International Women’s Day commemorates women’s achievements in the political, social and economic spheres of life. Its history can be traced back to women’s activism as in 1917, women in the Soviet Union demanded “bread and peace” in their country.
One result of their protest action included the Soviet government granting women the right to vote. Through collective and persistent action, these women obtained an important civil right during this period.
In its contemporary form, International Women’s Day is often celebrated with public conversations, media campaigns and global themes. The campaign themes are outlined by the International Women’s Day organisation and UN Women.
IWD’s 2021 campaign theme is #ChoosetoChallenge, which is a call to challenge gender bias and inequalities. UN Women’s theme is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. According to UN Women, “this theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic”.
My reflections on IWD stem from my experiences as a young Afro-feminist researcher and gender equality consultant. Throughout my academic and professional career, I’ve engaged in issues relating to women in leadership. While the places of leadership differ, the salient themes of women in leadership address the inclusion of women in decision making roles; mentorship; equal pay for equal work and diversity in thought.
It often feels that what’s needed to be said has been said! We know the problems inhibiting girls and women’s access to education, leadership, employment, healthcare and all. Daily, we learn of women’s diverse needs and the importance of inclusive language and practises.
Feminists have written about and advocated for conditions that protect Women, Trans and Non-Gender Conforming Folk from sexual, physical, institutional and structural violence. The work has been and continues to be done by a variety of actors. So, why are things not changing fast enough?
The #IWD 2021 campaigns and Angela Davis’ quote remind me of the need for persistent and collective action against structures and systems of patriarchy. We need to boldly and unapologetically name the social system which celebrates male authority as the dominant power which has control over the familial, economic and political structures present in society.
Patriarchy permits the “oppression and exploitation of women in our society, at the workplace and within the family” (Basin and Khan, 1986).
An equal future does not exist in a world defined by patriarchy. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated the existing racial, class and gender inequalities within and across countries.
The International Labour Organisation ( ILO) states that globally, women make up to over 70 per cent of workers in health, including individuals working in care homes. At first glance, it’s encouraging to read that so many women are economically active. But a deeper investigation of women’s roles in this industry, reveals that whilst women are on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19, they aren’t as visible in decision making roles.
A report on Global Health Leadership by the University College London’s Institute for Global Health found that “ only 5% of leadership positions are occupied by women from low- and middle-income countries”. The failure to include women and gender minorities in the leadership structure has negative consequences for the industry as a whole.
The health sector is part of the “productive economy” but it isn’t the only site of care labour . Griffin (2010:227) outlines the reproductive economy as characterised by the unremunerated work done by “women in their household”. The ILO states that women perform 76.2% of the total hours of unpaid care work. This is more than three times as much as men.
Due to cultural constructions of womanhood, women and girls are often tasked with roles within the domestic realm. Roles include taking care of sick family members, water management, addressing the educational, financial and social needs of children, vulnerable relatives, the elderly and others.
Situating these roles in our COVID-19 reality, the burden of care has reached new heights. In different parts of the world, lockdown measures include the closure of schools and childcare facilities. Mothers and guardians are now teaching their children to supplement online learning.
Overstretched health systems have contributed to women caregivers spending more time attending to relatives affected & infected with COVID-19. This places them at risk of infection. For employed women and mothers, these duties compete with the demands of working- whether remotely or on the frontlines.
Secondly, women’s expansive domestic duties are often fuelled by the lack of access to quality social services. Limited access to social services is due to the underdevelopment of and reduced public spending on key welfare areas by state entities. Over the decades, neoliberal approaches to social protection by governments have contributed to smaller resources and services available to vulnerable groups.
For example, most urban areas in Zimbabwe face a severe water crisis as municipalities have failed to modernise their water and sanitation infrastructure to match current population sizes. This has resulted in households adopting different copings.
Mangizvo (2011: 116) reveals that due to the gendered division of household labour, women and girls in Rimuka, a high-density suburb in Kadoma, wake up at 3 am to queue and fetch water at different water points in the neighbourhood.
In comparison, Hellum et al’s (2015:372) study note the class dynamics of women living in Harare high-density suburbs of Mabvuku, Glen Norah, Harare North and Hatcliffe Extension. Middle-class women pay young boys to collect water at water points, drill boreholes on their properties and purchase large water containers.
Unlike unemployed and working-class women in their neighbourhoods, middle-class female participants were able to “outsource” the gendered role of water collection. Women and girls who are unable to outsource this role, spend long hours in queues at a water point.
Not only do these individuals lose time for other tasks and living, but face increased danger to sexual and physical harm at water points. A Health Times article reveals that young women living in the Hopely area, a peri-urban re-settlement on the outskirts of Harare; are subjected to sexual harassment by borehole marshals. These marshals ask young women for sexual favours in order to jump to the front of the queues.
Whether its increased vulnerability to sexual harm at water points or managing the double burden of online / frontline work and domestic duties in the home or the lack of gender parity in leadership; women’s diverse concerns are not being adequately addressed by the state.
This isn’t an oversight by governments. The state in its current form is a proponent of patriarchy. The masculinist capitalist state purposely neglects the productive and reproductive concerns of all women and gender minorities as patriarchy doesn’t regard us as citizens.
An equal future and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic cannot exist with the current national and international governance structures. Such realities drive feminist and women’s organisations to persistently demand the full realisation of women’s and LGBITQ+ human rights.
These actors are challenging states and pushing towards their reform. It’s a difficult process as the pushback from conservative, religious fundamentalistic and militarised male-orientated states ; is violent and unrelenting.
Through movement building, feminist leadership and solidarity across different stakeholders, we can create environments that enable the full and successful participation of historically marginalised groups in society. Such environments facilitate the realisation of gender parity and gender equality.
But we have to organise, advocate, apply pressure on institutions and take up space - daily! Every day, we have to commemorate our achievements. Every day, we have to push our agenda and ensure gender equality in our lifetime!