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International Women's Day events highlight gaps in gender equality

Women's Day protester in the Philippines

MADRID (AP) — Demonstrations, conferences and artistic events around the world Wednesday marked International Women’s Day, an annual observance established to recognize women and to demand equality for half of the planet’s population.

While activists in some parts of the planet noted advances, repression in countries such as Afghanistan and Iran — and the large numbers of women and girls who experience sexual assaults and domestic violence worldwide — highlighted the ongoing struggle to secure women’s rights.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted this week that women’s rights were “abused, threatened and violated” around the world and gender equality won’t be achieved for 300 years given the current pace of change.

Progress won over decades is vanishing because “the patriarchy is fighting back,” Guterres said.

Even in countries that have pioneered advances for women, there have been recent setbacks for the feminist cause: This is the first International Women’s Day since the U.S. Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion last year and many states adopted restrictions on abortion.

The United Nations recognized International Women’s Day in 1977, but the occasion has its roots in labor movements of the early 20th century. The day is commemorated in different ways and to varying degrees in different countries.

Women gathered in Pakistan’s major cities to march amid tight security. Organizers said the demonstrations were aimed at seeking rights guaranteed by the constitution. Some conservative groups last year threatened to stop similar marches by force.

Women’s rights activists in Japan held a small rally to renew their demand for the government to allow married couples to keep using different surnames. Under the 1898 civil code, a couple must adopt “the surname of the husband or wife” at the time of marriage.

The activists argued the law contributes to gender inequality because women experience strong pressure to take their husband’s name. Surveys show majority support for both men and women keeping their own names.

In the Philippines, hundreds of protesters from various women’s groups rallied in Manila for higher wages and decent jobs.

“We are seeing the widest gender pay gap,” protest leader Joms Salvador said. “We are seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of women workers who are in informal work without any protection.”

The United Nations identified Afghanistan as the most repressive country in the world for women and girls since the Taliban takeover in 2021. The U.N. mission said Afghanistan’s new rulers were “imposing rules that leave most women and girls effectively trapped in their homes.”

They have banned girls’ education beyond sixth grade and barred women from public spaces such as parks and gyms. Women must cover themselves from head to toe and are also barred from working at national and international nongovernmental organizations.

In Europe, hundreds of ethnic Albanian women in Kosovo’s capital protesting domestic violence threw black-and-red smoke bombs at the police headquarters. The protesters, who rallied under the slogan “We march, do not celebrate,” accused police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts of gender discrimination.

In Russia, where International Women’s Day is a national holiday, President Vladimir Putin presented state awards to several women during a Kremlin ceremony. He singled out a military paramedic and a journalist for fulfilling their duties during the war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin insists on calling “a special military operation.”

“There are no fields and professions in our country where women haven’t scored serious, remarkable results,” Putin said. “Your talents, knowledge, competence, responsibility and determination contribute greatly to the development of our country.”

In Ireland, the government announced that it will hold a referendum in November to enshrine gender equality and remove discriminatory language in the country’s constitution.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Irish voters would be asked to consider a series of constitutional amendments, including taking out an “outmoded” reference to a women’s place being in the home.

The constitution, which was drawn up in 1937, currently states that the state shall endeavor to “ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labor to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

In Spain, more than 1 million people were expected to attend evening demonstrations in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities. Big rallies were also organized in many other cities around the world, while in some countries only minor events were held.

Although Spain has for years produced one of the world’s biggest turnouts on March 8, this year’s marches are marked by a division within its own left-wing government over a sexual liberty law that has inadvertently led to the reduction of sentences for hundreds of sexual offenders.

Spain’s feminists are also split over a new transgender rights law that took effect last week and allows anyone 16 and older to change their gender on official documents without medical certification. At a public Women’s Day event, a group of young women interrupted Equality Minister Irene Montero to argue with her about the law, which some feminists argue threatens to erase or displace women.

Elsewhere in Europe, tens of thousands of people marched in Paris and other French cities, brandishing posters with the messages “Equal Pay, Now” and “Solidarity with the world’s women.” The rallies focused on protesting proposed changes to the pension system, which women’s group say are unfair to working mothers.

The protest came hours after President Emmanuel Macron’s government presented a new gender equity plan, which includes a provision to give women who had miscarriages some salary compensation from the first day of their medical leave.

The plan also calls for establishing a women’s center in every region of France by next year to support female victims of violence and would prohibit companies that do not not publish a gender equality index or have a poor rating from getting public contracts. Women’s salaries in France are on average 15.8% below men’s.