Like other feminists in the 1970s, I wore badges proclaiming "the personal is political" and went on marches for "A woman's right to choose" and "Reclaim the night". I wrote and performed songs for demos and street theatre with titles like "Sistersong" and "Bent Ladies". I was young then and it was exciting being part of this new Women's Liberation Movement. But I was also troubled by the fact that most of the women going to meetings and marches looked quite like me – white women in their twenties to forties.
How brilliantly different it was being on the Million Women Rise march through London ten days ago, surrounded by women of diverse colours, ages and backgrounds – dancing, drumming, singing and marching together in vibrant solidarity. "Power… Power to the women" – a ringing call and response chant rose above the streets, led by Sabrina, Anjum, Lucy, or whoever had a strong voice or megaphone. A group calling themselves "Indian Ladies of the UK", flung off their warm coats and started us off with Bollywood dancing that quickly drew a crowd. One called out "Women oppose sexual violence in India and UK", as many more joined their voices in agreement.
"Indian Ladies of the UK" at MWR march, London. Photo: Rebecca Johnson
The Million Women Rise (MWR) placards proclaimed "Together we can end male violence against women", while others carried personal messages, such as "Respect all women", "Black women's lives matter", "Stop deporting LGBT refugees", and "Stop raping us". There were appeals and messages from around the world, including ones showing solidarity with Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish and Afghan women refugees, their lives blighted by Western militarism and terrorist violence. A long banner reminded us that 40 women every day are raped in the DRC. There were demands for international action to stop these wars on women, including ending impunity for rapists wearing UN or other military uniforms. And there were the heart-felt memorials to Berta Cacéres, the great Honduran activist for indigenous women and environmental protection, who was murdered on 3rd March.
Commemorating murdered Honduran activist Berta Cacéres at MWR march, London. Photo: Rebecca Johnson.
Despite the cold and rain, we were loud and proud as we marched along Oxford Street and through Soho, past the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue skirting Chinatown, and on to Trafalgar Square. The banners identified marchers from Rape Crisis Centres around Britain, women's organisations confronting rape and violence at home and around the world, diaspora groups in Britain who mobilise support for women human rights defenders and political prisoners in their home countries, and activists like Sisters Uncut, Women in Black, and the Women's League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
As a steward, I wore a bright orange MWR vest and handed out leaflets to the thousands of shoppers thronging the route. I also proferred my small plastic MWR bucket asking them to donate. "Help us end violence against women", I'd say, going first to interested-looking women on the pavements.
Then came an exchange that made me focus my fundraising more towards the men. As I waited for one woman who was scrabbling in her purse for some change, I caught the eye of the man standing next to her. I invitingly moved the bucket closer to him. He backed away muttering "Not my problem". "Yes it is," I found myself answering back. "Male violence is men's problem, which women have to suffer and pay for. Even if you don't use violence yourself, isn't it time you men took more responsibility for helping us end male violence?" He looked rather shocked, but the woman's eyes met mine with a look of recognition and agreement, as she put a five pound note in the bucket.
After that, I spent more of my time asking men for donations, often saying (with a hopefully non-aggressive smile) "Male violence is very costly for women, so we need men's money to help us stop it." It worked in many cases, though it has to be said that more money still flowed from the women along the route.
As with the World Court of Women, the primary purpose of the Million Women Rise demonstrations, started in 2007 by Sabrina Qureshi, is to give a platform and visibility to amplify the voices of women at the forefront of experiencing – and combatting – violence against women and children. Women with megaphones gave out the statistics – that one in four women will experience domestic violence, and that on average there will have been 35 violent assaults on a woman before she calls police; that one in four women are raped or sexually assaulted during their lives; that over 1,400 women are trafficked each year into Britain to be sexually exploited and prostituted. Despite being seriously under-reported, only 5% of reported rapes end in the perpetrator being successfully convicted. Here in Britain, over 20,000 girls are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM), and 250 cases of forced marriage are reported each year, almost certainly lower than the actual occurrence. And yet, fewer than 10% of local authorities across the UK have a rape crisis centre.
Women from the DRC on MWR march, London. Photo: Rebecca Johnson
The personal was heart-breakingly entwined with the political in many leaflets and from speakers at the Trafalgar Square rally. Elsa Vumi from the Democratic Republic of Congo spoke of British complicity in the 20 year "secret economic war of low intensity by Western powers". Telling us that "through mass rape and sexual violence, women are paying the heaviest price for the digital revolution," the speakers described how multinational corporations from Britain, the United States, Canada, Israel and African countries Rwanda and Uganda were "looting strategic materials" for electronic equipment including mobile phones and computers, thereby "maintaining oppressive regimes, militias and warlords of all kinds in the Great Lakes region of Africa". We in Britain benefit from these economic wars, while "more than 10 million" Congolese civilians are victimised, women and children first. There are more ethical, fair trade alternatives for our phones and electronic equipment, but we have to be willing to pay a bit more.
Making this politics personal, Congolese speakers paid tribute to Mama Masika who died recently, after campaigning courageously for the past 20 years against rape in war, as inflicted on her and her two daughters. Elsa ended her speech by crying out: "Enough is enough! Our vaginas are tired! We want peace and justice through an International Tribunal". Several hundred women took up her cry, which echoed around Trafalgar Square.
Evrim of the Roj Women's Assembly spoke of the grassroots Kurdish women's rights movement that has opposed both Turkish government oppression and the violence of Daesh/IS against Kurdish and other women from Iraq to Syria. Other speakers provided testimony from the struggles for peace, justice and women's human rights from Syria and Afghanistan to Thailand.
Closer to home, we were reminded of the cuts in Rape Crisis and other services for women in Britain. Marai Larasi of the Black feminist organisation Imkaan told how the cuts in services carried out by the government in the name of "austerity" fell most heavily on services for BME [Black and Minority Ethnic] women, with many being forced to close down.
Some of the marchers had drawn attention to lesbian activists who are raped and beaten up in countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe. If they are able to flee to Britain, hoping to find refuge, they are not necessarily safe. Some have been arrested and imprisoned in UK detention centres, and then returned to the countries from which they had tried to escape, facing even greater violence and torture. Antonia Bright from "Movement for Justice" spoke of the many innocent refugees imprisoned in Yarls Wood , where guards were recently filmed referring to the incarcerated women as "animals". Bright called on everyone to join the "Shut down Yarls Wood" demo and encirclement in Bedfordshire on Saturday, 12 March.
Each generation has to create the politics it needs to address the challenges it prioritises. Despite the gains made by earlier feminists, liberation cannot happen without the engagement of women from all parts of the world, and all parts of our societies. The theme attached (by whom?) to this year's International Women's Day is "Pledge for Parity". Safety, respect and education are preconditions for parity. But not enough. To paraphrase a 1970s badge: Women who seek parity with men lack ambition.
Like the World Courts of Women, women's centres, refuges, rape crisis services and feminist peace and justice campaigners around the world, Million Women Rise is necessary today because male violence is "a global pandemic", devastating lives, fuelling conflicts and undermining development. That's why campaigning to end violence against women is an international struggle for our full emancipation, justice and liberty.
That would be a world with great benefits for men too. They can help us by renouncing institutions that maintain and allow sexual violence and inequality, and by refusing to collude when other men coerce and degrade women and girls.
"What do we want?" shouted a girl who looked about ten, marching with Million Women Rise. "Safe Streets!" responded the women and children around her at the tops of their voices, to her evident delight. "Whose streets?" the girl called out. "Our streets!" the women roared back.