Thousands march in Spain on women's day despite coronavirus fears

MADRID (Reuters) - Thousands of women across Spain marched on Sunday against gender inequality to mark International Women’s Day, despite concerns the gatherings could help the spread of coronavirus.

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Bearing flags and banners denouncing gender violence, a crowd of purple-clad women paraded down one of Madrid’s main avenues toward the city center, chanting over booming drums.

One protester held a sign that read: “Machismo kills more than coronavirus.”

“We must be strong and fight for the rights of all of us, to be equal, to be paid as much as men,” One of the drummers, Marina Martin, told Reuters.

Spain’s women’s rights movement has emerged as a formidable political force since five men were jailed in 2016 for sexual abuse after gang-raping a young woman at the Pamplona bull-running festival.

Responding to discontent with Spain’s sexual violence laws, the leftwing government has approved a bill to qualify all non-consensual sex as rape. Previously a perpetrator had to have used physical violence or intimidation for an assault to be classified as rape.

But the issue remains divisive, with far-right Vox - Spain’s third-largest party - resisting the new legislation, which it says discriminates against men.

A number of events have been called off or postponed in Spain to minimize the possibility of the coronavirus spreading but health emergency coordinator Fernando Simon said on Saturday the Health Ministry did not consider the marches a risk.

Health Minister Salvador Illa appealed on Sunday to those with symptoms not to attend the demonstrations.

“I want to emphasize that people with symptoms should not go to the march ... people with symptoms should stay home and self-isolate,” he said.

According to the latest official figures Spain has 589 confirmed cases of the virus, 202 of them in Madrid.

Reporting by Elena Rodriguez, Julien Hennequin, Jordi Rubio and Michael Gore; Writing by Nathan Allen; Editing by Timothy Heritage