PARIS -- Calls to end forced marriage, domestic abuse and job discrimination marked International Women's Day on Saturday as demonstrators took to the streets worldwide.
Nearly 100 years old, the day marks the worldwide struggle for equal rights for half the globe's population.
Scores of women rallied outside a Baghdad hotel demanding an end to violence and equal social status with men.
"Stop neglecting women. Stop killing women. Stop creating widows," read a large banner that the women, from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, held at the Babylon Hotel in Baghdad's central Karada neighbourhood.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai spoke out against forced marriages and said threats from a Taliban-led insurgency were keeping girls out of school.
"I call on religious leaders, tribal elders and particularly men: stop forcing your under-aged girls to marry, stop marrying them to old men," he said.
Up to 80 percent of Afghan women face forced marriage, and nearly two-thirds are married before the legal age of 16, according to the United Nations.
Events were also planned in neighbouring Pakistan, where "honour killings" of women and punishment gang-rapes have been widely reported.
Gatherings took place in India, Indonesia and China as activists pressed for an end to discrimination ranging from abortion of female foetuses to workplace bias.
Australian women's minister Tanya Plibersek said the occasion was a chance to acknowledge issues such as women's lack of financial independence.
"From the moment a woman enters the workforce she is likely to earn less than her male colleagues, regardless of her career, industry or level," she said.
In Japan, a rally was scheduled in Osaka to express solidarity with women in Iraq.
Communist North Korea marked International Women's Day in its own way by urging its women to reject Western fashions and to "set good examples" in their clothes and hairstyles.
"Women must set good examples in all fields of culture and custom, including clothes, hairdos and language," Rodong Sinmun, the official daily of the North's ruling Korean Workers' Party, said in an editorial.
In Europe, job inequality, domestic abuse and abortion rights were highlighted.
In Italy, labour unions and women's groups planned a protest in favour of the right to abortion -- legalised in that country 30 years ago, but unexpectedly a hot topic ahead of April elections.
Nearly 2,000 people gathered in Warsaw to demand reproductive rights. Poland, like Italy a heavily Roman Catholic nation, has one of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws.
A demonstration in France drew attention to French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt, seized by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in February 2002 as she campaigned the Colombian presidency.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to pay inequality between men and women, and pledged to institute financial sanctions to address the problem.
The plight of women was outlined Friday by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, who said: "Laws that discriminate against women are still to be found on the statute books of virtually every country."
Copyright © 2008 AFP