women, who work in a Nike factory in Thailand. I work from 10 to 12 hours on any one day and in hazardous conditions. I earn $4.00 per day. Some workers earn even less than that. I produce the sports shoes that famous sports people like Cathy Freeman and Tiger Woods wear when they compete. In contrast to my $4.00 per day, Tiger Woods earns $55,000 per day from endorsements alone. I would have to work for 38 years to earn what Tiger earns in one day from this company. I have to work to provide for my daughter but I hardly see her as I work a long way from my home and I cannot afford to travel. My daughter is cared for by my parents.

I simply ask for a just wage and for decent working conditions so that I can afford an adequate standard of living and see my daughter each day.

Please support me in my struggle for justice.

2. I am one of the Filipino women who has been recruited to travel to various destinations to work in what I thought was the ‘tourism' industry. In fact, I found that I was to become a prostitute in Singapore. I am from a very poor family in a rural area in The Philippines and I have a child that I have to support. I had expected to get a decent job and earn better money than I could at home but I am now trapped in the sex industry and am also in trouble with immigration authorities because I do not have the proper permits to work abroad. I fear for my health in this work and I fear for my future.

I am one of 70,000 women, mostly from South-East Asia, who are trafficked in this way each year.

I ask to be treated with dignity and to be able to return to my home and family.

Your support in stopping the trafficking of women and children is needed more than ever.

3. I am a Mexican woman aged 25. I managed to get from Mexico into the United States as an illegal immigrant. I was desperate to escape poverty and secure a future for my family and myself. I thought that the US would give me a start. I now work as a domestic maid in the home of a white American family. I work for low wages but I cannot speak up for myself as I would risk being turned over to the immigration authorities.

I would go home if I knew that I had a job to return to and some economic security. That is not possible as Mexico is a poor country, caught in the web of global debt and the IMF's rules and regulations. Even if I had a job there I would be poorly paid.

I only ask that I have work and can work with dignity in my own country and have access to basic services like health and housing.

The first world countries to which Mexico is indebted do not seem to care about how their structural adjustment polices impact on people like me. Like millions I am an economic refugee with little hope for the future.

4. I am a migrant outworker in Australia. I work at home sewing garments for designer label companies. I am not paid very much and I am surprised when I see the clothes I sew on sale in retail outlets for prices hundreds of percent higher than the wage I am paid to make the garments.

I have been pleased at the support from the FairWear Campaign - from people in the Churches, trade unions and women's groups who have lobbied to introduce laws to protect outworkers. This demonstrates the power of solidarity and social action. However, there is still a long way to go still before outworkers have secure working conditions.

My hope is that FairWear continues to support women like me and provides a voice for us who are voiceless and isolated in the clothing industry.

5. I am a Queensland Murri woman. I was born at Cherbourg and was raised there. As a teenager I was sent out to cattle stations in the far west to do domestic work. I never saw my full wages. Mostly, they were taken by the State Government and kept in a fund which they named the Aboriginal Welfare Fund. During the Depression in the 1930s, a large share of Aboriginal wages were used for the public hospitals. At the time my wages were taken, I was also denied award wages. So, my pay was far less that what non-Indigenous people received.

I have been advocating for my wages for nearly ten years now. Many Aboriginal people died before they got their wages back. I am determined that my people get justice in their lifetime.

I appreciate the support that has been given to me by many non-Indigenous people in this struggle.

I ask that you be vigilant in ensuring that wage justice is guaranteed for Indigenous people across Australia.

6. I am a young twenty year old woman. I recently got my first full-time job in a bakery. I was so happy at first but after a month the male manager began to make suggestive comments to me. At first I ignored it and hoped it would go away but he continued and one day when I was the only one in the shop, he propositioned me. He said that he would sack me if I did not respond.

I walked out.

I know that many women like me are harassed and bullied in the workplace and have nowhere to go. It is so unfair. The bullies get away with it in so many cases.

We need laws to protect women in the workplace. In my case I had nowhere to go as I was advised when I began work there not to join the union.

When organisations like the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission are under threat from hostile governments, it is important that ordinary people speak out in support because I know now that I could have taken my case to this organisation under the sex discrimination laws.

7. I am a fifty-five year old woman and I have worked in a Church-based organisation for over twenty years. Last year I was retrenched without any warning. I was hurt and angry. After two decades of loyal service I was just cast aside and my loyalty hardly acknowledged.

I am single and have to fend for myself. I have some superannuation but not enough to support myself adequately. I am looking for work but it is difficult at my age. I have lost my self-esteem and I am afraid for the future. I am on unemployment benefits.

I feel isolated and alone.


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