Sexual violence always been used by state forces to intimidate and humiliate those fighting back, but the international women’s movement is fighting back strongly.
In a world in which far right authoritarian governments are on the rise from Brazil to India, the use of violence in general and sexual violence in particular are weapons of choice. It is not surprising that this was a central focus of many of the International Women’s day protests which took place this year across the global south from Chile to Pakistan.
These involved unprecedented numbers of women and their allies demanding women’s rights, foremost of which, was an immediate end to violence against women.The campaign against violence has been personified by the anti-rape anthem, Un violador en tu camino—A rapist in your path—which became a viral phenomenon after it was first given voice by protesters in Chile.
This was never just a condemnation of individual acts of violence but rather a novel method of highlighting the state violence used against civil protests. These protests stand in stark contrast to most of the women’s day celebrations that took place in the West.
These tended to focus on the veneration of female role models who have broken through the glass ceiling such as Michelle Obama, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and similar hugely wealthy figures. There were also a number of events sponsored by Amazon, Harpers Bazaar or Shell—who presented its name as She’ll for the day.
Although women have made real advances, discrimination is still widespread across the globe. It is women who shoulder most of the impact of neoliberal policies and austerity. When services are cut it is mostly women that fill the gap.
It was the expansion of services such as housing, health, social care and early years education after the Second World War which afforded millions of women in the West some level of economic and social independence. Now these, together with access to reproductive rights, are all under attack.
Right wing governments always accompany their economic programmes with an ideological reinforcement of the centrality of the family and women’s pivotal role within it. The continuing use of sexual intimidation and violence serve to remind women of their subordinate role under capitalism. It was therefore entirely predictable that these protests would be met by further—state sponsored—violence.
In Santiago, Chile, thousands gathered in the capital demanding access to abortion and an end to domestic violence. Police used water hoses and teargas in an attempt to disperse the crowds. Many women had arrived with gas masks and sling shots to fight back.
In Mexico City, a million strong demonstration marched to the public square in front of the national palace, where they painted up the names of victims of gender violence, a list that included over 3,000 names. In Istanbul in Turkey police fired tear gas at a crowd and pushed protesters away after local officials closed down streets.
A demonstration in the capital of Kyrgyzstan was met with vicious repression when masked men attacked and beat protesters, tearing up their placards. Police arrested dozens of people—mainly women.
At the Greek-Turkish border women asylum seekers staged a demonstration demanding access to the EU. They held placards saying “We are women and humans too”. They and their children were met with blows and beatings. In France, Paris witnessed a large demonstration demanding women’s rights which was attacked by the notorious French riot cops fresh from their violent treatment of the gilets jaunes protesters over the past 18 months.
Those protesting globally were undoubtedly brave but it can also be argued that they have been emboldened by the success of the worldwide #MeToo movement. Western commentators have tended to focus on the impact of #MeToo in countries such as the US, Britain and France.
But across the world this year’s protests have made it clear that women are no longer prepared to put up with the harassment and violence that for decades was considered a normal part of our lives as women.
The impact can be seen clearly in India, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.
Women are among the strongest opponents of the new laws that threaten the citizenship rights of vulnerable groups such as Muslims, poor women, oppressed castes and LGBTQ people. Demands have also included punishment for rapists, not their victims, and an end to the enforced religious segregation of women.
This resistance can only be encouraged by the guilty verdict and 23-year jail sentence imposed on Harvey Weinstein. Women everywhere have something to celebrate in this decision—it shows that even the mightiest can be brought down if people stand up and fight. Austerity, global warming and the coronavirus will all place further burdens on the shoulders of working class women in particular.
But it is also a time when discrimination and sexual harassment are being challenged on the streets in unprecedented numbers. The call for the liberation of women is a central demand of movements fighting back.