Any day now, thousands of Indian women will march into Delhi, completing a 10,000-kilometre trek from Mumbai that began in December, wound its way through 200 districts in 24 states across India and picked up more and more participants along the way.
The women are marching to raise awareness about the prevalence of rape in their country. The Dignity March, as it is so appropriately named, includes sexual assault survivors, their families and activists determined to push back against a culture of tolerance for sexual assault that allows men to get away with their crimes.
The march is coming to its conclusion just days before International Women’s Day on March 8, which itself began as a march in New York City more than 100 years ago demanding economic and political rights for women, and honouring a similar march half a century before.
Days later, a fire ripped through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killing 146 women workers, most of them immigrants, and the link between women’s rights, workers’ rights and the rights of immigrants was forged. More marches followed, and laws were changed to protect the health and safety of all workers.
I mention all this because it shows that getting out into the street and making voices heard is such an integral part of making progress on women’s rights in Canada, and around the world.
Again this year, there will be marches around the world and across Canada to mark International Women’s Day. Again, we will celebrate the victories of the past century, and commit to making more progress as we go forward.
I am proud to say that the labour movement has been an integral part of the advancement of women’s rights from the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to this day.
It was a 1981 strike by postal workers, after all, that cemented the right of women in Canada to leave their jobs after having a baby, secure in the knowledge that they could return to their jobs afterward and not suffer undue economic hardship in the meantime.
What began as a contract dispute in one workplace is now commonplace across Canada, and has expanded to include fathers and adoptive parents, as well as mothers.
Similarly, unions across Canada began negotiating collective agreement clauses to allow women to take paid time off to escape domestic violence, and have led the effort to get governments to pass laws extending that right to all Canadians.
But while should and will celebrate such advances, we cannot forget that much work still needs to be done here and around the world. The 10,000-kilomentre march in India is evidence of that.
Here in Canada, while there has been progress on domestic violence leave, there are still too many women whose provincial governments have not yet passed such laws. Women continue to make less money than men, and poor access to affordable daycare limits women’s full participation in the economy, to mention just a few concerns.
Given that, it seems obvious to me that we cannot as a society begin to address such issues without first addressing the needs and rights of women and girls.
On International Women’s Day, we will march again as we have so often before, we will make our voice heard and we will continue the fight for progress even as we celebrate the victories of the past.