MADRID—From demands for constitutional rights in Islamabad to calls for economic parity in Manila, Paris and Madrid, International Women’s Day demonstrations in cities around the world Wednesday highlighted the unfinished work of providing equity for half of the planet’s population.
While activists in some places celebrated political and legal advances, observances also pointed to repression in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran, and the large numbers of women and girls who experience sexual assaults and domestic violence globally.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted this week that women’s rights were “abused, threatened and violated” around the world—and gender equality won’t be achieved for 300 years given the current pace of change.
Progress won over decades is vanishing because “the patriarchy is fighting back,” Guterres said.
‘The most repressive country in the world for women and girls’
Even in countries where women have considerable freedom, there have been recent setbacks. This was the first International Women’s Day since the US Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion last year and many states adopted restrictions on abortion.
The United Nations recognized International Women’s Day in 1977, but the occasion has its roots in labor movements of the early 20th century. The day is commemorated in different ways and to varying degrees in places around the world.
The United Nations identified Afghanistan as the most repressive country in the world for women and girls since the Taliban takeover in 2021. The UN mission said Afghanistan’s new rulers were “imposing rules that leave most women and girls effectively trapped in their homes.”
They have banned girls’ education beyond sixth grade, and barred women from public spaces such as parks and gyms. Women must cover themselves from head to toe, and are also barred from working at national and international nongovernmental organizations.
Afghan women’s rights campaigner Zubaida Akbar told the UN Security Council that women and girls in the country are facing “the worst crisis for women’s rights in the world.”
“The Taliban have sought not only to erase women from public life, but to extinguish our basic humanity,” said Zubaida, “There is one term that appropriately describes the situation of Afghan woman today: Gender Apartheid.”
Women gathered in Pakistan’s major cities to march amid tight security. Organizers said the demonstrations were aimed at seeking rights guaranteed by the constitution. Some conservative groups last year threatened to stop similar marches by force.
Women’s rights activists in Japan held a small rally to renew their demand for the government to allow married couples to keep using different surnames. Under the 1898 civil code, a couple must adopt “the surname of the husband or wife” at the time of marriage. Surveys show majority support for both men and women keeping their own names.
In the Philippines, hundreds of protesters from various women’s groups rallied in Manila for higher wages and decent jobs.
“We are seeing the widest gender pay gap,” protest leader Joms Salvador said. “We are seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of women workers who are in informal work without any protection.”
The first female leader of Tanzania, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, said during an International Women’s Day rally organized by an opposition party that she has brought a new level of political tolerance to the East African nation. Hassan has been accused of continuing her predecessor John Magufuli’s anti-democratic policies, but she lifted a 6-year-old ban on opposition rallies in January.
“The opposition is lucky that it is a woman president in charge because if a misunderstanding occurs, I will stand for peace and make the men settle their egos,” the president said.
In Spain alone, hundreds of thousands of women—with expectations taking the total over 1 million as in previous years—attended evening demonstrations in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities.
Although Spain has for years produced one of the world’s biggest turnouts on March 8, this year’s marches are marked by a division within its own left-wing government over a sexual liberty law that has inadvertently led to the reduction of sentences for hundreds of sexual offenders.
Feminists in Spain are also split over a new transgender rights law that took effect last week, and allows anyone 16 and older to change their gender on official documents without medical certification.
Elsewhere in Europe, tens of thousands of people marched in Paris and other French cities, brandishing posters with the messages: “Equal Pay, Now” and “Solidarity with the world’s women.” The rallies focused on protesting proposed changes to the pension system, which women’s groups say are unfair to working mothers.
The protest came hours after President Emmanuel Macron’s government presented a new gender equity plan, which would prohibit companies that do not not publish a gender equality index or have a poor rating from getting public contracts. Women’s salaries in France are on average 15.8 percent below men’s.
Despite global protests every year, International Women’s Day has not been widely observed in the US.
“For most of its history, Women’s Day was associated with socialism,” said Kristen Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m sure you can imagine that was not very popular in the United States.”
The day has been a nod to many events where women have stood up for their rights as workers, Ghodsee said. “They’re not just trying to get the right to vote—they’re trying to promote a progressive cause with the entire working class.”
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