Indigenous women explain what’s at stake in Argentina’s abortion debate

A bill to legalise abortion is now at the senate. These Indigenous women explain what the debates mean for lives on the ground. #12DaysofResistance. Español

Luciana Mignoli
26 December 2020, 12.01am
An indigenous woman and her child in Formosa province, Argentina.
Photo: Luciana Mignoli.

“Talking about abortion is a huge challenge,” says Bashe Nuhem. She’s a feminist activist, radio presenter and video producer, and a member of the Qom indigenous community in Castelli, an area in north-east Argentina known as “the doorway to the Impenetrable”, an extensive and once dense forest. 

“I work in an indigenous radio station and, with my colleagues, weave words together. We challenge men who don't want us to talk [about abortion]. It remains a taboo,” Nuhem explains. We spoke as the lower chamber debated a new bill to legalise the “voluntary interruption of pregnancy” up to the 14th week in Argentina. Having passed the lower body of parliament in early December, the bill is now before the senate. 

Abortion is currently criminalised in Argentina, with some exceptions in cases of rape or if the life or health of the pregnant person is at risk. Nuhem, who is also a member of the community groups, Chaco’s Female Communicators Front and the Indigenous Community Communication Association, said: "I celebrate the debate regardless of the result, because this topic was not mentioned before in our communities.”

For Nuhem, the abortion bill that the senate is now expected to vote on before the end of 2020 "has made it possible to start talking about the sexual abuse that indigenous women suffer. […] I include myself, because I have also endured abuse."

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Despite being a taboo topic, Nuhem continues, “abortion has always been practiced within communities" by traditional midwives. Amid increasing deforestation and environmental damage in her area, she says, “midwives are disappearing, my sisters rely on clandestine operations and, we know, many die.”

“If abortion is legal and the law is applied, it will not solve their lives, but it will be a relief,” she argues. “Abortion would make my sisters’ lives healthier.” She says legalisation is opposed mainly by "churches and men", who share images on social media of indigenous people with whipalas (a common emblem of Native Americans) and a blue scarf, a symbol of the campaign against legal abortion. 

“I ask them: did you read the bill? No. Do you know what the main demands are? No. So what are you opposed to? Many got upset. I’m so angry because I know indigenous leaders who forced their female partners to abort. Stop the hypocrisy!”.

“I’m so angry because I know indigenous leaders who forced their female partners to abort. Stop the hypocrisy!”

Since parliament took up the topic in November, there have been many marches in favour of legal abortion by the ‘green scarf’ wearers of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. Opponents have donned blue scarves instead, as they have since 2018, to march under the slogan "Let's save both lives”.

In El Potrillo, a town in the northern province of Formosa, close to the border with Paraguay, a column of Wichí women also marched against legal abortion. They wore long, colourful skirts, some in espadrilles, others barefoot; there were no blue scarves, but placards and a lot of dust from walking over dry ground in 43 degrees.

These Wichí women are among the 2.4% of Argentina’s 40 million inhabitants who identify as one of the 36 indigenous groups recognised by the state, according to the 2010 census. Native organisations have however criticised this figure, claiming the census didn’t reach all territories. 

Tujuayliya Gea, the first Wichí doctor in Argentina, told openDemocracy: “Not all Wichí women want access to contraceptive methods or talk about whether or not to continue a pregnancy, because the rhetoric of the local churches is very strong. We have to work hard on education and information, so that we can decide, as elsewhere in the country, if we want to have children or not.” 

Gea studied in Cuba before working in Buenos Aires. A few months ago she returned to work with the communities in her home territory, Santa Victoria Este, in the northern province of Salta. Around 13,000 people live there, 75% of whom are indigenous. It is also the epicentre for indigenous children dying from malnutrition.

‘You need to get the church and the patriarchy out of the heads of medical staff’

“In my town, we die of malnutrition and there are no water wells. How do we talk about sexual rights when they aren’t even recognised? The hospital where I now work existed when I was a child. There has never been a legal termination there,” Gea says, even in cases that would fall into the allowed exceptions. 

“Why? Because the local people don’t even know they have the right to request them. So the hospital doesn’t even have to deny the right,” Gea says.

“It’s pure fantasy,” she adds, “to believe that once abortion is legal, everything will be solved. We obviously want it to be legal. But first you need to reform the healthcare system, and get the church and the patriarchy out of the heads of medical staff.”

‘Let’s walk together’

Argentina is officially a secular state. But Mapuche activist and social psychologist Irma Caupán Perriot, from the Indigenous Women's Movement for Good Living, says that religious institutions are powerful opponents to sexual and reproductive rights.

“The church represses, codifies, decides and constrains. We still cannot speak freely. It has to do with centuries of violence, oppression, invisibility”, she says. 

Her own history has been marked by these challenges. “My biological mother gave birth to a stillborn and buried it in her backyard as an ancestral ritual, but for that reason she went to jail. She was then raped in prison, and I was born. At no time was she entitled to anything. She was poor, she was indigenous, she was a woman.”

Indigenous women, Caupán Perriot says, “are disrespected even when giving birth. Violence and genocide are carried out in our bodies. Our sisters don't have translators. Whenthey go to an [outpatient facility],  nobody understands their language, and they are just left and not helped. They are dismissed as 'indians', as if they weren’t people.”

A proposal to legalise abortion made it to the senate in 2018 before being voted down. Amid the recent debates, Edith Martiarena, a Wichí presenter at an indigenous radio station in Tartagal, Salta province, told legislators that native women and girls “personally endure the inequities of poverty”, which “oblige us to be mothers by force”.

Bashe Nuhem, from the Qom community in north-east Argentina, adds: “Even in some feminist circles, they don't care much about us. I tell them about a sister who was abused and no one reacts. We owe ourselves to be listened to. We embrace the struggles of all our compañeras (fellows), criollas (European descendants), gringas (North Americans or Europeans). But it’s time that they also listen to indigenous women. Do not just use us as your poster people. Let's walk together.” 

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