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International Women’s Day: Bold for change or business’ balderdash?

Friday, March 17, 2017 - 16:58

By Sameer Dossani and Katherine V Robinson

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) was incredibly successful by many metrics. Women who work in the paid and unpaid economies went on strike, attended rallies and demonstrations and made their demands known. There’s a lot to be proud of, but undoubtedly the struggle against a patriarchal capitalist system still has a long way to go.

However, this year’s IWD was also emblematic of some of the failures of NGOs and other groups that claim to work for women’s rights. The strapline of this year’s IWD messaging was “Be Bold for Change”, a phrase that appears to come from, a website that lists as its partner organizations companies including BP, Avon, Caterpillar, Pepsi and many others.

Regardless of its origins, many organizations (including ActionAid, other NGOs and UN agencies) picked up on the “Be Bold for Change” hash tag and used it to promote their views and to have discussions on IWD on social media. One could argue that the hash tag played a valuable role in making this year’s IWD as visible as it was.

But CSOs have made a mistake by allowing corporates, who are complicit in perpetuating gender inequality, women’s rights violations, and human rights violations such as those related to the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian land to pinkwash themselves. The phrase itself might be counterproductive. In a feminist analysis, women are excluded from power and deprived of their rights. Thus, telling women to ‘be bold’ implies both that they haven’t been in the past and that ending patriarchy is simply a matter of women being bolder.

History is filled with examples of bold women challenging patriarchy. From South African women dismantling apartheid, to Dalit women in India, to women freedom fighters around the African continent, and to the women who created and sustained IWD as a component of revolutionary movements, women have been and will continue to be the agents of their own liberation. To imply otherwise is ahistorical at least, and patronizing at most.

But the other issue here is even more problematic. If it’s true that women are agents of their own liberation, what does that liberation look like? According to proponents of “lean in” feminism, liberation sometimes sounds like the freedom to work for a multinational company (making less money than men do) while continuing to do the bulk of unpaid care work. While such advice might be acceptable to a given individual, it does nothing to challenge the structures of patriarchy.

And this is precisely the context in which women were told to “be bold” this IWD. This bit of corporate propaganda doesn’t explain much about what it means to “be bold for change” at BP, for example. But whatever it is, it’s clear that it doesn’t involve accountability for environmental negligence, or helping to enable a just transition to sustainable energy. And of course, women are disproportionately affected by environmental crimes and by climate change. The easiest and most obvious steps to ensure gender justice for companies like BP are to stop piling onto the systemic injustices that enable patriarchy. Those are precisely the kinds of steps that BP - and nearly all the companies using the “Be Bold for Change” hashtag -- avoid talking about.

Amplifying the voices of bold women fighting patriarchy and related inequalities is great, but if big businesses want to make a difference and fight inequality they should demonstrate that they themselves are ‘bold for change’ and put their money where their mouth is.

This goes far beyond gender parity and corporate social responsibility initiatives. As the adage goes, ‘there would be no need for charity if we had justice.’

On IWD ActionAid South Africa released their narrative report People’s Power versus Rising Inequality: South African women leading change. The report looks at how inequality across the globe has a distinct intersectional and gender dimension, with women bearing the brunt, primarily due to unpaid care work, gender pay gaps, tax evasion and public services that fail to meet the specific needs of women. The report reveals how inequality manifests in the lived realities of women in South Africa and also shows how ‘bold’ these women are in ensuring their rights are upheld.

But surely we’d all like to get to a point where women don’t have to monitor court proceedings to ensure that perpetrators of hate crimes feel the full might of the law? Surely we would like to witness, in our lifetime, oil and mining companies respecting the human rights of affected communities, particularly women who bear the burden of the devastating effects. Surely in the near future we’d like to see corporates and the super-rich pay their fair share of tax and  be able to trust governments to use these public funds for the good of all citizens— making cities and public services safe for and responsive to women’s needs?

Patriarchy is a form of structural inequality. Systems of governance, of finance, and of social order, are devised and maintained by those who already have wealth and power, who make the rules in order to consolidate their privilege. ActionAid South Africa is calling on those who monopolize power and those who perpetuate structural inequality to step up and make the change – boldly!

When those who are the guiltiest of making the world a dangerous and oppressive place for women claim to be feminists it is perhaps a sign that our movements are dying. But it is also a sign that those in power recognize that our movements are dangerous. Attempted appropriation could actually end up making feminists stronger if we call it out. If we say “corporate accountability, not corporate social responsibility,” that becomes an opportunity to have a discussion that continues the “consciousness raising” process that is a big part of what has made feminism what it is. If we say to companies like BP, ‘you have no claim to be on the side of liberators as long as you continue to oppress,’ that might be part of the message that weakens their own spin machine and strengthens the campaigns calling for a just transition away from fossil fuels. But all of this would involve civil society organizations being critical enough to know corporate propaganda when they see it.

 Sameer Dossani is the Global Advocacy Coordinator, ActionAid International. Katherine V Robinson is Communications and Campaigns Manager, ActionAid South Africa.

AASA is a member of ActionAid International, a global movement of people working together to further human rights and eradicate poverty. Follow ActionAid South Africa (AASA) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.