International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 each year.
As we approach the day it is an opportunity to look at the position of women in today’s world.
In the past 12 months across the globe, we have witnessed the position of girls and women being undermined and threatened, and this includes in the UK, from the kidnap of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, and in conflicts across the globe from Gaza to Syria, South Sudan to Mount Sinjar.
The reality is that, for millions of women and girls, it has been a year of extreme hardship. They comprise the majority of those who are displaced and refugees, yet they are the least visible.
Unless the international community takes its responsibility seriously, women around the world will have little relief from the ongoing violation of their human rights. Worldwide, we now have the highest levels of refugees since the Second World War.
The International Rescue Committee published a report in 2014 entitled Are We Listening? Acting on Our Commitment to Women and Girls Affected by the Syrian Conflict.
The report details the nature and regularity of the gender-based violence they endure in conflict zones, and the deficiencies in the international response.
They speak of their exhaustion and humiliation from relentless negotiations for physical and sexual safety when securing food, water, shelter or clothing.
Their struggles include sexual harassment when collecting aid, and domestic abuse at home. We have not broken the cycle of sexual exploitation, rape, early marriage and domestic abuse, despite seven UN resolutions on the role of women in peace building.
While conflict situations are the extreme, there are indicators that the role, value and security of women at home are also being undermined.
In the UK, the Government’s austerity measures are impacting on women’s financial and employment security. In the North East, we saw an increase in women’s unemployment of 11% in the last 12 months.
The services that women rely on, along with their jobs, are being slashed in the public sector. Voluntary and community organisations that support public services are competing for ever smaller funding streams, including those supporting women suffering domestic abuse, meaning that crucial support to women is disappearing.
Access to legal redress, whether at employment tribunal or for legal aid in family issues, including domestic abuse, is being made too costly or harder to obtain, in contravention of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
In May, we will have the general election and it is vital that our politicians, at all levels, recognise that women will not stand by and watch the hard-won rights and protections that have been gained through the decades be consigned to history.
In the last general election, nine million women did not vote. Too many women consider that party politics have nothing to do with them; that politicians are not interested in their life experiences, or that they don’t listen to their concerns.
Politics certainly does affect women’s lives. Since the inception of the Coalition Government in 2010, women have been at the cutting edge of political decisions that have had a huge impact.
Everything from welfare reform, including the bedroom tax, to childcare costs becoming so much that some women are questioning whether they can afford to work. Of the benefit savings made, 66% have come from women.
The rapid increase in zero hours contracts, and jobs and services being lost are all impacting on women.
It is vital that, this year, women’s voices count through the ballot box. I would urge women to register to vote and use the democratic process. The last date for registering is April 20 and it can easily be done online in five minutes.
Unison has been campaigning to encourage our women members to register and to engage with the democratic process. Unison in the region represents 72,000 women members, many of them low-paid part-time workers.
This general election is one of the most crucial in decades. The future of our lives as women is in the balance.
The economic, social and equality gains made by women past and present are under threat.
Political parties such as Ukip want to slash women’s equalities and take us back to the 1950s, which certainly were not a golden age for women.
Question those who are seeking your vote as to what their policies mean for women. Collectively and individually, women’s lives matter and we should be able to achieve our goals, potential and to live with dignity. As we approach International Women’s Day, it reminds us that, no matter where you live, the key issues for women are the same: freedom from violence, access to education, financial independence, healthcare, and equality of opportunity.
Through international solidarity we can join our voices to those of women across the world, sending a clear message that where one woman hurts we all hurt.
Together we can be instruments of change, building on the gains made by those who came before us and continuing the fight for women’s equality and rightful place in society.