Tomorrow, 8 March, is International Women’s Day. Moreover, 8 March 2011 is one hundred years since the first International Women’s Day. In 100 years women in developed nations have seen their rights and status improve dramatically although the work still goes on.

However I want to reflect on a macabre coincidence connecting this Women’s Day with the first which underscores that, today, the women who suffer the worst deprivation of their rights are not the generally affluent ones living in  the United States, Europe or even Russia. They are living in countries that, I’m confident, never heard about International Women’s Day in 1911.

1911 was the year George V of England travelled to India (present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and was crowned Emperor. Then, as now, 25% of the world’s population lived in that land area. As well as having no kinship affinity with their ruler, none of those people -male or female- had the right to vote!

1911 was also the year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the deadliest industrial accident in the history of New York. 146 workers in a textile factory (mainly women) died when fire broke out and they were trapped in the upper floors. There was only one fire escape and it collapsed from the weight of its occupants plus the heat of the fire. Many of today’s commonplace fire safety practices were first established after this incident.

Shirtbuyers of New York and elsewhere may be troubled to know that accident hauntingly reminiscent of the Triangle Fire took place just two months ago, leading to the deaths of 29 poor and mostly female workers trapped on the upper floors.

Clothing sold by well-known brands including Gap, Esprit and Tommy Hilfiger and now being worn down the streets of the world’s more prosperous cities were manufactured in this factory. 100 years of safety know-how did not find its way to the local suppliers in Bangladesh, with tragic results.

8 Hour Day banner, c. 1910-1914, Sydney's Trades Hall

What do people expect is going to happen? If a country imports industrial processes, then it needs industrial protections to go with them or we will see incidents like this happen again and again. In total, more than 3000 Bangladeshi workers have lost their lives in factory fires in the last decade.

After pressure from consumers, the major retailers involved in this particular incident committed to improve their processes including greater transparency, although still disappointingly late.

So many women in the developing world remain at square one. Those are the women I dedicate this International Women’s Day to.

See also: International Women’s Day – 100th Anniversary

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