Striking—and Fighting—for Abortion and an End to Violence in Latin America

“Latin American women we have to fight for ourselves. No one else will.” 

Susana Chávez used her poetry as a weapon to speak out for the women who were been systematically killed in her hometown, Ciudad Juárez, during the nineties. In 1995, she wrote “Ni Una Menos, Ni Una Muerta Más” (“Not One Woman Less, Not One More Death”)—a phrase borrowed by protesters in Argentina last year fighting violence against women, a movement that lit a flame all over Latin America. The Mexican poet did not have the chance to witness how her saying became a symbol—because in January 2011, she was raped, maimed and suffocated by a group of three men.

I read the story of Susana Chávez at Mujeres Bacanas on what should become a historical date for women in Latin America. It was October 19, 2016—the day of the first women’s strike in Argentina, backed in Mexico and Bolivia, which was followed by protests in several countries in the region, like Chile and Peru. It was the day 80,000 people took the streets of Santiago to proclaim: “Not One Less.”

“I would say it was one of the mid-to-big protests in this year,” says journalist Isabel Plant, one of the founders of Mujeres Bacanas. “In Latin American countries like mine where there is such a strong Catholic root, anything related to feminism is still seen as violent, bad, and wrong. Our aim is to transform this in a positive message.”

Unfortunately, she says, after these events “not a single politician has said a word.”

Plant, and women like her, will still fight on. “For now, what we try do is to create awareness and to promote a cultural change,” she told Ms., “because Chile is a very conservative country. It takes a lot for women to speak out… The way may be longer than I and other feminists would like.”

Argentina was celebrating its 31st National Women Encounter in Rosario, with 70,000 attending, when 16-year-old Lucía Pérez was brutally raped, impaled and killed in Mar de Plata on October 8. The sadism applied to Lucía shocked the country, and the timing was right for revolution—around the same dates, other women’s strikes took place in Poland protesting an abortion ban and Iceland protesting the gender pay gap.

The focus on October 19 was femicide, violence against women and free abortion. “I feel that some countries in Latin America cannot follow the U.S. or Europe for now,” Plant said, “as we women do not have some basic rights yet.”

On her way to work in Buenos Aires, Paula Rey noticed many women dressed in black in the subway that day—a show of support, even for those not attending the marches. Black was the dress code on October 19, put in place to mourn the victims of femicides. Rey, who works at ELA on achieving gender equality through justice and law, joined the strike between 1 and 2 P.M. and hung some banners on their windows at their downtown office.

The strike was followed later that evening by a march towards the Obelisk in Buenos Aires. “I think it exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Rey told me, noting that the strike was more accessible and visible to people already interested in feminism. “As we protested under the ‘Not One Less’ movement, it was difficult to communicate what the strike was for,” Rey said. “Femicides are the top of the iceberg, but below the surface many levels of violence sustain precisely that… I think ‘Not One Less’ is a step towards that, but there is a lot to be understood still.”

Of the 25 countries with the highest rates on femicides, 14 are in Latin America and Caribbean, as reported by the UN in April 2016. 275 women were killed between the two greatest marches protesting violence against women in Argentina, in June 2015 and June 2016. Chile, where until 2010 feminicides were not typified in the law, counted 45 deaths in 2015 according to official data—however, organizations like the Chilean Network for Violence Against Women claims there were 58 murders in 2015 and that there have been 47 in 2016 so farPeru registered 293 women killed in 2015, and the country witnessed its first massive protest on this issue earlier this year.

Alexander Ceciliasson, a Swedish activist living in Argentina, said the actions are “a clear response” to a rise in femicides in the region, but he does not foresee any political changes in Argentina in the short term under Macri’s government. However, there might be great changes in the interim. Scandinavian countries have been named the best for women to live, and Ceciliasson has his experiences there as a reference point. “Feminist movements are more and more synced, more linked in a transnational context,” he told Ms. “Even when the situation in practice is very different, feminist movements are talking about the same issues.”

Susana Chávez, the founder of Peruvian organization Promsex, has been doing work on issues of sexual and reproductive rights for over a decade. She told Ms. that in Peru, much like in other Latin American countries, there is now “a very interesting and important spread of sexual and reproductive rights,” adding that “there is a significant improvement at least among citizens.”

The forcible sterilizations of women in the nineties is still a common matter of discussion in the Andean country, and it is issues like that which convince Chavez that the state, not the Catholic influence in these nations, shapes the discourse on these issues—and that policy change is a critical goal. These powers “do not only not sanction the forcibly sterilizations and dramatically oppose all women’s power of decision on abortion,” Chávez explains.  “They do not just oppose preventing pregnancies. They oppose something more basic, which is sexual education, and oppose rape victims having access to emergency contraception pills… That’s the level of impasse, but I think this has lead to citizens to refuse.”

On the recently elected government in Peru, where fujimorismo owns the Congress, Chávez says of Peru that she hopes “we do not allow a regression.”

“Women,” Plant noted, “are the ones leading the family, the ones working, taking care of kids, getting everything organized. Latin America is like a matriarchy in that sense—but at the same time that matriarchy leaves the woman to a secondary position where men take decisions on our fates. I feel that Latin American women we have to fight for ourselves. No one else will.”

Rey thinks that feeling is growing. “I have hope in that we are starting to be understood in what we claim and even people, especially women, not considering themselves as feminists, or even having the wrong idea of what feminism means,” Rey said, “they felt that these protests were talking to them.”


Ana Muñoz Padrós is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.