Violence against women – an international movement in search of revolution

This year March 8 in Italy will not be the same as other years. We live in a system that is no longer able even to pretend to guarantee decent living conditions for the majority of the people and this is reflected in particular in the terrible situation facing women. In the past few months, however, in dozens of countries around the world we have seen hundreds of thousands of women expressing their anger against the system, and taking to the streets to in defence of their rights.

Last October, tens of thousands of Polish women surprised the world with their strike against further restrictions on the right to abortion that the government was proposing to introduce. [See Poland abortion strike: Thousands of women in over 60 cities refuse to work in protest over restrictive laws for report and video].

Abortion is illegal in Poland, and is granted only in cases of rape, serious defects to the embryo or in life-threatening situations for the woman. The Nationalist government had decided that even these limited concessions were too liberal. But the government paid dearly for its arrogance: women broke the 25-year social peace and the bill had to be withdrawn.

In Brazil, abortion is guaranteed in the same manner as in Poland. Last year the women's movement blocked further restrictions put forward by Cunha, the President of the Lower House of Parliament, aimed at further criminalising women who have been victims of sexual violence.

Last October there were also mass mobilisations against violence against women in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Mexico, following an atrociously violent murder of Lucia Perez, a 16-year-old girl in Mar de la Plata, who was kidnapped, raped, tortured and impaled. [See Women in Argentina protest after murder of 16-year-old girl and Latin America rallies to condemn violence against women]

In Turkey, huge women’s mobilisations forced the government to withdraw its proposed law on so-called shotgun weddings, in which child victims of rape would not only have to accept rape in silence, but also to marry the rapist! [See article and video]. The same arrogant Turkish government that since last August has jailed thousands of left activists, teachers, intellectuals, civil servants, was forced to retreat by the movement.

Everyone can see what is happening in the United States with the movement of millions of women against Trump, bringing out workers and youth in a more general movement against his reactionary policies. [See Women's March against Donald Trump is the largest day of protests in US history, say political scientists]

There is no doubt that the escalation of violence against women has fuelled this movement, but it is also part of a more widespread mass protest against declining living conditions in general and against the new government.

Italy also saw at least 200,000 people coming out onto the streets in Rome last November in the demonstration against violence against women. [See video] At least seven million women have been victims of some form of violence in Italy. In Europe 33% of the female population has suffered some form of violence. Last year in Italy 116 women were killed, three quarters of which by a family member and 67% by their partners. Despite the media campaign of always highlighting any case that involves immigrants in order to foment racism and to justify increasing measures of state repression, the figures show that the problem is not one of “law and order”.

Violence against women is closely related to the economic system in which we live and therefore the fight against violence against women involves a struggle against capitalism.

Capitalism is violence

The tragic cases that we see, often involving extreme violence, are connected directly to the pressures of everyday life on ordinary families. And there is no doubt that this pressure has increased with the deepening economic crisis. In Italy, most of the killings have taken place in Lombardy, one of the most economically developed areas. We cannot treat the phenomenon simplistically as the result of cultural backwardness. In Italy less than 46% of women are in employment, one of the lowest percentages in Europe. However, even when women have jobs, their economic independence is not guaranteed. The lack of a welfare state means that for women even having a job can become an intolerable burden, especially for women with children or elderly relatives to look after. This means that it is not enough to demand jobs for women. One has to look at living conditions in general, taking into account the limited welfare facilities, the education system, healthcare and pensions.

To this we must also add that because of the social role assigned to women in this economic system, there is an ideological struggle of the ruling class to heavily limit sexual freedom for women and relegate them to the role of rearing and caring for children.

It is within the family, in all its many manifestations, that society places the ultimate responsibility for the care of human beings and within it the woman plays a key role, because it is women who give birth and this biological aspect conditions their role in the family. This is the reason why so many hard and bitter struggles were necessary to win the right to abortion, which exists in Italy, but which has been limited by the so-called right to “conscientious objection” of the medical staff. As many as 70% of the medical staff in fact exercise this option, refusing to carry out abortions, which means that this important right in many hospitals is not at all guaranteed. And even those women who manage to get an abortion find themselves the victims of obscurantist campaigns of criminalisation by the Catholic Church and the Movement for Life.

Women's bodies are not fully their own

And this fact, in the given social and economic context, further conditions the relations between the sexes, promoting the idea of a property relation of men over women.

Studies and statistics show that violence against women tends to occur in those cases where women feel psychologically more fragile, victims of the bitterness of life and often forced to depend, both economically and emotionally, on their partners. Forced relationships and the general exploitative situation women find themselves in, are the typical conditions in which the pathological character of the sense of ownership of the woman matures in men. This kind of relationship historically was also expressed in Italian Criminal and Family law. It suffices to recall that in Italy crimes of sexual violence were considered "crimes against morality and decency" and only in 1996 did they become crimes "against the person".

In the late 1980s, thanks to the development of the women's movement, there was a mushrooming of “anti-violence” centres for women. These were mainly private associations self-managed by women, which grew also thanks to occasional funding provided by the local authorities. But, over time, the funding decreased, and many of those centres have had to close down. They are certainly important, but they are no way near to being enough to deal with the problem. It is not enough to fight violence simply by working on the self-esteem and independence of women.

Freedom and Capitalism

Last year we saw the movement for the right to same-sex marriage which revealed the indignation of large layers of the youth against all the bigots inside and outside the government. [See Napoli in marcia per le unioni civili]. Eventually the Renzi government approved a compromise version of the law (there is no mention of marriage, but only of civil unions and same-sex couples have no right to adoption nor do the partners have the right to custody of each other’s children). All the various interest groups were applauding the “courage of the government”, conveniently ignoring not only what had been left out of the law, but also the fact that this was the same government that had introduced the Jobs Act [very similar to the labour law adopted by the Hollande government in France], and had cut pensions and healthcare. All these measures have led to an increase in layoffs and growing unemployment. This was a major attack not only on the working class movement as a whole, but also, and in particular, on the weaker and more discriminated layers of the working class (such as immigrants, women and gays).

Civil rights are not abstract and general, freely available to anyone. They are closely connected to the material living conditions of those who exercise them. How can people exercise their right to express their personal relations and to live their lives freely, under a regime of constant job insecurity, lack of social services, exorbitant rents, etc.?

We must fight to remove the social basis that fuels violence and discrimination

Hillary Clinton Testimony to House Select Committee on BenghaziWe believe that the difficulties the movement – at least here in Italy – is finding in establishing a clear fighting strategy to actually change the state of things, is related to the class nature of those who lead the movement. They accept the present government, and limit themselves to simply criticising this or that law approved by the Renzi government. They do not address the problem of how to fight against those who are pursuing interests that are diametrically opposed to those of the workers. These people living a comfortable life, these high-flying women intellectuals, etc., can spend their time in fancy talk about rights and so on, while they have idyllic families, beautiful homes with all the mod cons and also, of course, the domestic staff to look after them.

However, the present international women's movement has the possibility of challenging the ruling class and its governments. We must seize this opportunity to develop a winning strategy and declare war on those who are really responsible for the ongoing deterioration in the living conditions of the working class.

In recent years both “centre-left” and “centre-right” governments have attacked our interests. In less than three years, the Renzi government managed to introduce the right to fire without a just cause, and significant cuts to education, healthcare, pensions and local authority spending. It also deregulated the use of public land, and allowed for the so-called big works to commence, in reality gifts to speculators at the expense of genuinely useful services. All of this has been seasoned with arrogant and grotesque campaigns, such as “the Joy to Live and Procreate”, or the famous “Fertility Day”. The final insult was the bank-saving decree when €20 billion of public money was handed over to the bankers and the bosses. In recent years we have seen the transfer of immense resources from the pockets of the workers to those of the bosses.

The anger of the working people was expressed in the December 4 referendum, which led to the resignation of Renzi, but it is clear to everyone that the current government is just a “Renzi government without Renzi”.

A platform of struggle

Hillary Clinton Testimony to House Select Committee on BenghaziThe more than two thousand women attending the “Non una di meno” assembly held in Bologna on 4-5 February adopted an eight-point programme and issued an appeal to the trade unions to call a women's strike. The eight points demand greater safeguards for women, the right to abortion, investment in women's culture, opposition to sexism, racism and misogyny, but also the end of casualisation of jobs, a guaranteed minimum wage, residence permits for all [immigrants], and opposition to Renzi’s school reform.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that in relation to the right to abortion, immediately following on from the demand to end conscientious objection, the demand is raised for the decriminalisation of backstreet abortions which are themselves the result of “conscientious objection”, "so that everyone may exercise their right to self-determination "

We consider this a defensive demand, but also a dangerous one, because it opens even wider the door to backstreet abortions. One must not run away from the need to fight for the application of full abortion rights, protected and tailored to the needs of women in public health facilities. And the only way of guaranteeing this right is to abolish the right to conscientious objection for medical staff, which would imply immediate dismissal of anyone who does not abide by the obligation to provide this service.

What is also missing from the list of demands is a call to re-establish the state-run network of family planning clinics, as set down in Law 194 (the current law on abortion rights) which would also include the anti-violence centres. Undoubtedly, the present, often unreliable and insensitive public facilities, with practitioners that are not adequately trained, merely reveal the aggressive character of the state. This is not what a woman needs. Nonetheless, we have to fight for a publicly funded network that covers the whole of the country, so that all women, from the larger cities down to the most remote villages of Calabria, regardless of their economic conditions or cultural level, have access to services which they can trust and where they can find answers to their problems.

For this reason we should demand a publicly funded, guaranteed and widespread network of both family planning clinics and anti-violence centres under the collective management of representatives of the trade unions, the women’s movements and also the local women who use these services.

We could add further points, such as the launching of a massive council house building project, for a genuine relaunch of the welfare state that would free women from the bondage of domestic labour: with an extensive network of free nurseries, covering actual working hours, a network of public support structures for the elderly, not to mention laundry services, as well as the promotion of public companies that provide catering and household cleaning.

To provide the finance for such a plan, it must be stated clearly that we would have to nationalise the banks and the major corporations, which in recent years have received enormous state funding, and make all of this available to cover social needs, under the democratic control of the workers.

The appeal to the labour movement

The women’s movement has appealed to the unions to promote the 8 March women’s strike. One would imagine that this appeal implies a campaign to mobilise all women workers not to go to work on that day, so as to cause maximum damage and support the demands of the movement with sufficient force. This is the objective of a strike, and that is why it must have a wide participation and must be made to bite. However, the appeal was made without a strategy of how to achieve this.

The other problem is that the union leaders have accepted all the counter-reforms – listed above – pushed through by the government. The CGIL in particular is responsible for having abandoned the workers half-way through the battle, firstly by having given up the fight against the Jobs Act in December 2014, then by doing the same thing in May 2015 during the struggle against the so-called “Buona Scuola” [Good school], despite the mass participation in those strikes. The secretary of the CGIL Susanna Camusso has manoeuvred skilfully to avoid having to respond to the call for a women’s strike, leaving it up to the local union structures to promote it or not.

The appeal therefore is seen for what it is, a diplomatic agreement between the feminist groups that issued it and the trade union bureaucracies which have responded only half-heartedly. The call for the strike – apart from the smaller trade unions (Usb, Cobas, Cub, Uses, SGB, mostly split-away unions from the main official unions) – has been issued by the FLC-CGIL (the teaching staff union). Unfortunately, it seems that the real aim is simply to provide legal cover – by making the strike official – for those women who had already decided to participate in the March 8 strike, rather than to organise a genuine day of action that could bring the country to a halt.

We cannot be satisfied with just the few protests that some trade union leaders had to face in some of the local assemblies. We must work to challenge the position of these seemingly immovable trade union leaders. We need to promote a genuine movement from below, at all levels of the trade unions and in the workplaces, involving all of the working men and women and the youth to bring the country to a halt. We need to build a movement that expresses the real anger of the working class, capable of forcing the trade union leaders to call a real strike, a political general strike, to bring down the government. This must be the real goal, not the meek call of the “Non una di meno” assembly on the government to set up an anti-violence plan, for we know full well what would come of that!

Mass movements are erupting all over the world that are challenge capitalism and the rules that govern it. These movements can inspire us here in Italy to put an end to this litany of going through the motions of mobilising, and the ritual diplomacy of the politicians and help us to focus on the need to build a real alternative where the economic resources will be in the hands of those who work, and where we can build a society that puts an end to exploitation of man by man and of woman by man.

[Note: this is the text of a leaflet that the Italian section of the IMT will be giving out on 8 March]