Feminists of the world, unite
In 2021, International Women’s Day had its first pandemic edition. Restrictions on the freedoms of movement and assembly imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 made it difficult to organise large demonstrations and forced women’s movements to apply their creativity to finding alternative ways to give visibility to their demands. But the pandemic did nothing to displace concern for women’s rights in favour of other supposedly more pressing matters. Instead, it only deepened the inequalities and injustices that the women’s rights movement has been combatting for centuries. On 8 March, women everywhere made renewed efforts to keep their issues on the agenda and have a greater say in shaping the post-pandemic world.
International Women’s Day (IWD) was possibly the one major annual event that proceeded under normal conditions in 2020. On 8 March that year, women mobilised in what turned out to be the last pre-pandemic mass global demonstrations to claim rights. Just three days later, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and the world changed.
By 8 March 2021, successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic had descended upon humankind, providing ample evidence of the timeliness and urgency of the struggle for women’s rights, while redoubling the obstacles faced by mobilisations aimed at pushing rights forward.
Under lockdowns, women became much more exposed to gender-based violence (GBV). The overload of unpaid care fell disproportionately on women. As economic activity slowed down, women were disproportionately impacted on by unemployment and poverty, given their overrepresentation in the ranks of informal workers and the sectors most affected by economic downturn. Often overrepresented in the first line of response, but paid less on average than their male counterparts, women remained drastically underrepresented in decision-making processes, including those dealing with the pandemic and its aftereffects. The inequality gap that had taken decades to narrow was rapidly widening again.
With its origins in the struggles of labour movements in the early 20th century, IWD became a mainstream global day of action after the United Nations (UN) gave it official recognition in 1977. Every year, the UN uses the date to promote action for women’s rights around a specific theme. Not surprisingly, for 2021 it focused on the theme ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’.
Following on from previous statements by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a self-defined feminist, the UN – which has never had a female Secretary-General – highlighted that action was urgently needed because at the current rate of progress, achieving gender equality in the highest spheres of political power would take another 130 years.
This recognition echoed the concerns of women’s movements around the world: in the absence of pressure for change, a vicious circle risks setting in and reproducing itself: without enough women in power, women’s rights will not receive the attention they deserve; and without a proper push for women’s autonomy and empowerment, there will never be enough women in positions of power who can make a difference.
Mobilisation in pandemic times
By March 2021, some parts of the world had undergone three successive waves of COVID-19 infections, and many countries were experiencing a fresh rise in cases. This meant that mobilisations on 8 March, often styled as 8M, were less crowded than in previous years, yet still often massive, including in contexts where assemblies were banned on health grounds.
In many countries, such as Uruguay, 8M was preceded by controversies over the motivations behind government decisions to apply pandemic-related emergency measures to limit the freedom of peaceful assembly, and some women’s groups organised alternative activities or moved their events online, while others took to the streets regardless. More often than not, with the notable exception of openly authoritarian regimes, governments tacitly allowed mobilisations to proceed.
Against all odds, 8 March 2021 did not go unnoticed: millions of women voiced demands for equality, autonomy and recognition in the forms most appropriate to their context and circumstances. A rich diversity of mobilisation for women’s rights was on full display in three global regions – Asia, Europe and Latin America – offering striking similarities as well as points of contrast.
Asia witnessed some mass marches and countless smaller ones, their size determined either by compliance with COVID-19 regulations or fear of backlash from repressive regimes. Marches focused on various forms of inequality and made insistent calls for the end of GBV, while joining forces with struggles against religious fundamentalism and other locally important campaigns, such as resistance to military rule in Myanmar and demands for better livelihoods for embattled groups in India.
Art was embraced as a way of expressing dissent where other channels were blocked, as in Afghanistan, where artist and activist Rada Akbar organised an exhibition on the streets of Kabul and held a performance in tribute to the victims of GBV.
In Europe, 8M mobilisations tended to be small, and when bigger in size, largely nonviolent. They mostly focused on the various facets of mounting inequality induced by the pandemic. Attendees typically wore masks and respected measures to avoid contagion.
Artistic expression often made up for the impossibility of gathering large numbers. This was seen in Albania, where a theatre company replicated the ‘Red Shoes’ installation first created in 2009 by Mexican artist Elina Chauvet in tribute to the sister she lost to domestic violence. Similar methods were embraced in Lithuania, where a dance group in Vilnius performed a Lithuanian version of the protest song ‘Bella ciao’ outside the presidential palace, decrying GBV and urging ratification of the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty to combat violence against women, which religious leaders oppose.
What distinguished Latin America was not just the fact that marches were held in most countries, but also that protest violence was relatively more frequent than elsewhere. Even in Argentina, where abortion on demand had just been legalised, there were as many reasons for anger as celebration: 50 new femicides were recorded in the first two months of 2021 alone, and the movement’s agenda had become ever more urgent under the pandemic, with people demanding action by the justice system to protect women who denounce their aggressors, approval of an Emergency Law on Gender Violence, the provision of employment opportunities and establishment of a caretaking system for the children of working mothers.
Anger at femicides and women’s disappearances sometimes gave way to violence and an often disproportionate repressive state response followed. Demands for sexual and reproductive rights, including increasingly explicit calls for the expansion of abortion rights, were also widespread in the region.
8 MARCH 2021: WHAT PROTEST FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS LOOKED LIKE AROUND THE WORLD
Spotlight on Asia
COVID-19 did not prevent Asian women protesting. In various locales, a sensible assessment of the situation indicated the existence of dangers far scarier than the pandemic. With women in Afghanistan facing higher stakes than ever as Taliban fighters moved towards Kabul, female Afghan refugees throughout the region joined women’s marches in their host countries, including in India.
Similarly in Pakistan, women took a stand against the Taliban and rallied to denounce violence against women and gender minorities. The Aurat March took place for the fourth year in a row with thousands showing up in multiple locations. They demanded safe working environments and equal opportunities, safety from endemic violence, increased healthcare funding and accessible healthcare, with a focus on women and transgender people, equal vaccination access, subsidised menstrual products and recognition of the denial of contraception by family members as a form of domestic violence.
As in previous years, the movement faced threats and intimidation, both online and offline, before and during the march, along with the circulation of deliberate disinformation, including claims that the movement is foreign-funded to promote a western agenda and accusations of ‘actively spreading obscenity and vulgarity’. Videos were edited to make participants appear blasphemous, a serious accusation that can bring severe punishment in Pakistan. In a tactic increasingly used to silence dissent, religious fundamentalists criminally charged the organisers of the Aurat March for allegedly making ‘derogatory remarks’ and showing ‘obscene posters’, and the courts agreed to hear the case against them.
In neighbouring India, thousands of women took to the streets on IWD, joining peaceful farmers’ protests on the outskirts of Delhi to demand the scrapping of agricultural laws that threatened their livelihoods. According to police and event organisers, more than 20,000 women were present at the site near Delhi’s border with Haryana state. Women wore bright yellow scarves representing mustard fields.
Numerous 8M rallies in which women called for equal rights also took place across India. In one, held at Sameli village in Dantewada, Hidme Markam – an activist working for Indigenous land rights and against mining impacts and police and state violence – was arrested and detained under the anti-terrorism law. She was taken away by large group of paramilitary personnel and subsequently spent months in detention under false accusations related to armed attacks.
In Kathmandu, Nepal, a large group of women of all ages marched to demand tax-free sanitary pads, insisting these are a basic need. A few weeks earlier, women’s rights activists marched against GBV and to oppose a proposed law that would require women under 40 to get family and local government permission for foreign travel. The government claimed the bill was aimed at preventing human trafficking, but protesters viewed it just another expression of a system of patriarchal domination in which men can decide what is in women’s best interest.
In Myanmar, where on 1 February the army staged a coup and installed a military government, IWD protests overlapped with acts of civil disobedience calling for a return to civilian rule, which often saw women on the frontlines. Women’s groups called for a ‘sarong movement’ – a tactic used by women to oppose the coup, in which they hung traditional sarongs and female underwear in the streets to deter superstitious police and military officers – while Myanmar’s biggest trade unions began a national strike. In response, troops occupied hospitals and university campuses and ramped up night-time raids; at least four protesters were killed.
Women protesters in Indonesia also gathered to demand equal rights, with a focus on GBV and child marriage. In Jakarta, distanced protesters wearing masks demanded the recognition of sexual violence as a human rights violation, the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 on the elimination of violence and harassment in the workplace, and the approval of two bills on the eradication of sexual violence and protection of domestic workers.
Jakarta also witnessed a cycling protest for equality, organised by Plan International as part of a global initiative implemented in 71 countries. In another Indonesian city, Yogyakarta, the 8M protest was held outside the Governor’s Office but the police tried to disperse it by blocking the road and arresting protesters.
In nearby Philippines, over 150 women gathered near the presidential residence in Manila for a distanced, masked protest and public performance to denounce President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘macho-fascist presidency’, bent on diminishing women and rolling back hard-won rights. Protesters were stopped and harassed by the police, who forced them to disperse.
One of the smallest of Asia’s gatherings was held in Tokyo, Japan, where around 100 women marched against sexual discrimination. Gender equality gained a more prominent place on the public agenda during the pandemic, which pushed many women out of work and towards housework and childcare. Additionally, a new movement rose in response to a succession of sexist remarks by former Tokyo Olympic chief Yoshiro Mori.
Mobilisations in Iraq, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan focused on GBV. In Kazakhstan, it was the first time the authorities allowed a march for IWD to proceed, so Almaty’s main roads were packed with peaceful protesters demanding gender equality, particularly in wages, and approval of a law against GBV that had long languished in parliament.
In the Middle East, a small mobilisation was held in East Jerusalem, but the leading organisation, a Palestinian women’s centre, was raided by Israeli police on the grounds that this was a Palestinian Authority event, and was therefore being held illegally.
Spotlight on Europe
In much of Europe, women did not mark IWD by taking to the streets in numbers. In many countries that were experiencing COVID-19 spikes and where restrictions on public assemblies were in place, feminist organisations cancelled major events and held small gatherings instead. For instance in Croatia, after being celebrated for five years in a row, the Night March was postponed; instead, small groups of activists gathered in various public spaces to read a proclamation highlighting the pandemic’s devastating impacts on women.
Likewise in Italy, several smaller events replaced the traditionally massive 8M march. In Rome, Non Una di Meno (‘Not One Woman Less’), a movement against GBV, called a strike and held a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Economy to highlight economic rights; gatherings were also organised in other cities, including Bologna and Turin, where a feminist group organised a flash mob outside the Polish Consulate in solidarity with Polish women facing a near-total abortion ban.
In France, activists denounced the persistent gender pay gap by calling on women to go on strike and finish work earlier. Complementary actions were held across the country, including a massive march in Paris focused on sexism and sexual violence.
As in France, a national women’s strike demanding equal pay and economic opportunities was observed in Luxembourg, where a march was also held to call on the authorities to raise awareness about gender discrimination and improve gender equality policies.
In Germany, a country with one of the strictest lockdowns, a small crowd of about 400 gathered in Berlin early in the day, their number increasing substantially as the hours passed, reaching up to 10,000 according to police estimates.
In Albania, a symbolic, distanced protest was led by the Women’s Empowerment Network. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, masked protesters in Sarajevo participated in a small, distanced walk against sexual harassment and rape culture, held under the banner ‘She did not ask for it’. Small protests were also held across Kosovo, where Pristina was home to an innovative bicycle march symbolising demands for greater freedom of movement for women and girls.
Another small event, dubbed ‘Black 8 March’ to symbolise mourning caused by GBV, was held by a group of Bulgarian women outside the Sofia Court of Justice. In Romania, a group gathered outside parliament in Bucharest to highlight growing gender inequalities under the pandemic, while in Greece, a somewhat larger group gathered outside parliament in Athens, focusing on sexual harassment as the country went through what activists recognised as a belated ‘MeToo moment’.
Ukraine was unusual in that a large gathering took place: thousands marched through the centre of Kiev calling attention to the sharp increase of GBV under lockdown and – as in Lithuania – urging the government to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Belarusian women forced into exile by authoritarianism joined the march in Ukraine to make up for their inability to express their grievances at home.
Women’s marches in three European countries captured the international spotlight for the obstacles they faced or backlash they experienced. One was Poland, already under the spotlight because of the sustained attack on abortion rights and the equally sustained campaign by women’s rights groups to resist regression even under unfavourable pandemic conditions. As expected, Warsaw’s streets saw crowds of marching women. The area was cordoned off and the march was heavily policed because gatherings had been declared illegal, but some scuffles aside, it passed peacefully.
While various Spanish cities, including Barcelona, Cádiz and Seville, held uneventful 8M marches focused on GBV, women in Madrid were not allowed to gather under pandemic rules. Only a few dozen protesters defied a court order prohibiting assemblies and held a distanced protest in a central square. In contrast with the inability of women to make themselves visible in public space, backlash took graphic form, as the city’s feminist murals were vandalised with inscriptions reading ‘stop feminazis’ and ‘violence does not have a gender’.
Around a thousand Turkish women managed to mobilise against GBV and pervasive inequalities but the police did everything in their power to stop them. Public transportation leading to Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, where the rally took place, was shut down, and nine women were detained for carrying LGBTQI+ flags. Simultaneously, hundreds of Uighur women marched along the Bosporus towards the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, demanding the end of the Uighur genocide and the closure of detention camps in China’s Xinjiang region.
Spotlight on Latin America
In Latin America, where since the 2015 eruption of the #NiUnaMenos (‘Not One Woman Less’) movement, femicide and GBV have been at the top of the feminist agenda, much of the mobilisation under the pandemic focused on this worsening problem and the insufficient public policy responses to it. In each country, the denunciation of GBV was accompanied by demands related to the intersectional exclusion that makes some groups of women – Indigenous, Black and poor women and single mothers – vulnerable to specific forms of violence. Protests also urged specific reforms that could contribute to improving the situation, such as the call in Panama for greater space for women in political decision-making structures.
Riding on the ‘Green Wave’, a movement built up over decades that resulted in the legalisation of abortion in Argentina in December 2020, many 8M mobilisations across the region also demanded – as the regional campaign put it – ‘sexual education to decide, contraceptives not to abort, and legal abortion not to die’.
Demands for abortion rights were prominent in the Dominican Republic, where activism grew emboldened and drew inspiration from Argentina. 8M took place in a context of a political wrangle, with proposals to liberalise abortion on three grounds – rape or incest, unviable pregnancies and danger to the pregnant person’s life – repeatedly rejected. On 11 March, feminist activists set up camp outside the National Palace, where they stayed for months, while protests continued, as did religious fundamentalist counter-mobilisations.
In Ecuador, small gatherings and public performances were staged in several cities and towns, including by Indigenous women demanding respect for their land rights and condemning environmental exploitation. Urban protests also called for policies to address Ecuador’s high rates of GBV and decriminalisation of abortion. A month later, a years-long process culminated in a ruling by the Ecuadoran Constitutional Court that decriminalised abortion in cases of rape. March 2022 will surely see the Ecuadoran women’s movement push for more, determined not to stop until women’s full personhood is recognised in both law and practice.
Underlying themes of GBV and the denial of sexual and reproductive rights is the same root problem that women’s rights movements tirelessly pointed out: the gender norms and unequal power relations that continue to place women in subordinate positions and deny them full personhood and agency. This is why women’s rights organisations, in Latin America and elsewhere, stepped up their efforts to counter the rise in sexual violence and GBV brought by the pandemic while continuing to challenge, in policy-making processes and on the streets, the deeper issues of disempowerment and inequality that preceded the pandemic and will outlast it.
Nowhere were these protests louder than in Mexico, one of the countries with the highest number of femicides in the region, and where the women’s movement has pushed the issue onto the public agenda. Activists were angry at what they viewed as an empty promise by left-wing populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador to tackle the issue: femicide rates have not fallen since his inauguration in 2018, and the president continued to support a candidate for state governor who faced credible accusations of rape. In the expectation that violence would erupt, the authorities erected a barrier to protect the National Palace in Mexico City and mobilised 1,700 female police officers to police the event.
At least 20,000 people joined the protest. As the event was underway, activists decided to put the barrier to good use, turning it into a canvas on which they painted the names of hundreds of femicide victims. Some of them, their faces hidden behind balaclavas and carrying improvised weapons, started to knock down segments of the barrier and provoked the police, whose repressive reaction, teargas included, caused protesters to stampede.
Violence and backlash
By and large, 8M mobilisations were peaceful. But in cases where protester violence was present, it often took very little to unleash disproportionate repression. While rightful anger sometimes turned into unjustifiable violence, protester violence was typically directed at things rather than people. At the most, it would result in damage to public, and occasionally private, property. But the repression that followed was directed at people, and many got hurt.
In Mexico City, police assaulted and held at a metro station four female photojournalists who were documenting events, even though they repeatedly identified themselves as press. Police officers closed access to the subway, kicked them, pulled them by the hair, handcuffed two of them and tried to take away their cameras.
Bizarrely, President López Obrador accused feminists of being conservative opponents in disguise and claimed they had only begun protesting when he took office two years earlier, specifically to oppose him – a nonsensical claim he tirelessly repeated over the following months. The president’s attacks underlined the multiple political pressures feminists face from across the ideological spectrum.
In neighbouring Guatemala, another country with an astonishing rate of violent deaths of women, protesters demanded justice in response to the ongoing wave of disappearances and murders of girls and women. The 8M march took place in a heated environment, less than three weeks after the murder of María Elizabeth Ramírez, a mother seeking justice for her daughter and dozens of other girls who had been abused and died in a fire at a government-run home – the case that gave rise to the movement against state-sanctioned femicides in Guatemala. Having begun peacefully, the gathering ended with relatively mild acts of vandalism that mainstream media took great pains to magnify: protesters set fire to paper effigies of President Alejandro Giammattei in front of the old government palace, spray-painted slogans on city walls and broke windows at a public transport station.
In the smallest and most densely populated Central American country, El Salvador, over 5,000 women joined a march to call for equal rights, an end to GBV and the decriminalisation of abortion; female journalists also called for news coverage free of sexism. Police tried to detain an activist for spraying feminist slogans on the walls of the National Palace, but other protesters reacted to prevent the arrest.
Similar scenes were witnessed in Colombia: although marches were mostly peaceful, buses and bus stations and the facades of public buildings in downtown Bogotá ended up covered in graffiti, prompting the National Security Advisor to smear women protesters on social media. He called them ‘common criminals’ and ‘not exactly ladies’ and accused the city government of not doing enough to prevent vandalism.
Further south in Chile, the vitality of whose feminist movement has recently caught the world’s attention, thousands of women wearing purple and green scarves took part in marches in multiple cities. The police deployed close to 20,000 officers in Santiago alone, and later reported 75 violent incidents throughout the country, including looting, vandalism and an arson attack.
In Santiago, a candidate in the Constitutional Convention election, Emilia Schneider, was detained under allegations, contradicted by photographic evidence, of ‘obstructing traffic’ while taking part in a feminist intervention; another member of her team was reportedly attacked by police officers. More than 80 people, mostly men, were arrested for trying to knock down a statue. Shortly afterward, the police dissolved the main protest.
In nearby Bolivia, 8M took place just days after the police found the remains of four missing women; events subsequently held in La Paz demanded policies to end femicides and GBV. In a related protest, Catholic University students denounced impunity for sexual violence and shared experiences of harassment on campus. Another group, Mujeres Creando, protested near the former presidential palace and were dispersed with teargas by the police.
Mobilisation had a different tone in countries under authoritarian regimes, which left their mark on 8M mobilisations both in the forms they adopted and demands they raised. In Nicaragua, dozens of young women took part in a clandestine demonstration at the Central American University. To overcome the government’s longstanding protest ban, the event was kept secret until a few hours before it started. It called attention to femicide and urged the release of four female political prisoners. Several activists reported an intimidating police presence outside their homes despite having precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Similarly in Venezuela, protesters called for the release of 17 women they consider political prisoners and demanded punishment for perpetrators of femicide. Their public presence was more visible than that of their Nicaraguan counterparts, as they gathered in a Caracas square in defiance of the pandemic ban on assemblies.
The road ahead
The impacts of the pandemic on women added to and reinforced an ongoing backlash mobilised by fundamentalist religious anti-rights groups and politicians, often in response to the women’s rights movement’s successes in gaining visibility, claiming space and making change happen. But evidence from the time that has passed since the start of the pandemic also shows that far from being passive victims of circumstances beyond their control, women continue to take action to fight for their lives and their rights.
At no time was this more apparent than on IWD, a moment of coordinated action by women’s movements in dozens of countries. Women mobilised in any way they could to denounce discrimination, violence and rights violations. With an eye on the greater struggle that will continue after the pandemic, and in the face of criminalising and dehumanising narratives, they persevered in their long-term efforts to change meanings, shift perspectives, articulate the unspoken and make visible the invisible.
Against all odds, 8 March 2021 did not go unnoticed: in Asia, Europe and Latin America, millions of women voiced demands for equality, autonomy and recognition.
Around the world, the struggles highlighted on 8M will continue. Street protest will remain a key weapon in civil society’s arsenal, to be used by ever greater numbers as pandemic restrictions ease. Given the central role of protest, women’s rights movements will need to guard the integrity of the right to the freedom of assembly everywhere, all the time.
Those who mobilise backlash against women’s rights will also continue to do so, for reasons of ideology or political calculation, and facing them will require the formation of broad and intersectional civil society coalitions. Breakthroughs will surely result, but so will setbacks: the sobering reminder that it is in the nature of struggles for rights to be an unending battle.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States must not restrict women’s rights protests and must ensure they are able to proceed free from the interference of anti-rights groups.
Allies of the women’s rights movement should support women-led mobilisations by listening to their expressed needs, without trying to shape them or direct them.
Women’s rights organisations should practise intersectionality and respond to the needs of diverse women, while also forming broad civil society coalitions to resist the anti-rights backlash.
Cover photo by Karen Melo/Getty Images