Protesters took to the streets worldwide for International Women’s Day Tuesday with rallies in Pakistan defying security warnings and demonstrations in Europe urging solidarity with war-torn Ukraine.
Despite the marches, all eyes were on the unending stream of women and children pouring out of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, sparking Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.
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With more than two million people forced into exile, few of those arriving in the Polish border city of Przemysl could spare a thought to mark the date although one lone priest could be seen wandering through the train station with an armful of tulips, handing them out to the arriving women.
“It’s very important today in this difficult place that someone speak to them saying they’re very important,” said Franciscan friar Kordian Szwarc as he handed out the red and yellow tulips.
“We know their men are very, very far from here and there’s nobody to tell them they’re important and beautiful,” he told AFP.
“It’s the first time it feels like a special day!” said Lilia Kysil, a 22-year-old student from Kyiv, a huge smile on her face as she stood with her mother and sister, thanking him.
At some checkpoints in war-torn Kyiv, volunteer soldiers were also handing out tulips to women passersby, an AFP correspondent said.
Meanwhile in Brussels, protesters held a “Women stand with Ukraine” rally, holding up a vast blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, an AFP correspondent said.
And in Paris, several thousands marched against gender violence and for equal pay in a rally headlined: “the feminist groundswell for equality”.
Ahead of the rally, organisers read out a letter from Russian feminists urging women’s rights activists around the world to “take a stand against the war”, saying it brought out both “the violence of bullets but also sexual violence”.
– Thousands rally in Pakistan –
In Pakistan, some 2,000 women rallied in the eastern city of Lahore despite official efforts to bar the protest and withdraw security for an event frequently targeted by violence.
In a jovial atmosphere, they marched through the streets, chanting “Give respect to women” and “End the patriarchy” as another 1,000 women rallied in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, and 200 in the capital, Islamabad.
Such rallies have triggered a fierce backlash since they began four years ago in deeply conservative and patriarchal Pakistan where women have been shot, stabbed, stoned, burnt and strangled for damaging family “honour”.
Critics say they are promoting liberal Western values and disrespecting religious and cultural mores, and two years ago Islamist hardliners stoned the women as they marched through Islamabad.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan marked the day in muted fashion with activists cowed by the threat of arrest by the country’s Taliban rulers who swept back to power in August, rolling back decades of advances for women.
Squeezed out of government employment, they can no longer travel alone and must dress according to a strict interpretation of the Koran.
“If you care about women’s rights — anywhere in the world — you should be watching Afghanistan with deep alarm,” Heather Barr, of Human Rights Watch told AFP on Tuesday.
– Turkey women rally against femicide –
In Turkey, protesters have spent days preparing banners ahead of the main march in Istanbul later on Tuesday to protest against femicide and urge Ankara to rejoin a Europe-wide treaty protecting women from violence.
Last year, 416 women were killed in Turkey, while this year’s toll currently stands at 72, figures from the We Will Stop Femicide platform show.
There has been a groundswell of protest after Turkey’s withdrawal last year from the Istanbul Convention that lays out a legal framework to tackle, prevent and prosecute violence against women.
Ankara justified the withdrawal by saying the 2011 treaty had a hidden agenda to normalise homosexuality.
And in Kenya, 150 people marched through the capital Nairobi calling for an end to gender-based violence after a woman was viciously attacked by motorcycle taxi drivers.
The incident occurred after a road accident on Friday, with a viral video showing the men grabbing at the young woman’s clothes as she screamed inside her car.
The protesters marched to police headquarters, waving banners reading “Hear my scream” and urging an end to gender-based violence.
Police arrested 16 people in connection with the assault.