'We are international, we are everywhere': women unite in global strike

Alexandra Topping in London and Molly Redden in New York
Students with their faces painted at a college in Chennai, India, on the eve of International Women’s Day. Photograph: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

Women in more than 50 countries will go on strike from paid and unpaid labour on Wednesday while millions more will be taking part in direct action on what is set to be one of the most political International Women’s Days in history.

From Thailand to Poland, the United States to Australia, the first International Women’s Strike will see action on both the industrial and domestic fronts, with participants keen to show solidarity with an energised global women’s movement.

“We are united, we are international – and we are everywhere,” said Klementyna Suchanow, a Poland-based organiser of the International Women’s Strike, adding that the walkout would put governments and institutions under pressure by giving women a voice that has long been ignored. “We are an army of women across the globe and we are no longer asking to be listened to. The world is being forced to listen to us.”

The theme for 2017’s International Women’s Day – which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – is #BeBoldForChange.

Organisers of the International Women’s Strike have joined forces with coordinators of the Women’s March and hundreds of human rights and women’s campaigners to capitalise on momentum in the movement in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Up to 2 million people around the world marched for equality in January the day after his inauguration.

The Women’s March – which now has organisers across 200 cities in 80 countries – has called on supporters not to engage in paid or unpaid labour and only spend money in small and female-owned businesses.

Recognising that the poor financial situation and rigid work laws mean many will not be able to take part in a physical strike, organisers are urging supporters to wear red, a colour historically associated with the labour movement, in solidarity.

In other countries women will wear black, or different colours, while the focus on issues from femicide to abortion will be decided in each nation.

The International Women’s Strike, meanwhile, is suggesting that women “boycott local misogynists”, stop shopping, go on a sex strike, block roads and streets, and take part in marches or pickets. Women are also encouraged to leave creative and impassioned “out of office” replies, talking about why they are striking.

The strike is partly inspired by the women of Iceland, where in 1975 25,000 women gathered on the streets of Reykjavik and 90% of the female population did not go to work, cook, clean or take care of children. Last year thousands of female employees across Iceland walked out of workplaces at 2.38pm to protest against earning less than men.

Red shoes and flowers placed by members of a women’s group to promote International Women’s Day in Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Paul White/AP

In the US, where the feminist movement has been galvanised by the election of a president who has bragged of grabbing women “by the pussy”, organisers are expecting small demonstrations across the country, with some major gatherings of strikers expected in Chicago and Washington DC.

“We have the sense that people will spontaneously make a call for demonstrations in their town,” said Tithi Bhattacharya, an associate professor at Purdue University and one of the march’s organisers. “I think the most exciting thing about 8 March is the way it’s being interpreted in diverse ways by different groups.”

In some parts of the US the impact of the strike is already evident. In two districts of North Carolina and Virginia, so many teachers announced plans to miss work on Wednesday that school closures were announced. In the district of Alexandria, 300 staff requested the day off.

The day of action comes amid a recognition among campaigners that mass, headline-grabbing actions are the key to furthering the cause of women’s rights around the world.

“If we only fight our own battles – if that is abortion in Poland, or femicide in South America – we are only fighting one finger of the giant,” said Suchanow. “And we need to be taking down the giant, not the finger.”

Suchanow joined in the mass women’s strike in Poland last October, in which up to 100,000 women dressed in black took to the streets to protest against a near-total ban on abortion. Following the march, Poland’s parliament overwhelmingly rejected the ban drafted by the ruling Law and Justice party.

Polish women and some male supporters blow horns while raising a coathanger, a symbol of illegal abortions, during a protest in Warsaw last October. Photograph: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

On Wednesday in Britain the “one day without a woman” mobilisation will urge women to refrain from labour. In London, there will be a protest outside the family court in Holborn at 9.45am, followed by a “speak out” outside parliament, said Nina Lopez, a coordinator for the International Women’s Strike.

In Argentina many women will strike. Last year there was a national protest after a week of extreme violence against women including the violent rape and murder of 16-year-old Lucía Pérez in Mar Del Plata.

In Peru women are demanding an end to “violence against women in all its forms: physical, sexual, emotional and economic”, and marching in 10 regions, said Jill Ruiz. “This is a historical action in our country and worldwide. Solidarity is our weapon.”

In Brazil, where actions are planned in more than 70 cities, organiser Mariana Bastos said the focus would be on femicide.

Actions will range from a total strike at home and in the workplace to an hour’s strike at lunch, where people will gather with their colleagues to discuss equality issues. Supporters are being asked to wear violet in solidarity. “We are a huge country and it is a very complex picture, but each city and each woman will decide how they take part,” said Bastos.

In Kenya, women’s groups joined with government officials from the Nairobi county department of gender and health to mark the day on Tuesday – holding a procession and forum with speeches and testimonials, as well as offering free HIV testing and free cervical cancer screening at the event, said Ritah Mutheu Muia, founder of the women’s group Her Voice.

“Following the theme of this year I felt women in Kenya are now boldly standing up for their rights, that more men are joining us in this journey for equality and equity - they are taking a stand and being bold for women,” she said. “Women have taken the reins and are the ones spearheading change in society.”

The day’s origins go back to a mass mobilisation in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding the right to vote, better pay and shorter working hours. The first official National Women’s Day march, led by the Socialist Party of America, took place a year later on 28 February.

International Women’s Day moved to 8 March in 1913, and was recognised by the United Nations – which now decrees an annual theme – in 1975.

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