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Thousands of Swiss women walked out of their jobs to protest inequality

It was the 28th anniversary of another historic strike.

A woman holds a sign reading “Feminism = Equality” as she takes part in a nationwide women’s strike for wage parity outside the federal palace, on June 14, 2019, in the Swiss capital Bern.
A woman holds a sign reading “Feminism = Equality” as she takes part in a nationwide women’s strike for wage parity outside the federal palace, on June 14, 2019, in the Swiss capital Bern.
Stefan Wermuth/AFP/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Thousands of women across Switzerland went on strike Friday to protest gender inequality in the country.

The women demonstrators, many clad in purple, skipped work and instead took to the streets in cities across Switzerland to call for equal pay and equal rights.

And they did so 28 years to the day after the historic 1991 women’s strike in Switzerland that put pressure on the government to better implement a constitutional amendment on gender equality. That 1991 strike led to the passage of the Gender Equality Act five years later, which gave women legal protections from discrimination and gender bias in the workplace.

Last year, the Swiss Parliament also passed an equal pay law that requires companies with 100 people or more to do wage-gap studies to determine if there are disparities in how much women and men are paid for the same work. But critics said the law didn’t cover enough employers or go far enough to punish companies that failed to remedy disparities.

Switzerland ranked 20th in the 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, behind other wealthy European countries including Norway, Finland, France, and Germany. (The US ranked 51st.) According to Switzerland’s Federal Statistics Office, in 2016, Swiss women working in the private sector earned one-fifth less than men.

And now Swiss women are marching to tell lawmakers and employers there’s still a lot more to be done.

“It’s been 38 years since gender equality was written into the constitution, and yet this equality still hasn’t materialized,” Vanessa Monney, a Lausanne-based organizer of the strike, told France 24. “In fact we’ve seen an increase in the gender pay gap in recent years.”

Strike organizers called on women to walk out of work at 3:24 pm local time to reflect that wage gap if participants couldn’t strike for the full day, according to the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

The protest officially kicked off at midnight. In the city of Lausanne, near the French border, a watchman climbs to the top of a cathedral’s bell tower to call out the time every hour.

But on Friday, the watchman wasn’t a man at all. According to Benjamin Dodman at France 24, four women did the job at midnight, marking the time and the start of the walkout.

“This is the watchwoman,” the women reportedly yelled out. “The bell has tolled twelve. The bell has tolled the start of the strike.” The cathedral was lit up in purple to symbolize the movement.

The Swiss Parliament in Bern honored the strike with a 15-minute break in its business. In Basel, a giant fist was projected onto the Roche pharmaceutical company building. In some cities, protesters changed the names of streets to honor women. The Swiss paper, Le Temps, left sections blank for articles that would have been written or edited by women, according to the Guardian.

While equal pay demands dominated the strike, women marchers also called for better protections against domestic violence and workplace harassment.

“We must fight for equal pay, fair distribution of care work, abortion rights, zero tolerance for domestic violence, and more,” Rahel Lüthy, a 43-year-old who protested in Bern with her 13-year-old daughter, told the New York Times. “And most importantly: We must smash the patriarchy!”

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