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Not just another Women's Day: feminist one-day strike brings 'edge' to movement

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For the first time, feminists in more than 50 countries are calling an international women’s strike to protest against violence and inequality, in an effort to combat a global tide of male revanchism.

Women throw flowers as they attend a protest during the International Women's Day, outside the Parliament building in Warsaw on March 8, 2017.
Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski/Reuters
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International Women’s Day on March 8 has sometimes been the occasion for department stores to offer promotional deals on perfume or lingerie.

That might not play well this year, however, amid a mood that is much more militant. Fueling the movement is “a sense of alarm around the world” about impending attacks on women’s rights by conservative populist leaders, says Nisha Varia, a women’s rights advocate with Human Rights Watch in New York.

So for the first time, feminists in more than 50 countries are calling an international women’s strike – a daylong absence from paid and unpaid labor – to protest against violence and inequality.

And recognizing that the prejudices they face are universal, women from Poland to Colombia to South Africa are working across borders to bolster the progress they have made against a tide of male revanchism – which many see exemplified by the election of President Trump.

“We are facing the same problems in almost all countries,” says Marta Lempart, a strike organizer in Poland. “Restrictive reproductive rights, religious leaders interfering in our private lives, and lower wages than men. We can only win if we stand together.”

Crossing borders

The idea for the strike, and the new sharper edge that the women’s movement has taken, was born last October in Poland. There, a one-day women’s strike and protest marches against a bill that would have outlawed abortion under any circumstances forced the government to back down. That success encouraged organizers to broaden their vision.

“Reproductive rights are a litmus test for women’s rights in society,” argues Anna Karaszewska, a leader of the Polish Women’s Congress. “We won’t be able to break the glass ceiling or fight the gender pay gap and other forms of discrimination if we can’t decide about our own bodies and health.”

The movement added an international dimension when Polish strike organizers got in touch by social media with women in other countries, including Argentina, where hundreds of thousands of women had taken to the streets to protest against a string of murders of women.

In Latin America, femicide is the most pressing feminist issue on the agenda; seven of the 10 countries with the highest female murder rates in the world are in Latin America, a region where the aggressively hypermasculine culture of “machismo” is dominant.

“Violence against women is everywhere,” complains Olinda Garcia, a Colombian activist. “It’s in public spaces, it’s in private, in your home carried out by people close to you.” One woman has been killed every 18 hours in Argentina so far this year, according to a recent report.

Governments are changing the law and raising the penalties for violence against women. “But our culture lags behind the legal framework,” says Diana Castillo Murrle, a Colombian gender and citizenship researcher. “We need to put those laws into practice, we need to invest in the classroom as well as the police station to change attitudes.”

The manifesto calling for today’s international women’s strike opens with a declaration that “we, the women of the world, are fed up with violence addressed to us, physical, economic, verbal, or moral. We will no longer tolerate it passively.”

'The Trump effect'

Though recent years have seen worldwide improvements in the rates of school enrollment among girls and in women’s health care, economic injustice is still rampant. Women account for two-thirds of the hours worked in the world every year, but take home only one-tenth of the global income, according to United Nations figures. At the current rate of improvement, women will not achieve economic equality with men for another 170 years, the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report found this year.

But the spark that lit the touch paper for today’s worldwide action, say feminist activists in several countries, was less such depressingly familiar statistics, but rather Mr. Trump’s election.

The new US president, notorious for his sexist remarks, has espoused political positions that feminists say would roll back women’s rights.

“The Trump effect has really galvanized women all over the world because he is so emblematic of what so many of us have gone through in our own countries,” says Sisonke Msimang, founder of Sonke Gender Justice, a South African group working for gender equality.

If women staged more than 600 marches on all seven continents on Jan. 21 in support of the Women’s March on Washington, “it is because we all feel the same from the same experiences of abuse, there is solidarity,” adds Ariadna Estevez, a human rights researcher at the National Autonomous University in Mexico.

Ms. Msimang admits to “a delicious sense of irony” that for once, in a reversal of traditional roles, “African women were turning out in solidarity with the plight of American women. We felt sorry for them.”

Urgency with an edge of anger

But African women have their own reasons for concern about Mr. Trump’s election, she adds. One of his first acts as president was to reimpose and broaden the “global gag rule,” denying US international healthcare funds to any nongovernmental organization that provides abortion counseling or referrals.

"How can we allow this kind of funding to come with such restrictions?" says Tlaleng Mofokeng, who runs a women's health clinic in Johannesburg. "How can you import a foreign country's laws and perceptions onto the women of South Africa?"

Meanwhile, “there is an urgent and immediate sense that we must mobilize to protect the gains we have made so far and defend against setbacks” in women’s rights, says Ms. Varia of Human Rights Watch.

That is easier to do nowadays. “It’s very clear who our enemies are, and that is slightly enlivening,” says Joanna Biggs, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, who helped organize the woman’s march in London last January.

“We didn’t have to explain why we were doing a march … people are ready to do something now,” she adds. “There is an edge of anger and I think that is useful to the movement.”

And it is spreading, too. “The feminist movement,” proclaims Dr. Estevez, “is going global.”

• Monika Rębała in Warsaw; Emily Wright in Bogota, Colombia; and Ryan Brown in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed reporting to this article.