International Women’s Day 2023: not one step back
The 2023 edition of International Women’s Day came at a time when women have been severely hit by conflicts, crises, democratic erosion and anti-rights regression. But when women took to the streets on 8 March, it was not to lament their misfortunes; rather it was to stand in solidarity with those bearing the brunt of regression, experience the power that comes from togetherness, express a collective decision to resist and celebrate the victories scored thanks to longstanding struggles. They sent a clear message: in the bleakest of times, women won’t give up. Until the day comes when equality materialises and feminism becomes common sense, the struggle goes on.
At a time of intense hostility towards women’s rights, women’s movements around the world took to the streets on 8 March, International Women’s Day (IWD), with renewed energy. In mobilising, women struck a balance between justified anger at violence and discrimination, indignation at attempts to snatch back hard-won rights and freedoms, and celebration of victories scored against the odds.
Looking back on 2022
When women took to the streets on IWD 2022, it was hard to imagine a bleaker outlook for women’s rights. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had just started and already there were 2.5 million Ukrainians seeking refuge in Europe, most of them women and children.
Hitting the streets in numbers for the first time since the pandemic struck, the women’s rights movement highlighted the dangers faced by women in multiple conflicts raging around the world, and the underlying issues brought to light by the pandemic, from gender-based violence and lack of political representation to workplace inequality and the inequitable distribution of unpaid work. Women expressed defiance in the face of attacks on reproductive rights led by some repressive European regimes as well as the USA – going against the global tide of change but carrying far-reaching implications, with anti-rights groups vocal and influential.
And yet, in March 2022 Afghan teenage girls still had hopes they would be allowed back in school, Mahsa Amini was still alive and in the USA the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling continued to protect abortion rights.
A year on, the number of Ukrainian refugees in Europe has surpassed eight million. The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving half of US women living in places with little or no access to reproductive services. LGBTQI+ rights, and particularly trans people’s rights, have also come under attack in the USA: in 2022, state legislatures across the country introduced 315 discriminatory anti-LGBTQI+ bills, dozens of which were passed.
Afghan girls have been excluded from secondary education for good, and the Taliban took further steps to bring about the Islamic Emirate they proclaimed when they seized Kabul in August 2021. In May, Afghan women were required to fully cover their faces in public. In November, the Taliban’s supreme leader ordered the full implementation of sharia law, and women were banned from gyms, swimming pools, public parks and funfairs. In December, the last available spaces vanished as women were excluded from universities and civil society jobs – with dramatic humanitarian consequences bound to hurt women and girls the most.
In September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died at the hands of Iran’s morality police for ‘improperly’ wearing her mandatory hijab, sparking the most widespread and sustained challenge faced by Iran’s theocratic regime. The authorities have responded with escalating repression, manipulating the criminal justice system and using the death penalty to punish protesters and try to deter others.
As IWD 2023 approached, young women in many parts of the world found themselves in an unprecedented situation: enjoying fewer rights than their mothers had.
Nothing to celebrate?
On 6 March, as he inaugurated the 67th session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women, the most important global forum for women’s rights, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that progress on women’s rights is ‘vanishing before our eyes’, the goal of equality becoming increasingly distant. According to UN Women, at the current rate gender equality might now be as far as 300 years away.
Violence against women and girls is the most pervasive human rights violation around the world, flaring up in every political, economic and environmental crisis. Sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war and people displaced by conflict, mostly women and children, are often subjected to sexual exploitation, risk of trafficking and abuses at work.
International accountability for gender-based violence
On the eve of IWD 2023, the European Union (EU) offered hope that some of the worst violators of women’s rights could be held to account. It announced sanctions against nine people and three government agencies in Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Russia, South Sudan and Syria, holding them responsible for acts of sexual violence and other serious violations of women’s rights. All were subjected to visa bans and had their assets in the EU frozen.
Those sanctioned included Afghanistan’s minister for higher education, accused of depriving women of education, and its minister for the propagation of virtue and the repression of vice, accused of violating the rights of those who don’t respect the Taliban’s edicts.
In Myanmar, sanctions affected the deputy minister of home affairs for allowing military security agents to rape and commit sexual torture against people detained by the junta, including women and LGBTQI+ people.
In Russia, they were applied to two Moscow police officers accused of ordering the arrest and torture of female anti-war protesters and two Russian commanders whose units have been accused of committing systematic acts of rape and sexual violence in Ukraine.
In South Sudan, two commissioners were sanctioned for having systematically used sexual violence as a war tactic and a reward for men taking part in the conflict.
Myanmar’s Office of the Chief of Military Security affairs was singled out for its responsibility for systematic and widespread sexual and gender-based violence. Syria’s Republican Guard was accused of using sexual and gender-based violence to repress and intimidate people, particularly women and girls. A prison in Iran’s Tehran province, where women have been subjected to sexual abuse by guards and threatened with rape to extract false confessions, was also placed on the sanctions list.
Additional sanctions on Iranian officials were imposed by the USA on the eve of IWD, while the UK placed sanctions on violators of women’s rights in Iran along with the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria.
Even where there isn’t open conflict, persistent patriarchal norms deny women their status as full subjects of rights. The consequence is continuing large-scale gender-based violence and its ultimate expression, femicide.
No wonder that yet again so many IWD mobilisations focused on gender-based violence. The issue was a focus of marches throughout Asia, Europe and Latin America, with Italy, Mexico and Pakistan among the countries where it received particular emphasis. In Turkey, thousands defied a protest ban to take part in a ‘feminist night march’ to denounce hundreds of femicides and demand the reinstatement of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention, which Turkey withdrew from in 2021.
Even in countries where protests are relatively infrequent, such as Kyrgyzstan, people marched to demand an end to gender-based violence.
In mobilising, women struck a balance between justified anger at violence and discrimination, indignation at attempts to snatch back hard-won rights and freedoms, and celebration of victories scored against the odds.
But mobilisations rarely focused on a single issue: when femicides and gender-based violence came to the foreground, protesters also made clear the underlying causes: the treatment of women as inferior, and as objects rather than autonomous subjects. This is also the reason why women are so often denied the freedom to make decisions over their own bodies and lives.
Sexual and reproductive rights
At a time when gender is at the centre of a culture war being waged by a well-organised and well-funded international network of ultraconservative forces, sexual and reproductive rights – particularly abortion rights – were a major focus of IWD marches. In countries from Colombia to Spain, where advances have recently been won, those taking part sought to defend the ground gained and push for more.
In countries where recent political shifts have reopened hope of progress, such as Brazil, women demanded change on many fronts, from equal pay, reproductive freedom and racial justice to protection from domestic violence. Women continued to demand liberalisation in countries where abortion is severely criminalised, such as El Salvador. And wherever women’s rights are under pressure alongside LGBTQI+ rights, particularly trans rights, IWD marchers sought to defend both. Nowhere was this clearer than in the USA.
Trans rights, however, also proved divisive as a vocal segment of the women’s movement continues to publicly reject the idea that trans women are women, as seen for example in Spain. In response others in the movement are demanding more conscious efforts to become truly intersectional, recognising and working against layers of mutually reinforcing forms of exclusion.
IWD also saw multiple demands for economic rights, bringing the commemoration back to its origins in the workers’ rights movement. These ranged from demands for equal wages and stronger social protections to those focused on the disproportionate share of unpaid care work carried out by women. This key issue is all the more pronounced in low-income countries and in rural areas, where women can spend up to 14 times as much time on unpaid work as men.
In Thailand, women’s rights groups handed the government a list of demands that included the ratification of four International Labour Organization conventions and social security protections for domestic workers. In Indonesia, women gathered outside parliament to demand the passage of a long-awaited bill to protect domestic workers.
In France, home to ongoing protests in response to government plans to raise the retirement age, IWD marches focused on the impacts of the pension changes on women. In Uruguay, the trade union confederation called for recognition of women’s unpaid work. In neighbouring Argentina, the #NiUnaMenos collective also called for women’s economic autonomy as part of the solution to violence.
Almost everywhere, women mobilising on IWD expressed solidarity with their sisters in Afghanistan and Iran. Photos of Mahsa Amini were seen in marches on all continents. Street performances sought to call public attention to the plight of Iranian women. This was seen in London, where dozens of British-Iranian women marched wearing red cloaks and white bonnets recalling The Handmaid’s Tale, holding photos of female protesters who have been killed, maimed and jailed by the theocratic regime.
Iranian authorities detained young women who filmed themselves dancing in public on International Women's Day.— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) March 18, 2023
In response, more young women have filmed themselves dancing in public around Iran. #IranRevolution #زن_زندگی_آزادی #مهسا_امینیpic.twitter.com/JNlU6wTJGR
In Iran, violent repression continues, but it isn’t game over yet. Iranian women continue to resist in every possible way – including by defying the absurd ban on dancing in public, filming themselves doing so on IWD for the whole world to see.
They’re not only fighting for their survival – they’re also sending a message of resilience to the world. Even in the bleakest of times, women won’t give up. The day will come when feminism – the apparently radical notion that women are people – becomes common sense. Until that happens, the struggle goes on.
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 Aldara Zarraoa/Getty Images