The 66th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was just launched. Due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the main annual global forum on gender equality is once again taking place in a hybrid format – both at the UN’s New York headquarters, where government delegations will be meeting, and online, where most civil society activity will take place.
This has disappointed women’s rights movements from all over the world – for the third time in a row. Back in 2020, CSW’s 64th session was due to begin on 9 March, and the spreading pandemic resulted in a dramatic restructure: from a two-week event with around 12,000 confirmed participants to a one-day procedural meeting. The following year, CSW 65 was held in a hybrid format, but mostly virtually.
For more than two years non-stop, the pandemic impacted disproportionately on the rights of women and girls. Gender-based violence raged and femicides increased. The burden of unpaid work on women’s shoulders multiplied, economic hardship differentially affected women, who are heavily employed in the informal sector, and the virus itself disproportionately affected women who are over-represented in frontline jobs.
When women most needed a space where they could advocate for their rights and demand that the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery were tackled through a gendered lens, the main such global space almost completely collapsed.
While much was initially made of the inclusive potential of virtual events, it soon became clear that access challenges faced by women in real life were replicated in the online sphere. This year, many women’s voices may again go unheard, since they lack the same status as the government representatives allowed into the room.
Fortunately, mobilised women’s rights groups have worked extra hard to prevent that from happening. On 8 March, International Women’s Day (IWD), feminists from all over the world took to the streets again, showing that they had not been defeated by the pandemic – if anything, they were emerging stronger. They articulated a clear and coherent agenda for equality.
The right to life free of violence
IWD mobilisations demanded action on gender-based violence (GBV) everywhere around the world, but nowhere were these demands louder than in Latin America, where streets in city after city were taken over by green – the colour of the rising tide for abortion rights that originated in Argentina – and violet – the traditional colour of the feminist movement.
In Mexico City, the day started with a giant airship streaking across the skies with a sign reading ‘10 feminicides a day, none of them forgotten’, followed by a mass march in the capital and in states across the country.
In Bolivia, ahead of IWD hundreds of women marched for justice and an end to impunity. Convened by the Mujeres Creando collective, they carried photographs of men accused or sentenced for rape, and of judges and prosecutors who freed perpetrators of GBV and femicides.
In Honduras, protesters condemned femicides and urged the approval of the Shelter House Law for victims of GBV. In Panama, women called for greater protection for girls and adolescents from sexual violence, as well as better guarantees of labour rights.
Most IWD protests were held in a celebratory atmosphere: even while they were sharing grievances and expressing anger, women were out there experiencing sisterhood and togetherness, either celebrating victories or giving each other strength to overcome defeat.
This was no invitation to violence, but still there were instances in which repression – unprovoked and unjustified – came. Such was the case in Ecuador, where protesting women were met by police with pepper spray, baton beatings, horses and dogs.
Halfway around the world in South Asia, dozens of IWD events, known as the Aurat March, were held across Pakistan for the fifth year in a row. Recent high-profile femicide cases had intensified calls for stronger legal protections against so-called ‘honour killings’.
As in previous years, protesters experienced intense backlash, including attempts to stop them protesting. The minister of religious affairs called for IWD events to be cancelled, for the Aurat March to be banned and for 8 March to be rebranded as ‘Hijab Day’.
At least one right-wing organisation accused marchers of ‘obscenity’ and threatened to beat them. In Lahore and other cities, counterprotests known as ‘hijab marches’ also mobilised, with women from conservative religious groups calling for the preservation of ‘Islamic values’.
Where Asia meets Europe, the Azerbaijani Feminist Movement gathered in Baku to urge the adoption of the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – and demand proper investigations of GBV cases. Instead of investigating reports, the police typically advise victims to return home and reconcile with their husbands.
Women also rallied against GBV in nearby Turkey. Campaigners warned that skyrocketing femicide numbers may be gross underestimates, as femicides are often recorded as suicides or accidents. In the evening, women held their annual feminist night walk in Ankara and Istanbul. Here, as in Quito, riot police used pepper spray against protesters to try to disperse a crowd of several thousand gathered in the city centre.
GBV and femicides were under the spotlight in Africa and Europe as well. In Albania, the Feminist Collective protested outside the Prime Minister’s office in Tirana to demand freedom from violence in all its forms. Simultaneously, a performance was staged in a central square, where dozens of pairs of red shoes were laid down to symbolise the victims of femicide.
In Belgium, close to 5,000 women took to the streets of Brussels to call for equality and an end to GBV and sexual harassment. Rallying cries included ‘Victime, on te croit. Agresseur, on te voit’ (‘Victim, we believe you. Perpetrator, we see you’), a reference to testimonies shared by women who have experienced sexual harassment.
In the UK, campaigners laid flowers outside an immigration detention centre for women, stating that most women held there are survivors of rape and other forms of GBV and victims of trafficking and modern slavery. They vowed to continue protesting until the site is closed down.
In Nairobi, Kenya, hundreds of women marched to the national police headquarters to demand justice for sexual assault in public spaces and call for the regulation of the commuter motorbike sector, after a video showing a woman being sexually assaulted by motorbike riders on a busy road went viral. Protesters held placards with messages such as ‘usinishike’ – ‘don’t touch me’ in Swahili.
Global sorority and abortion rights
Many protests that focused on GBV also demanded sexual and reproductive rights. This was no coincidence, as GBV and the denial of sexual and reproductive rights have a common root: women’s deprivation of the personhood and autonomy to decide over their bodies and lives.
This focus could be seen in El Salvador, which has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world. On IWD, around 2,000 women from feminist organisations and university groups marched against femicides and to demand the immediate legalisation of abortion on three grounds: to save the pregnant person’s life, in cases of life-threatening foetal malformation and when pregnancy is the result of sexual violence.
Something similar would have happened in Poland, where in 2020 a near-total ban on abortion was introduced under cover of the pandemic, if it hadn’t been for the emergency caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In less than two weeks, over 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, had crossed the border into Poland, and Polish civil society set to work to help in whatever way they could. Everything else took a temporary back seat.
This happened throughout Europe, and beyond: demands for women’s rights shared the stage with calls for solidarity with Ukraine. Blue-and-yellow rallies were held in several European capitals, including Brussels, where a ‘Women stand with Ukraine’ demonstration took place, and Berlin, where hundreds of people, mostly women, gathered outside the Russian Embassy to protest against the invasion. In Turkey, the Ankara Women’s Platform publicly sided with Ukrainian women and children as ‘the first victims of the war’. Further away in Central Asia, an IWD rally in Kyrgyzstan also denounced the invasion.
In Spain, where hundreds of thousands mobilised, protesters advanced demands for equality while also protesting against the war; in wars, they pointed out, women are always treated as bargaining chips. In Barcelona, the mic was passed to two Ukrainian women who acknowledged the courage of the women putting their bodies on the line to stop Russian tanks.
Political representation a key demand
Women’s organisations that have spent years calling for legislative bodies comprising mostly of men to pass laws that benefit women know only too well that fairer political representation is a key that opens many doors.
Political representation was at the centre of IWD mobilisations in Cameroon, where more than 20,000 women came out in Yaoundé to insist on a proper role in decision-making. Protesters demanded gender quotas, saying they would no longer accept being treated as inferior to men. The call was echoed in protests that took place in towns and villages across Cameroon.
Something similar was seen in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where feminist groups organised a rally for equal rights attended by more than 1,000 people. Protesters carried posters reading ‘Women’s opinions matter’, ‘More women in politics’ and ‘Feminism will save Kazakhstan’. They demanded more modern gender policies, measures against GBV and the hiring of more women by government institutions.
In Nigeria, hundreds of women marched to the National Assembly in Abuja to urge lawmakers to take another look at a series of bills aimed at closing the gender gap, which failed to get the required number of votes to be included in a constitutional amendment.
Women’s protests started the day after lawmakers voted on 1 March to reject all women’s rights-related bills. These bills would have established legislative representation quotas for women, provided for affirmative action in political party administration and granted citizenship to foreign-born husbands of Nigerian women.
In Sudan, thousands marched on IWD in Khartoum and elsewhere to denounce the 25 October military takeover. The day was dedicated to ensuring that women’s concerns are not left out of the struggle for freedom, peace and justice: resistance committees must include women in decision-making processes and respect the women’s rights agenda so that democracy, when it is restored, does not leave women behind once more. Predictably, as they approached the presidential palace protesters were met with teargas to force them to disperse.
Social, economic and environmental justice
Social, economic and environmental demands were at the forefront of major mobilisations, including in countries such as Peru and Venezuela, where protesters focused on poverty and food security.
In Brazil, women from an array of popular movements, grassroots organisations, trade unions, feminist collectives and political parties held massive protests against the exclusionary policies of President Jair Bolsonaro. Under the slogan ‘Bolsonaro Never Again’, protesters also blamed Bolsonaro’s negligence for more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Throughout the world, the effects of the pandemic shone the spotlight on the uneven distribution of care work within families. Among women’s movements in Latin America, this triggered a profound process of reflection on the structural conditions that determine the unequal distribution of care tasks, the way in which the entire social edifice rests on such inequality and the life-defining consequences this has for women.
As a result, feminist CSOs began to insist ever more strongly on the inclusion of state-managed care systems in any pandemic recovery plan. On the streets, this was reflected in a slogan that is now part of the regular repertoire of feminist protests: ‘it’s not love, it’s unpaid work’.
Other protests highlighted gender-specific health issues. In Chad, for instance, the CSO Rehabilitation and Technical Training used IWD to raise awareness of the problem of obstetric fistulas, a serious but all too common ailment that is the result of obstructed labour without timely medical intervention.
Other organisations, such as Zambia’s WingEd Girls, focused on menstrual health and stigma and demanded that more resources be committed to public healthcare systems.
Across Africa and worldwide, activists and organisations seized the opportunity to put forward longstanding demands for social and economic rights, including land rights. Such was the case of the Stand for Her Land campaign, which called for women’s land rights and an end to gender bias in land distribution.
Almost 100 groups in Ethiopia, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda, among others, participated in the campaign. Similarly in Tunisia, CSOs used the day to denounce the deprivation of rural women’s right to inheritance and demanded the review of the law on GBV to include economic violence, since inheritance should be recognised as an economic right.
The clearly gendered impacts of climate change, along with the underrepresentation of women in climate negotiating bodies, also motivated many organisations, including the Extinction Rebellion network, to make climate demands on IWD. A 24-hour vigil and rally for climate justice was held in Edinburgh, UK.
A clear agenda for CSW
The feminist demands made on IWD were remarkably coherent responses, locally, nationally and globally, to the problem diagnoses made by civil society active in the field and deeply connected with the daily realities of women.
Those demands are not dying down once IWD has passed. Feminist movements know they can’t let their guard down even if they are winning, because every victory is followed by a predictable anti-rights backlash.
They will continue to push their agenda forward on the streets, in the courts, in parliaments, in the twists and turns of national, regional and local public administrations – and, of course, whenever possible in global forums.
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