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Tens of thousands brave virus restrictions for Women's Day protests

In peaceful democracies and in countries gripped by major conflicts, women took to the streets - albeit in far smaller numbers than the previous year, when the full force of the pandemic had yet to hit the world.

A woman holds a placard reading "Fight like a girl" during a demonstration marking the International Women's Day in Barcelona on 8 March 2021. Picture: Lluis Gene/AFP

PARIS - Tens of thousands of people around the world braved coronavirus restrictions and sometimes dangerous conditions to mark International Women's Day on Monday, many of them denouncing violence against women.

In peaceful democracies and in countries gripped by major conflicts, women took to the streets - albeit in far smaller numbers than the previous year, when the full force of the pandemic had yet to hit the world.

Tens of thousands marched in major cities across France, some protesters carrying banners calling for greater police action against femicide, the murder of women.

"It's a shame that we are still demonstrating in 2021 to call for equal rights," 22-year-old student Lucie told AFP, as she marched in Paris.

In Turkey, several hundred Muslim Uighur women protested near China's walled-off consulate in Istanbul, calling for the closure of mass-incarceration camps in the Xinjiang region.

"Rape is a crime against humanity," said one poster, in reference to a BBC report alleging systemic rape and forced sterilisation of women at the camps, charges China has denied.

Three of the world's most influential female leaders warned the European Parliament of the effect the coronavirus pandemic had had on women's rights.

The economic and political fallout has sharpened the challenges facing women, said US Vice President Kamala Harris, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.

"COVID-19 has threatened the health, the economic security, and the physical security of women everywhere," said Harris in a video address recorded in Washington.

GREECE'S #METOO UPRISING

In Greece, where the media has been full of stories relating to sexual harassment, hundreds of women gathered in Athens' central Syntagma Square.

"This is more important today compared to previous years, precisely because we are going through the #MeToo movement in Greece," actress Marilena Kavazi told AFP.

"And we're proud of it," she added.

In Spain, a few dozen women defied a coronavirus-related ban on demonstrations in central Madrid to stand distanced from each other, holding up signs with feminist slogans.

Women also gathered in front of the regional parliaments of Andalusia, Catalonia and Navarre and protests were planned for dozens of other cities.

In the Polish capital Warsaw, men and women protested what is a near-total ban on abortions following a recent tightening of the rules.

Hungary meanwhile saw almost all non-essential shops close as a two-week lockdown began in a bid to bring down the Covid-19 infection rate - but flower shops were granted a one-day exemption, as Hungarians traditionally buy flowers for women on International Women's Day.

MASKLESS PROTESTS IN INDIA

In India, crowds of women thronged the outskirts of the capital to join forces with farmers staging a months-long protest against controversial agricultural reforms.

Many were maskless and ignored social distancing, despite India having one of Asia's highest coronavirus infection and death rates.

Women have played a central role in the protests since they started in late November, posing one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

In neighbouring Myanmar, where the military seized power last month, women stood on the frontline of anti-coup protests in the commercial capital Yangon.

Police and soldiers there have killed more than 50 people and arrested nearly 1,800 in an increasingly brutal crackdown on demonstrators.

"Generally, leadership seems to be for men only," said 33-year-old protester Cora. "In this uprising, women came out in the streets and led the protests."

'HEIGHTENED INEQUALITIES'

There were also marches across deeply conservative Pakistan, from the bustling city of Lahore to Balochistan province near the border with Afghanistan.

Hundreds of people, most of them members of women's group Gabriela, gathered in the Philippine capital of Manila to demonstrate against the killings of several activists on Sunday.

"Covid-19 has heightened inequalities and this has also affected how women are organising themselves," legislator Sarah Elago told AFP.

"This has become more difficult to do now because they themselves are being attacked for speaking up."

The UN children's organisation UNICEF released a report warning that the effect of the coronavirus in some countries could lead to an additional 10 million child marriages in this decade.

"School closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage," the study warned.

And the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee said more than 300 female journalists had quit or lost their jobs in the past six months, as a wave of murders targeting the press intensifies there.

Several female journalists have been among the victims.

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