This blog is the first in a two part series by two young women, one from India and one from the UK, sharing their perspectives on the recent marches for women’s rights that have happened all over the world. Read the second post here.
About the author: Gemma Munday is the stories & brand lead at Restless Development. She also campaigns against gender-based violence, including sexual consent and FGM.
The Women’s March, on February 23rd, was the second march I attended in my life. Up to 2 million people marched in cities around the world, in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. Despite the hype and turnout, I battled with common questions – will it actually change anything at all? What needs to happen for it to be more than just people walking in the street?
Throughout history we have seen protests bring change, one of these was the women’s Suffragette movement. Often history focuses on dramatic acts by Suffragette individuals, but the movement also had some pretty gigantic demonstrations. The first and biggest was in 1908, reportedly 750,000 people attended (The Times). The march was pretty successful at bringing new people into the cause, and in 1918 legislation was passed to give 8.4 million women the vote.
It’s also been proven that people’s perceptions of protests are often negative at the time, then shift to positive viewpoints years later. The civil rights movement is an example of this, often hailed as one of the most successful protests of all time. Martin Luther King Jr is one of the most admired men in American history – but opinion polls about him found that the public’s negative opinion of him grew as the Civil Rights Movement grew, rising from 37 percent in 1963 to 63 percent in 1966. This is important to remember as we think about protests today. Marches viewed today as a waste of time could be changing minds years later.
Back to the Women’s March, why exactly were people on the street? Well, the event was created to send a message around the world that women’s rights are human rights. It was more important than targeting an individual, It’s about fighting inequalities that have existed for a long time. The march had a much broader goal than a simple lists of demands that accompany some protests and included many things (for example, freedom from sexual violence) that could not be realistically achieved right away.
I spoke to women at the march who believed it wouldn’t make a difference now, but that maybe over the coming years we would start to see a shift in the structure of the movement, and begin to build a political path forward. With the backing of a century-old women’s rights movement, civil society and the wider instability of current politics. The 2016 women’s strike and mass marches against proposed laws against abortion in Poland , for instance, have been hailed as a success because the laws they were protesting weren’t passed; but the protests took place in an environment of wider instability with the government in power.
I questioned who else attended the Women’s Marches. Was it people like me, already engaged on the issues, did we reach anyone new? But I didn’t attend the march alone. I went with my parents. It struck me that around a third of the crowd I saw were men. Marching with the women in their lives. I asked my dad why he came along, he said “It was about standing shoulder to shoulder with women. Showing that men are equally as disgusted by the negativity generated in politics and the media around women’s rights. I went to support my wife and daughter.” The importance of this is significant. With inter-generational support, and men who stand up for the rights of women, the closer we will get to a more equal society.
As I walked through the streets of London I thought of the millions of other people around the world marching. The mass of creative, funny, brilliant signs reflecting the women carrying them. I couldn’t help thinking it’s easy to make a funny sign, but not so easy to win real power in politics. Protesters need to do more than get to the streets to convince the public and organizations of their views. Importantly there needs to be an organisation capable of following up on protesters demands, taking on the dull day to day grind of politics that makes real change.
What I did feel was a strong sense of togetherness, even if it only inspired those who came together. It might have been largely symbolic: with political shifts on issues related to issues of sexual harassment and women’s reproductive rights not guaranteed as a result of the march. But for the symbolism and solidarity, with women and other marginalized people across the world who have been attacked with vicious, harmful rhetoric, it mattered. I believe in the power of a collective, and when passionate people come together they create an energy, which creates ripples in their own communities when apart. I hope to see those ripples turn into a new wave of gender equality.
This blog is part of our #YouthPower series for International Women’s Day, find out more here.