Geneva (AFP) – Several hundred thousand purple-clad protesters blowing whistles, banging pots and pans and brandishing feminist slogans filled the streets of Swiss towns and cities on Friday, as women across the country went on strike for equal pay.
“I love badass women” and “Eliminate the patriarchy” figured among the messages on posters and banners, as women vented their frustration with persistent gender discrimination and wage gaps in the wealthy Alpine nation.
“June 14, 2019, enters the recent history of Switzerland as the biggest political event. Considering the whole day, several hundred thousand women took part in actions, strikes and walkouts,” said a statement by USS, an umbrella organisation grouping 16 Swiss unions.
The action comes nearly three decades after women held the country’s first nationwide strike for equal pay.
Pram marches, whistle concerts and giant picnics were planned around the country, with the day’s events culminating in giant demonstrations including the capital Bern (40,000 people), Zurich (70,000), Basel (40,000) and Geneva (20,000), organisers said.
In Lausanne (60,000), the cathedral was lit up in the colour purple.
In Bern women filled the square in front of the government and parliament buildings.
Manu Bondi, 68, joined the protest alongside her daughter and granddaughter, and two friends who demonstrated with her in 1991.
She said she was protesting “in solidarity with all women of all ages”.
“There are more of us this time than in 1991 and our demands are different,” she said.
“Back then it was about abortion. Now it is above all about equal pay. It is really important that women be paid according to the work they do. It is great to see people so committed.”
– Burning bras –
The events kicked off overnight in Lausanne, with women ringing the bells of the cathedral, and lighting a “bonfire of joy”, with some women tossing in their bras.
By morning, some 500 people gathered for a massive breakfast celebration, blocking traffic on one of the town’s main bridges.
In Zurich, demonstrators pulled a giant, pink clitoris perched on a cart through the city, while in Basel they projected the clenched-fist feminist symbol onto the skyscraper headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Roche.
In Geneva, protestors replaced street signs bearing men’s names with women’s ones. While 548 streets in Geneva Canton are named after men, only 41 have female names, according to the ATS news agency.
At the march, a 22-year-old topless protester, Oceane Schaub, told AFP: “I think the fact that I am bare-chested can shock and change things.”
– 20 percent less –
The organisers of Friday’s action say things have hardly improved since the major 1991 strike, insisting women need to demand “more time, more money, more respect”.
Women in Switzerland on average still earn 20 percent less than men.
And for men and women with equal qualifications, the wage gap remains nearly eight percent, according to the national statistics office.
“Wage equality has not been achieved. That is a good reason to go on strike,” Ruth Dreyfuss, who in 1998 became Switzerland’s first female president, told broadcaster RTS on Friday.
Riding the wave of the global #MeToo movement, a new generation of women is attacking lingering discrimination, harassment, sexual abuse and wage inequality with renewed vigour.
Organisers have called upon women to snub their jobs and housework for the entire day.
– Women work for free –
For those women unable to take a full day, the organisers urged them to at least pack their things and leave by 3:24 pm.
“After that, women work for free,” said Anne Fritz, the main organiser of the strike and a representative of USS.
Back in 1991, many women were blocked from participating in the strike. Organisers feared a repeat Friday, with the country’s main employers’ organisation flatly opposed to the action.
Thursday’s strike was born out of frustration at a bid to change the law to impose more oversight over salary distribution, after a watered-down version passed through the Swiss parliament last year.
Switzerland was one of the last countries in Europe to grant women the right to vote, in 1971.
Over the past three decades, women’s rights advocates in Switzerland have made some gains. Abortion was legalised in 2002, and 2005 saw the introduction of 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.
But Switzerland still offers no paternity leave, and limited access to expensive daycare is seen as a major hindrance to women’s integration into the labour market.
Christa Binswanger, a gender studies professor at St. Gallen University, said she was optimistic that Friday’s strike would make a difference.
“It has already shown an impact during the last weeks,” prompting wide media coverage of gender issues, she told AFP.
“The strike has mobilised a sense of solidarity.”