The Mirror, Vol. 11, No. 498
“Wishing you a nice Women’s Day!” – this and similar greetings seemed to be a kind of continuation of the recent Valentine’s Day greetings, and the Mother’s Day greetings to be sent out in a couple of weeks. And the happiness about another National Holiday – no work for those who have employment in the government and in some NGOs and in part of the commercial sector which observes this holiday – is often combined with the assumption that this is an internationally recognized public holiday.
In actual fact, there are only 14 countries in the world where the International Women’s Day is a public holiday. Without having been a socialist country, Cambodia might be part of the vast majority of countries of the world where this day is not a national holiday.
It is a fact to be proud of that Cambodia is among these 14 countries. During the days before, and on 8 March 2007, there were many public events – from some high level meetings organized by government ministries in Phnom Penh to non-government and private initiatives in different parts of the country – dedicated to commemorate the International Women’s Day. In nature, they were covering a wide scope from inviting women to play a more prominent role in society, including in public political leadership, to being an occasion for the higher-ups, often males, to show their appreciation for cooperating women or for women working under them, by giving them small gifts.
There were not many occasions reported to link the present to the history. It is a history of achievements gained from many struggles. There are good reasons to look into the past from the present situation, especially also from Cambodia, where the majority of workers in the major export industry are women in the garment industry.
The beginnings of the International Women’s Day is normally traced back to strikes, the first all women’s strikes in the garment industry in Lowell, in Massachusetts, USA: demanding better conditions, decent wages, and shorter hours.
“Here young women worked eighty-one hours a week for three dollars, one and a quarter of which went for room and board at the Lowell company boarding houses. The factories originally opened at 7 a.m., but foremen, noticing that women were less ‘energetic’ if they ate before working, changed the opening hour to 5 a.m., with a breakfast break at 7 a.m. (for one-half hour). In 1834, after several wage cuts, the Lowell women walked out, only to return several days later at the reduced rates. They were courageous, but the company had the power; a poor record or a disciplinary action could lead to blacklisting. In 1836 they walked out again, singing through the streets of the town:
Oh, isn’t it a pity such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die…
Again they returned to work within a few days. In l844 serious organizing led to the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Their prime demand was the ten hour day. The leadership and activity of this union is credited with initiating some of the earliest reforms in the conditions of the textile industries.”
Nowadays – as an interesting coincidence – Lowell is one of the places where many immigrants form Cambodia settled in the USA – it is estimated that about 30,000 residents of Lowell, a quarter of the population, are of Cambodian descent.
When Cambodian women in the garment industry are committed to improve their situation, it may be an encouragement to know that they are in one line with others, who were struggling with similar problems before:
“The clothing workers formed some of the most famous unions in U.S. history, notably the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded about 1900. The garment trade shops in the big cities, such as New York, were deplorable. Fire hazards were rife, light was scant, the sound of machinery deafening, the environment polluted. Women were fined for virtually anything – talking, laughing, singing, machine oil stains on the fabric, stitches too large or too small. Overtime was constant and required, but pay for it was not. With the support of the National Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1903 – a combination of working women and middle-class, often professional women who supported the working women’s struggle – the Shirtwaist Makers launched a series of strikes…called the ‘Uprising of the 20,000,’ these actions culminated in the first long-term general strike by women, putting to death the tiresome arguments that they were unable to organize and carry out a long hard struggle.”
On 8 March 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York, demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights, and – concerned beyond their own situation – they called to end child labor.
Moving beyond the local and industrial level, the movement towards an International Women’s Day, aiming also at political rights for women, took shape:
- In 1910.the German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed to a conference of the Socialist International to establish an international Women’s Day, and to use 8 March to remember the women in the US garment industry. Because of her public advocacy for women’s equal rights, she was considered a grave threat by several European political powers; the German emperor is quoted as having called her “the most dangerous witch in the empire.”
- In 1911 there were the first big rallies of the International Women’s Day in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, with over one million men and women on the streets.
- In 1975, much later, during UN International Women’s Year, the UN began commemorating the historical events related to 8 March.
- In December 1977, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to proclaim a UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace, “to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions” – in detail this is an indication that there was reluctance to relate to the historical struggles which were associated with the date of 8 March. Too many governments were considering that their own traditions, assigning special, and often restricted, roles to women, might be upset.
Nevertheless, 8 March is often marked by a message from the UN Secretary General, and a slogan. For 2007, the theme is set as: Ending Impunity for Violence against Women and Girls
In 2006, the UN Secretary General had said:
“Violence against women has yet to receive the priority attention and resources needed at all levels to tackle it with the seriousness and visibility necessary.”
Mirroring, week after week, the violence and the impunity suffered by Cambodian women and girls, the challenge to all women and men in Cambodia is as urgent as ever.