At a time when right wing ultra nationalism threatens to usher in a new era of regressive patriarchal politics, the International Women’s Strike reminds us of the power of civil societies to resist. On 8 March, people in more than 35 countries will answer the rallying call ‘solidarity is our weapon’, by marching, walking out at work and by not taking part in unpaid care work.
The strike originates from two diverse grassroots actions in late 2016. In October Polish women went on a one-day strike against a proposed bill controlling women’s sexual and reproductive rights that sought to impose a near total ban on abortion, including criminalising miscarriage or abortion as a result of rape. Later that month, tens of thousands of women marched in Argentina against femicide and widespread gender based violence. A call for one-hour strikes and mass mobilisations was answered in countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.
In starting to organise together, these women’s movements created a momentum that has carried on building, based on a founding statement: “we, the women of the world, had enough of physical, economic, verbal or moral violence directed against us. We will not tolerate it passively.”
It is the brutality of these daily realities that has seen the #WomensStrike first galvanise global civil society and then awaken so many people from different walks of life. We see women encountering discrimination and want to do something because this inequality affects everything.
Women’s basic freedoms are often the first to be challenged by patriarchy, both systemic and unthinking. It may begin by being shut down and silenced in conversation, or being denied the ability to move and meet freely by unequal childcare responsibilities or unsafe cities. Whether it is the right to proper medical care, access to schooling or political and economic participation, the extent of inequities may differ between countries and communities, but the list of them goes on and on.
In many workplaces, pay remains unequal. Iceland is considered amongst the most gender equal countries yet women still earn 14 to 18 percent less than men. Unions and women’s organizations say this means women effectively work for free after 2:38 p.m. So in another powerful mass action last year thousands of Icelandic women decided to work the hours their pay merited, and left their workplaces at precisely 2:38pm.
Women’s work also goes unpaid. When both paid and unpaid work such as household chores and caring for children are taken into account, women work longer hours than men. Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals aims for gender equality by 2030, partly through tackling unpaid work. It might seem a long way off but to have any chance of achieving such a rightly ambitious goal we must speak up for and defend women’s rights now.
While there are many courageous women activists speaking out against misogyny and entrenched patriarchy, our research at CIVICUS shows that they also face additional challenges because of their work and beliefs. They may be subjected to sexual slurs, stigmatisation and even gender based violence by both authoritarian elements in governments and by religious and ideological extremists. Civil society organisations like ours need to stand shoulder to shoulder with these activists and their organisations.
At the personal level, we are all affected by sexism and patriarchy, and we can all be potential allies in creating more equal societies. We may not think of ourselves as activists but taking action often begins with the seemingly small, daily things that we can all do, like challenging patronising attitudes such as man mansplaining to a women, or in supporting colleagues by amplifying their voices at a meeting. We must act now and everyday until we have changed ourselves, our families, communities and workplaces permanently.
Adi Mistry Frost, CIVICUS