Gender equality, rights on agenda on International Women’s Day

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

LONDON (Reuters) – Campaigners for gender equality marked International Women’s Day on Friday with protests, discussion panels and walkouts as well as celebrations.

In one of the first protests of the day, several hundred women gathered in central Madrid around midnight to bang pots and pans and demand more rights for women in a society they say is still dominated by men.

Gender inequality has become a deeply divisive issue in Spain ahead of its April 28 parliamentary election. A new far-right party, Vox, which opinion polls show winning seats, has called for the scrapping of a landmark law on gender violence.

One of Spain’s largest unions, UGT, said an estimated six million people walked out of their jobs for at least two hours in a strike to demand equal pay and rights for women, which it said mobilized more people than a similar action a year ago.

The government said it would not provide estimates on the rate of participation.

Tens of thousands of women, mostly students, crammed streets and squares in central Madrid, chanting and carrying placards saying: “Liberty, Equality, Friendship” and “The way I dress does not change the respect I deserve!”

“From reactionary forces to certain political speeches, many people are trying to demonize feminism while it has always been a fight for equality,” said Ana Sanz, 36, dressed in a red overcoat and white bonnet similar to the uniforms seen in the dystopian novel and TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

Earlier about 200 female cyclists took part in another protest in Madrid against gender violence and patriarchy, many wearing purple – a symbolic color used by women’s rights activists.

“HONK FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS!”

Women also took to the streets of Athens, Berlin and Kiev demanding equality and an end to violence against women. In Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, hundreds called for the release of Syrian women in jail.

In Paris, demonstrators from Amnesty International gathered outside Saudi Arabia’s embassy to wave placards that read “Honk for women’s rights” and calling for the release of jailed women activists, including those who campaigned for the right to drive in the deeply conservative kingdom.

At a ceremony at the Elysee Palace, President Emmanuel Macron handed the first women’s rights prize dedicated to the late French minister and abortion campaigner Simone Veil to Cameroonian rights activist Aissa Doumara in recognition of her campaign against forced marriages.

In London, Meghan, Britain’s Duchess of Sussex, joined singer Annie Lennox, model Adwoa Aboah, former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and others in a panel discussion about issues affecting women today.

The session, which touched upon gender equality and the obstacles women face, was convened by the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, an organization of which Meghan was announced vice-president on Friday.

In Russia, where International Women’s Day has been an important festival since Communist times, flowers and congratulatory messages decorated public spaces across the country.

(Reporting by Sabela Ojea and Raul Cadenas in Madrid, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in London, Johnny Cotton in Paris and Reuters Television in Moscow; Editing by Gareth Jones)