Today is International Women’s Day, marked by the United Nations on 8 May since 1975, and for the 2019 edition the official theme is “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. In Belgium, however, the slogan is “When women stop, the world stops”. Women in Belgium have been called on to strike today to show, organisers say, just how much the world is reliant on their efforts and their contributions. This morning, groups of demonstrators were already gathering – together with some male allies – in front of the Central station in Brussels.
The strike is organised by a collective of members of unions and associations from across the country. Belgium is, according to the World Bank, one of only six countries in the world where women have precisely the same rights under the law as men; the others are Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden. At the very bottom of the list of 187 countries, not surprisingly, stands Saudi Arabia.
However Belgium might not be so fortunately placed if the World Bank had taken other matters into consideration, according to Eva Brems, professor of human rights at the university of Ghent.
“The World Bank makes an economic case for women’s rights,” she told the VRT. “They regard women as economic actors. If there is an inequality in the law which stands in the way of the development of careers for women, that is regarded as an economic problem for the country.”
However, she explained, laws to remedy inequality do not of themselves get rid of the inequality. “If in one country there are laws against inappropriate sexual behaviour in the workplace or domestic violence, that doesn’t mean the problem is solved. In Belgium there remains a great deal of domestic violence, and there are still a lot of #MeToo problems.”
On that subject, Amnesty International today launches a petition calling on the Belgian authorities “to respect their obligations under the Istanbul Convention on the prevention of, and the fight against, violence against women and domestic violence, signed and ratified in 2016”.
“Equality between women and men is clearly not a reality,” commented Ruth Paluku-Atoka, a member of the strike collective, in La Libre. “We have opted for the strike weapon because it is a powerful thing, to stop working. It will allow all to see where women are necessary.” The call to strike concerns not only paid work, however, but also the care of others, an embargo on consumption and a strike by students.
The collective will maintain a presence on the square in from of the Central station until 1700, when a march is planned. At that moment, women everywhere are called upon to make a lot of noise, “to make sure women’s voices are heard”.