From mobilization to solidarity: The power of feminist struggles in Latin America
With a woman murdered every two hours in the region, women are determined to be agents of change and resistance – and are protesting for their lives
This article is part of a series for the annual and global 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence published in collaboration with the Women Human Rights Defenders Middle East and North Africa (WHRDMENA) coalition as part of its #SheDefends yearly campaign. The articles reflect on the past, present and future of feminist movements and the meaning of global solidarity.
On 8 March last year, Mexico experienced one of the largest feminist protests in the country’s history. We were thousands of women and girls taking to the streets of Mexico City and cities elsewhere in the country. Our demands were clear: the end of femicides and respect for our human rights. We were determined not to be silenced anymore. Little did we know the world was about to change dramatically. An unprecedented pandemic, with devastating effects on women, was declared a few days after.
Women in the Americas know a lot about pandemics, including the pandemics of violence, discrimination and impunity. The annual ‘16 Days of activism against gender-based violence’ campaign offers an opportunity to reflect on the challenges ahead, but also to be inspired by the resistance, resilience, power and solidarity of women’s rights and feminist movements across borders.
All over the world, there has been some progress in relation to women’s human rights and gender equality. Those changes are the result of the pressure and tireless efforts of women's rights movements, which get inspiration from one another despite the long distances and contextual differences between them.
Over the past decade, we have seen synergies built among feminist collectives from different parts of the globe, especially those from Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Maybe because our realities have more in common than what we believe, and because recent progress, unfortunately, hasn't translated yet into substantial transformation in the lives of women and girls.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, as in the MENA, many threats are still present. Perhaps the most serious are those of patriarchal violence. This violence continues to increase, especially against women from historically marginalized communities who suffer multiple forms of discrimination, such as Indigenous and Black women, rural women, sex workers, lesbians, bisexual and Trans women, among others.
Every two hours, a woman is murdered in Latin America and the Caribbean. Measures to protect women and girls are inadequate throughout the region, while investigations into gender-based violence cases – including domestic violence, rape, homicide and femicide – are often insufficient or simply dismissed.
One of the worst-affected countries is Mexico. In 2021 alone, by the end of September, there had been 2,104 killings of women, of which 736 were investigated as femicides, according to the country’s National Public Security System.
Recent research by Amnesty International found that investigations by the State of Mexico Attorney General’s Office into femicides preceded by disappearances are seriously flawed due to the inaction and negligence of the authorities. In many cases, evidence is lost, all lines of inquiry are not investigated, or a gender perspective is not applied correctly. These shortcomings hamper the judicial process and increase the likelihood that crimes will remain unpunished.
The Colombian Femicide Observatory has reported 525 femicides during 2021. In Guatemala, the Public Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that in 2021 more crimes against women and children were reported in the country than ever before, with 396 women murdered in the first eight months of the year – a 31% increase on the same period in 2020.
This year, both Paraguay and Puerto Rico declared states of emergency because of increases in violence against women. In Paraguay, the Public Defender’s Office assisted 1,639 women victims of violence in the first semester of the year, while the country's SOS line of the National Police and the Ministry of Women registered 4,469 cases of domestic violence in the same period.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, as in the MENA, many threats are still present. Perhaps the most serious are those of patriarchal violence
Sexual violence and the disappearance of women and girls have become the most prevalent and under-reported or under-investigated crimes across the region, which is home to some of the most restrictive countries in terms of access to sexual and reproductive rights. More than 97% of women of reproductive age in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries with restrictive abortion laws.
In January, the Congress in Honduras, a country with a total ban on abortion, passed a constitutional reform making it impossible to decriminalize abortion in the country.
This is not just in Latin America and the Caribbean, though. Even in the United States, women’s abortion rights were reversed in 2021, with state governments introducing more abortion restrictions than in any other year. In Texas, a near-total abortion ban was enacted, criminalizing abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy – even though, at such an early stage, most people would not yet know they were pregnant.
Struggles and successes
COVID-19 underscored and intensified the crisis of violence against women and girls.
The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, systemic challenges and violence across Latin America and the Caribbean. The effects of an inevitable economic crisis only exposed problems we women human rights defenders have long known about. Dominant development models and global economic systems have long reinforced structural racism, patriarchy and fundamentalisms.
Some of the measures imposed by governments in the region to tackle the spread of the virus have had disproportionate effects on women and girls. Lockdowns, for instance, lead to higher rates of gender-based violence, less access to sexual and reproductive health services, increased unpaid care work, and much more.
Why are women so angry? This is a question I get asked very often, while attending meetings with high-level government officials or media interviews. Well, the crimes and inequalities described above are the answer. But we are not passive victims, we have become agents of change and resistance. Women are protesting for their lives.
Over the past few years, including during the pandemic, women and feminist movements in the region have been protagonists of massive demonstrations, not only reclaiming the streets, but also demanding changes in law and society. Protests respond to different phenomena in each country. While in Bolivia or Venezuela the demonstrations have had a marked social and political character, in Mexico the focus has been femicides and gender violence against women and girls. In Argentina, the struggle for abortion rights has turned green handkerchiefs into a symbol, ‘the Green Wave’, that has even spread across borders.
Women are also leading struggles for justice and equality, including within larger protest movements. Chile is the perfect example of this confluence. There, the demonstrations that began in October 2019 against the rise in public transport fees turned into a wave of indignation against the economic model that has prevailed since the Pinochet dictatorship in the late 20th century.
The protests were met with violent repression, including sexual abuse against women by Carabineros (police force). In that context, in December of that year, the feminist collective Las Tesis launched ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (A rapist in your path), a song-performance against macho violence that has become a worldwide feminist anthem.
The same December, hundreds of women gathered in Istanbul to perform the Chilean anthem, denouncing the state for not doing enough to combat violence against women. Meanwhile, in Tunis, women inspired by the Las Tesis collective took to the streets in a protest organized under the name ‘Falgatna’, which translates to ‘we are fed up’.
There have been legislative successes, too. Abortion was finally legalized in Argentina in December 2020 after years of tireless campaigning by activists and the viral Green Wave Those in the country can now have abortions up to 14 weeks, and at later stages in cases of rape or health risks. This law will save lives – for the past 30 years, unsafe abortions have been the leading cause of maternal death in Argentina.
The voices of women and girls must be central to shaping the post-pandemic future. It is not about system recovery after COVID-19, it must be system redesign and transformation
This development is especially encouraging given that, just 18 months earlier, a proposal to legalize abortion was rejected by Argentinian senators. It was a crushing blow, but feminists and women’s rights activists kept fighting, taking women from all walks of life to the streets, protesting in every single town across the country.
Despite the devastating violence and injustices facing women and girls in the region, we, feminists, draw strength from the passion and resilience that we have witnessed from activists across the world, especially from young women and those who dare to speak out. Their courage in the face of adversity shows us that we can create a more just world for everyone.
As we live in a world of intersecting inequalities, caused by powerful and interlinked global forces, the power of the many will be needed to ensure rights and dignity for all. The structural causes of gender inequality and injustice are located from the household level to the state and institutional one.
Solutions can be found only through collective and connected efforts at community, national and global levels. The voices of women and girls must be central to shaping the post-pandemic future. It is not about system recovery after COVID-19, it must be system redesign and transformation, eliminating all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination, while addressing their root causes.
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