Mass Swiss Women Strike for Gender Equality- Insider review
For the second time in nearly 30 years, the women of Switzerland took to the streets to go on strike on June 14th 2019. The word strike creates not only conversation but a variety of actions. Everyone in Switzerland, whether Swiss or one of the 2 million foreign nationals who live in Switzerland, was touched by this strike in some way. Hundreds of thousands of women and men, wearing purple, took to the streets across the country – but the strike consciousness was expressed in other ways beyond marching in solidarity. These dedicated women shared their stories with us when we asked them: Why did you strike? and, How did you strike? Read their stories here:
“June 14th is and was a historical moment in Switzerland. On this date back in 1991 about 500,000 people took to the streets to protest the inequality in this country. This brought some positive results; including the legislation on equality in 1995. Today, women and families suffer because of inadequate, unavailable and expensive childcare facilities; the system remains a patriarchal one which holds back necessary change and real equality between women and men; too many women work in a part time capacity in order to survive, physically, mentally and financially; the protection for women returning from maternity leave is disgraceful and age discrimination is particularly harmful for women” Mary Mayenfisch Advisor, Business & Human Rights and Education, President CLAFV, Lausanne
“I work for a large international company, and there was no communication about the strike internally despite a strong presence for this company in Switzerland and internal, international attention to diversity and inclusion. Employees who wanted to participate in the strike in any way had to arrange to take vacation time. This company has a proven pay gap between men and women in areas where data is available, and, sadly, they missed the opportunity to show their employees and the world that women’s rights matter. I did speak about the strike with my supervisor, and I was told the word “strike” was too controversial. A decision to ignore the strike had been consciously made. It’s more evidence of how desperately a change is needed – in Switzerland and in the world.” Anonymous, Switzerland
Some women, like Miroslav and Johanna (see below), supported the strike for the rights of mothers, highlighting how mothers cannot really stop the work of mothering, even for a strike. “I have been living in Switzerland only for four months I was shocked to find out that maternity leave lasts for only 16 weeks in Geneva. The country I come from, Czech Republic, offers 3 years of maternity leave. The first year of a baby’s life is very important for the mum and baby. That is the time when a strong bond and attachment is formed. I will never forget the story of a mother who approached me during the strike and explained that the reason why she is there is because she still feels very upset that her employer did not give her time to express milk at work and therefore her milk supply reduced and she had no breast milk left for her baby. The sad thing about this story is that she is a doctor working in a large hospital where everybody knows how important and precious breast milk is. I went on strike because every mother should have the right to breastfeed her baby for as long as she chooses.” Miroslava Athanasi, Midwife, Hypnobirthing teacher, IBCLC, www.expatmidwifegeneva.com, Geneva
“Babies are still being born, babies still need to be fed. Women cannot refuse to birth or feed their babies today. I’m went to a home visit to see a three-week old baby, whose mother is in excruciating pain and was sobbing to me when she called. Her nipples are bleeding. And yet she is still feeding her baby at her breast with the most excruciating pain, with no family around, her husband working every day until after 7pm. And somehow she needs to feed herself too. Women are warriors.” Johanna Sargeant IBCLC. Infant Feeding Specialist, Certified Lactation Consultant, www.milkandmotherhood.com, Thalwil
Johanna also helped to organize a lunch for new mothers who perhaps felt too overwhelmed to join the crowds, but who wanted some solidarity. The meeting was a way to highlight that the women did not want to cook or clean as another way to participate in the strike.
Psychologist Francesca Baracci of www.born-together.com, in Zurich is currently on maternity leave, she works on perinatal mental health, mainly with new mothers. She took part in the strike because, “Too often I see women who are overwhelmed by the load they are carrying, women whose jobs were made redundant when they were on maternity leave, women who are struggling to find affordable childcare solutions.”
Fortunately, husbands and fathers participated as well. Also in Zurich, Agota Balai, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Mamagora, www.mamagora.com, shares, “ One of the highlights of the strike for me was to get into conversation with a group of husbands in Zurich. They were wearing purple belts and talking about the importance of sharing household and parenting tasks. This gives me hope! We need to take action together to redefine our contribution to work, to choose how we strike the balance between work and home in order to keep our families intact. As long as we – together- keep doing what we just did last Friday, there is hope for real change.”
Women are carrying the caregiving load, as illustrated by how Olga Sokolik in Geneva, The Woman Behind www.parentville.ch, spent her strike day. “I planned to participate with my daughter for weeks. Sadly the day of the strike she fell sick. My husband is disabled, so I couldn’t leave a sick child with him to go to the city center and not be able to come back fast. But I jumped to a local shop in our village, found some purple tops and a scarf, we painted our thumbs red. I didn’t touch the mess and we watched the gatherings and demonstrations on tv. I also used my social media channels to communicate quite a lot about the strike, equality, and women’s rights the whole day.”
Some women worked on the strike day, but for reasons aligned with the strike itself!
Nadia Mills, Café & Preschool Owner in Egg www.luusmuus.ch describes her strike: “As a small business owner, I worked. I showed up on Friday morning and hustled all day long. Alongside many other small business owners who showed up for teams and clients and customers and each other. For those who went and demonstrated to protest inequality and make visible the importance of reducing the gender gaps throughout society today, I am thankful and appreciative, for those who worked alongside me today, I am proud.”
Emilie Etesi, Co-Founder of Ampliliabs in Aarau www.amplilabs.ch, would have loved to participate in a traditional way – and she was proud of her husband who wore a light purple shirt for the day; but, she also needed to work! “I have a great excuse… on the day of the strike, I was voted onto the board of directors of the Angestellte Schweiz Vorstand https://employees.ch/home-en/ which is an association, like a union, to protect the rights of employees in Switzerland at the country level. I am not the first woman on their board but the only recent one. They chose me because of who and what I represent: Women, innovation, women entrepreneurs, and start-ups. I can support the organization to pressure employers and the government to progress on equal rights issues. It takes a village to make a difference, people on the streets, people in the boardroom and people giving support for one another.”
Some women used their freedom to strike to spend time with others who couldn’t, like Angie Ng, Activist: “My son and I participated in a few activities in Zurich, including visiting a women’s detention center and women’s jail. The idea was to acknowledge all the women that couldn’t strike. Before the main march, we got drinks from the free kitchen operated by men supporting the strike.”
Villages and cities all over Switzerland pulsed with the energy of women speaking out. Rachel Silveston “I participated in the local village Cossonay event before heading onto to the main demonstration in the larger city of Lausanne .The idea behind organizing something in Cossonay was that women’s voices are everywhere, not just in the big cities. We invited anyone to come and participate in our “laundry line of slogans” and also had a stand with non-gender books to help educate young and old that stereotypes can change” Viola Langhagen from Luzern: “I went to the old town there was a wonderful speech of a lady who co-organized the event in 1991 and talked about how little change has happened since then. I myself felt so empowered to be in the middle of the march. So many good intentions but strong messages. There was not any aggressive behavior – it was female and yet so many men were around following too. We danced! I went home with powerful inner fulfillment afterwards.” In Geneva, Katia, Movement Therapist, https://aofdance.com, “Today was my first strike ever. This was not your staged communist walk from the 1980s (that I might have seen in Russia) that meant nothing other than propaganda. Being a part of the feminist walk felt good to me. Precisely it raised the question what else I can do today to make this world a better place to live in.”
Inequality in the workplace was an important theme of the strike.
Barbara Wohlfarth, Tourism Expert www.reiserezept.ch , has been asked during a job interview if motherhood and work would be “too much for her” and what she would do if her children were sick, and she has struggled to find adequate childcare in her village of Affoltern am Albis. She felt forced into the housewife role due to unfair salaries and lack of professional opportunities. She has become self-employed and studied commercial law. Sometimes Wohlfarth worries about her future. Due to ten years at home, like many women, she has big gaps in retirement savings. Her fear is justified. Figures from the Swiss Federal Social Insurance Office show that women receive 37 percent less in pension funding than men in Switzerland. She went on strike because: “I am angry. I feel I have to do three times more than a man to accomplish the same thing. The day you become a mother, you will be demoted to a second-class citizen in Swiss society. It’s time for something to change.”
Salon Owner in Basel at www.facebook.com/viviquehairlounge/, Ellie Isacs shares: “ It is an oximoron, isn’t it? Only women can give birth and precisely those women are punished, yes punished! Because paid maternity leave here is a joke, it’s an insult. You leave your baby for a job – a job which doesn’t pay enough for an adequate daycare. I walked out of a job interview once because I was asked, ” Mrs. Isacs, are you using birth control?” I want no woman to face such discrimination ever again, where she needs to sweat and not know what to answer. A question, which is a small example of how backwards Switzerland is, when it comes to women rights, equality, and support, even human rights. I joined the strike in the hopes to end the struggles of women trying to still raise families and contribute to humanity, while being treated inhumanely and unfairly at work.”
Jennifer Frye, Yoga and Mindfulness teacher, www.wellbalanced.me, in Neuchatel brought tradition, meditation, and motherhood to her strike participation. “Growing up in San Francisco in the 1970’s, this wasn’t my first women’s march. I grew up with a very feminist mother. While watching my 16-year-old daughter march with her friends; female and male, tears welled up in my eyes. Her sign read: “I don’t need heels to be at the top.” Before going to the march, I guided a group of women in meditation to cultivate self-care as well as compassion for others; a good way to start a protest! I volunteer at RECIF: a wonderful women’s center that started in Neuchatel 25 years ago. They support migrant women from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Venezula, Turkey, Ethopia and Nigeria. After my pre-march guided meditation with the women at RECIF, and watching my daughter joyously and peacefully marching with her friends, I was reminded of my connection with all the women in my life who have inspired and continue to inspire me with their courage, strength and brave hearts.”
MaryLou von Wyl, COO of a mid-sized company, and a Grandmother in Luzern also participated in the strike with generations of women in mind. “I am the COO of a mid-sized software company in Switzerland. I am the only female on the team at work, which makes some things difficult, but for the most part I am in a good place. There is no sense of discrimination – either as far as roles or salary are concerned. My daughter, in her 30s, had her second child in May. I’ve been watching how difficult it is for her and her partner to arrange themselves because they both work. She is an entrepreneur with her own design company and he works for a multi-national. My strike sign read “Grandmothers for affordable daycare”. Mine is a family where Grandma is not available to provide free daycare services. Having only one child in daycare costs them CHF 2500 for four days a week. Even a company-sponsored daycare costs them 120/day. I think that an affluent country like Switzerland should be able to provide high quality, affordable daycare. That is the first step toward getting qualified women who have chosen both a family and a career into the workforce. I was on strike for my family. The Women’s Strike was so much bigger and so much more powerful than I could have imagined. It was an earthquake. I hope the aftershocks shake just as strongly.”
These inspiring stories are examples of a brilliant mosaic – women taking the broken pieces of society and working together to make something new. I am thankful for each one of them, for each woman, each story and to every person who took a stand and who will stand up now to make a change in Switzerland and in the world.
Denise Nickerson is an author, coach and community leader based in Geneva, Switzerland, write to Sovereign Magazine’s First Class Coaches, discover www.theintegritysystem.com and www.salt.consulting to get in touch with her!