Today is International Women’s Day.
Like any other awareness-raising event, International Women’s Day can be a useful inspiration – an opportunity to draw attention to the contributions of women, past and present. It can also focus activism and policymaking on issues affecting women, both in Ireland and around the world. Lots of those issues are directly relevant to our mission of facilitating better conversations and promoting policies to reduce the abortion rate in Ireland.
Leaving aside activism on specific issues (e.g. pregnancy discrimination, maternal healthcare, sexual assault) “feminism” as a brand or identity has become more and more mainstream in pop culture and society generally. And with increased awareness of International Women’s Day as an event, there is inevitably an element of commercialisation, with corporations muscling in, watering down more wide-ranging or radical analysis in favor of corporate brunches with talks on how to become the next female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. (That’s not to say that discrimination, maternity policy, and sexual harrassment aren’t important issues to tackle in every workplace, or that more female CEOs wouldn’t be great! But companies are more likely to snap a few photos for the website and call it a day than to take the opportunity to disclose historic sexual assault allegations, offer to provide on-site childcare rather than bonuses for the board, or ask cleaners and service staff how they feel about their pay and conditions).
Getting together to celebrate women who’ve achieved great things and women who are currently doing great things is an important part of IWD. But another aspect that’s important is bringing our attention to a less enjoyable and positive place.
Who are the inconvenient women of today?
By “inconvenient women”, I mean those who are particularly sidelined and forgotten even among all the women worldwide who are facing injustice and oppression. In Ireland, we have a shameful history of Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, industrial schools, and other institutions. One lesson we should learn from that experience is how stigma and shame on one hand, and the desire for convenience, respectability and an easy life on the other, creates the perfect conditions for widespread dehumanization and oppression of the most vulnerable.
What would the alternative to going along with this system have been like? On a broader level, politicians, the Church and Irish society generally would have to acknowledge a lot of awkward and embarrassing realities (economic deprivation and unemployment, religious hypocrisy, those who profited from institutions, etc). And for most people, what went on behind those walls wasn’t something you had to think about. You could reassure yourself that it couldn’t be that bad, if you thought about it at all.
So we should know by now that it is exactly when speaking out or taking action isn’t popular or PR-friendly, when it might cost us money or cause us a little extra trouble, that we should look more closely at the situation. And in today’s Ireland, speaking out and taking action is easier for many than it would have been in the past: better education, greater access to news and information, more platforms to discuss and organize, more choice in what we consume and how we spend our money.
So here are just a few stories where it’s worth looking for the inconvenient women and asking some inconvenient questions.
What about the “surrogate”?
On 21 February, BBC News reported that the Irish government “expedited plans for families with newborn surrogate babies to travel immediately from Ukraine,” in light of high tensions in the area. (On the same day, Putin announced the recognition of the two Russia-aligned breakaway provinces in Eastern Ukraine).
Three days later, Russia invaded.
The next morning, the Irish Examiner published a profile of an Irish couple who had returned from Ukraine just before the invasion: Kerry couple bring baby Luke home from Ukraine.
There was no mention of the woman who bore Luke for 9 months and gave birth to him on the cusp of war – whose body was still aching, bleeding and lactating for a baby that’s already thousands of miles away. She’s still dealing with the aftermath: the flood of hormones and the marathon of childbirth, never mind any medical complications beyond that.
Is she still in Ukraine? What about her other children? (To be eligible to serve as a surrogate, women must already have given birth at least once). Can she flee the country and seek refuge elsewhere, as more than a million others have already? Is she lugging a suitcase or a toddler right now, maybe while still feeling the pain of stitches and waiting for the post-natal bleeding to stop? How much was she paid to put herself through all this? Was she paid in Ukrainian currency – how much are her earnings worth now?
Who made your clothes – and how is she treated?
Worldwide, 80% of garment workers are women. Most work for low wages and in poor conditions. A look through the rails of any high-street shop in Dublin will turn up plenty of “Made in Bangladesh” labels – indeed, the country is highly dependent on the garment industry, which accounts for 85% of its export earnings and about 20% of GDP – directly employing nearly 4.5 million workers, with more than 12 million people in total dependent on the sector. It is the second-largest contributor to global garment production (only China produces more).
A recent study from the University of Aberdeen found that disruptions from the Covid-19 pandemic further contributed to the exploitation and mistreatment of female garment workers in Bangladesh. Big fashion brands cancelled orders and workers were furloughed or laid off – left without any way to feed themselves or their families in a country where starvation is an even bigger fear than catching Covid-19 in the cramped, unhygienic conditions of garment factories. One female worker interviewed stated:
“There are many things I dislike about the factory. The one I most dislike is the rude scolding and shouting of the supervisors. They physically abuse us by hitting or slapping us. They slap us to force us to work”.
A trade union leader interviewed for the study described how pregnant women were sacked because they would be entitled to maternity benefits, as were elderly female workers who had been employed for more than five years and were thus entitled to service benefits. When returning after lockdown, many workers were forced to sign new contracts, losing their previously accrued entitlements.
Who’s sponsoring that IWD #hashtag?
The website < www.internationalwomensday.com > is one of the first pages to pop up when you search “International Women’s Day”, and is very official-looking. A few clicks around and you’ll see a catchy hashtag ( #BreakTheBias ) and a prescribed pose to use in your IWD selfie. (It seems to be US-based, but with the global reach of hashtags and social media, it’s a safe bet that some of these talking points will spill over to most of the English-speaking Internet). What you won’t find is any sign of who is running the site. The website footer (where you might expect to find that information) offers the cryptic statement:
“Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific.”
But there are plenty of groups specifically identified on the website, names, logos and all: corporate “partners” and “supporters”. These include weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grunman. When questioned about their involvement, a spokesperson for Lockheed Martin said:
“Participating in IWD demonstrates our commitment to accelerating women’s equality and gender parity, and also recognising the critical role of having a diverse and inclusive workplace plays into our ability to continue to attract, develop, and retain a workforce who can help shape the future.”
Of course they want women to help them shape the future! (by building and selling cheaper and more efficient ways to kill people…)
Other questionable sponsors include alcohol giants Diageo and Beam Suntory – companies who stand to profit from marketing specifically to women and persuading them to consume more and more of a product that has an obvious negative impact on their health.) Carol Emslie of Glasgow Caledonian University has studied how alcohol companies are using IWD to sell their products:
“IWD is the latest iteration of the alcohol industry doing what the tobacco industry did: linking women’s empowerment with their products. We can see it in terms of piggybacking on different days such as Mother’s Day and the idea to share a drink with your mum. Women are lucrative markets. We need to take a step back and ask: what is the impact on women’s health here?”
So while it might be awkward to raise questions about corporate sponsorship of IWD events in general (no organization wants to look a gift horse in the mouth) it’s worth looking into these questions and asking whether we might be unknowingly helping companies whitewash the real harm that they are doing to women.
As pro-lifers, we are used to advocating for one group of inconvenient people. And in that advocacy, we also encounter other groups of people that can be sidelined; people who present a challenge to present simplistic narratives of “choice” and “empowement” (girls killed through gendercide enabled by prenatal testing; women who are pushed into abortion by socio-economic factors…). If we’re to challenge the blind spots of others, we must challenge ourselves too, to be consistent and principled in upholding everyone’s dignity.