MADRID – A 24-hour strike by millions of Spanish women. A crackdown in France on companies violating gender-equal pay policies. In Russia, a candid apology from a powerful legislator to women he sexually harassed.
Many of the International Women’s Day events on Thursday powerfully echoed the #MeToo movement that has mobilized women against sexual violence and workplace harassment.
Demonstrators filled the streets in several Asian cities, including Manila, Seoul and New Delhi. Clad in pink and purple shirts, the activists in Manila lambasted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, calling him among the worst violators of women’s rights in Asia. Human rights groups have condemned Duterte’s sexist remarks, including a suggestion that troops shoot female communist rebels in the genitals.
In Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, a throng of activists was joined by a victim of one of the acid attacks frequently perpetrated in the country by embittered men. Black glasses covered part of her badly burned face.
Hundreds of women gathered in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, to commemorate the occasion and urge more progress on women’s political rights, education and safety. During Taliban rule, many women would have been afraid to leave their homes.
In Spain, major unions estimated that 5.3 million people joined the strike, which targeted gender violence and unequal pay. The day culminated with street protests in scores of cities. The theme was “If we stop, the world stops.”
Social services worker Teresa Sonsur, protesting in Madrid, said she wanted to end workplace discrimination at her agency.
“The women are doing all the hard work, dealing with the customers, but in the positions of management it is always men,” the 38-year-old woman said.
French companies that treat women unequally may soon face new pressure and penalties. President Emmanuel Macron says his government is going to name and shame such companies. He predicted positive changes “because no one wants to be the worst student in the class.”
Another government initiative would fine companies with more than 50 employees if there is an “unjustified” gender wage gap.
The left-leaning French daily Liberation said that for one day only, men would have to pay 50 cents more than women for the newspaper, a reminder that women in France, on average, are paid 25 percent less than men.
In a striking development in Russia, the head of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee apologized after being accused of sexual harassment by several female journalists. Noting it was International Women’s Day, Leonid Slutsky said on Facebook, “I am using the occasion to ask forgiveness from those of you whom I freely or involuntarily caused suffering.”
The apology came after demonstrators, including opposition presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, picketed outside Parliament, demanding Slutsky’s resignation.
In Italy, actress Asia Argento, who helped sparked the #MeToo campaign last year, said she is launching a new movement, #WeToo, to unite women against a power imbalance favoring men.
Argento told Radio 24 that her aim is “to finally change the patriarchal system so rooted in our culture, not just in Italy.”
Argento helped embolden other women to report sexual assault and harassment when she accused Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of rape in an expose by the New Yorker. She faced a backlash in Italy, with critics questioning why she waited 20 years to come forward.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the world’s most powerful women, said in a video message that the quest for greater gender equality in Germany and worldwide must continue.
“Many women before us have made sacrifices and fought persistently so that women would have more rights,” she said. “But there’s still a lot to do.”
In Rome, Catholic women challenged Pope Francis to give women a greater voice in church affairs. Former Irish President Mary McAleese, an advocate for women’s ordination and gay rights, accused the church’s all-male leadership of refusing to change women’s second-class status.
“The Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny,” McAleese said.
In Uganda, where domestic violence is common and often goes unreported, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni urged men to stop abusing their wives.
“If you want to fight, why don’t you look for a fellow man and fight?” said Museveni, calling domestic abusers cowards.
At a star-studded event at the United Nations, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on men to join in making gender equality “a reality for all.”
“This is what women and girls want. And that is what I want,” he said. “It is what every sensible man and boy should want.”
International Women’s Day, created over a century ago by the socialist and labor movements, traditionally has been a higher-profile occasion abroad than in the United States, where women’s rights activists have been energized over the past 14 months by huge protest marches and the emergence of the #MeToo movement.
Nonetheless, several U.S. companies, including McDonald’s, Kroger and Old Navy, made gestures in recognition of the day, and the White House announced that first lady Melania Trump would present State Department courage awards to women from around the world at a March 21 ceremony.
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