Haiti: Occasional Musings, 11 – International Women’s Day

I have a general wariness around national and international days which are set aside to remind us of a particular issue or celebration such as the Day of the Child, Human Rights Day, Water Day, Day Against Homophobia and International Women’s Day [IWD]. There seems to be something condescending about such designations not least of all because we often have no historical or other context for such days. I had thought to mark IWD 2013 with a profile of four Haitian women activists, three I have known for a number of years and one I just met this January. However after talking with each of them and considering the impact of their work in their communities I felt I needed to bring something deeper to my understanding of the relationship between IWD, feminism and activism in an Haitian context.

I started by reading on the history of IWD which I had always believed to be a post WWII creation along with the various declarations around human rights. Not so. IWD was born within the European and Russian socialist politic of the late 19th century along with May Day, as a celebration and recognition of working class struggles including ‘universal women’s suffrage’. In other words IWD was created out of the the intersection of class and gender and was formalised at the August 1910 at the “International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen”.

“In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade organisations of the proletariat in their respective countries, the socialist women of all nationalities will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to socialist precepts. The Women’s Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully. Clara Zetkin, Käte Duncker, and other comrades

In her lecture “Wars Against Women” Angela Davis points to the multiple origins of IWD so in addition to the 1910 Socialist International there was the

“ Russian women’s strike for bread and peace in 1917 against the wishes of the revolutionary leadership which [later] helped to bring down the Czar. There was the triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911 during which 140 women, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants were killed. There was also a 1857 strike on March 8th in New York by women in the garment and textile industry, in which they demanded, better wages, shorter working hours and generally better working conditions.”

The first IWD was in 1911 under the banner of ‘equal rights, protection of working woman and women’s suffrage. The ideology behind the early IWD was driven by a desire to end capitalism which was seen as the barrier to equality, to internationalize the struggle of women and workers and to oppose the impending war in Europe [WWI]. By the 1970s, IWD, which grew out of a socialist workers international was appropriated and incorporated into global capitalism through the institution of the UN, which despite the tensions of the east west cold war period, was always leveraged as an instrument of global capital. The first global recognition of IWD and women’s struggles, was through the UN Commission on the Status of Women which held a series of ‘internationals’ in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).

Another interesting  example of the early IWD socialist connection took place  following the first UN  sponsored international in Mexico which designated March 8th as IWD.

“Cuba marked the occasion by launching it’s attack against the second shift – the shift women do when they get home from work and began to address some of the major issues that confront working women within a feminist framework.” [Angela Davis]

Davis also asks us to recognize the importance of the global in “recognizing the recognition of women’s pivotable role” in creating hope for a better future. I would add that these internationals also led to  the recognition of the ‘pivotable role’ played by women from the global south in the independence movements in the 1930s onwards and of course in post-colonial struggles. It is within this international or global history as well as Haiti’s own revolutionary history that I would like to view the activism of the Haitian women. Each of the four women’s organizing grew out of the struggle of the popular masses against the subjugation and brutality of the 1930s US Occupation, Duvalierism, militarisation and the desire to reclaim the revolutionary narrative which had long since been appropriated by Haitian elites, imperialist forces as well as local patriarchies.

Each of the women prioritise women’s struggles in the context of a broader activism of an inclusive movement of the popular masses.  So water rights, land rights, food insecurity, an end to the UN occupation, an increase in the minimum wage, free accessible education, sit alongside issues of gender discrimination, sexual violence, domestic violence, imprisonment of girls and women for extended periods often with delayed trials or years, access to healthcare,  and adult literacy.

Globalised Women

The clothes we wear the majority of which are made in China or the global south by women are invariably manufactured under extremely exploitative labour conditions. Even in Europe and the US, it is immigrant and often undocumented women’s labour that is used.   The food we eat.  Most of the sugar imported into the US comes from the Dominican Republic where Haitian men, women and children many of whom have been trafficked across the border,  work in slavery conditions on huge plantations.  The conditions are horrendous, there are few schools, clinics or access to alternative employment.  The petrol we use to travel has destroyed the livelihood of women in rural Niger Delta.

At the beginning of this post I said I was wary about the ‘celebration’ of designated international Days though I wasnt sure where or why my ambivalence.  But understanding the history of IWDs particularly learning the socialist history has given IWD a much needed context.