Women have left the building: why the women's strike matters

Chiara Capraro | Mar 08, 2017
Womens strike on International Womens Day 2017
Each year for International Women’s Way we celebrate women’s extraordinary achievements in all fields of life, from science to politics and the arts. 

In the country where I’m from, Italy, on International Women’s Day the men in your life give you flowers, your partner might look after the kids while you enjoy some time with your friends. Not this year though.

Standing against the system 

This year women in Italy are going on strike. Old and young, migrant and native, mothers or not, thousands of women are planning to check out for the day. They will do so together with women from over 40 countries around the world. 

Women from all walks of life are planning to take a stand against a system they prop up but from which they rarely benefit. We know that as women our circumstances and experiences are vastly different, not only because of where we come from and live, but because of our class, race, sexual orientation, migration status and disability. That said, the challenges facing us have much in common, and this is demonstrated by the global nature of the strike

The struggle to end male violence against women, an economic system which oppresses the majority of us and increasing efforts to control our bodies are and an economic system which oppresses the majority of us is at the heart of the motivations for the global strike. At Womankind Worldwide we have been working with women’s rights organisations for almost three decades and these issues resonate from Bolivia to Zimbabwe

Women are propping up the global economy

This International Women’s Day you are likely to hear how we need more women in the workforce because gender equality is going to lift our economies from their perpetual crisis. Yet women are already propping up the global economy, through their unpaid care work. Women spend at least two and a half times more time than men cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood and caring for children, sick and elderly people. 

Without this work, factories would not open, workers wouldn’t get to their work, food would not be grown. If we counted this work as we do with any other economic activity it would amount to between 10 and 39% of GDP. But we don’t and therefore women’s work remains invisible and unrecognised. 

I recently visited Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, to learn more about the experiences of women as they try to make a living. Ethiopia is open for business: drive around Addis Ababa and you will see countless buildings under construction, the noise of drilling is everywhere. From being the 2nd poorest country in the world in 2000, it is now growing at a rate of 10% GDP per year and plans to become a middle income country by 2025.

One of the key drivers of this economic growth is the plan to become the world’s next factory for garments and textiles. Production sites are ready to employ hundreds of thousands of workers offering income tax breaks to companies. Given that globally 80% of the garment making workforce is made up of women we can expect many young Ethiopian women, many from the countryside, finding a job and powering the country’s economic growth. A win-win then? I’m afraid not. 

Long hours for low pay

History teaches us that for the millions of women who entered the labour market in the manufacturing sector in Asia life is very hard, and paid work far from empowering. Long hours for low pay, sexual violence and restrictions on trade union activity have been staples of their working lives.

In Bangladesh, 60% of women garment workers have experience sexual harassment and at the end of 2016 hundreds were fired because they demanded a pay rise. Many have lost their jobs due to slumps in global demand since the economic crisis of 2008. In addition to having a hard time at work, women have been suffering due to cuts to public services which mean they have to pick up the slack and increase the time they spend caring for others. 

This model is being pursued by countries South and North as women’s participation in the labour force for little gain becomes the ultimate source of energy to prop up a failing economic system. This is why women in over 40 countries are withdrawing from the system on 8th March, walking out from their workplaces, refusing to cook and clean, refusing to consume or even denying sex to their partners. 

Women are imagining a new world

If the picture sounds bleak, it is, yet there are alternatives and women are at the heart of building them. In Ethiopia itself, many rural women have long formed cooperatives to produce and sell goods, including textiles, at fair prices. In South Asia, trade unions have come together in the South Asia Floor Wage Alliance to demand better pay and working conditions across the region. In Southern Africa, women are coming together to denounce the impact of mining on their communities and to protect their land. In the UK, feminist economists are showing how we can build an economy that works for women and the planet by investing in the care economy to generate good jobs for women and men. Women are working together to first of all imagine a new world and then setting out the course of change. 

At Womankind, on International Women’s Day (and every day!) we stand with the women change-makers, and we support their vision of a just world and their struggle to achieve it. Join us! 

Read more in our new economic rights briefing.

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