“Not on our watch.” The Spirit of Women Activists and the Political Violence against Them during the COVID-19 Pandemic Burst

On August 8th, ‘Women Weaving Reality’ marched silently in Jerusalem towards the Israeli parliament. Dressed in shades of red, Jewish and Arab women joined together to represent a new vision:

In our current reality, the chaos seems to be getting stronger: The earth is littered with trash, water is polluted, people are neglected, violence is everywhere, and disadvantaged groups of society are collapsing. We say: “Not on our watch.”

Women Weaving Reality

This May, we started a solemn yet uplifting exploration of the fortitude and violent oppression of women in the last decade. As the new decade has been primarily occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, we had one key question in mind: what is the impact of COVID-19 on female-centered political activity worldwide?

We set a timeframe from February 1, 2020 to May 16, 2020 as the “COVID-19 Pandemic Burst”. Why? On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared the coronavirus a global emergency, while several countries confirmed the rise of COVID-19 cases and began to apply countermeasures and health emergency plans. On May 15, 2020, there were more than 4.4 million confirmed cases worldwide.

Through the medium of data visualization, we hope to shed light on the stories of women fighting for their rights in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic burst, of women who are seeking to be heard across social distances and outside lockdowns.

Hair Me Out: Female Activism and Violence During the COVID-19 Pandemic Burst (View ACLED Event Types)

106 Days, 1,761 Events, 104 Active Countries

From its inception, 2020 has been plagued by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, infecting 76.8 million individuals (and counting) worldwide and disrupting our livelihoods, economies, and political freedoms. Its impacts have been exacerbated for women and girls across every sphere, including health, the economy, security, and social protection. However, despite lockdowns and social distancing measures, women are marching against femicide, protesting government responses to COVID-19, and raising their voices to fight for human rights and equality.

Days of Pandemic Burst: The Most Politically Active, Violent, and Fatal Days

Over 106 days of the COVID-19 pandemic burst, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) collated 1,761 events of female-centered political activity, primarily in Central and South America, South and East Asia, and the Middle East. These included demonstrations featuring women as well as political violence targeted against them.

During that period, 1,101 ‘Peaceful Protest’ events were reported worldwide, making up 60% of total events. In comparison to the same period in 2019, the number of protests almost doubled. Interestingly, many of these protests occurred despite lockdown or curfew measures, demonstrating that political activism is still a priority during the pandemic.

A Breakdown of Events During the COVID-19 Pandemic Burst
Top Countries with the Highest Number of Peaceful Protests (Left) and Attacks (Right)

However, not every protest was peaceful. Some involved clashes with police while others resulted in vandalization of property. According to an ACLED report, women experience disproportionately excessive force, more than in similar events that don’t feature women. In addition to demonstrations, there were 474 events of violence against women, a third of which occurred in Mexico. Alondra Torres’ experience was one.

“We don’t need you to praise us, just let us do our job.”

Health workers face violent attacks in Mexico

Alondra Torres, a doctor from Jalisco, Mexico, was walking her dog on the morning of April 15th when a person threw diluted bleach at her face for wearing her uniform. She suffered conjunctivitis and contact dermatitis as a result.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, resistance, aggression, and discrimination against employees in the health and social sector have dramatically increased. Because 7 out of 10 health and social care workers are women, they are disproportionately targeted. Dozens of incidents against them were reported during the COVID-19 Pandemic Burst, including nine attacks, one abduction, and three fatalities.

Healthcare Workers During The Covid-19 Pandemic Burst: Health workers, especially in Central and South America, are facing increased violence and poor treatment (Left); The Rhythm of Protests and Violence Against Health Workers (Right)

In Mexico, female nurses have been hit by stones, kicked off public transport, and have had hot coffee and bleach poured on them amidst fears that they might spread coronavirus. One nurse, Melody Rodriguez, was blocked from entering her village on the way home from work because she “came from a source of infection.”

“They symbolically represent the disease itself and the cure,” says María del Carmen Montenegro, from the Faculty of Psychology at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

While the Mexican government has taken steps to condemn these attacks and protect health care workers, female health workers are simply asking for respect. “We don’t need you to praise us, just let us do our job,” said Rodriguez.

360 Fatalities in 360°: Days of Demonstrations, Violence and Loss During the COVID-19 Pandemic Burst

“Why are you beating me? I am trying to survive!”

Police brutality threatens to transform the health crisis into a human rights crisis

On April 8th, street vendor, Alanyo Joyce, was packing up her fried chicken stall just before the 7:00 p.m. curfew imposed as part of Uganda’s lockdown measures. The next thing she knew, she was burning. A law enforcement officer had kicked a pan of boiling oil onto her, causing severe burns on her face, chest, and arms. In Uganda, women who are trying to maintain their livelihoods during the pandemic are being punished. Another woman, after being chased and caned for selling fruits and vegetables, cried out: “Why are you beating me? What crime have I committed? I am trying to survive!”

Similar reports came from other countries in the region, including Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. In Kenya, three police officers whipped women at the Mitunguu market while enforcing social distancing. In Liberia, a pregnant woman was beaten by drug enforcement agents for violating a 3:00 p.m. stay at home order.

These alarming assaults are part of a larger trend of excessive force and abuses by police enforcing COVID-19 countermeasures. Human Rights Watch has condemned security forces in the region. “It is shocking that people are losing their lives and livelihoods while supposedly being protected from infection,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Police brutality isn’t just unlawful; it is also counterproductive in fighting the spread of the virus.”

While the enforcement of countermeasures is important in helping stem the spread of coronavirus, the use of violence threatens to transform this health crisis into a human rights crisis.

“Now, it’s society’s turn to change.”

Japan’s Flower Demo Movement blooms for the last time on International Women’s Day 2020

Japan’s Flower Demo Movement blooms for the last time on International Women’s Day 2020

Sunday, March 8, 2020, marked International Women’s Day, a day of celebrating women’s achievements and a gender-equal world. This year’s theme was “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights”, and despite the pandemic, it was the most active yet, with 393 events spanning 56 countries. From marches in Pakistan and Mexico to demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, thousands of women took the streets demanding greater rights and denouncing violence against women. Japan was the third most active country with 42 ‘Peaceful Protests’, all of which were part of the Flower Demo Movement.

The movement began in March 2019, when a series of acquittals in four sexual assault cases sparked outrage over the legal standard for sexual assault and rape in Japan. In one case, despite the court recognizing that a father physically and sexually abused his daughter, he was acquitted because there was doubt as to whether she was incapable of resisting.

Since then, on the 11th of every month, women gather holding flowers, a symbol of empathy, to speak about their own experiences of sexual violence and urge reforms to Japan’s criminal code. The purpose of the movement can be summarized in the words of Akiko Matsuo, one of its core organizers, “Talking about our unchangeable past will surely change the future.”

The Flower Demo Movement has spread to all 47 prefectures and regions in Japan, with around 1,500 people coming together monthly on average, and has already begun to galvanize reform. For example, the Ministry of Justice announced that they will establish an investigative commission to deliberate penal code revisions pertaining to sexual crimes.

Moved to coincide with International Women’s Day, flower demos occurred in 42 prefectures and cities in Japan on March 8, 2020. It also marked the first anniversary and final gathering of the official Flower Demo. “Today marked an end of a chapter of the (movement), but it is not the end,” said Minori Kitahara, an author and one of the organizers of the demonstration. “Now, it’s society’s turn to change.”

“Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?”

When the first reports of COVID-19 cases reached us, we didn’t expect it to spiral into a global pandemic that would profoundly alter our everyday lives. While some of us are struggling with the isolation, household concerns, or the mere discomfort of wearing masks everywhere we go, others, particularly women in countries engaged in sociopolitical crises, are facing severe gender-based discrimination and violence during this time.

With lockdowns and quarantines, we thought there would be less political activity in the COVID-19 Pandemic Burst. We thought wrong. Women were strikingly more active during this challenging period than in the similar period last year. From a two million strong march on International Women’s Day in Chile to protests against femicide in Turkey, women continued to fight for gender equality.

On the flip side, we thought our world would come together in the interest of protecting fundamental human rights, security, health, and economic development. But again, we thought wrong. The world kept turning and violence did not cease despite the pandemic. Violent attacks by gangs in Central and South America, sectarian violence in India, armed conflict in Africa and the Middle East, and other isolated incidents resulted in 360 fatalities in just 106 days.

While the data do demonstrate both uplifting and alarming trends in political protests and violence, respectively, it should be noted that certain events featuring women are not reflected. First, the ACLED data capture political events featuring women or women’s issues and political violence targeting women, but not all the events involving women, nor all political violence against women. The data exclude domestic violence or other forms of non-political violence against women, which intensified. Second, the data do not include all countries, most notably the United States and other Western countries, meaning there was likely more activity than is represented. Third, the fatality numbers are not definitive (and may be disposed to media and political manipulation), nor were all fatalities necessarily women.

In this journey, we have strived to add our voices to the continued fight for the safety, health, education, and empowerment of women and girls globally. Beyond the insightful data, we were inspired by the heroic and shocking stories as a tool for awareness, active engagement, and even self empowerment.

As the pandemic continues to plague the world past our predefined “Pandemic Burst”, we believe that it is possible to keep women and girls worldwide safe from it while promoting and protecting their fundamental rights. What the last few months have shown us is that women should not have to sacrifice themselves and their rights in this pandemic.

Women should be free to protest against gender-based inequality and violence; to work on the frontlines of the pandemic without fear of discrimination or retaliation; to be leaders at all levels of government; and to be themselves. But as the days of the pandemic go by and women continue to be oppressed, harassed, and killed, we should all decide: “Not on our watch.”

We would like to dedicate this project to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an unyielding advocate for Women’s Rights and a hero to both of us.

Inbal Rief is a data visualization designer, UX product expert, and mentor. For the past decade, she has been highly passionate about “desualization” — a phrase she coined which is simply the combination of design and (data) visualization. Today, she seeks to fulfill her utmost desire of doing good with data and affecting behavior in a meaningful way.

Ravid Rief

Ravid Rief is a law student at the University of Pennsylvania. She hopes to pursue a career in international law with a focus on women’s rights, and in the future work for an international non-governmental organization to help serve the needs of others abroad.