Show Hide image

The world of women

"The good news is that feminist organising is stronger, more diverse, more skilled and more global t

International Women’s Day may not seem to hold much meaning for the average New Yorker or Londoner, but as a once-a-year excuse to be curious about the state of women around the world, it’s a pretty good prompt.

We might start our annual tour with some of the gender-sensitive indices of country rankings that have been developed recently by various international agencies trying to differentiate women’s status within a framework of overall “development”. Chief among these is the relatively well-known Gender Development Index (GDI), developed by the United Nations Development Programme, which offers a gender-weighted index of country-level development defined by literacy, life expectancy and income.

Rankings such as this offer important glimpses into the world of women, even if they often seem fairly clunky and affirm what we think we already know – that women are better off in Costa Rica (GDI rank of 48) than Chad which is rated 170 or that Norway, which comes second, beats the UK which manages only 16th place.

Everyone wants to know where things are “better” or “worse,” and these rankings give a quick snapshot of who’s on top and who’s on the bottom. Especially the bottom. Perusing the most recent GDI list from the bottom up, for example, reveals a shocking monopoly of misery: among the lowest-ranked 40 countries, 35 are in Africa, in sad company with Haiti, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh, Yemen, and Nepal.

But this kind of ranking can feed too easily into a kind of "geography is destiny" complacency. We might start with the rankings lists, but we shouldn’t end there. What’s going on for women in those countries at the low end of the GDI rankings, for example, demands much sharper explanation than simply saying that they’re poor and at the bottom of development lists. For starters, the majority of the bottom - 40 countries are currently or have been recently embroiled in wars and armed conflicts: Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Chad, Eritrea, Timor-Leste, and Zimbabwe chief among them.

These are men’s wars, all of them fuelled by ferocious levels of rape and other violence against women and featuring astounding levels of male appropriation of resources. It is a well worn feminist truism that women are the shock absorbers of crises. Nowhere more than in war zones does women’s labour substitute for social infrastructure; the extent to which civil society and households are sustained in crisis zones during such times is largely down to the role of women. Out of such ashes women often rise – Rwanda and Liberia are in the forefront here – but the toll is high.

The good news is that there is some good news. In the past twenty or thirty years there have been some remarkable improvements in the state of women. Women have won voting rights and the right to hold public office in all but a recalcitrant handful of countries. Advances in women’s and girls’ literacy and education top the list of global success stories. Worldwide, only 22 per cent of women are now illiterate compared with 30 per cent just twenty years ago. On global average more than 75 per cent of girls are now enrolled in primary school. These results point to the importance of intentional gender commitments and the powerful fusion of feminist activism translated into the clout of legislation – advances in girls’ schooling have only been achieved through international efforts and local women’s organising to pressure national governments to legislate such education and to educate parents about the importance of educating girls.

However, it is still the case that fewer girls are enrolled in school than boys, that fewer complete primary education, and that girls are the first to be pulled from school in the face of economic hardship or civil crisis. The take-away lesson is that women’s rights, everywhere, are fragile, vulnerable, and under pressure. Gains for gender equity are easily reversed, and usually the first to be traded away. Women do not automatically share in broad social advances; a rising tide does not necessarily raise all boats unless there is a commitment to do so.

Feminist organising has always been the most reliable bulwark for women’s rights. Certainly, men in power haven’t been. From Pakistan to the USA, from Uzbekistan to Fiji, the halls and hallmarks of power remain remarkably unperturbed by the oppression of women. The good news is that feminist organising is stronger, more diverse, more skilled and more global than ever. International feminist networks are breaking the isolation of women from one another. Lesbian organising has come out of the closet. Global feminist organising is successfully redefining “human rights” to incorporate a broad agenda of women’s rights -- although, frankly, it is still a surprise when one has to argue that “human” must include “women”.

Joni Seager is the author of The Atlas of Women in the World (Earthscan); she is Professor and Chair of the Geography Department at Hunter College in New York City

International Women's Day 2009 takes place on Sunday 8th March

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide