Last year we saw, with the #MeToo movement, an international revolt against sexism. Women all over the world spoke out against powerful men abusing their social position to force unwilling women to have sex with them. While it started in Hollywood, very soon the discussion spread to different workplaces and schools. In Belgium, studies have shown that one third of female cleaners have faced sexual violence in their workplace.
In this context - of re-emerging mass struggles for women's rights all over the world - and as anger against sexism is being expressed more and more widely, the Parti Socialiste de Lutte (Socialist Party of Struggle) and ALS (Active Left Students) launched a campaign linking the struggle against sexism to the struggle against austerity and capitalism. Still in the planning stage a year ago, this initiative is now benefiting from a great dynamic to put socialist feminism back on the agenda.
ROSA in action amongst youth: ‘My body, my choice!’
Although March 8th has not seen a real movement for a long time, last year on International Women’s Day, we organised a demonstration in Ghent with 600 students participating, which was the best way to launch the ROSA campaign. Since then, we built ROSA committees in six different towns and we are organising marches against sexism and austerity in each of them around the 8th of March.
In Ghent, we have campaign committees in different secondary schools. Last month, one of them organised an action, with about 60 students participating in a sit-in, to present a petition to the school principal. The ROSA school-committee put forward demands for in-depth sex education that doesn’t only focus on heterosexuality but goes beyond biology and deals with issues like sexism, mutual consent, etc. The students want to be able to wear the clothes they like without being harassed. They also ask for free tampons and sanitary pads available in school toilets. They are also asking for a special class to be held about the meaning of International Women's Day on the 8th of March.
This action has created a lot of discussion not only among students but among teachers as well, with some of them supporting actively our campaign. The principal is in process of accepting these demands. This action is inspiring other students who want to replicate this successful experience in their schools.
A campaign for socialist feminism, a tool for the working class movement
At first, we gained a lot of attention being the only ones doing something; but now every party, even the most right wing, is talking about women's rights. They systematically adopt a moralising approach on the issue and use it as a divisive instrument. Sometimes, under the guise of fighting sexism, they adopt a racist argument as when the Minister for Asylum and Migration, Théo Francken, wanted to impose classes of respect for women for migrants, while at the same time his government is pursuing policies of social breakdown that are particularly harsh on women.
We do not believe that sexism benefits men first and foremost. Sexism benefits primarily the minority of the super-rich who profit from the commercialization of women’s bodies (advertisements,...) and low wages for women. In the health care sector, employers rely on the stereotype that it is a woman's natural skill to take care of others, which is therefore useless to pay. It is easier for the government to cut public services by glorifying the traditional role of women and ignoring the overload of unpaid domestic work. Sexism – just like racism, homophobia, etc. - is a powerful weapon for creating division!
In this context, it is ROSA's role to be active in the feminist movement with socialist demands. We need to show how feminism relates to the workers’ movement in the vital fight for decent wages and proper contracts, for public services that meet real needs, for social security that puts an end to the poverty that is growing among large layers in society. With a programme like the one proposed by the Hollywood women in ‘Time's Up’ – a quota and court cases – no real change will happen.
The same goes for the law on wage equality recently voted for in Iceland, after a succesfull strike movement last year. It is a step in the right direction in fighting the inequality of wages. But the low wages of women have a lot to do with part-time and temporary work, due to women's other tasks in the home. In Belgium, 50% of female workers with incomes below the poverty line are working part-time.
For these reasons, with ROSA in Belgium, we actively support the new initiative of the ‘Socialist’ public sector workers' union in Brussels (CGSP) to rebuild the 1st of May demonstration with fighting demands. These include a shorter working week without loss of pay, a €14 hourly minimum wage and decent rights and contracts for all. This struggle for an end to the growing sector of low paid jobs is the best way ahead for women.
This orientation of ROSA towards the working class is a very important element that separates us from bourgeois feminists. They talk a lot, but only adopt symbolic measures or measures that only suit a very small group of women, like quotas for top positions in politics and in companies. Rather than arguing to have female bosses, in the end we want to get rid of any kind of boss and of the capitalist system that divides the population between a small minority of ultra rich and the majority of the people.
We need to get organised
That is why ROSA brings forward the need for women to get organised in the trade unions and the need for the trade unions to campaign and recruit in those badly organised sectors where women are a majority. ROSA committees are also an opportunity for young people to organise themselves and build around concrete demands and activities.
The ROSA campaign wants to make 8 March, a day of action against sexism and policies that damage our living conditions. For this, feminist and workers’ organisations have a crucial role to play. This approach has made it possible to find support for our demonstrations in Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Liège for the 8th of March and action in Namur and Mons. We will end the month with our second ROSA conference on the 31st of March to evaluate ROSA's first year and continue to strengthen socialist feminism.