Swiss Women Strike Nationwide to Protest Inequalities

 nytimes.com  06/14/2019 18:20:07   Nick Cumming-Bruce and Anna Schaverien

Thousands of women rallied across Switzerland on Friday, railing against the slow pace of correcting inequalities between the sexes.

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Women marched during a nationwide womens strike for gender parity on Friday in Bern, Switzerland.CreditCreditStefan Wermuth/Agence France-Presse  Getty Images

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 Switzerlands 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 Lthy, 43, who lives in the rural village of Bennwil, said in an interview as she made her way to Fridays 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. Lthy added. And most importantly: We must smash the patriarchy!

The campaign  known variously on social media as Frauenstreik (womens strike, in German) and Grve 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 womens suffrage and the fight for gender equality. On the streets below, crowds chanted, whooped and banged drums.

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The Cathedral in Lausanne was lit in purple, the official color of the movement.CreditDenis Balibouse/Reuters

Thousands of women dressed in that color gathered for rallies in Switzerlands main cities throughout the day, reaching their peak at 3:24 p.m., the symbolic time of day when, because of salary inequalities, womens 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 Fridays strike and appeared to have mobilized broad support, attracting trade unions, university staff members, students, church groups and female farmers to the march.

Its the beginning of a new movement, Flavia Wasserfallen, a member of Parliament for the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, said, predicting Fridays protests would raise the profile of womens 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 countrys slow pace in correcting inequalities between the sexes.

Its an institutional problem, a societal problem, said Christa Binswanger, a lecturer on gender and diversity at Switzerlands 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.

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Swiss women went on a nationwide strike for equal pay, more representation in positions of power and recognition of their work.CreditCreditAlexandra Wey/Keystone, via Associated Press

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 its really necessary to keep it on the agenda, she said.

Switzerlands right-wing parties, however, strongly oppose proposals for subsidized support for child care and have called for the closing of womens 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 womens 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 countrys Federal Statistical Office, and the gender pay gap rises to nearly 20 percent for women in the private sector.

Nearly 30 years after the first strike, women across Switzerland staged mass demonstrations for equal pay.CreditStefan Wermuth/Agence France-Presse  Getty Images

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 Adle Thorens, 47, a Green Party politician in Switzerlands 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 womens strike in 1991, around half a million people turned out, and it was then the largest industrial action in the countrys history.

Fridays protest may be the first of a series to highlight womens issues, said Noemi Blazquez Benito, the strike organizer in Geneva.

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

A womens rights sign was projected on the Roche Tower in Basel ahead of the strike.CreditGeorgios Kefalas/EPA, via Shutterstock

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

Nick Cumming-Bruce reports from Geneva, covering the United Nations, human rights and international humanitarian organizations. Previously he was the Southeast Asia reporter for The Guardian for 20 years and the Bangkok bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal Asia.

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