Geneva, Switzerland – Tens of thousands of women have joined a general strike in Switzerland to demand gender equality and better representation in the public sphere.
Under slogans including “If women want they can block the nation” and “Women’s rights are human rights”, protesters on Friday took to the streets in Geneva, Zurich, Lausanne, Lugano and other major Swiss cities.
In Lausanne, demonstrations started on Thursday night outside the cathedral, where for the first time in 600 years the guardian of the bell tower was symbolically replaced by women and the bell tower was illuminated in violet, the official colour of the protest.
“The challenges posed to our society in terms of gender equality and prevention of violence against women remain important,” said journalist Laurence Bezaguet.
“We don’t want to erase our differences. We rather want to be able to choose, together with men, the way we want to live based on each other’s competence.”
Equal opportunities, equal pay, equal space in the public sphere and recognition of women’s competence were some of the demands that women in Switzerland brought to the streets in the march.
In the region of Ticino, campaigners have launched a working manifesto listing 19 points for which women demonstrate, including equal pay, flexible working time, the right to choose one’s sexual identity, the fight against homophobia, violence and gender stereotypes, amongst others.
Thirty-eight years after gender equality and equal pay were enshrined in the Swiss constitution, their implementation is still deficient.
Switzerland ranks 20th in the World Economic Forum’s classification of countries on gender equality, behind many European nations.
When it comes to gender equality within the economic sector, the country’s position drops to 34th.
“The principle of equal pay between men and women remains dead word,” according to Brigitte Mantilleri, director of the equality service at the University of Geneva.
A detailed report published on Friday by the Tribune de Geneve defines the banking sector the “cancer” of wage parity.
Women employed in the banking sector in the Geneva region or “Canton” earn almost 25 percent less than men.
But equal pay is just one of the issues at stake.
For Margareta Guy, 65, the reason to take to the streets was to teach her granddaughters that the rights women had conquered so far could not be given for granted, especially within the family.
“I think the mindset hasn’t changed much, even if we have gained some very important rights over time,” Guy said.
“The Swiss society is very conservative and I see the attitude of some men towards women is the same. They still see us as inferior. It worries me for the future generations.”
Guy said she remembered when women first gained their right to vote in 1971. Switzerland was one of the last countries in Europe to allow women to cast their ballots in national elections.
“That was a historic moment and a shame that it took so long for men to allow us to vote.”
In 1971, Swiss men voted in a referendum to change the Constitution and allow women to vote after they rejected the proposal in 1959.
Elisabeth Blunschy became one of the first women to be elected as a member of parliament in 1971. In 1977, she became the first woman president of the National Council.
But while in the public sphere women were gaining some rights, in the domestic one they were still subject to their husbands.
Only in 1985, women were granted equal marriage rights. Until this date, a husband had legal authority over his wife, meaning, for example, he had to approve of her opening a bank account or could prevent her from working or living where she chose.
Business as usual
But some women stayed away from Friday’s protest. The employees of a famous nightclub in the red-light district in Geneva will be working as usual.
Amid the posters that call for the mass strike, a violet billboard read in French: “For you, our women don’t strike.”
Giangiorgio Gargantini, a Swiss syndicalist, posted the image on his Facebook page to show what he described as the “medieval” approach to the women’s strike from some quarters.
“That expression ‘our women’ is abominable,” he said. “No surprise that those who use the body of women for business would be so ignoble to use this day to promote their vile commerce.”
The issue touches on the role that men should play on such a day, Gargantini said. “We should march with them today, a step behind.”