Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/429/5039
International Women's Day 8 March
Fight for women's REAL right to choose
We are constantly told by the mainstream media that girls are outperforming boys at school and that young women now have more opportunities and choice than women of previous generations.
New Labour tell us that we need 'reforms' in our services in order to endorse 'choice' for women. But what choice do women and young women in particular, really have in today's society?
Zena Awad, national coordinator of Socialist Students, writes.
Education, work and benefits
'Right' to Education
Fees, means-testing for a grant and student debt estimated at £26,000 have made it increasingly difficult for working-class people to go to university. Applications have dropped as a result and two-thirds of students now have to work during their degrees.
These attacks disproportionately affect women who are paid less than their male counterparts. They often enter part-time work because of family responsibilities and therefore take longer to pay back top-up fees and student debt.
It could take a woman with two children twenty years to pay off her student debt, five more years than male colleagues with the same qualifications and job. This is only providing she manages to secure a position with an annual wage of £36,000!
Female students are also less likely to enter subjects like finance, computer science or engineering - subjects linked to some of the highest paid jobs in Britain today. Female dominated courses are often seen as non-profitable for big business and do not attract private funding, which is the new funding system under New Labour.
Women with children also find it next to impossible to enter higher education. Universities don't always provide childcare that covers all the hours needed by parents.
This hardship is worse during school holidays, where student parents are expected to study and sometimes work as a result of cuts in benefits and grants. Universities find millions of pounds however to fund schemes increasing their prestige on the market and attracting private investment.
No to top-up fees and student loans. Free education and a living grant for all students.
Free, quality childcare for students which covers all the hours parents need, including holidays.
'Right' to Work
Women working full time earn on average £559 a month less than men, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. The government's Women and Work Commission put the average gender pay gap for full-time workers at 17%. Female graduate average income is 37.8% less than that of male graduates.
Despite the fact that on paper it is illegal to discriminate against female workers, only one-third of large workplaces have completed an equality review, and now New Labour are refusing to make these compulsory.
Firms are being let off the hook on equal pay by the government which stands for big business interests while hypocritically claiming to provide more 'choice' for women.
Women are more likely than men to live in poverty. Almost half of all women in Britain have total individual incomes of less than £100 a week compared to a fifth of men. Taking time out of work to bring up children, the concentration of women in low paid work and the gap between women's and men's average earnings all contribute to this.
'Right' to childcare
Despite New Labour's claims to be improving childcare, we still have one of the worst provision in Europe. One childcare place is closing for every two that open. According to the Daycare Trust, the typical full-time cost for a child under the age of two is £134 a week, but costs are much higher in London and the southeast. With 60% of mothers with a child aged under five now in employment, professional childcare is an option only for a minority.
The most common type of childcare is close relatives. Even with tax credit, families on low income have to find 30% of the cost of childcare. Three million children live in families where there is no working adult but only 20,000 of them access childcare funded by their local authority.
'Right not to work'
New Labour's strategy is focused on getting women, especially lone parents into the workplace. But for many lone parents, work is not an option. This could be because of ill-health, disability, the absence of affordable childcare or the poverty trap which means they are no better off, and sometimes worse off in work.
Women (and men) should have the right to stay at home and look after children if they choose and to do so free from poverty.
- A minimum wage of £8 an hour.
- A minimum income linked to the minimum wage for carers, students, pensioners and all those unable to work.
- A network of good-quality, flexible, publicly funded and provided childcare that is free and accessible to all parents who want it.
- A shorter working week with no loss of pay.
- Fully funded maternity and paternity leave and child benefits that reflect the real cost of bringing up children.
Privatisation of the NHS will affect women's health, especially in areas such as maternity and sexual health. Sexual health services are already under-funded with people having to wait weeks for an appointment.
Legally we are supposed to have the right to an abortion. But a woman needs the authorisation of two doctors which can result in delays. Because of cuts and delays in the NHS, many women are forced to pay for an abortion privately.
We need free abortions to be available on request through the NHS with support given to women to allow real choice to be made in relation to our bodies. Abortions should be obtainable as quickly and as safely as possible and counselling should be available before and after.
We also need quality sex and relationship education provided at school and free and easy access to means of contraception and the morning after pill. There should be investment in scientific research into the causes of infertility as well as into ways of preventing and dealing with such health issues. Treatments like IVF should be available on request on the NHS.
The government cutbacks adversely affect women's right to choose whether and/or when to have children. Free, quality childcare, decent maternity and working rights, affordable, quality housing and social services, and benefits which reflect the real cost of bringing up children would offer real choice to women.
- A fully funded, publicly financed and provided NHS, free at the point of use and under democratic control.
- Defence and extension of abortion rights.
- Young women and men to have access to adequate advice regarding contraception and sexual relations.
- The right to fertility treatment on the NHS.
- A massive increase in public spending on childcare, housing and services needed to help bring up children.
'Rights' in society and in relationships
Working-class women, including students, can find themselves victims of the sex industry which is exploiting this impoverished and oppressed layer in society and objectifying their bodies. 'Escort jobs' have been advertised in local students unions putting female students at even higher risk of sexual harassment and rape.
These problems are made even worse by students unions who use sexist advertising and promote events such as beauty contests and 'Pimps & Prostitutes' nights to sell more alcohol.
This is despite the fact that NUS boasts about its 'pro-choice' policy for women and the 'place of a woman being in education and a trade union.'
Three-quarters of female students do not feel safe walking on their campus after dark. Yet with lack of adequate reasonable priced transport, many students are forced to walk in areas where they feel unsafe.
The images presented of women are promoting sexist attitudes, reinforcing the objectification of women, portraying us and our bodies as commodities for the 'free' market and contributing to the overall oppression of women, including violence against women.
The 'right' to choose what to wear
Stereotypes as to how women should look and dress are to the direct benefit of big business. All mainstream sources of information, especially the media, promote the latest appearance and diet trend which often targets women and as a result boosts the enormous profits of the diet and beauty industries.
This is contributing to health problems, both physical and psychological, with 85% of women worrying about their bodies every day, only 1% of young women being completely satisfied with their bodies and many experiencing eating disorders.
Women should have the right to wear what they choose, whether this is wearing the latest fashionable dress or a hoodie. Women who want to should have the right to wear the hijab (veil) or not. While on the one hand, we are told that women now have 'choice' and are sexually 'liberated', we are also told what to wear, how to look, and to accept sexism, discrimination and oppression.
Violence against women
Violence towards women especially from abusive partners is still a big issue.
A recent TUC poll found that 51% of those polled had experienced domestic violence of which 92% were women.
Young women between the ages of 16 and 25 are the most likely to experience domestic violence
New Labour have made some changes to the law and and to procedures relating to domestic violence. But at the same time, council housing and services are being cut back and privatised, denying women the material resources needed to leave a violent relationship.
- No to sexism on university campuses, schools, colleges, at work and in society generally.
- More public funding for facilities and services for women who are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence or rape.
- A fully funded and democratically planned safe public transport system.
Why women need socialism
Women in struggle
The vast majority of women today, no matter what part of the world they live in, are hit hardest by the neo-liberal profit-driven and brutal attacks against the working class as a whole. These attacks especially affect women in the neo-colonial world.
Still, even in the most advanced capitalist power in the world, the United States, women's rights have been under attack as George Bush has leaned on the Christian right who want to end a woman's right to abortion.
But women have fought back - the 'Million Women' march in April 2004 was the biggest ever women's rights demonstration in the USA.
It was through collective struggles that women won the right to vote, to - at least on paper - be legally entitled to equal pay, and for the right to have an abortion. Women's right to choose cannot be demanded on an individual level nor can it be achieved in abstract terms. This has to be directly linked to the material conditions on the ground and to what is on offer in society.
Real change to women's lives is inextricably linked to change in the economic and social conditions for the whole of the working class.
Working class women experience double oppression based on gender and class and it is in the interest of all workers to fight this. Sexism and discrimination divide workers and cut across the unity and solidarity needed for a successful struggle for real equality and liberation.
With three mainstream anti-working-class parties women do not have a choice of political representation. Whatever the gender of ministers they attack our rights.
The British education minister, Ruth Kelly, has viciously attacked the working class, especially the right of young working-class women to a decent education.
What is needed is genuine working class representation and accountability. What we need is a new mass workers' party that can unite women and men around a programme to fight the attacks on the working class as a whole and which puts issues affecting working-class women at the top of its agenda.
Change the system
The oppression of women by its nature divides working men and women in their constant struggle for a better life and it is therefore crucial to overcome this divide for a joint workers struggle. Similarly, it is through unity of men and women that it is possible to change the way that society is run - a necessary development to end discrimination and achieve real equality.
Capitalism is a system based on inequality of power and wealth. It was with the rise of society divided into classes that the oppression of women developed. We need a completely different way of organising society. We need a social and economic system where services are provided and production is planned to meet the needs of all, rather than profits of the few.
We need to democratically control the decisions which affect our lives and the lives of our families on a day-to-day basis - we need socialism.
Democratic public ownership of resources which are controlled and managed by workers' and in the communities would mean everyone having access to a decent job, housing, education, health and other services.
Moreover, with co-operation and enhancement of talents, REAL choice and equality can flourish and we can put an end to poverty, oppression and all forms of discrimination, and finally witness the REAL emancipation of women.
Women and work report
A 'missed opportunity' says union
BRITAIN'S MAIN civil service union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has called the forty or so recommendations of the Women and Work Commission's report Shaping A Fairer Future, a "missed opportunity".
The union said the report's recommendations. published on 27 February, did not go anywhere near far enough in addressing discrimination in pay for women workers.
More particularly, it pointed to a gender pay gap in the civil service that stands at a staggering 25%, that's 8% above that in the rest of the economy. It said the government needs to get its own house in order by dealing with the scandal of pay inequality in the civil service!
Janice Godrich is PCS president and also a member of the Socialist Party's sister group in Scotland. She said:
"There is a real sense of disappointment that the commission hasn't recommended compulsory equal pay audits.
"Whilst some of the report's recommendations are welcome, they simply don't go far enough in addressing the scandal of pay inequality. If achieving equality at work is a legitimate social aim, as the government agrees it is, then all avenues open to society to achieve this, including legalisation, should be utilised.
"Half-measures don't fill a cup. Tinkering around the edges by offering better career advice, training and more flexible working is all well and good, but it has to be backed up by affirmative action such as equal pay reviews if the pay gap is to be properly addressed."
As Janice Godrich told the socialist:
"This weak report is just another example of New Labour putting the interests of big business before those of ordinary workers."
Reports on campaigns to defend women's rights all over the world are on the website of the Committee for a Workers' International: www.socialistworld.net
Fighting for Women's Rights and Socialism £2.50 including postage
Available from Socialist Books, PO Box 24697, London, E11 1YD, or phone 020 8988 8789. email: email@example.com
Leaflets on women's' rights from Socialist Students and the Socialist Party are also available.
In The Socialist 2 March 2006: