International Women's Day

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:19 pm on 5th March 2009.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour 5:19 pm, 5th March 2009

Since its birth in the socialist movement, international women's day has grown to become a global day of recognition and celebration in developed and developing countries alike. The idea started in 1910 at the second conference of working women, where a woman who can certainly inspire us all, Clara Zetkin, raised the question of organising an international working women's day. That conference decided that, from then on, every year and in every country, women should celebrate on the same day a women's day under the slogan

"The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism."

I commend Cathy Peattie, a good socialist woman, for bringing the debate to the chamber this evening to highlight women's inequality at home and abroad. In the past decade, she and other persistent comrades have raised the issues of inequality, discrimination, lack of representation and violence against women. They have done so in the Parliament and outwith it so that those injustices are recognised as societal problems here in Scotland and around the world and to highlight the need for action to address and eliminate them. There have of course been some successes, as Cathy Peattie said.

In a debate in the Parliament in 2000, I said:

"In 1918, the suffragettes won votes for women. Eighty years later, 82 per cent of MPs were men. That picture is reflected across society. For the whole of the past century, women have battled for equality."—[Official Report, 8 November 2000; c 1436.]

Sadly, we have only to consider the terms of Cathy Peattie's motion to know that the same battles continue in the new century. Women remain underrepresented in public life, are paid less than men, endure violence at the hands of men, and suffer disproportionately from the effects of poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth and power. The Public and Commercial Services Union points out that the earnings gap between men and women in the civil service is higher than the UK average.

Whether in debates about equality, violence against women or international women's day, or on other relevant occasions, I and others find ourselves making the same points over and over again. Unfortunately, nearly a decade after the Scottish Parliament was established, there remains a need to debate women's unequal status in Scottish society and abroad.

I note that Jack McConnell has a current motion that encourages MSPs to support One World Action's more women more power campaign. That shows that there are examples of good practice around the world that should be recognised and shared. In Tanzania, the Women's Legal Advice Centre's access to justice for refugee women and girls project helps refugee women and girls to gain access to legal assistance. In Zambia, Women for Change works with and empowers remote rural communities to contribute towards gender-sensitive, sustainable development and the eradication of all forms of poverty. In India, the Self Employed Women's Association is a trade union movement of informal women workers who believe that women's human rights will not be achieved without economic empowerment and self-reliance. We can also learn from socialist Cuba, where the Federation of Cuban Women is an example of female solidarity within a socialist system. It makes real change in fighting for women's rights.

Of course, the lives of women today are very different from the lives of our grandmothers. Christina McKelvie referred to that. We remember that it is only within the past 100 years that women have had the vote. Sadly, however, many women do not use their vote. They are disfranchised and disempowered; they do not see the point of voting because they do not see it as relevant. Despite many advances, women are still oppressed, still not equal and still fighting for our rights. That inequality is rooted in exploitation, patriarchy and capitalism. It is in the interests of private greed to stand in the way of equality.

Perhaps now, with the seeming collapse of global capitalism and the personal disgrace of those who have worshipped at the throne of Mammon, we have an opportunity to try to rebuild society on the tenets of freedom, equality and justice instead of avarice, greed and injustice. We can do that. We can put people before profit and allocate the resources that are needed to deliver a truly equal society.

I finish where I started, with the founder of international women's day. Throughout her political career, Clara Zetkin focused on the liberation of women in society through Marxist reforms of the capitalist system. Her words help to explain why we continue to make the same points over and over again. She said:

"The total liberation of the world of proletarian women ... is only possible in a socialist society."

More than 100 years later, and after 10 years of devolution, I have to concur with that view.