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Monday, March 10, 2008

Int'l Women's Day protests highlight violence, inequality

Agence France-Presse
First Posted 09:44:00 03/09/2008

PARIS--Calls to end forced marriage, domestic abuse and job discrimination marked International Women's Day on Saturday as demonstrators took to the streets worldwide.

The issues highlighted crossed a wide spectrum, including abortion rights in Italy, violence against women in Iraq and women hostages in Colombia.

Nearly 100 years old, the day marks the worldwide struggle for equal rights for half the globe's population.

Scores of women rallied outside a Baghdad hotel demanding an end to violence and equal social status with men.

"Stop neglecting women. Stop killing women. Stop creating widows," read a large banner that the women, from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, held at the Babylon Hotel in Baghdad's central Karrada neighborhood.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai spoke out against forced marriages and said threats from a Taliban-led insurgency were keeping girls out of school.

"I call on religious leaders, tribal elders and particularly men: stop forcing your under-aged girls to marry, stop marrying them to old men," Karzai said.

Up to 80 percent of Afghan women face forced marriage, and nearly two-thirds are married before the legal age of 16, according to the United Nations.

Events were also planned in neighboring Pakistan, where "honor killings" of women and punishment gang-rapes have been widely reported.

Gatherings took place in India, Indonesia and China as activists pressed for an end to discrimination ranging from abortion of female foetuses to workplace bias.

Australian women's minister Tanya Plibersek said the occasion was a chance to acknowledge issues such as women's lack of financial independence.

"From the moment a woman enters the workforce she is likely to earn less than her male colleagues, regardless of her career, industry or level," she said.

Communist North Korea marked the day in its own way by urging its women to reject Western fashions and to "set good examples" in their clothes and hairstyles.

In Europe, job inequality, domestic abuse and abortion rights were highlighted.

Tens of thousands demonstrated in several Italian cities in favor of the right to abortion -- legalized in that country 30 years ago, but unexpectedly a hot topic ahead of April elections.

Nearly 2,000 people gathered in Warsaw over abortion rights. Poland, like Italy a heavily Roman Catholic nation, has one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws.

A demonstration in France drew attention to French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt, seized by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in February 2002 as she campaigned for the Colombian presidency.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to pay inequality between men and women, and pledged to institute financial sanctions to address the problem.

Turkmenistan officially marked the day with a cash gift from President Gourbangouly Berdymoukhamedov worth nearly $10 to every Turkmen woman. It was the first commemoration of the day there since 2003, when then-president Saparmourat Niazov banned the festivities.

In Ukraine, Itar-Tass news agency reported, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko offered best wishes to her compatriots, saying: "It's the day when men recognize that they can not live without us!"

There were also reminders of persistent difficulties facing women on Saturday.

Two women were attacked in the northern South African province of Limpopo because they were wearing mini-skirts, public radio reported. A group of people surrounded them, pushed them and yelled for them to undress before the women took refuge in a nearby hair salon.

In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of women protested to demand punishment for those who commit sexual violence, including rape.

"The law on sexual violence is not applied," said Esperance Katungu. "Women are often not informed of their rights."

More than 7,000 cases of sexual violence were reported in 2007 in the eastern Nord-Kivu province of the DR Congo, which was also hit by heavy clashes between the army and militias last year.

United Nations officials in Port-au-Prince took the opportunity to highlight the role of some 226 women in military and police roles in the 9,200-strong UN mission in Haiti who are charged with helping reduce violence against women.

In Latin America, the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez saw several husbands of the more than 400 women murdered in the city since 1993 march to demand justice.

And hundreds of women in Brazil calling themselves "anti-capitalist feminists" took to the streets in downtown Sao Paulo.