Several thousand demonstrators massed in Barcelona on Monday for a socially-distanced International Women's Day march after a day of national rallies except in Madrid, where gatherings were banned over the virus.

Wearing purple masks and brandishing placards with purple slogans reading "No means no" and "The real pandemic is machismo", thousands of women packed the Barcelona's Paseo de Gracia boulevard, many chanting "Long live the feminist struggle", an AFP correspondent said.

"The pandemic has made the differences clearer. Who's been left to look after everyone at home? Who's had problems going back to work?" asked Alys Samson, 29.

"It's time for us to make our voices heard in the face of the far-right violence, we have to find ways to stand up for ourselves and end the machismo and racism that's growing everywhere."

Other purple rallies also took place in the southern city of Seville, in the eastern coastal city of Valencia and dozens of other towns and cities.

Despite the ban on demonstrations in Madrid, more than 100 people gathered in the city's central Puerta del Sol square.

The rally took place peacefully without any intervention from the police, an AFP correspondent said.

Spain has a thriving feminist movement
Spain has a thriving feminist movement AFP / LLUIS GENE

Madrid still has one of the country's highest rates of Covid-19 infections and last week, the Spanish government imposed a ban on all such gatherings in the capital for International Women's Day.

Last year over 100,000 people hit the streets of Madrid, including three ministers who subsequently tested positive for Covid-19, just days before the government imposed one of Europe's strictest lockdowns as infections and deaths soared.

The move sparked sharp criticism from the rightwing opposition, which blamed the leftwing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez for allowing the huge march to go ahead.

Speaking at an official event to mark the day, Sanchez said "much work remains to be done" to advance women's rights.

"If there is one thing we cannot give up, breaking down the prejudices that still persist, it is the feminist struggle, because everything is at stake -- progress, decency as a country and economic growth," the premier said.

"The agenda for change that our country needs is the feminist agenda, with people's lives at the centre, public services and the fight against all forms of male violence."

Spain has a thriving feminist movement which in 2018 saw five million people taking part in a nationwide strike on International Women's Day to call attention to gender disparities.

But the movement has faced a backlash this year, with several street murals celebrating prominent women vandalised over the weekend in Madrid and elsewhere.