This year, International Women's Day is planned to be more than just a symbolic gesture.
This year's International Women's Day is to mark the launching of a massive worldwide campaign. Women from all round the world are banding together to send the international community a clear and powerful message.
An international public mobilisation and publicity effort, involving over 3,000 NGOs, is being launched on 8 March to promote The World March of Women 2000. The slogan of the march is the elimination of poverty and violence against women.
There will be two main rallies: the first will be on 15 October in Washington DC, where protesters representing the participating countries will march on the World Bank and IMF and submit their demands. The second will be on 17 October in New York and protestors will gather outside the UN building where they have requested an audience with UN Secretary General Kofi Anan and to be given time on the agenda of the UN General Assembly on the same day.
The initiative for the march originated with the Federaton des Femmes du Quebec, who invited women's rights activists from around the world to attend a prelimenary session in November 1997 where the principles of the march were agreed. The idea for the march is an extension of the Women's March Against Poverty, which took place in Quebec in 1995. Since then, over 3,000 NGOs from 143 countries have come onboard and are planning local rallies, petitions and awareness raising campaigns in the run up to the main October marches.
The organisers of the rally admit that poverty affects both men and women. However, they contend that it hits women the hardest. According to Farida El-Naqash, president of the Forum for Women in Development, “When poverty becomes acute, women are harmed the most. Out of one billion malnourished people around the globe, 700 million are women. Often a mother will go without to provide more food for the rest of the family. This is despite the fact that 31% of families in Egypt are supported [solely] by women.”
On the issue of poverty, the demands being made include the cancellation of Third World debt and, as a temporary measure, the dropping of the debts of the 53 poorest countries; the collection of a tax on stock market operations to be placed into a social development fund and the allocation of 0.7% of the GDP of wealthy countries to be given as aid to poorer countries.
In order to make economics more humane, the rally will call for an end to welfare cuts and the discontinuation of the economic restructuring policies dictated by the IMF and World Bank, stating that individual governments, according to their needs, should formulate their own policies.
These demands are not unique and they come in the wider context of action being taken to address the growing disparity between rich and poor, and North and South. Take the massive protest marches in Seattle that broke up the G7 meeting in October 1999, or the Jubilee 2000 campaign, sponsored by key celebrities, calling for the immediate cancellation of the poorest countries' debts.
The World Trade Organisation with its fixation on ‘free trade', the World Bank and the IMF are widely perceived, especially in the Third World, as rich men's clubs. Economic reforms and restructuring policies, although they may, in certain cases, have improved macro economic indicators have hit societies hard.
According to the UN's 1998 Human Development Report, some 100 countries have experienced serious economic downturns, with some 70-80 having per capita incomes that are lower today than they were 10 to 30 years ago. That has meant that, in developing countries, 1.3 billion people live on less than US$1 a day.
The statistics are frightening and make sobering reading, but, in a way, many have learnt to live with and insulate themselves against them. Nevertheless, there is a tolerance threshold and the spread of abject poverty, even in the advanced world, has triggered off a sense of public revolt that has stirred many into action. Mass communications is a double-edged sword and has thus helped start world movements on a grassroots level.
Violence, like poverty, is not exclusively directed against women. According to the 1998 UN Human Development Report, regional armed conflicts, fuelled by the rampant arms trade, have affected almost 100 million people and about 50 million have been forced to flee their homes. The biggest victims are women and children (of whom two million have been killed in armed conflicts over the past 10 years).
However, there are certain types of violence of which women are predominantly the victims, such as domestic violence and rape, especially in times of war. On the issue of violence, the rally is calling for government recognition, in the form of legislation, that violence against women is a human right's abuse, and that all governments become signatories of UN treaties and protocols denouncing violence. Furthermore, the rally is calling for a campaign to combat the trade in women's bodies. This includes the white slave trade and, to a lesser extent, how women are depicted in advertising and the media.
The Arab presence in the preliminary sessions and involvement in the march has been minimal. Only seven Arab participants from five countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan) took part in the preparatory sessions. “There is no way Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries would have taken part. The women's civil movement in these countries are weak. They are also very much in the state's hands,” explains Gihan Abou Zeid, vice-president of the Forum for Women in Development.
Nevertheless, the Arabs involved with the campaign are determined to have their voice heard, both within the preparatory conference and on a wider public stage. “We [the Arab participants] had to have a clear position on issues that were not suitable to our cultural reality… That means that one should adopt those parts of the treaty that are useful and applicable locally,” emphasised Abou Zeid. “We asked for modifications to be made to the demands to make them more culturally sensitive on a local level,” she added.
However, that was more easily said than done: “To draw attention to the fact that there was an Arab presence at the conference, we stood up and sang Beladi Beladi [the Egyptian national anthem], the only song all the Arab delegates there knew, at the top of our lungs until we had complete silence. I don't know quite where we got the energy from,” recalled Abou Zeid. Moreover, they have set up a co-ordinating body that includes NGOs from countries that were not at the preparatory sessions and all five participating countries are planning massive campaigns in their countries.
The main changes the Arabs pushed for was to to highlight the fact that the demands pertaining to sexual freedom, such as the rights of lesbians to enter the armed forces, was not practical in the Middle East, and to include an item pertaining to the rights of women in occupied territories.
“We lobbied for the inclusion of an item stating the rights of women living in occupied territories, and that [they] should not be subjected to any abuses. Because women in occupied territories, such as South Lebanon, the Palestinian territories or the Golan Heights, are at risk of being assaulted, imprisoned and raped,” explained Abou Zeid. She went on to add, “We also lobbied for the rights of women living in countries under sanctions, which, at the time, included Libya and Iraq.”
On the domestic front, women's NGOs are set to start a massive national campaign that starts on 8 March and culminates with the start of the main marches in October. “In Egypt, we have named it the Campaign Against Poverty and Violence due to the government's acute sensitivity to demonstrations and protest marches. There will be a rally, but it will be a component of this campaign,” said El-Naqash.
She went on to outline the broad framework of the campaign, “The campaign will run on three basic levels: the local (in every village and small town where we can mobilise support) where they will deliver their demands to their local council. Secondly, is the governorate level… Thirdly, on the national level, we will combine and refine the demands made in the other two levels and present them to the People's Assembly.”
“We will also take those slogans and demands made at the international level that are relevant to us, such as the right to clean water… Our efforts are in the context of the more general demands for the cancellation of Third World debt and the curbing of the role of the WTO.”
Those involved in the campaign across the globe are confident that it will make a difference. “Rallies usually have longer term objectives. They act as a wake up call to society,” stresses Abou Zeid. “When so many people call for the reduction of poverty and violence against women, this puts governments in an embarrassing position.”
She expounds that “[Through public pressure] we can utilise the international balance of power to force, say, the World Bank to make a country's record vis-a-vas women's rights conditional to aid and loans. The international community [if it chose] is capable of putting pressure on Israel to stop its forays into the Occupied Territories. It is capable of pressurising the US into lifting the sanctions on Iraq that are hurting millions of women and children daily. The international community can play a powerful supportive role to back up the UN,” she adds.
Come October, we will learn whether the international community has the willpower to fulfil its calling.
This article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Egypt's Insight magazine.