Latin American Feminists Are Fighting for Intersectional Gender Justice

Latin American feminists are connecting abortion rights, femicide and care work into a large political and economic frameworks that helps activists fight for gender justice in many different countries.

A demonstration in front of the Senate of Argentina advocating for legal, free and safe abortion access. The sign reads, “For our right to decide / legal, safe and free abortion.” (Protoplasma K / Flickr)

In recent years, women in the U.S., Argentina and Northern Ireland have stood, cloaked in long, crimson hooded capes to protest laws prohibiting abortion. The red robe references Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which itself was at least in part inspired by how Argentina’s dictatorship dealt with hundreds of pregnant women. Between 1976 and 1983, the country’s military junta—with the support of the United States and France—tortured and disappeared an estimated 30,000 people. The state seized a number of pregnant women in this process, and 500 babies were born in Argentine torture centers. The military then murdered those mothers, often dropping them from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean before delivering their children to families loyal to the regime.

But the mothers of the disappeared poked a thorn into the side of the junta as they marched, white kerchiefs covering their heads, demanding answers about their children’s whereabouts from the dictator ensconced across the street from the Plaza de Mayo.  

The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in September 1988. (Wikimedia Commons)

In December 2020, Argentine feminists filled the square in front of the Congress building, cheering as the Senate voted to decriminalize abortion. The green kerchiefs that adorned everyone and nodded to their predecessors, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The “green wave’s” victory on abortion rights, however, fits into a larger vision.

In 2015, Argentina’s public squares overflowed in response to the call for “ni una menos”—not one fewer, an end to femicide, to the murder of women and girls because of their gender. Argentina’s feminists connected the dots between the issues of abortion and femicide.

“Subordination requires violence. That is, you can’t keep an entire group, an entire population, subordinated if you don’t exercise violence on this group. It’s a basic form of domination,” said Mariana Álvarez. “This violence translates into many methods and many forms, but basically, what you have to understand is that it’s the violence of a system that needs you reproducing—a mother, docile, subordinated to another gender, heterosexualized, exploited in every way.”

Álvarez is an attorney in Argentina’s northern province of Tucumán who works with Mujeres X Mujeres, a non-profit that advocates for the equal rights of women and gender non-conforming people.

Álvarez says the case of a young woman named Belen galvanized local opinion against Argentina’s restrictive abortion law. Belen was arrested in 2014 after going to the hospital with severe hemorrhaging. She said she wasn’t aware she was pregnant, and while the law didn’t criminalize miscarriage, Belen was arrested and ultimately charged with homicide. She was absolved in 2017.

Álvarez said that the forces that enable injustices like the arrest of Belen and impunity for crimes such as femicide and rape also turn a blind eye to land grabbing and environmental destruction.

“We understand that the only way that this system sustains itself is by exploiting us and being able to rape us. So, it wants us as mothers; it wants us docile; it wants us good; it wants us beaten; and it needs us this way in order to produce the way it does.”

Subordination requires violence. It’s the violence of a system that needs you reproducing—a mother, docile, subordinated to another gender, heterosexualized, exploited in every way.

Mariana Álvarez

Locating issues of female bodily autonomy into a much larger political and economic framework is part of what distinguishes the feminist movement that has swept Latin America, leading to the decriminalization in three of the region’s largest countries in just under 18 months.

In a sense, Argentine feminists have adopted an approach similar to conservatives in the U.S. who have mobilized for decades to take control of the country’s judiciary and legislative systems in order to realize their ideals. Latin America’s feminists, however, are starting from the concrete challenges of their daily lives to formulate their priorities. For them, the right to be able to terminate a pregnancy has been central to the call for the right to live. And underpinning both demands is the reality of women’s lived experience shouldering all of a family’s care work for no pay or recognition. A 2020 government report on Argentina’s unpaid care economy found that women perform 75 percent of the nation’s care work—and that it accounts for nearly 16 percent of the gross domestic product.  

Cynthia Britez says Argentina’s new law “restores sovereignty over our bodies and over our sexual desire.” Britez coordinates educational projects on sexual and reproductive rights at the University of Buenos Aires’s law school. This perspective of bodily sovereignty reflects the feminist vision that people with female or feminized bodies have the right to live and to do so in conditions that respect her/their autonomy. Hence the slogan: “sex education to decide; contraceptives to not abort; legal abortion to not die.”

This embrace has meant grappling with questions about womanhood. Last year, trans women sat next to cis women on the linoleum floor during the regular Friday-evening assemblies where the movement organized its massive International Women’s Day “Ni Una Menos” march, hashing out differences of opinion and priorities. Part of this process, Britez says, meant interrogating, “What defines maternity? Is it just the physical body? Are there no other issues around what maternity means?”

Although there are some dissenting voices, the bulk of Argentina’s feminists have opted to view maternity and femaleness as political identities more than biological ones.

“[There is] a whole diversity in other political areas where dialogue wouldn’t be possible,” Britez said. “But in this one, we were able to say, okay, what is our goal as women, as people who can become pregnant? It is decriminalizing.”

This isn’t the first time Argentina and Latin America have been ahead of the U.S. in terms of gender justice. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010. Last year, it passed a law recognizing non-binary identities on formal identification cards and another to ensure transgender people have access to formal employment.

Meanwhile, the U.S. the landscape is pockmarked with judges and legislators for whom the issue is a litmus test for conservative credibility. Organizations like the Federalist Society, Donors Trust and the American Legislative Exchange Council have worked tirelessly to restrict access to reproductive options while also undermining potential allies like unions.

We were able to say, okay, what is our goal as women, as people who can become pregnant? It is decriminalizing.

Cynthia Britez

Britez acknowledges that similar forces are at work in Argentina and stresses that the effort to secure people’s sexual and reproductive autonomy is ongoing. For Álvarez, the movement’s spirit of generosity and inclusivity are pivotal. She noted that at 42, abortion isn’t a great concern for her any longer. Nonetheless, what motivates her is ensuring that something like Belen’s case “doesn’t happen to my daughter, or my granddaughter, or my neighbor.” 

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Zoe Sullivan is an independent journalist and audio producer who has lived in Argentina and Brazil whose work has been featured by the BBC World Service, the Guardian, Mongabay, and others. She is currently developing a narrative podcast about foreign investment and deforestation in Brazil. Follow her on Twitter at @zoesullnews.