For the second consecutive year International Women’s Day will once again be marked by the COVID-19 crisis. With the biggest recession in history in the UK and the worst still to come, women are disproportionately bearing the costs of the rotten system.
Be it due to working in unsafe conditions, earning less, or being made unemployed, being furloughed, taking responsibility for care of children and elders, and being ‘locked-down’ in violent relationships, the scenario becomes even more dramatic for women. The current crisis is a reflection on the major attacks that have taken place against women.
Women at work during the pandemic
This extreme situation is only the tip of the iceberg of the way in which women have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Frontline workers, which are also those most likely to be exposed to infection, are overwhelmingly women. Out of 3.2 million high-risk jobs, 2.5 million are filled by women; 89% of nurses are women; 84% of care workers are women. These ‘key’ positions that are so crucial to keep our society running are also the most likely to be low-paid, sometimes without even the right to sick pay. In this context, Black women are overrepresented among the most hard hit sectors, with significantly higher chances of dying from COVID-19.
Women in the NHS
A decade of underfunding and stripping of the NHS after the 2008 crisis has left the system struggling to meet basic needs and very far from being able to cope with the soaring rates of infection and deaths of the second wave. While the government makes soundbites in support of the NHS workers, the reality shows the true face of the Government. A shameful ‘increase’ of 1% (a wage cut in real terms) is the latest betrayal of the government against our health workers who have to deal with a lack of human and material resources (doctors, nurses, PPE, etc).
Because of the overwhelming presence of women in the care sector a clear conclusion can be drawn, that attacks on the NHS and in general attacks on the working class are attacks to women. Women have had to take up endless shifts without proper PPE to protect them from infection. Women have had to face higher risks of infection because the government wanted not to impose a proper lockdown with a zero COVID-19 policy. The lack of resources to ensure income has also been suffered disproportionately by women, especially Black women, since they are most likely to be in a situation of deprivation. Working class women bear the brunt of cuts and poor working conditions.
Unpaid domestic work
Unpaid work has also been a major front of struggles for women during the pandemic. In the EU in 2019, women earned a 14.1% less per hour than men. This entails that women spend less time in paid hours (as they are also more likely to hold part-time jobs), but more in unpaid work. In fact, in the UK before COVID-19, women spent 1.8 times more time than men in unpaid care work and chores. This being another problem that comes from afar, it has only gotten worse with recommendations to stay home, closure of workplaces and home schooling. Many are already talking about a major setback in the situation of women generally in respect to men, with decades of advancement at risk of being lost.
The double or triple oppression that women face for being women, but all too often for being Black or part of the LGBTQ+ community as well, has been blatantly exposed by the COVID-19 crisis. The inaction of the government in the face of such a dramatic scenario reveals the inability of capitalism to meet the needs of 50% of the population.
Far from being mere anecdotal facts, the figures outlined above have a direct effect on women’s lives and need urgent and effective solutions. The almost non-existent preoccupation on behalf of the government pushes us to demand the implementation of services that will respond to situations of domestic abuse as well as comprehensive measures to ensure guaranteed income and shelter if needed. In order to tackle women’s situation, the government ought to increase NHS, education and social services funding and end all austerity measures, keeping a special focus on Black and Asian women that are suffering disproportionately. It ought to ensure good working conditions for workers, especially frontline workers, with a full employment policy and a zero COVID-19 approach.
Domestic and sexual violence
Right at the beginning of the pandemic the National Domestic Abuse Helpline for England and Wales had received 66% more calls and 950% more visits to the website. And only in 2020, there were 1.6 million women that experienced domestic abuse. Despite the government wanting to attribute the rise in figures to an alleged enhancement of the reporting methods and more willingness on behalf of the victims to come forward, this is very far from the truth. On average, two women a week were killed by a current or former partner in 2019. The problem comes from afar and the poor management of the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare women’s struggles. While some claim that there are in fact higher reporting rates, the reality is that violence against women is increasing and the majority of cases still go unreported. The soaring rates of femicides, rapes and domestic abuse count to this. All the while, in spite of growing calls for action, the government continue to do nothing.
Lockdown and social distancing measures for many women has meant more time with their abusers with little chance of escaping. A Women’s Aid survey showed how out of 45 service providers, 38 have reduced service or quite simply closed due to the pandemic. That is an 84.4% service reduction in a time when, contrastingly, there are more women in need of these vital services.
To this already dramatic situation for women, we can add an almost complete disregard to the most vulnerable women. Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women have been especially hit by the crisis. The most vulnerable communities are hounded by structural inequality, which add a further layer of difficulty to access services that are assuming a baseline of access.
Critical services are out of reach for migrant women who might be controlled by their abusers at home and fear approaching the authorities due to risk of detention, deportation or separation from their children. On top of this, certain types of visas prevent women from accessing government benefits.
What is next?
Although downcast, women are not surprised. Attacks against women have a long history. And as such, we do not expect the Tory government to alleviate women’s situation. In the face of inaction, our demands have to be stronger and louder than ever.
Nevertheless, these demands are not going to be met under the auspices of the parliamentary system, no matter if led by a man or a woman. For women to experience true equality in all aspects of our lives the world has to be organised along new social and productive lines.
In order to overcome sexism, no sisterhood among all women will suffice. This is useful in achieving democratic rights, such as the right to vote or the right to abortion. Nonetheless, women in power are not in the same condition as workers and will, therefore, perpetuate exploitation and keep the working class women in poverty.
Equally wrong would be to assume that women’s issues can be left aside, and sexism can be taken care of in an indeterminate future. The objective situation is that women face both exploitation and oppression and that there are certain demands that are unique to women or which are in response to problems women overwhelmingly suffer at higher rates from than men, as is the end of sexual and domestic violence. A revolutionary organisation has to show the strictest of moral standards when it comes to fighting oppression. Ending oppression against women, this being one of the most powerful tools of class division, has to be present at every step we take in building a socialist society. As A. Kollontai put it:
“As members of the party, women workers are fighting for the common class cause, while at the same time outlining and putting forward those needs and demands that most nearly affect themselves as women, housewives and mothers. The party supports these demands and fights for them… The requirements of working women are part and parcel of the common workers’ cause!’
A. Kollontai, ‘Women’s Day’ February 1913.“
During the pandemic, the fight of the SAGE care workers against low salaries and poor treatment has had outstanding women participation and leadership and, as such, they are an example to follow in the fight against precarious jobs. Their demands are part of the larger struggle of the working class for the betterment of working conditions. In spite of restrictions, working class women have to follow this example by organising to defend their rights.
At the time of an international crisis like that caused by COVID-19 and its disastrous management, attacks on the most oppressed sectors of society intensify, including on women. It is, thus, of paramount importance for women and men to realise that sexism, as any other oppression, is tailored in order to divide the working class and that real change will not happen without the participation of half of the population in the fight. Women, in particular, have to come to the realisation that only those with the same class interests will aid them in their liberation and that, in the path towards equality, they alone won’t succeed.
Bourgeois institutions will put an indefinite date for the realisation of women’s liberation. The UN has stated that it would take 200 years for our society to reach gender equality. As women we have to wonder, do we have 200 years to spare?
This is why it is crucial for women to organise alongside the whole of the working class in the construction of a revolutionary alternative that will end all forms of oppression and exploitation!
Only under a socialist world will we be able to eradicate the roots of sexism!
We demand the following to advance the cause of women’s struggle and thus also the cause of working class struggle:
- For immediate action to force all companies to pay equal pay for equal work, and for legislation to end any and all potential loopholes to current laws or create new laws as needed.
- For the provision of a true and real living wage for all, enough to sustain decent living standards.
- Domestic violence services should be fully funded, widespread and expert lead, including shelters, refuges and therapy for victims of violence.
- All companies must be made to have and effectively implement a robust policy to end sexism and indeed all discrimination within their workplaces. With robust, confidential and effective reporting methods in place, and a clear plan of action for how incidents of discrimination will be dealt with.
- The complete rebuilding of the social security system from its current state, moving away from control and punishment. A system which ensures income for everyone and takes into account those people with disabilities and others who have specific needs.
- For a complete and well funded program to tackle the systemic and deeply rooted sexism and other forms of discrimination within the UK at every level of society.
- For a program of the socialisation of unpaid work (housework, child raising and looking after relatives etc.). Public laundry and food services should be provided, as well as child-care and schooling services, giving decent employment to those that perform these tasks.
- For a complete and total end of all austerity measures, and the restoration of funding to councils. This should include rethinking how councils are funded council tax is regressive and negatively affects the poorest of society who are often women.
- For a fully funded NHS provided free at the point of use and need.
- For the complete overhaul of the UK’s antiquated divorce laws which often lead to unnecessary pain, conflict and suffering for those involved in getting a divorce.
- For the complete reinstatement of and expansion of legal aid for all those who need it, women who are often paid less or not able to work due to being expected to raise children and such, are often at a great disadvantage if they need to interact with the legal system.
- For an end to the racist, sexist and discriminatory hostile environment and move away from the current immigration system because people should not fear getting help when they need it. A new policy that will end the policy of no recourse to public funds, those people living in this country legally who need help should be able to get it regardless of their status and finally for a system that will allow people to settle in the UK legally.
We would like to make it clear we make these demands not because we have a single shred of belief that capitalism and the parliament and political parties who service its interests will ever implement them and/or fund them properly, but because we believe these are some of the demands at the heart of the working class struggle, of which women’s struggles and all oppressed peoples struggles are an essential and core part of, the working class must unite to topple capitalism and build socialism in its place.
The struggle of women is the struggle of the entire working class, and capitalism is without a doubt the greatest enemy of the working class. It must be destroyed and replaced with socialism!
Alexandra Kollontai 1913. ‘Women’s Day’ February 1913 Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984