WOMEN FOR PEACE - International Women's Day 2015
To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, 2015 the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretariat will coordinate activities with affiliates in several countries with the theme Women for Peace.
The theme Women for Peace was chosen primarily in response to the resurgent militarism in the region and a militarization of politics that threatens democracy. Governments are using the threat of violent clashes, civil war, terrorism, border disputes and territorial claims to suspend, impose or amend laws in ways that undermine democratic rights.
The tragedy of the clash in Mamasapano in the Philippines in January 2015 cost lives on both sides including civilians. This should have been a reminder of the importance of peace. Instead it quickly became a matter of determining who is human enough to be counted among the number of fallen. This now threatens to derail the passing of the constitution of Bangsamoro - with its commitment to internationally recognized worker and trade union rights - and violence will return affecting hundreds of thousands of working people.
With resurgent militarism - including remilitarization in East Asia - direct political censorship and indirect corporate media censorship threatens freedom of expression in several countries. Increasingly "emergency" or security measures are used to justify restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Under Thailand's military government democratic rights remain suspended and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly severely restricted. Gathering in groups of more than four people in public is illegal and censorship is aggressive to the point of absurdity. The banning of the The Hunger Games books and films and the criminalization of reading George Orwell's 1984 in public suggests the military government is well aware of what people think of the regime.
While the Thai ruling elite negotiate the transition back to civilian government, working people face continued fear and uncertainty about the restoration of rights and their ability to secure human rights such as genuine freedom of association. These rights were not fully recognized even before the military coup.
In Hong Kong the leaders of the only independent trade union in China face criminal prosecution for their role in the Umbrella Movement. The struggle for universal suffrage - including the right to directly elect the chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR - has now become a struggle to retain even the most basic rights of the Hong Kong people, including freedom of association. The symbolism of the Umbrella Movement itself is an indictment of state violence. When pro-democracy protesters were attacked by the police with pepper spray and tear gas they used umbrellas to protect themselves. This reminds us that our struggle for democracy in society and for worker and trade union rights in the workplace is also a struggle to protect ourselves from everyday violence and oppression.
In Indonesia the prospects of a return to the New Order military dictatorship remains a significant threat to democracy. Military and business interests backed by a significant part of the trade union movement failed to elect a military dictator in 2014 but continue to undermine the democratic government by promoting regionalism and orchestrating "communal violence" based on religion and ethnicity. Strikes and demonstrations - the tools of our labour movement in fighting for rights, justice and democracy - are being used to undermine democracy. Industrial militancy is becoming a form of extortion, holding democracy hostage while promoting a militaristic industrial militancy with international support.
In Myanmar too politically driven "communal violence" threatens a return to civil war with loss of life on a massive scale while justifying the reintroduction of martial law. The opportunity to promote human rights including genuine freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in Myanmar may be lost very soon.
Despite the risk of a return to military rule there is only talk of patience and tolerance for a slowly reforming government as fear of upsetting generals in business suits overrides the concern for universal human rights. So while the international community practices tolerance for a military government in business suits, powerful political and business interests actively promote intolerance and hatred, unleashing terrible violence on working people and their communities.
In India the Prime Minister whose political career is built on creating "communal violence" and the glorification of Italian fascism and Nazism is now creating a new climate of religious hatred and intolerance while pushing a corporate agenda that threatens to undermine democratic rights.
Any fascist agenda needs thugs. Street thugs have become political and religious leaders under the Modi regime. These thugs are not religious but are the same ignorant street thugs with a new justification for their violence and oppression of others, especially violence against women.
In Pakistan too the same thugs inflict horrific violence on women and children. The horrific attack on a school in Peshawar in December last year resulted in the death of 145 people including 132 children. While this brutality is meant to instill fear it in fact compels us to mobilize and demand peace.
The reality in Pakistan is that the same murderous thugs are used by ruling political elites, powerful military interests and feudal landlords finance and encourage political conflicts and communal/tribal violence disguised as religious conflict. This abuse and misuse of religion feeds on ignorance of the meaning of peace, social justice and the rights of women and children in religious faith. And at the same time this conflict undermines a fragile democracy, paving the way for a return to military rule.
The attempted murder in 2012 of 15 year-old Malala Yousafzai for advocating women and girls’ education was intended by conservative forces to instill fear. Yet it had the opposite effect. With tens of thousands of other outraged people our members in Pakistan took to the streets to protest the attack on Malala. Today our members celebrate her continued activism and recognition as a Nobel Peace laureate in 2014 along with child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi from India.
As one of India's leading activists campaigning against child labour Kailash Satyarthi, said recently: “…creating an environment of fear is also violence."
This environment of fear is precisely why we must stop the violence and struggle to rebuild peace. While peace is not a sufficient condition for securing women's rights and dignity, it is an essential condition.
The environment of fear that militarism and communal violence creates permeates every aspect of women's lives. The rise in violent attacks on women and gang rape in India is tied to the same sense of impunity that the government promotes to divide and oppress working people. It is fuelled by the very same ignorance, hatred, intolerance and brutality.
For women workers throughout the Asia/Pacific this environment of fear pervades their communities and workplaces. At a recent international conference on ethical tourism we explained that hotel housekeepers (room attendants) struggling to "Make My Workplace Safe" must overcome all kinds of fear:
- Fear to speak out or complain
- Fear to fail (where excessive targets or quotas are imposed and failure results in penalties or lost income)
- Fear to stop work (even when work is hazardous or dangerous)
- Fear to report (intimidation and harassment, sexual harassment, child labour)
- Fear to ask (for paid breaks, for personal protective equipment, for help to complete as task)
- Fear to say ‘enough’ (to stop excessive working hours and workloads)
- Fear to say ‘more’ (the demand for higher wages)
The list goes on. And it all adds up to an environment of fear which is also violence.
That is why on March 8 we will also coordinate hotel workers' demands across the Asia/Pacific to "Make My Workplace Safe - for Women!”
Faced with similar challenges in an environment of fear, women food workers in Indonesia and women tea workers in India will highlight the violence to women's health inflicted by brutal working conditions.
Excessive working hours, heavy workloads, severe restrictions on rest breaks and toilet breaks, denial of maternity rights, lack of access to paid leave and paid sick leave, and exposure to hazardous chemicals all harm women's health, often causing lasting damage. Poverty wages reinforce all of this - compelling women to do "voluntary" overtime and sacrifice rest days even when they are physically and mentally exhausted and near collapse.
On a tea plantation in Assam, India, 55 year-old Sister Raimati Majhi did collapse from exhaustion. But the doctor at the company-owned hospital on the tea plantation sent her back to work without treatment. When she was hospitalized again after collapsing she died while the doctor chatted on his mobile phone. When workers gathered in front of the hospital to protest the police were called in to arrest them. Eighteen workers (12 men and six women) were unfairly terminated and after four years 15 workers have not yet been reinstated.
Sister Maya Chatriya was among those arrested. In order to pay her bail money her husband - a tea worker on the same plantation - resigned from his job to get severance pay. The severance pay was used to pay her bail. Sister Maya Chatriya still faces charges while she works on the plantation, her husband is without work and they are in debt. And there is still no justice for Sister Raimati Majhi. This is violence.
Six months before the death of Sister Raimati Majhi a pregnant woman worker on the same tea estate, Sister Manju Versa, died after she was denied paid sick leave and did not receive proper medical care.
On March 8th we will hold a mass meeting on the plantation to remember the killing of Sister Raimati Majhi and Sister Manju Versa, and support Sister Maya Chatriya and 15 others in their fight against victimization. We will also bring women doctors – real doctors who see women tea workers as human - to give free medical check-ups while we run workshops on health and safety rights.
We started by saying we plan to celebrate International Women's Day. So instead of focusing on fear and violence we will highlight the tremendous courage of our women union members throughout the region.
We will celebrate the struggle for democracy and democratic rights, recognizing our sisters who continue speaking out to reaffirm freedom of expression, speaking out in the workplace, gathering and organizing in the community, in the streets and in the workplace. All of this takes courage and we will proudly recognize this courage and celebrate our sisters being fearless in fearful times.
Acting Regional Secretary
February 17th 2015