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International Women’s Day 2021: an overview

International Women’s Day (IWD) this year was marked by protests in many parts of the world. These were, however, only the tip of the iceberg of the widespread and deepening anger at the catastrophic situation facing millions of women today - the restrictions on the right to protest and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic having held back, in many cases, the possibility for truly mass mobilisations.

From the recent horrific murder of Sarah Everard in Britain to the near-total ban on abortion voted in the State of Arkansas, from reports attesting to the systemic culture of sexual abuse in H&M factories in India all the way up to the sexist treatment faced even by rich and upper-class women such as Britney Spears or Meghan Markle, the reasons for voicing anger are endless, as daily news are littered with reports and stories of gender-based violence, oppression and enduring misogyny, and of the heavy costs of the economic crisis unloaded on poor and working-class women.

Last year’s 8 March took place as the effects of the global pandemic were starting to unravel in a series of countries. But IWD then still took the form of mass or semi-mass mobilisations in important parts of the world, most especially in the Spanish State and in Latin America. From that point of view, March 8 this year was somewhat different. The Spanish state, which had been home in recent years to marches and strikes involving millions, experienced lower-key protests, and demonstrations were banned in Madrid. Similarly, the “pandemic effect” had a strong impact in limiting the numbers mobilised on the street in many other countries.

At the same time, very militant actions did take place in a large number of places, and some countries did stand out with more sizeable mobilisations. This was especially the case in India, where an estimated 40,000 women, many of them female farmers, congregated in Delhi from several states, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles to join the ongoing farmers’ protests and holding huge rallies and sit-ins on IWD. Throughout the country, women have played a leading role in the months-long revolt against the now infamous agricultural laws imposed by the right-wing BJP government. A woman activist was quoted by Al-Jazeera saying: “Today we are finding ourselves under attack at all fronts. As women, as peasants, as workers, as youth and students. We are opposed to the laws that have been passed in favour of corporations.”

In Myanmar, IWD coincided with a mass general strike in defiance of the brutal military regime - the second such general strike since the generals, led by Min Aung Hlaing, grabbed power in a coup perpetrated against the will of the overwhelming majority of the population. The campaign of civil disobedience, which has propelled the working class at the centre of events, has seen women, especially young women, putting their lives on the frontlines of the struggle against a deeply reactionary and patriarchal regime. As the New York Times recently commented, “By the hundreds of thousands, the women have gathered for daily marches, representing striking unions of teachers, garment workers and medical workers — all sectors dominated by women.” The heroic role played by women in the revolutionary developments in Myanmar is highlighted by the large number of them who have fallen to the bullets of the regime soldiers and gunmen in the ferocious repression unleashed against the movement.

Repression and violence from the state have been a recurrent thread in the last year, as governments around the world have often used the excuse of the pandemic to suppress basic democratic rights.

In Mexico City, a peaceful demonstration for women's rights and against femicides on March 8 turned into an all-out assault by state forces against the very participants of this demonstration - only exposing further the entrenched and systemic violence faced by women, including at the hands of those supposed to “protect” them. President López Obrador has paid lip service to women's rights while refusing to break with a governorship candidate facing multiple accusations of rape, and erecting high fences before IWD marches around the National Palace and other monuments - de facto treating feminist protesters as violent criminals, and pre-emptively justifying police repression against them by saying “There is going to be a demonstration of women. They have every right to protest, to demonstrate, but there is a lot of provocation. There are many people who infiltrate and what they seek is to cause harm.” Protesters turned the anti-riot wall into a memorial, adorning it with the names of victims of femicides – which have spiked in the country in recent years.

In Russia, unlike last year, there was a rather limited response to the call, by Socialist Alternative (SA) and Socialist Feminist Alternative, for a 2h-feminist strike on March 5 (the last working day before March 8). This is in large part explained by the climate of increased repression by Putin’s regime in recent weeks. Two members of SA were arrested in the run-up to the event - including one of them for 28 days. However, small protests took place on March 8 in several cities like in Moscow, St Petersburg, Kazan and Ulyanovsk. SA supporters were invited to do several interviews, including one that appeared on the front page of The Moscow Times. There were also some important protests in Eastern Europe and central Asia, like in Ukraine, Belarus, Kirghizstan and Kazakhstan. Under pressure, the Kazakh authorities had allowed an IWD protest for the very first time in the country’s history; a youthful, five kilometre-march of several hundreds people, many holding home-made placards, filled the streets of the capital Almaty, demanding equal rights for women and for LGBTQ+ people, the criminalisation of domestic violence and a range of other demands.

In Poland, the demonstrations on IWD were relatively small. The large tide of mass protests that rocked the country last November wasn’t able to stop the establishment going ahead with its vicious ban on abortion, which took effect in January this year. As a result, a temporary feeling of defeat and tiredness is no doubt affecting the mood among broader layers. Yet this in no way means the end of the feminist movement in Poland, as last year’s upheaval has left a mark in the consciousness, and support for reproductive rights has grown significantly over the years among Polish people, and overlaps with growing working class anger at the PiS government.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Paris and in several major cities of France, to call out inequalities and violence suffered by women, which the health crisis and lockdowns have dramatically exacerbated. In many places they were joined by a significant contingent of nurses, midwives and other healthcare workers demanding better pay and working conditions. The presence of social and health workers was a defining trend of many actions on March 8 this year, as this highly feminised sector is bearing the brunt of the mismanagement of the pandemic by capitalism the world over.

IWD in France also took place against the background of an escalating myriad of accusations of rapes, incest and sexual assaults by rich and powerful personalities; while in Greece, March 8 happened in the context of the outbreak of the #metoo movement, with a recent series of denunciations of sexual violence in the field of sport and culture bringing thousands on the streets. In Athens and Thessaloniki, militant demonstrations took place, accompanied by work stoppages by various unions.

Protests against sexual assault and rapes were also a feature in Australia with over 1000 people taking part in a rally in Australia. There were chants against Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, who has been accused of rape by a woman who subsequently committed suicide and police have outrageously decided not to pursue the allegations because she is dead. There is also a scandal around victim-blaming and sexual assault in the Australian Parliament.

In Turkey, despite the pathetic and patronising attempts by President Erdogan to strike a sympathetic tone on IWD, the Istanbul authorities had shut down metros, trams and funicular routes leading to the central Taksim Square, a concerted effort to sabotage protests on that day. But this did not deter a couple of thousands of protesters to rally in the nearby streets. Shocking episodes of brutal murders of women in the days leading up to March 8 only fed the outrage. In 2020, 408 women were murdered in Turkey, more than one a day on average.

In Algeria, hundreds of women and men gathered in the capital Algiers demanding to put the “family code” to the bin – a reactionary law that officially relegate women as second zone citizens, rendering them minors for life by making them dependent on their husbands or fathers.

In Germany, demonstrations and rallies were observed throughout the country, with a noticeably youthful composition. Importantly, March 8 was also the “baptism of fire” for the freshly created ROSA campaign there, which organised highly successful interventions in 11 German cities. A lot of interest in socialist feminism and in ROSA was reported, as many protesters wanted to carry on the fight and take part in future actions. Similarly in Austria, where protests were bigger in some places than last year, ROSA was building for its first conference.

In general, notwithstanding the restrictions on protests, measures of social distancing, state harassment and other complications, IWD 2021 clarified again that a new generation of young women is rising and getting further radicalised by the cumulative and devastating effects of the crisis and the global pandemic, determined to fight back against a system which feeds and is fed by structural gender-based oppression and violence. An internationalist slant was also strongly felt in most IWD protests, as many people have been both revolted and inspired by recent world events – and the mass resistance put up by women, workers and young people in Poland, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere.

ROSA, the international socialist-feminist campaign led by International Socialist Alternative, had organised protests, actions, initiatives and virtual and physical meetings in a total of 18 countries on that day: from Canada to Brazil, from Cote d’Ivoire to Australia. If you also want to get involved, do not wait to contact us!

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Mar 21

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