International Women’s Day highlights hurdles obstructing equality

International Women’s Day was marked amid a mood of anger that the struggle for equality is far from being won.

In Istanbul, the Ukrainian women’s rights activists, Femen, staged a topless demonstration in bruise-like makeup to protest against domestic violence hours after a man in the Turkish capital shot dead a female relative because she left home following an argument with her husband. In Cairo, hundreds of women marched for equal rights and a gender balance in Egyptian politics.

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy visited female workers at a bra factory whose jobs had been under threat, Carla Bruni was due to appear on a TV current affairs show to discuss women’s rights and the Socialist frontrunner in the presidential race, François Hollande, promised feminist activists he would put equal numbers of women in government and improve equality. France suffers from a 25% average male-female pay gap.

In Spain, there was controversy over plans by the conservative PP government to strike out the abortion-on-demand law passed by the previous Socialist administration.

Justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón who has pledged to change the law, claimed many Spanish women saw their “right to be a mother violated” by social pressure. “We don’t need protectors, saviours or spiritual fathers to tell us what is good or bad for us,” said Socialist spokeswoman Elena Valenciano.

A recent study showed Spanish women earn 22% less on average than their male peers.

Brazil‘s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, announced tougher measures against men responsible for domestic abuse. One report claimed that 10 Brazilian women met violent deaths each day. She is reported to be close to approving a law fining companies that pay female employees less than men.

Palestinian human rights groups and activists drew attention to the three-week hunger strike of Hana Shalabi who has been held in an Israeli prison without charge since being arrested on 16 February.

Shalabi, 29, claims she was forcibly strip-searched and assaulted by a male Israeli soldier, beaten and blindfolded. Her six-month sentence of “administrative detention” has since been reduced to four months, but she says she will refuse food until freed.

Shalabi, who was released from an earlier period of administrative detention last October, is one of seven Palestinian women currently held in Israeli jails.

Israeli troops fired teargas at a woman’s protest march over her detention in the West Bank. About 500 women also marched in Gaza.

Not even International Women’s Day, normally a maudlin holiday devoted to flowers and chocolates, was safe from the newly politicised atmosphere in Russia, coming just days after Vladimir Putin’s win in the presidential election. Dozens of activists spent the day picketing police headquarters in Moscow, calling for the release of two members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot. Maria Alyokhin and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were arrested on the eve of the election for a raucous performance inside Moscow’s main cathedral and could face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism. The two women, both mothers of young children, have started a hunger strike.

In Afghanistan, analysts and activists have been preoccupied by a statement issued last week by the country’s council of top clerics, suggesting the implementation of guidelines for women that hark back to Taliban-era restrictions, such as strict segregation of all work and education and a ban on travelling without a male guardian.

It heightens worries that, as the west prepares to leave and the government seeks to negotiate some kind of peace deal with insurgents, women’s rights will become a bargaining chip.

Women across south-east Asia faced disappointing news. While Thailand and the Philippines tied as holding the highest number of women in senior management positions (at 39%, they rank second in the world behind Russia), the number of women in senior positions across south-east Asia decreased from an average 36% in 2011 to 32% in 2012, according to the latest research from business group Grant Thornton.

In Singapore, domestic workers – who number 206,000 and hail mostly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India– celebrated a parliamentary proposal announced Monday to legislate a weekly day off for workers starting 1 January 2013, after a 10-year-long campaign calling for fairer work rights. “This is a victory for us,” said 41-year-old Filipina worker Sandi Gusmao, who has lived and worked in Singapore for the past 20 years. “Finally we have made history.”


But Indonesian women were smarting from an announcement that the government aims to ban female MPs from wearing miniskirts, as “provocative clothing will make [men] do things”, according to house of representatives speaker Marzuki Alie.

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