From Belarus to Bangkok, women took to streets demanding change in 2020

by Beh Lih Yi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 30 December 2020 05:00 GMT

Yasmeen, 22, scuffles with police as she and others try to cross barricades during a protest against a new citizenship law outside the Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, India, February 10, 2020. Picture taken February 10, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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Women played a prominent role in protest movements this year, driven by increasing frustration over the slow pace of political change and inequalities deepened by COVID19

By Beh Lih Yi

Dec 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From Belarus to Nigeria to Thailand, women played a prominent role in protest movements this year, driven by increasing frustration over the slow pace of political change and inequalities deepened by COVID-19.

Whether seeking an end to authoritarian rule or speaking up about police brutality and abortion restrictions, women took to the streets during headline-grabbing demonstrations that sometimes turned violent.

"Women always react when things appear to be going out of control, so they are taking to the streets," said Aysha Renna, 23, a student who organised protests in India against a citizenship law seen by many as anti-Muslim.

She became the face of the protests that spread across India after a picture of her wagging her finger at a baton-wielding police officer went viral. Tens of thousands of women staged a sit-in protest against the law.

"If we don't protest today, we won't be allowed to do that in the future," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from her hometown Malappuram in Kerala state.

Women's growing outspokenness comes as gender-based violence and inequities in working and political life remain nearly as bad as they were 25 years ago, the United Nations said in October.

Only modest gains in education and lowered maternal mortality have been made since 1995 but the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to slow progress in those areas too, it added.

A woman gestures during a protest to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, in Mexico City, Mexico November 25, 2020. REUTERS/Mahe Elipe

'CAN'T WAIT'

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told world leaders in September that gender inequality remains "the greatest single challenge to human rights around the world", and many of the women-led protests targeted the disadvantages they face.

"Definitely there's more visibility of women on the frontline," said Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, a Thai expert on democracy and authoritarian politics.

"In these countries a common denominator is inequality, not only in terms of gender but in all different ways - political, economy. Women feel the impact as citizens.

"Women think they have to take matters into their own hands, they can't wait for men to solve their problem," said the political scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Millions of Latin American women in nations including Mexico and Chile stayed away from offices, schools and government offices in March in strikes dubbed "a day without us" to protest against gender violence, inequality and restricted rights.

Young women in Thailand publicly denounced sexism at protests that roiled the country for months, emboldened by widespread demonstrations to demand the departure of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and reforms to the powerful monarchy.

In Poland, tens of thousands protested in defiance of tight coronavirus restrictions, after a ruling tightening restrictions on abortion rights in the Roman Catholic country. Police scuffled with protesters in some rallies.

Thousands of women were at the forefront of protests against police brutality in Nigeria. A female lawyer, who helped arrange legal defence for protesters, was blocked from leaving the country and had her passport confiscated briefly.

Opposition supporters carry historical white-red-white flags of Belarus as they attend a rally to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus December 13, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

BEATEN, DETAINED

Meanwhile in Belarus, protesters known as the "Women in White" took to the streets - many of them for the first time - demanding an end to the violence that erupted after President Alexander Lukashenko's disputed Aug. 9 re-election.

"More women these days are educated, professional, aware of their citizens' right, and participation in protest is a way to assert themselves as such," said Elena Gapova, a Belarusian sociologist.

In some countries, female protesters were also treated "differently" by riot police, said Gapova, who teaches at the Western Michigan University in the United States.

"They are beaten and detained, but to a lesser extent than men. Even 'unpleasant' regimes are not happy about exerting violence against masses of women publicly," Gapova added.

Elsewhere, however, female protesters faced similar levels of violence as men, but said they had no regrets.

"We are smaller in size and maybe weaker, but the message (we are sending) is so much stronger," said Edith Leung, 30, a Hong Kong opposition politician, who received five stitches in her head after she was hit by a police baton last year.

"When you want to change the country, change your homeland - you have to participate in that process."

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(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; additional reporting by Roli Srivastava in Mumbai; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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