By Wednesday afternoon, thousands of Brazilian women had taken to the streets, occupying government buildings and protesting on major thoroughfares. In Rio de Janeiro, a group of stilt-walkers wearing purple skirts and silver tinsel soared above the massive throngs of women who had assembled at the 18th century Candelária church. They marched through the historic city center to the beat of drums and chanting “Watch out, you machista; Latin America will all be feminista.”
In Peru, women halted all activities for one hour—“La Hora M,” for mujeres—to highlight the “most invisible and least valued” domestic tasks that women routinely perform. And in Buenos Aires, Argentina, activists estimated that 300,000 women protested femicide in Latin America.
All were participating in the International Women’s Strike, a day of resistance that took place in more than 50 countries. The strike’s platform called for women to halt all forms of work—paid and unpaid, formal and domestic—in their fight against gender-based violence, economic and educational inequality, and a lack of control over their bodies.
But the strike did not emerge overnight. Feminist organizers around the world have been planning and strategizing for months. Last week, women from some 25 countries participated in a four-hour Skype call to discuss organizing efforts in their countries and search for ways to establish solidarity.
In the lead-up to March 8th, International Women’s Day, Jezebel spoke with strike organizers from Brazil, Argentina, and Peru, who have been building the event locally and in partnership with women around the world. The interviews reveal a coordinated effort to build a global movement that fights for country-specific issues while forming international alliances. The interviews also made clear that yesterday’s strike is part of a long-term process—one that includes local meetings and city-wide assemblies—that is building a democratic feminist movement capable of responding to conservative advances and attacks on women’s fundamental rights.
On a rainy night in Rio de Janeiro last week, some 70 women crammed into a graffitied performance space and LGBT shelter called Casa Nem for the fourth and final planning meeting of the International Women’s Strike. The women who had braved Rio’s flooded streets and the dangers of the city center after sunset were diverse: black, white, students, trans women, university professors, union representatives, longtime and first-time activists, women who had traveled hours from the periphery. In a wide-ranging three hour meeting, the women discussed strategy for the upcoming strike—which historic buildings to pass on the march, how to reach more poor and working-class women, symbolic options for women who risked getting fired, and ways to strengthen international alliances.
The women appeared angry, exhausted, and fired up all at once. In Brazil, abortion is illegal, a conservative government is pushing austerity measures that activists say will disproportionately affect women, and violence against women is constant.
Despite the huge outpouring of feminist organizing at this year’s Carnival, one woman noted that more than 2,000 calls had been made to Rio’s police to report acts of violence against women. In other words, a woman in Rio de Janeiro was attacked every four minutes during the five-day holiday. The energy in the room shifted as the urgency of the strike came into sharp focus.
“The number one priority is fighting machista violence. There’s no other option,” Brazilian organizer Mariana Bastos told Jezebel in Portuguese in an interview before Rio’s planning meeting. “In the two hours that we’ve been sitting here talking, a woman has been killed in this country.”
Bastos echoes the concerns of many feminist leaders in the region. Seven of the ten countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world are located in Latin America; Brazil is fifth on this list. A woman in Brazil is reported raped the equivalent of every 11 minutes, although a government study estimates that only 10% of rapes are reported to the police.
Perhaps the best-known feminist movement in Latin America in recent years, Argentina’s #NiUnaMenos movement (“Not One Less”) began with protests in June 2015 after the body of a pregnant 14-year-old girl was found buried in her boyfriend’s backyard. In October of last year, the #NiUnaMenos collective called for a one-hour women’s strike and massive protests after the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Lucía Perez, who had been abducted, drugged, raped and tortured by a group of men. It was “the spark that lit everything on fire,” Argentinian organizer Lucía Sangiorgio said in an interview with Jezebel in Spanish. Thousands of women walked out of their jobs and schools, and were joined by protesters in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, and Uruguay who marched in solidarity.
Brazilian women also took to the streets last year after a 16-year-old girl in Rio de Janeiro was gang-raped by more than 30 men, who then posted a video to Twitter. But Bastos observed that the feminist movement in Brazil was disconnected from the protests around Perez’s horrific death in Argentina. “I saw feminists throughout Latin America mobilizing in just one week to build a strike.” Bastos wrote a Facebook post after seeing the #NiUnaMenos protests erupt—mostly just to vent, she explained—challenging Brazilian women to look to their neighbors in Argentina who have such “powerful and incisive strategies for taking to the streets.” The post got thousands of shares, and Bastos believes it was the language barrier, rather than lack of interest, that was preventing widespread regional solidarity. She created a Facebook page,“Hermanas,” in an effort to build alliances between the Brazilian feminist movement and the rest of Latin America.
By the end of October 2016, Polish feminists—who had gone on strike earlier that month against an abortion ban—had invited South Koreans, Russians and Argentinians to help organize a strike on March 8th. In less than two weeks, Bastos recalled, there were organizers representing some 30 countries. (Many of these same feminist organizers would also help plan the January 21st Women’s Marches in cities around the world).
Organizers on the recent Skype call were stunned by the spectrum of issues women face around the world. “We found out that in Thailand, the dictatorship does not permit the women to protest,” Bastos said. “Meanwhile in Sweden, practically all of their demands are being considered, but they are going to march in solidarity with other women around the world.”
Plans for the strike gained traction in the U.S. after the Women’s March, when Angela Davis and other prominent feminist academics published an op-ed in The Guardian demanding “a feminism for the 99%.” The authors, acknowledging the strike’s origins in Poland and Latin America, write that we are seeing “a new international feminist movement with an expanded agenda: at once anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-heterosexist and anti-neoliberal.”
While building an international network, organizers are working to build the movement at the city and federal levels. Sangiorgio, the Argentine organizer, stressed the importance of organizing assemblies, not only to prepare for the strike itself but also for the work that comes after. Assemblies are “the heart of our movement” and require the “open participation of all women in the decision-making,” she told Jezebel. Approaching the International Women’s Strike, Buenos Aires assemblies packed in 300 women and activists, with a focus on getting those with less political experience involved. Activists estimate that 300,000 people participated in yesterday’s protest in the Argentine capital, and speakers included Nora Cortiñas, cofounder of “Madres de Plaza de Mayo,” an association of mothers whose children were disappeared during the country’s dictatorship from 1974 to 1983.
In Lima, Peru, organizers called for a one-hour work stoppage at noon to highlight women’s domestic labor including cooking, cleaning and child-raising. Organizer Jill Ruiz told Jezebel by phone that the strike provided a “symbolic way to give visibility to the labor and contributions that women make to society,” and was followed by afternoon protests in Lima and nine other regions in Peru against sexual, social and economic forms of violence.
In addition to the demands to legalize abortion and end violence against women, protesters in Brazil oppose federal pension reforms that they say will disproportionately harm women, whose unpaid domestic labor is not accounted for. In Rio, they dissent from recently-elected mayor Marcello Crivella, an evangelical bishop who has said that “women should obey men more” because they come from his rib, and congressman and 2018 presidential hopeful Jair Bolsonaro, who once said a female colleague was not “worth raping; she is very ugly.”
Thursday’s meeting location, Casa Nem, is a donation-based shelter that primarily houses trans women, and offered a symbolic reminder of the importance of solidarity networks and the urgency of putting the most vulnerable women’s issues at the forefront, particularly during the rightward turn in Brazil. “We only talk about the deaths of certain women and forget the deaths of trans women, who are invisible in the media,” said Hariane Maia, an 18-year-old self-described “militant” who lives in Casa Nem. “The man who doesn’t beat his wife at home thinks he can beat the prostitutes working on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.”
Like the United States, Brazil is a massive and decentralized country, which Bastos says creates both challenges and opportunities for organizing. “I think for the first time, we are starting to articulate our demands nationally,” she said, adding that perhaps the “greatest legacy of the strike will be these alliances that we are building between cities and states, and at the regional and transnational level.” Approximately 80 cities throughout Brazil participated in the marches— from small towns with populations under 100,000 to the national capital in Brasilia and the mega-city of São Paulo.
At Rio de Janeiro’s protest, young women held signs that read “Stop killing us” and “Neither [Brazilian President] Temer nor Trump! Women against the regression of rights.” Schoolteacher Eloisa Monteiro couldn’t go on strike, but had spent the day teaching her 12-year-old students about the importance of International Women’s Day. When asked about the issues that brought her to the afternoon protest, she sighed and said, “There are just so many.” Monteiro added that the “coup” against former president Dilma Rousseff—Brazil’s first female president, who was impeached last year—was “a coup against all Brazilian women. Those corrupt politicians couldn’t allow a woman like Dilma to continue governing.” Meanwhile, in a speech yesterday about women’s role in the economy, Brazil’s widely unpopular—and unelected—president Michel Temer remarked that no one is better than women at spotting abnormalities in supermarket prices.
But Marielle Franco, a recently-inaugurated black city councilwoman born in the favela of Maré who has become something of a feminist icon in Rio de Janeiro, told Jezebel not to lose hope in the face of the conservative wave and urged women to continue building local progressive movements. “There’s conservatism, and there’s also resistance. If anyone says that women’s struggles are secondary, we’ll put thousands of them in the streets.”
When Jezebel caught up with organizer Bastos at the protest, she emphasized that the work does not end with the strike. “March 8th is just the tip of the iceberg,” she explained. “It’s the visible part of a process that is happening under the surface level.” As Bastos marches with the women of Rio de Janeiro, she is thinking about her fellow organizers around the country and the world participating in this day of resistance and solidarity. “I don’t need to check my phone or wait for the news to know that this was a historic day.”
Kate Steiker-Ginzberg is a freelance journalist and producer who divides her time between Rio de Janeiro and Philadelphia.