Sisterhood back on the streets
On International Women’s Day (IWD) 2022, women’s movements around the world began to emerge from seclusion and take back the streets, wherever local health contexts allowed. They took advantage of the moment of visibility offered by the global commemoration to bring major demands for gender equality and justice onto the public agenda – calling for action against gender-based violence, progress on sexual and reproductive rights and policies to realise social and economic rights. These demands are not going away after 8 March. By not letting its guard down, the women’s rights movement will continue to resist anti-rights backlash and ensure that each future IWD will be a celebration of the rights won since the last.
International Women’s Day (IWD) 2022, on 8 March, came just three days before the second anniversary of the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic. For two years, as the pandemic raged, the women’s movement rolled up its sleeves to do whatever it took to respond to the disproportionate impacts of the health crisis, lockdowns and economic downturns on women and girls. When IWD came in March 2021, pandemic restrictions on the freedoms of movement and assembly made it difficult to organise large demonstrations, forcing women’s movements to apply their creativity to finding alternative ways to give visibility to their demands.
A year ago, women’s movements did what they could to keep their struggles on the agenda, but it just wasn’t the same: over the years, their success in revealing the invisible, making the inaudible heard and changing meanings and perspectives has been closely linked to their ability to claim and maintain a presence in public space.
But in 2022, in much of the world the virus appeared to be receding and life was resuming its old pace, so feminists took to the streets again. The movement had not been defeated by the pandemic – if anything, it was determined to emerge from it even stronger.
8 March 2022 around the world
The right to life free of violence
Gender-based violence (GBV) increased everywhere under the pandemic, but the problem will not magically disappear when the pandemic ends – because the deeply unequal power relations that enable GBV pre-existed the pandemic and will remain in the aftermath. This is why GBV has been at the centre of feminist mobilisations in so many places and for so long.
All types of violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic. Political measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 affected women and girls in specific ways: financial worries, movement restrictions, often cramped living conditions and – in cases of domestic violence – isolation in close quarters with abusers all made the situation especially dire for many women and girls. Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality. What is key for achieving equality and social justice is an active civil society.
Because it is a global problem, IWD mobilisations in every part of the world demanded action on GBV – but it is in Latin America where those demands were loudest. In the Latin American region women mobilised in huge numbers, in country after country. Streets in cities across the region 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.
Mass marches, along with feminist strikes against all forms of violence – domestic and sexual violence but also institutional and economic violence – were held in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador and Uruguay, among others.
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 on 7 March. 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. Also on 7 March, dozens of women in neighbouring Chile staged a protest called ‘Super Feminist Monday’ outside the presidential palace, including a re-enactment of the performance of the famous song ‘A rapist in your path’.
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.
Latin America was also, predictably, the place where protest violence was most commonly seen. Among protesters, violence was almost invariably exercised against objects rather than people, resulting in broken glass, painted walls and collapsed protective barriers. In a way – as in Mexico, where over the years women’s disappearances and femicides have numbered into the tens of thousands – protesters acted in the conviction that a few broken windows were nothing compared to the immensity of the harm done to women. But mainstream media always treated protesters’ violence, even when directed at inanimate objects, more harshly than police violence targeted at protesters that hurt real people.
Most IWD protests were held in a celebratory atmosphere: even while they were sharing their grievances and expressing their 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. It started in the usual way: hundreds gathered peacefully and headed towards Quito’s main square when they were intercepted by police on horseback who sprayed teargas to prevent them entering the area closest to the seat of government. Teargas was also used against protesters in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city, despite protest organisers having secured all necessary permits.
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.
Women weren’t deterred in Lahore, when 2,000 marched despite efforts by the authorities first to ban the protest and then to dissuade organisers by threatening to withhold security. The event went ahead following a legal challenge, in which the Lahore High Court forced the authorities to provide protection. In Lahore and other cities, including Islamabad and Karachi, counterprotests known as ‘hijab marches’ also mobilised, with women from conservative religious groups calling for the preservation of ‘Islamic values’.
There is an urgent need for a law criminalising domestic violence in Iraq. Organisations have advocated for this for more than a decade. They have submitted several bills, but parliament has so far refused to discuss and adopt a law to protect women, girls and families from violence. Given the importance of such legislation in promoting and protecting women’s rights at the national level, we will continue to put pressure on decision-makers through advocacy and campaigns combined with media support.
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.
Most of the abuses and discriminatory acts experienced by women and girls in Lebanon are the direct product of imbalances between women and men in the patriarchal Lebanese society, which are codified into law. Domestic violence is a longstanding problem due to deeply engrained gender social norms that permeate the entire societal system, policies and legislation. So far the government has failed to recognise and therefore address the problem and has not allocated dedicated resources to tackle GBV.
In nearby Turkey – where according to the We Will Stop Femicides Platform, a civil society organisation (CSO), 72 women were killed in 2022 alone – women also rallied against GBV. Campaigners warned that even high 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.
On 8 March we held mass demonstrations all over Turkey with the slogan ‘We will not live in the grip of poverty and in the shadow of violence, you will never walk alone’. Recently, we have been going through a serious economic crisis with increasing inflation. Rising violence against women and growing poverty are interconnected. We will continue to organise for our right to be recognised as free and equal and to live a life free of violence. We will continue to protest so that no voice is left unheard.
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 – including GBV. 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.
There is an important new movement growing in Austria. It follows on from the Ni Una Menos (‘Not one woman less’) feminist movement that originated in Latin America. Since its founding in July 2020, no femicide in Austria has been left unacknowledged.
The new grassroots movement claims public space: every single time a femicide is found to have taken place, the movement gathers in central parts of Vienna to rally against patriarchal violence and commemorate its victims. The movement seeks to politicise femicides in order to go beyond mere reaction and win agency. More than 30 such rallies have been held since 2020.
In my opinion it has already achieved a lot of success. For instance, media reporting has completely changed. They no longer refer to a femicide as a family drama or a murder, but rather as femicide – that is, the murder of a woman because of the fact that she is a woman.
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.
Education can spark the change we need, and the more we facilitate these conversations between young people, the better equipped the next generation will be to disrupt and reshape the culture of GBV that exists all around us. We bring the message of IWD to our conversations with young people every day. Disrupting bias, stereotypes and discrimination against women, trans and non-binary people is at the heart of our work, and is the key to challenging GBV.
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: the deprivation of the personhood of women and women’s autonomy to decide over their bodies and lives. The deprivation of personhood is violence.
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 life of a pregnant person, in cases of life-threatening foetal malformation and when pregnancy is the result of sexual violence.
As feminists we are fighting to change the law that criminalises abortion under all circumstances. In El Salvador women are unjustly persecuted. Women’s reproductive rights are violated, especially for younger women and those who live in poverty and in the country’s rural areas. In this sense, we in the feminist movement are fighting to change a restrictive, absolutist and absurd regulatory framework.
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, 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.
Sexual and reproductive rights will inevitably be at the forefront of IWD in Poland this year. The fact that it is now almost impossible to access abortion is one of the key issues hindering women’s rights in Poland. The Polish government has not adopted a comprehensive strategy for promoting gender equality. Further, the state’s institutional system to protect equal treatment has been severely weakened. Not only is the state doing nothing – it is also not very welcoming of civil society initiatives on the matter.
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.
This year’s IWD in Bulgaria was focused on peace. We are working on providing support to women and girl refugees coming from conflict areas in Ukraine. We work towards the goal of a feminist Europe.
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. Activists and organisations around the world are making it a priority to get women into decision-making spaces, aiming to make the feminist slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ a reality. That means participation on an equal footing both in the everyday business of government and in decision-making at critical junctures – including transitions to democracy, constitution-making and peace processes.
On IWD, we highlighted the need to include women in the peace process and shed light on the toll of GBV on Yemeni women. Due to the war, women’s political participation in decision-making bodies decreased; for the first time, relevant political bodies had no female representatives at all. Politically, Yemeni women do not exist, as they are completely absent from the decision-making process.
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. Campaigners highlighted that all four ministers of state and all 10 regional governors are currently male, and only six out of 39 ministers and two of 58 divisional officers are female. In parliament, women account for just 61 of 180 lower house members and 26 out of 100 senators. 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.
The call for fair gender representation was joined by groups mobilised in reaction to the femicide of Ayanwole Bamise, murdered on a bus in Lagos state, on the grounds that only by removing the foundations of the existing patriarchal system will women ever be able to live safe and secure from violence.
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.
Our mandate is to build women power to defeat the socio-economic inequalities that continue to sideline women, particularly young women. Our hope is that one day young women can be at the centre of key conversations regarding national resource collection, distribution and use. We also envision young women taking leadership positions at all levels, enabling them to add authoritative voices towards redressing the issues that are key to them.
Social, economic and environmental rights
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. In an election year, a change of president offers a key opportunity to start clawing back losses in women’s, LGBTQI+, labour, environmental and Indigenous people’s rights.
On IWD, GAIN offices in Africa, Asia and Europe continued to do the work that needs to be done while also taking the time to recognise women’s achievements in improving food systems. As we know only too well, women’s contributions are often undervalued, unpaid and overlooked. This is even more pernicious in connection to food systems, where women are key leaders at every step of the way – as farmers, processors, wageworkers, traders and consumers. And still women and girls are often the last members of a household that get to eat.
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’.
Our ongoing campaign as an organisation is about breaking down biases and overcoming prejudices and stereotypes. As a result of these, domestic and care work still falls overwhelmingly on women. This has profound effects on women’s quality of life, because it results in them either abandoning their studies or leaving their jobs to do this unpaid work at home, or trying to become ‘superwomen’ who must be able to do everything, even if they can no longer take it because they so tired.
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.
For IWD we organised a school outreach in a rural district of Zambia’s Southern Province. As usual, the event included menstrual health hygiene talks and career mentorship sessions. Our aim is essentially to break the bias that society and communities have against girls, starting with access to education and career choices. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 4, we want to ensure girls have access to quality education despite the various challenges they face, including menstruation.
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. About 50 women gathered in front of the Scottish Parliament to call for action to tackle climate change and denounce murders of environmental activists.
Given that IWD is a privileged moment of visibility for feminist demands, it might be expected that public events on the day would offer a wide miscellany of disparate demands, frustrations and unheeded claims, collected in no particular order. But what is remarkable is how coherent feminist demands were, locally, nationally and globally, as a direct response to the problem diagnoses 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. The struggle never stops, even for those – such as the Colombian women’s movement – who this year came out to celebrate as big a victory as the legalisation of abortion, because the anti-rights reaction has already kicked off there.
In cases where women’s rights organisations have won partial progress – such as Ecuador, where the National Assembly has just passed a law authorising abortion in cases of rape – certainties don’t abound and regression is always a possibility. Ecuadoran women remain on tenterhooks as the conservative president threatens to veto the new law. Other women’s movements, such as those in Poland and the USA, are having to put their energies into fighting a fierce backlash that threatens to cause deep reversals to rights.
For this year, Women Now for Development decided to celebrate women’s solidarity and resilience following years of war and the pandemic.
The struggle continues because the women’s rights movement knows it can never let its guard down. Anti-rights groups continue to mobilise and each advance brings renewed backlash. Feminists must and will keep fighting. It is up to all of us to support the struggle, in the hope that each future IWD will be a celebration of the rights won since the last.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Governments must involve women and their organisations in decision-making processes across the board, from measures to alleviate the economic impacts of the pandemic and combat GBV to democratisation and peacebuilding processes.
Governments must listen to civil society and its practical knowledge on the ground to design effective policies to end GBV.
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.
With thanks to all the interviewees whose inputs informed this piece: Bilkis Abouosba, Awam Foundation for Development and Culture, Yemen; Maria Al Abdeh, Women Now for Development, Syria; Ghida Anani, ABAAD – Resource Centre for Gender Equality, Lebanon; Alyaa Al Ansari, Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation, Iraq; Cecilia Ananías Soto, Amaranta, Chile; Iliana Balabanova, Bulgarian Platform of the European Women’s Lobby; team of Bold Voices, UK; Judith Goetz, Austria; team of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Poland; Pamela Mateyo and Mwape Kapepula, WingEd Girls, Zambia; Margaret Mutsamvi, Economic Justice for Women Project, Zimbabwe; Farrah Naz, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Pakistan; Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal, Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls; team of We Will Stop Femicide Platform, Turkey. All interview quotations are edited extracts. Full interviews are available here.
Cover photo by Gent Shkullaku/AFP via Getty Images