IWD 2021: Five feminist fights for the year ahead

On International Women’s Day, rs21 members look ahead to five key feminist fights for the year ahead. This list is by no means comprehensive – women and non-binary readers are invited to add their own ideas on important struggles for the next year as comments below!

A photo of feminists in Chile marking International Women's Day.
Feminists in Chile marking International Women’s Day. Image by Patricio Hurtado from Pixabay.

The last year has seen momentous eruptions of feminist struggle around the world. Argentina became the first major Latin American state to legalise abortion after years of huge and militant feminist protests; Poland was shaken by a national women’s strike; women in India spearheaded protests against Islamophobic legislation and against sexual violence directed at Dalit women. Women in Mexico marched and occupied against femicide and state negligence, and the Black Trans Lives Matter protests, the largest demonstrations for trans lives in history, took place in the US, drawing attention to the harrowing toll taken by state and patriarchal violence on trans people of colour.

Nonetheless, the last year has also seen a continuation of dangerous and reactionary politics, as well as devastating gendered impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Britain, domestic violence has risen in a context of compulsory confinement, and women are poised to bear the brunt of renewed Tory austerity under a reactionary Boris Johnson government.

On International Women’s Day 2021, we look ahead to five feminist struggles that will help define the year to come.

Health and care workers rising

The last year has offered vivid reminders of the highly gendered organisation of health and care work in the UK. While senior medical roles are dominated by men, women (and particularly women of colour) predominate in frontline and patient-facing health and care work (making up three-quarters of NHS workers overall), and have borne the brunt of Covid deaths among health workers. Gendered expectations of women as angelic caregivers make it harder for health and care workers to organise in their workplaces, and give the government leeway to underpay and mistreat health workers with impunity.

A photo of nurses protesting over pay. Photo: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash
Nurses protesting over pay. Photo: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash

Despite these barriers, health and care workers have not taken the betrayals and indignities of the last year lying down; thousands marched and protested for a proper pay increase in autumn last year, and the government’s derisory offer of a 1% ‘rise’ in last week’s budget has provoked a fresh outpouring of anger and serious talk of strike action. Socialist feminists should be front and centre of this movement, and must make the case for broad solidarity across society and the labour movement.

We encourage readers to follow the NHS Workers Say No! group (on Facebook and Twitter) and Nurses United to stay up-to-date with this campaign and what you can do to support it.

Fighting sexual violence and harassment

Despite the ongoing ripples of the 2017 #MeToo movement, Britain’s struggles against sexual harassment have been more muted than those in the US over the last few years. One disturbing recent development has been the political campaign in Scotland to vindicate former First Minister Alex Salmond. Although Salmond was accused of sexual offences by 10 women, conversation has been refocused on current SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, with Salmond’s supporters gaining traction with conspiracy theories about ‘trumped-up charges’ and political gain, overshadowing the issue of his sexually predatory behaviour.

Though high-profile, we should see the Salmond incidents in a wider context of sexual harassment at work, which is still depressingly common and under-addressed. According to Unite’s ‘This Is Not Working’ campaign against sexual harassment at work:

Statistics from the TUC show that more than half of women, and 7 in 10 LGBT people, have been sexually harassed at work. But a majority of victims are reticent to report incidents because there is no safe and effective system in place to meaningfully address harassment.

This year, we should be taking the lead of workers across the world (such as workers at McDonald’s and Google in the US and Cineworld in Scotland) and organising militant struggles against sexual harassment, at work and elsewhere. One such project is UVW’s Women’s Project, which is dedicated to helping women stand up to sexual harassment in the workplace. Most unions have a project of some kind, but it will be up to the rank and file to take those campaigns out of the realm of ‘awareness raising’ and into workplace struggles.

Abortion rights and buffer zones

Pro-choice group Sister Supporters, who successfully campaigned for the UK's first buffer-zone against anti-choice harassment outside abortion clinics. Photo: Sister Supporter
Pro-choice group Sister Supporters successfully campaigned for the UK’s first buffer-zone against anti-choice harassment outside abortion clinics. Photo: Sister Supporter

The links between global far-right groups and the anti-abortion movements in Britain and Ireland were evidenced by the hard work and donations made by far-right groups to the counter the Together for Yes and Repeal the 8th campaigns in Ireland in 2018. Beating them so overwhelmingly in the fight for choice despite their best efforts was a real success for Irish feminists. It could not have been achieved without the continued hard work of pro-choice activists and organisers.

In recent years, pro-choice group Sister Supporter won a long fight to get a buffer zone approved around the Marie Stopes clinic in South Manchester after years of sustained anti-abortion protests outside the clinic sought to deter women from using its abortion services. While fights about the right to choose rage across the world, access to abortion should never be taken for granted. If you want to get involved, Sister Supporter continues to campaign for buffer zones and the right to choose across England, including in London and Bournemouth. Feminist Fightback in London are also worth following for their work on reproductive justice, which included direct action in a coalition of groups against the March for Life in Birmingham in 2018.

Trans solidarity

With reform to the Gender Recognition Act shelved by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and continual attacks on trans rights and freedoms in academia and the press, now is a pressing time for feminists and socialists to stand by trans people and fight the ongoing attacks against our trans brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings. This year, well-known transphobe Posie Parker made a video encouraging armed, right-wing men to patrol women’s toilets to ‘protect’ cis women, highlighting the lengths (and allies) transphobes are willing to go to to undermine trans rights. Against this onslaught, we should show vocal support for trans people and their self-determination. This year, that may involve fighting to defend protections for trans people in the Equalities Act 2010 that Johnson and Liz Truss threatened to undermine in 2020. (You can sign a petition against the proposed changes and failure to reform the GRA here.) 

Contrary to the transphobic myth, there is no rich and powerful ‘trans lobby’ bankrolling trans struggles. Trans people face discrimination in many workplaces over their gender identity, and access to trans healthcare on the NHS has painstakingly long waits, so many have to turn to private healthcare to meet immediate healthcare needs if they can afford it. If you want to support the movement, donations are always welcomed including by educational charity Gendered Intelligence and other organisations listed here.

An internationalist feminism

The liberation of women in Britain can’t be separated from the same struggle for liberation around the world, and the coming year will require continued solidarity with women in struggle in other countries. A clear example is the situation in Poland. The huge feminist protests last year in Polish cities brought solidarity demos out on the streets of various cities and towns across Britain. Despite the huge strikes, Poland’s right-wing government has gone ahead with its almost total ban on abortion, meaning that more protests in Poland are inevitable, and more solidarity efforts in Britain should be organised to support these, and to offer support to Polish women traveling elsewhere to access abortion.

Feminist internationalism also requires us to support the struggles of migrant women against oppression and exploitation here in Britain. This means solidarity with women being excluded from public services (such as refuges and domestic violence shelters) or subjected to destitution under the government’s racist ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ rules, with mothers barred from accessing maternity care by the ‘Hostile Environment’ in the NHS, and with women suffering abuse and sexual violence in the UK’s detention centres. 

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