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In Latin America, International Women’s Day is more relevant than ever
Millions in Latin America have gained access to abortion, but ultraviolence and the gender pay gap show why 8 March is still a protest
Every 8 March, social media fills with a very specific argument: is it appropriate to wish each other a Happy International Women’s Day? Some argue the date is an important moment to take stock of feminism’s achievements and draw strength from sisterhood. Others say these greetings are trite on a day of struggle: during this year’s demonstrations, police tear gassed women in Ecuador and eight women were injured in Mexico city.
It might seem like a minor point, but it’s a microcosm of a broader issue: even as feminists in several countries celebrate major progress on abortion rights, horrifying numbers of femicides and a pernicious gender pay gap show that the patriarchy is alive and well despite our best efforts.
Since December 2020, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia have overturned abortion bans that had been in place since the nineteenth century. This means that in a region still home to some of the world’s harshest abortion laws, the procedure is now legal in three of the four most populous countries. It’s a major shift in the balance of power between feminist movements and the Catholic church, which has long held sway in the region.
In Chile, the convention tasked with rewriting the constitution voted on Thursday night to incorporate a section guaranteeing the right to sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to abortion. The text could still be voted down at a later stage, and the constitution as a whole will have to be approved in a referendum later this year. Nonetheless, hopes are high: President-elect Gabriel Boric, who is being sworn in today, has said he support the right to abortion.
Despite these gains, conservatives have done their best to nip pro-abortion initiatives in the bud. In January 2021, Honduras voted through a constitutional reform banning abortion, which can only be modified via a three-quarters supermajority. It’s grim news in a country where abortion is outlawed even in cases of rape, the emergency contraceptive pill is forbidden, and a quarter of girls have been pregnant at least once before they turn 19. That figure rises to 30% in rural areas, in part because rape and incest are so common, according to the UN Human Rights Council.
On Tuesday, Guatemala passed a law increasing the prison term for having an abortion from three to 10 years, banning same-sex marriage, and prohibiting schools from teaching children about anything that could “deviate [their] identity according to their birth gender”.
Progressive gender policies in the region aren’t limited to abortion. Argentina has passed a slew of legislation including trans labour quotas, ID cards for nonbinary people, and a series of initiatives on “menstrual justice”, which look at tackling the stigma and expense associated with periods.
Despite these gains, the country’s statistics on the worst crimes against women and girls remains pretty crushing. Last year, there were 256 femicides (killings of women because of their gender), according to the gender violence observatory Ahora Que Sí Nos Ven (Now You See Us). That equated to one femicide every 34 hours, rising to one every 26 hours in 2022 to date. The group said the rate had changed little since they started the index six years ago. One in ten victims was killed by a member of the security forces.
The issue of rape culture was graphically highlighted just a week before International Women’s Day, when a group of six young men were caught gang raping a woman in a car parked on a busy Buenos Aires street in broad daylight. The incident sparked shock and revulsion, dominating headlines for days, and the suspects were arrested on the spot.
The group included middle-class students and a political activist with an organization that is part of the ruling Frente de Todos coalition. He was promptly expelled. That may have helped underscore the oft-neglected point that violent men exist in all sectors of society, but Argentine feminists know that the incident was striking because it was blatant, not because it was rare.
In January, Pamela Julia Flores, a 12-year-old indigenous Wichí girl, was murdered and left by the roadside in the northern province of Salta. A 17-year-old youth was arrested, but her family believes others were involved. Indigenous activists say there have been many cases like hers, often at the hands of non-indigenous men. All too often, violence against them is ignored: many of the country’s biggest news outlets didn’t run a single story about her.
A culture of impunity for violence against indigenous women goes far beyond Argentina. In the Colombian department of Guajira, women of the Wayuu community have long been marginalized as they are routinely preyed upon by armed groups and even men within their own communities. Activists pushing back against these issues have faced death threats, had their children forcibly recruited by criminal groups for speaking up, or simply been killed.
The situation is equally grim in Bolivia, where a UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers recently warned of “a serious gap in access to justice for women”, highlighting that gender-based violence worsened during the pandemic and many femicides were never investigated, let alone solved.
While the Green Tide abortion rights movement inspires feminists in many countries to push harder than ever for the right to end a pregnancy, the legalizations in Colombia, Mexico and Argentina are prompting many activists to consider what the next goal might be.
Virginia Tognola, an Argentine feminist activist with the Nuestramérica movement, believes it’s likely to involve the world of work: who has a job, what they get paid, and whose work is recognized as such at all. “This year, one of the most important mottos that all the organizations at the [International Women’s Day] march agreed on was the recognition of care work. Economic and social recognition, with salary and a pension,” she said.
In the third trimester of 2021, 72% of unpaid domestic work in Argentina was done by women, in line with the regional average of 73%. The already unequal distribution of care work fell even more disproportionately on women during the pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the feminization of poverty, a term referring to problems such as women’s over-representation among the poorest and our increasing likelihood of being in poorly-paid, precarious work.
Tognola and others agree that there’s one group that could easily be doing a lot more to improve the situation of women, girls, and gender-nonconforming people: men. For too long, the onus has been on women to avoid walking home alone, to “lean in” at work, to look after our daughters because boys will be boys. But if all women have friends who have been abused and no men know any abusers, the numbers don’t add up.
Feminist campaigners say it’s time for men to do some soul-searching about masculinity. “I feel that men’s role in this has been really, really weak,” she said. “There was a point where they had started to have discussions about masculinity and about machista violence towards bodies that aren’t cis men, but today, those discussions are nonexistent.
She feels that the pandemic prompted men to focus on other struggles that they considered more immediate. “But to those of us with feminine identities, it’s always urgent,” she said. “It costs us our life.”
Stories we are watching:
The United States this week sent officials to Venezuela to discuss “energy security”, suggesting the two countries may resume trade. Relations between the two have been icy following former President Trump's enthusiastic support for opposition leader Guaidó, who proclaimed himself president in early 2019. The White House stated that “all options are on the table” to facilitate both more oil production globally, and perhaps even a resumed economic relationship with President Nícolas Maduro directly, who described the meeting as “cordial, diplomatic and respectful.” In a speech the following day he stated his willingness to sell more oil in “the interests of world security.”
Argentina’s lower chamber has approved a deal restructuring US$45 billion of debt to the IMF. The deal has proved politically controversial: several deputies from the ruling Frente de Todos coalition rejected the deal, arguing that the debt is antidemocratic, illegitimate, and shouldn’t have been taken in the first place. Furious anti-IMF protesters burned tyres and the letters “IMF” outside the national congress, sparking a police crackdown. The deal will now pass to the senate.
Spanish words of the week:
Hecatombe (f): A disaster or catastrophe. We think it would make a pretty awesome name for a metal band.
Blandengue (adj): soft or wimpy. Not to be confused with merengue, which should be sweet, crusty, and delicious on a cake… or on the dancefloor