“Above all, we are striking against violence in all its forms,” said Isotta Ianniello from women's rights organization Non Una di Meno, which coordinated the strike and many of the events and demonstrations taking place on Wednesday.
“Every day, we see the extent to which violence is a structural phenomenon of our society; an instrument of control of our lives. It conditions every aspect of our existence: in our families, at work, at school, in hospitals, in courts, in the papers, on the street,” she said.
International Women's Day is usually a day of celebration in Italy: it has become traditional for men to give a flower or other gift to women in their lives and each year the Quirinale, Italy's presidential palace, is decked out in the yellow mimosa flowers that have become the national symbol of the day.
But this year, the celebration has turned into a protest, with organizers saying several hundreds of women had sent messages of support. Public transport was particularly badly disrupted in the major cities of Rome and Milan, while women also stayed home from jobs in schools, local authorities, shops, and many other industries across both the private and public sectors.
“There will be strikes, rallies, flash mobs and online protests,” explained Iannellio. “The general strike hasn't been supported by the most popular trade union confederations, but we have the support of the base unions – and, above all, the desire of millions of women around the world who have decided to reclaim this struggle.”
Italy has one of Europe's widest gender gaps when it comes to the workforce, with only around half of the country's women in employment and even fewer in the southern regions.
And among Italian women who are employed when they become pregnant, one in four loses her job within a year of giving birth, according to data from national statistics agency Istat – a risk which increases with each subsequent child. And a worrying 42.8 percent of those who had continued to work admitted to struggling to reconcile their work and family life.
What's more, Italian women do significantly more unpaid work, such as domestic chores and care work, than their male counterparts, according to OECD data. So Non Una di Meno also called on women to abstain from “the many domestic or care activities which are neither recognized nor paid”
As for what the strike aims to achieve, Non Una di Meno says: “If our lives aren't valued, we'll strike.”
“The goal is to produce economic damage and to make women's role in production tangible,” explains Ianniello. “It's a way to show our rejection of a society which is violent towards women. If our lives are so disposable and given so little value, we challenge you to live, produce, without us.
“We will spend the day in the sun, enjoying the spring which is for us too – despite those who kill us for 'loving us too much', those who blame victims of rape for their behaviour, those who 'export democracy' in our name and then build walls between us and our freedom.
“In spite of those who write laws about our bodies; those who let us die out of 'conscientious objection'. In spite of those who fire us because we have children and those who offer us lower salaries than men.”
Giovanna Barca, a 55-year-old working in communications at a state library, told The Local she considered herself lucky, because she personally had no “terrible” experiences of violence or sexism. However, she said she knew and worked with several women who were victims of “small and large acts of violence”.
Barca says she has grown disappointed and disillusioned with Italian politics at the national level, and had recently been experiencing “a growing sense of impotence; almost resignation.”
“Suffice to say that Italy is far behind many other countries [with regard to women's rights] – but you must already know that.”
While the library worker says she has never suffered from male violence, and that she was happy to have been a young girl in the 1970's when “taboos were being shattered”, she recognizes the importance of continuing to fight for equality.
“When I heard about the strike and read the statement from Non Una di Meno, it was as if I had woken up from a long sleep,” says Barca.
“I should – and I want to – be part of this global movement. Our contribution to Italian society is noteworthy and important.”