Women's rights report (October 2009 DSP National Committee plenum)
The economic crisis and its effects are being borne disproportionately by women.
Women workers are highly concentrated in low-wage, less-unionised sectors of the workforce – retail, manufacturing, hospitality and services for instance. According to the International Labour Organisation the labour market projections for 2009 show that the global unemployment rate could reach between 6.3 and 7.1% this year, with a corresponding female unemployment rate ranging from 6.5 to 7.4% (compared to 6.1 to 7.0% for men).
A 2009 UN report stated that more women have had to migrate for work and that women are more likely to enter risky labour arrangements, including the sex industry, in which the number of workers has increased.
The effect of the sub-prime mortgage crisis also gives a clear indication of how the failing system falls harder on women. Housing foreclosures and repossessions have thrown more women and children onto the street and plunged many more into abject poverty. When the housing bubble burst, 32% of sub-prime mortgage holders were women and 24% were men.
Women’s services have experienced funding cuts, including to abortion centres, women’s refuges, childcare, and also aged and disability care, education and health. Funding for abortion and crisis services largely went to the Christian right under Howard, where it has remained under Rudd. Now women’s access to home-birth is being attacked, with a raft of new legislation presented to parliament in June to, in effect, outlaw homebirth midwifery in Australia.
A 2009 UN report stated that the increased financial pressure is also having a flow-on effect in terms of domestic violence as well as increasing the number of women remaining in an abusive relationship due to the lack of affordable alternative accommodation, an inability to sell properties, and decreased support services.
A 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice reported that women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused. National figures for domestic violence in Australia during the financial crisis are still incomplete at this stage. However, police figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics show that in 2007, 600 domestic Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) were issued in Newcastle, up from 490 in 2006. Port Stephens recorded a similar increase with 311 issued, up from 231 over the same period in 2006.
Sexual violence is also receiving increased media attention at the moment. Of particular note are the gang rapes perpetrated by footballers, and the 14 year old who revealed on radio, while hooked up to a lie detector, that her first sexual experience had been rape at age 12, to which Kyle Sandilands responded, “Have you had any other experiences?”.
The question before us is “Will women radicalise against these conditions; will the crisis give rise to conditions that we can utilise to further the struggle for women’s rights as part of the broader fight back?”
From 2003, the DSP made the assessment that to move the struggle to end women’s oppression forward in a real way – in a way that could actually win – we needed to give more weight to the class nature of women’s oppression today. This meant relating more to the fact that the future for the overwhelming majority of women in this society is as workers, both paid and unpaid. In other words, we made the assessment that we needed to “proletarianise” our outlook on how struggles for gender equality would develop.
This report reaffirms that analysis. However, we must seek to apply it to a political landscape that has somewhat changed since that clarification; one in which capitalism itself is in crisis.
Campaign to de-criminalise abortion
The campaign to de-criminalise abortion is the primary women’s rights campaign mobilising people in Australia right now.
The 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, conducted by the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research, found that more than 80% of respondents supported a woman’s right to choose.
This widespread public support for the right to access abortion services means that the campaign has a strong base to build on. However, the campaign to de-criminalise abortion nationally is very uneven because the grounds on which abortion is considered legal in Australia varies from state to state. Below are the details.
In 2002, the ACT became the first state in Australia to legalise abortion, when the procedure was removed from the criminal statute books altogether after years of pro-choice campaigning. Abortions performed in the ACT now have the same basic legal status as other medical procedures, although late-term abortions must be approved by a hospital ethics committee.
In 2008, legislation was passed to decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks. Ongoing pro-choice mobilisations led to this step in the right direction that moved abortion from the Crimes Act into the Health Act. However, the changes did not remove all restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. Women seeking late-term abortions won’t face criminal charges. However, doctors performing late-term abortions could still face charges of murder if it is deemed that they have incorrectly assessed the “appropriateness” of the abortion.
In 1998, two doctors were charged with performing an “unlawful abortion” under the Western Australia Criminal Code (in which the term “unlawful” was not defined) for having performed an abortion in 1996 at a Perth abortion clinic. This sparked an intense campaign that led to substantial changes to the WA legislation. The WA Criminal Code was amended to make abortions up to 20 weeks lawful if a pregnant woman “will suffer serious personal, family or social consequences” or “serious danger” her “physical or mental health” if the abortion is not performed.
If the above grounds do not apply, an abortion is still lawful if it is performed by a medical practitioner and the pregnant woman has given “informed” consent after being counselled by another medical practitioner. Abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy may only be performed if the foetus is likely to be born with severe medical problems – which must be confirmed by two independently appointed doctors.
Abortion is only considered legal if it is necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or health – beyond the normal dangers of pregnancy and childbirth – that would result if the pregnancy continued, and is not disproportionate to the danger being averted. Abortions in Queensland are largely carried out as “therapeutic miscarriages”, performed by specialists, upon request of the patient after an appointment with their local GP. This procedure is only allowed up to 22 weeks. However, the charges laid this year against a young Cairns couple for allegedly procuring an abortion has focussed the debate back on the fact that abortions are still illegal. It has sparked a strong pro-choice campaign in which we are involved. The young woman faces up to seven years’ jail, while her partner faces up to three years’ jail.
Abortion law in NSW declares abortion to be legal if a doctor finds “any economic, social or medical ground or reason” that an abortion is required to avoid a “serious danger to the pregnant woman’s life or to her physical or mental health” at any point during pregnancy to any period during the woman's life. There is an ongoing campaign in NSW to remove abortion from the Criminal Code, largely headed by the Greens and Leslie Cannold who have set up “Pro Choice NSW”. The campaign is somewhat exclusive, however, and mobilisations have been small. Nevertheless, the escalation of the Queensland campaign for decriminalisation has boosted the campaign in NSW.
NT, SA & TAS
Abortion in the NT, SA and Tasmania is available, but only if it is necessary to protect the health of the woman or if the child is likely to be born physically or mentally handicapped.
In the NT, abortions must be performed during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, and in SA and Tasmania at a maximum of 22-28 weeks.
This report proposes that we support the Reclaim the Night events where useful to focus on both violence against women and abortion rights, including making a poster in Green Left; Green Left copy; and that we look to International Women’s Day next year as an opportunity to relate to radicalising women. Where possible, we should also relate to any pro-choice campaigns sparked by the trial of the Cairns’ couple.
The current political context has opened up new opportunities to relate to women through these events, and comrades noted the new faces around IWD in March this year.
This report also proposes that we suggest to the Socialist Alliance that we re-work our women’s rights charter given the changing political situation, and also seek to include the disproportionate impact of the crisis on women in our workers’ rights material.