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Swiss Women Strike Nationwide to Protest Inequalities

Category: Europe,World

LONDON — Swiss women turned out by the thousands on Friday for a nationwide strike and demonstrations signaling their frustration over deep-rooted inequalities in one of the richest countries in the world.

The women skipped work and shunned household responsibilities for the day to join in protests calling for equal pay, recognition of their work and greater representation in the halls of power.

Crowds gathered outside the Federal Assembly in Bern, closed off roads in Central Zurich and marched through the streets of Geneva in a protest movement that included demonstrations large and small in all of Switzerland’s major towns and cities.

The strike came 28 years to the day after the first national work stoppage by Swiss women allowed them to vent their anger at the slow pace of change in the country.

“There is a long line of women who have fought before us, and a lot of work lies ahead of us,” Rahel Lüthy, 43, who lives in the rural village of Bennwil, said in an interview as she made her way to Friday’s protest in Basel with her 13-year-old daughter, Filipa.

“We must fight for equal pay, fair distribution of care work, abortion rights, zero tolerance for domestic violence, and more,” Ms. Lüthy added. “And most importantly: We must smash the patriarchy!”

The campaign — known variously on social media as Frauenstreik (women’s strike, in German) and Grève des Femmes (the French version) — began early in the morning. Shortly after midnight, Lausanne Cathedral, in west Switzerland, was lit up in purple, a color often associated with women’s suffrage and the fight for gender equality. On the streets below, crowds chanted, whooped and banged drums.

Thousands of women dressed in that color gathered for rallies in Switzerland’s main cities throughout the day, reaching their peak at 3:24 p.m., the symbolic time of day when, because of salary inequalities, women’s earnings are calculated by the march organizers to effectively end for the day though they continue working free.

Organizers worked for a year preparing for Friday’s strike and appeared to have mobilized broad support, attracting trade unions, university staff members, students, church groups and female farmers to the march.

“It’s the beginning of a new movement,” Flavia Wasserfallen, a member of Parliament for the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, said, predicting Friday’s protests would raise the profile of women’s issues in federal elections in October and would most likely see more women winning seats in Parliament.

Although Switzerland boasts one of the highest rates of wealth per adult in the world, women lamented the country’s slow pace in correcting inequalities between the sexes.

“It’s an institutional problem, a societal problem,” said Christa Binswanger, a lecturer on gender and diversity at Switzerland’s University of St. Gallen. Women undertake the bulk of domestic work and child care that is unpaid and uninsured, which leaves many women exposed to poverty in old age.

In Zurich, marchers pulled a pink sculpture of a clitoris through the streets, accompanied by a sign that read: “She is much bigger.”

Marchers pointed to a range of issues of concern as diverse as gender violence and abuse of migrants and members of minority groups.

A woman is killed every two weeks in a domestic setting in Switzerland, Ms. Binswanger said, adding, “The problem is still really big, and it’s really necessary to keep it on the agenda,” she said.

Switzerland’s right-wing parties, however, strongly oppose proposals for subsidized support for child care and have called for the closing of women’s shelters.

“They say if women were to go back to their homes and do the washing and cooking and child care, society would work much better,” Ms. Binswanger said.

They have also adopted increasingly hostile anti-feminist rhetoric, she added: “There is a lot of bashing on social media, a lot of hateful discourse around. We have to fight this kind of hate speech.”

But the marchers turned out in force on Friday. An online manifesto outlined the aims of the strike:

“On June 14, we strike. A paid work strike, a domestic work strike, a care strike, a school strike and a consumer strike. So that our work becomes visible, so that our demands are understood, so that the public sphere becomes something for all women,” the organizers wrote.

Although Switzerland has rated consistently well in metrics such as economic stability and its citizens’ happiness, its record on gender parity has historically been more patchy.

Women were only given the right to vote at a federal level and run for office in 1971, lagging far behind many European countries. (New Zealand became the first country to grant women’s suffrage, in 1893.) In 1981, Switzerland amended the Constitution to recognize equal rights for men and women.

Swiss women earn an average of 18 percent less pay than their male colleagues, according to the country’s Federal Statistical Office, and the gender pay gap rises to nearly 20 percent for women in the private sector.

Traditional gender roles also remain deeply ingrained in Swiss households: Women were responsible for two-thirds of the domestic tasks, a 2013 study found. The same research revealed that men took on most of the housework in only 5 percent of cases.

On Tuesday, Switzerland was also named as one of the least family-friendly European countries in a report from Unicef. The country granted women paid maternity leave in 2005, but there is still no statutory paternity leave.

It was only in 1985 that a referendum granted women and men equal rights within family life, meaning women could finally open a bank account or work without requiring approval from their spouses.

“We were very late to gender equality,” said Adèle Thorens, 47, a Green Party politician in Switzerland’s National Council. “We are not quick in Switzerland — change always takes time,” she added. “But now is a time for a transition.”

“We have had enough,” Ms. Thorens added. “Striking is a way for our anger to become visible, it is a way to put pressure on politicians.”

“We are striking because we want more women in Parliament; we need to have more female C.E.O.s and more women on companies’ boards everywhere. Diversity is good for the economy.”

At the first women’s strike in 1991, around half a million people turned out, and it was then the largest industrial action in the country’s history.

Friday’s protest may be the first of a series to highlight women’s issues, said Noemi Blazquez Benito, the strike organizer in Geneva.

“We are already thinking about a strike on 8 March 2020,” she said.

Anna Schaverien reported from London, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

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