In recognition of International Women’s Day, women across Europe abstained from work and took to the streets on Thursday to highlight the persistence of economic inequality and gender-based violence. Millions marched and filled public spaces, resulting in numerous public transit and flight delays across the continent. These protests come on the heels of similar feminist movements including #MeToo and “Time’s Up”, which have initiated a public debate on sexual assault and the pay-gap between men and women. Unfortunately, some of the responses to the protests have illustrated that the defense of women’s rights is still a controversial topic in southern Europe.
Thursday’s protests are deeply rooted in the origins of International Women’s Day, which grew out of an early 20th century protest movement. In 1908, 15,000 women marched on the streets of New York City to demand better working conditions, higher wages, and the right to vote. Shortly after, the International Conference of Working Women came up with the idea to celebrate the first International Women’s Day in 1911. However, it was not until 1975 that the date was officially recognized by the United Nations.
The largest of this year’s International Women’s Day protests took place in Spain, where participation exceeded organisers’ expectations. Millions stayed home from work and hundreds of thousands marched in dozens of cities across the country chanting, “If we stop, the world stops”. The strike in Spain was organized by the umbrella group the 8 March Commission and was supported by ten different unions, both mayors of Barcelona and Madrid, and two female ministers in the conservative central government. Organisers called for a “society free of sexist oppression, exploitation and violence”. The commission was especially keen to highlight the fact that Spanish women spend nearly twice as much time as men on unpaid work like childcare and household chores, and encouraged women to abandon both paid and unpaid work for the duration of the 24-hour strike.
Similar actions were also staged in other European countries. In Italy, the feminist group, Non Una di Meno, organised a 24-hour strike in 40 cities with the support of several Italian trade unions. French men and women were encouraged by a group of trade associations and unions to cease work at 15.40, the time when women effectively stop earning income as a result of the country’s pay-gap. Thousands of protesters also gathered in central Paris near the statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French republic, to make their voices heard.
These protests are particularly relevant for the region, given the challenges faced by women in southern Europe. Both Portugal and Malta have seen their gender pay-gaps widen over the last few years. Female employment rates are below 60% in Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Spain. The percentage of women that serve as national parliamentary representatives in Cyprus and Greece is an abysmal 18%. While France has a smaller gender pay-gap and a higher proportion of women in its national assembly, 44% of French women have admitted experiencing at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.
It is important to note that empowering women isn’t just a moral cause, its good economics, too. Unsurprisingly, studies have demonstrated that the scope for economic growth widens when countries enact policies that support women. For instance, placing more women in boardrooms has shown to help companies transcend ‘group think’, become more innovative, increase profits and limit risk. On a macro level, reducing gender disparities in the workforce can help diversify an economy and boost GDP anywhere between 9%-27%.
Despite this evidence, Thursday’s protests were not unanimously endorsed by the region’s leaders. José Ignacio Munilla, the bishop of San Sebastián, declared in advance of International Women’s Day that “radical feminism” was inconsistent with Christianity as it rendered women victims. Sadly, the bishop seems unaware that it isn’t radical feminism that has made women victims, but a rise in gender-based violence. In the EU alone, one out of three women has been a victim of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15.
Partido Popular, Spain’s governing central-right political party, also stated that Thursday’s protests were the action of “feminist elites and not real women with everyday problems”. This statement ignores the fact that as many as 55% of women in Europe have experienced some sort of sexual harassment. These women are real women and sexual harassment is very much an everyday problem faced by millions of women across Europe and across the world.
These statistics raise the question as to why southern European countries aren’t doing more to promote gender equality. In fairness, several states have shown concrete signs of government-level action being taken to address this issue. French President Emmanuel Macron appointed women to nearly half of his government ministries and has introduced legislation that addresses street harassment of women. The Maltese Parliament is currently discussing a new law based on the principles of the Istanbul Convention, a treaty that aims to combat violence against women. In 2017 Portugal launched an app for domestic violence victims, while the Portuguese Government is examining ways it can address gender inequality and violence against women in its national curriculum.
A recent report published by the World Economic Forum found that if improvements in women’s earning power continue at current rates, the gender pay-gap will persist until 2186. In recognition of its own slow progress on the matter, the European Union announced a two-year plan back in November to close the pay-gap by focusing on issues such as equal pay, valorizing female skills, combatting gender segregation in particular occupations and sectors, and increasing awareness about the disparities in pay between sexes. However, it is ultimately up to national governments to enact policies that not only promote women’s economic equality with men, but also criminalize the harassment and violence that so many face.
Thursday’s protests indicate that southern Europeans are now determined to call time on the region’s insufficient response to the protection and promotion of women’s rights. The strikes and protests across the region were not indulgent acts by a group of female elites. Instead, they were an exercise in democratic expression. European civil society has a long history of utilising public protests and strikes to ensure the wishes of the people are heard and democratic rights are upheld. Thursday’s actions were a continuation of this tradition. It’s now up to Europe’s leaders to follow through on the reforms demanded by their citizens.