Diaries Magazine

International Women’s Day and Women Who Work (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism & Gender and Bakamoono.lk)

Posted on the 18 March 2019 by Sharasekaram @sharasekaram
(This piece first appeared as part of a weekly column for - The Sunday Morning - a Sri Lankan national print newspaper. It was then republished on bakamoono.lk, a Sri Lankan Relationship Education Site under 'Insights')
It is a true pleasure and honor to begin penning this column for The Sunday Morning, discussing issues related to feminism and gender. And what better way to begin than in the aftermath of International Women’s Day.
Marked globally on 8 March, International Women’s Day (IWD) has become a key date to be noted as the focal point in the fight for women’s rights. In its modern avatar, it is much like many other significant celebratory days – it seems to have lost its original meaning. As someone who works in gender and women’s rights all year round, it is bemusing to see the number of organisations and individuals who wake up around this time of the year to mark this day. Some do it with good intentions and use the opportunity to raise important concerns and conversations that are perhaps difficult to bring to the forefront without this push. Others, however, completely miss the mark and unfortunately, seem to be growing in number.
This year, women were offered flowers, discounts on cooking pans, makeover classes, cooking classes, and much more under the thin veil of benevolent sexism. What is most ironic is that these actions and “celebrations” fundamentally go against the two key characteristics of how this day began. The first is to challenge the patriarchal structures that shackle women’s rights, roles, responsibilities, choices, and opportunities. The second is in the day’s socialist origins challenging the exploitation of labor for profit. The irony hangs heavy when cooking or makeover classes (at a charge) offered by profit-making companies have become the default method of how IWD is marked.
Socialist Roots of IWD

The roots of this day can be traced back to November 1909 when immigrant women in their teens and 20s in New York City began an 11-week strike – or as many labor historians recall it, “The Uprising of the 20,000”. This led to the socialist party organising Women’s Day marches across the country, and then the 1910 International Socialist Woman’s Conference suggested a Women’s Day be held annually.
The ties to 8 March came in 1917 when Russian women gained the right to vote and declared the day a national holiday. The feminist movement adopted the day from the communists and socialists in the mid-1960s, and it took the form we know today with annual themes when the United Nations marked it in 1975.
Why is it important to remember its socialist roots? Because we must remember that the day was not created to celebrate or acknowledge the existence of women in the benevolent paternalistic manner that it has taken over today. It was born from struggle – a demand from working women for their rights. This is where we need to return to. It is this history that we need to acknowledge and build upon. It is the struggle for equal rights, opportunities, pay, and to be who we want to be without the yoke of gender weighing us down that should be the focus.
It is also pertinent for us to remember that it was working women who raised this struggle, and today as feminists, we return to this idea. From unequal pay, discriminatory work practices, and glass ceilings to workplace sexual harassment, issues faced by women in the world of work are not a few – subsequent columns will certainty explore these in detail.
Pillars of Economic Progression

Women in Sri Lanka, however, have not been silent; they have in the world of work – despite these challenges – continued to fight and persevere to have their voices heard. One of the first labor unions formed in Sri Lanka was led by women, more specifically tea plantation workers. The economy of our country is built on the backs of women in labor – traveling overseas for domestic work, on tea plantations, and in garment factories. Women in a modern economy can be found to be creating dozens of businesses as entrepreneurs, often with a social angle.
This, however, is not the only form of work women do, and the bulk of their labor in fact goes unnoticed and undervalued. Women in patriarchal societies perform the majority of care and domestic work, which feminists have long been fighting to have acknowledged as work. Be it household chores, cooking, raising children, or taking care of elderly family members, this burden is largely taken up by women and often at the expense of more formal work. Feminist researchers and activists refer to this as “unpaid care work” (i.e. the production of goods or services in a household or community that are not sold in a market).
Women in every country, regardless of that country’s level of development, perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work. This is true even when women are performing the same amount of paid work as their male counterparts, as the “Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now” report published in 2012 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes.
Time and opportunity costs of unpaid care work affect women’s ability to participate and advance in the formal labor sector as well as the political sphere. The impact is greatest on women in poverty due to their limited access to private services or time-saving technologies. The gendered division of unpaid care work also has negative economic consequences at the national level. Studies show that reducing a woman’s share of unpaid care work could increase agricultural labor productivity by 15% and capital productivity by as much as 44% in certain countries. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) states that if women were able to fully realize their market potential, there would be significant macroeconomic gains.
Time to Rethink
So today, when we discuss work, we need to rethink within the framework of a capitalistic system, “what is considered to be work and how does labor performed largely by women go unnoticed and unaccounted for?”
When we talk about dignity of labor and rights for those who work, are we also questioning our understanding of what work is? Do we question the patriarchal systems that shackle women and men? It is vital that we question the system and the institutionalised aspect of these issues, because failing to do so means that the root cause of the issue is never solved.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote for IWD, reflecting on these systems: “Inequality may be a necessary condition of capitalism, but it is maintained by culture. Sexism persists because it is propped up by a deep-rooted set of beliefs and stereotypes that imagine women as inferior. These won’t be forgotten overnight by changing the economic system; they must be actively taken on and defeated – and that fight must be led by women themselves.”
Individual champions and roses are not what IWD needs or should be about. It should be about people collectively fighting an unjust and unequal system that exploits and constricts us all. Perhaps, this is what we do next year, the year after, and in years to come. Perhaps.

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