Argentina’s women fight for safe, free and legal abortion

The Ni Una Menos movement are making history. Will they succeed in this Wednesday’s vote on 13 June? Orlando James Jenkinson reports

One rain-soaked afternoon in the winter of 2015 hundreds of thousands of umbrellas flowed down Avenida de Mayo, the tree-lined boulevard which joins Argentina’s Congress and Presidential Palace through the heart of downtown Buenos Aires, and generated a tidal wave. The images flooded national news channels throughout the day, and on the next, porteños woke up to most every front page profiling scenes from the event.

In time, the shockwaves spread outwards, touching virtually every country in the region with similar demonstrations.

The umbrellas and accompanying placards had been held mostly by women, and announced the birth of a radical new face of the women’s movement in Latin America under the name Ni Una Menos—Not One Less.

Photo: Agustín Sorgin, 2015 (CC 2.0)

This slogan soon became a rallying cry against the gender violence epidemic in Latin America, which is the region with the highest femicide rates in the world. Moreover, the movement born under that simple phrase has supercharged the struggle for women’s rights throughout Latin America and placed Argentine activists squarely in the vanguard—next Wednesday’s momentous vote by national lawmakers on the legalization of abortion shows the strength and influence they have gathered since the inaugural march.

The name Ni Una Menos originated in hash-tag form above a poignant cartoon which featured a young girl, her eyes downcast, holding a raised fist into the air. It was drawn in response to the death of 14-year-old Chiara Paez at the hands of her boyfriend in 2015, a story which made national headlines amid a spike in the already high femicide rate in Argentina that year. A wave of smaller protests organized in response culminated in the immense demonstration of 3 June.

Three years on, the Ni Una Menos rally has become a central date in the calendar of the Argentine women’s movement. Its latest iteration last Sunday was remarkable not only for the massive turnout and attention it generated, but for a striking display of solidarity taken up by the marchers.

Shelving the typical purples and pinks of the original Ni Una Menos march, many attendees this year wore green bandanas and lit green flares, displaying their unity with and support for their sister cause, the National Campaign for Abortion Rights, which has campaigned under the symbol of the green bandana since its inception. ‘Without Legal Abortions There Is No Ni Una Menos,’ attendees said.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote on legalization, there is a palpable sense of togetherness among supporters of both campaigns. Any and every show of force and unity in favour of reform is not only welcome but necessary in order to achieve this goal of legal, free and safe abortions, a goal that only a few years ago seemed so distant.

In today’s Argentina, millionaire businessman turned neoliberal President Mauricio Macri may sit in the Casa Rosada, but he presides over a shifting cultural mood in the country. Dialogue about previously taboo subjects like gender violence and reproductive rights has been embraced in public discourse, from the barked discussions one hears in the cafés and street side asados of the capital, via late-night televised debates, to the floor of the national congress. The impact Ni Una Menos has had in this regard is as clear and conspicuous as the green bandanas were at its annual march last Sunday.

Building a discourse

A cornerstone of the movement’s success and fast-rising popularity has been a democratic structure that leans heavily on decades of groundwork laid down by activists in the broader women’s movement in Argentina.

Prominent feminist activist and writer Ximena Schinca described the approach adopted by Ni Una Menos ahead of the massively successful international women’s strike earlier this year.

‘[W]e are staging democratic meetings every week to organize the international women’s strike... These meeting are massive. We have women from all sorts of organizations, plus LGBT women and other groups.

This is a strike for all of these groups. And at the meetings, each representative from each group speaks for one or two minutes in turn, talking about what is important to focus on for this strike and for the wider movement in general.’

And it’s not just Argentina. Activists in Latin American countries that share a common language and cultural ties across geopolitical boundaries have all embraced the methods and slogan popularized by Ni Una Menos. These words now appear on banners and t-shirts and placards in Santiago, in Lima, in Bogotá, in Oaxaca.

The campaign has supplanted Latin America’s great distances by embracing the trappings of a 21st century social movement. From the start Ni Una Menos was fused with social media and in its first iterations this allowed the message to span Argentina’s giant interior that might otherwise have hindered its growth.

Activists, supporters and those affected by gender violence living outside of Buenos Aires all needed channels of communication the weekly meetings offered without necessarily having direct access to them. Social media provided a platform for speaking out generally free and for the most part easy to access. Sharing experiences of gender violence and abuse now trends in Argentina and beyond, alongside ‘#NiUnaMenos’ and under the hashtag ‘#Cuéntarlo’ (‘Tell it’).

Demonstrators hold up green handkerchiefs, which symbolize the abortion rights movement, during a demonstration in favour of legalising abortion outside the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 31 May 2018. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Knock-on effect

Crucially, the attention courted by Ni Una Menos gave major impetus to the wider women’s movement in Argentina that in turn had laid the foundations for its development.

Tireless work of small-scale, localized engagement during and after the fall of the last military dictatorship (1976-1983) bore fruit—lighting the way by informing on key processes like the democratic structures mentioned above, for example.

Today the shifting discourse points to a renewed struggle against a cultural hegemony dominated by men throughout Argentina’s 200 year existence. The surging attention now given to the debate surrounding the legalization of abortion is the most obvious example of this.

Long a taboo subject for mainstream Argentine politics, for over a decade this has been the primary focus of the women’s movement through the National Campaign for Abortion Rights. Protestors wearing the distinctive green bandanas tended to number in the hundreds at the annual late summer rally outside the Argentine Congress building in Buenos Aires. This year, on February 19, the rising interest and solidarity ignited by Ni Una Menos reportedly saw thousands take to Plaza Congreso demanding legalization.

Soon after, an even greater step was taken. For the first time in Argentine history, the legalization of abortion received enough support from lawmakers to be debated in the national legislature.

Now the debate is almost done, and the vote in the Lower House will take place this coming Wednesday, 13 June.

This historic moment can scarcely be understated in a region where the vast majority of abortions (95 per cent for Latin America as a whole) are performed underground, illegally and at the risk of physical harm or prosecution

Polarization may have dominated Argentine politics since the departure of former Peronist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, but support for legalizing abortion crosses party lines, and therein lays a hope of success. Legalization is vocally supported by lawmakers from the Peronist opposition, the ruling centre-right Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition and the smaller parties of the left, who advocated for legal abortions in the legislature diligently long before the issue gained its current spotlight in establishment media and politics.

This historic moment can scarcely be understated in a region where the vast majority of abortions (95 per cent for Latin America as a whole) are performed underground, illegally and at the risk of physical harm or prosecution.

The atmosphere of change is tangible, not least following the landslide victory of the parallel Repeal the Eighth campaign in the Republic of Ireland last month. ‘Estamos haciendo historia’ (‘We are making history’) the pro-choice supporters who gather in central Buenos Aires virtually round the clock proclaim ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

The outcome of the drive for legal abortions remains in the balance, and despite the successes of Ni Una Menos, femicides in Argentina are plateauing at the shocking rate of one death every 31 hours. But the progress seen in the three years since voices proclaiming this slogan occupied downtown Buenos Aires in their hundreds of thousands is tangible. And that is good news for supporters of feminization the world over. Taking a leaf from the playbook of this dynamic social movement’s modus operandi seems more and more essential with every passing day.

Orlando James Jenkinson is a journalist formerly based in Buenos Aires. He now lives in London and writes about human rights, the environment and other issues. He also does Tweets @lando_j.