Suzie Wylie writing from Argentina discusses the Ni Una Menos movement
On 8 October, 16-year-old Lucia Pérez was drugged, brutally raped, tortured and killed by 3 men in the Argentinian seaside city of Mar del Plata. Her heart stopped as a result of the pain she endured during the brutal attack. The men cleaned and dressed her body and left her at a hospital, hoping to pass off the death as a drugs overdose, but the torture inflicted on her belied their story.
Within days of this story hitting the media, tens of thousands of women in Argentina walked out of work and joined a mass march to demand an end to patriarchal violence against women. These bare facts you may have read in newspapers; here I’d like to transmit to you some sense of the anger and anguish that has exploded onto the streets several times over the last year in a movement which has already shifted national consciousness around women’s oppression.
It’s an overwhelming task to sit and write just a few hundred words to describe to you in the UK how it felt to be on the Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less) march in Buenos Aires last month (19 October). In order for you to understand what it means for us to be on the streets in our tens (or hundreds) of thousands protesting against the violence, the brutality against women and girls, the deaths – so many deaths burnt into our brains with all the vicious details provided by sensationalist media with words like “impaled”, “strangled”, “quartered”, “raped”, “tortured”, “burned alive”, “throat slit” – you’d have to go beyond reading articles on Facebook or in the Guardian and walk the streets here alone at night. You’d have to run the gamut of relentless sexist “compliments” in all public spaces, get used to avoiding eyes, looking down, crossing the road and hurrying by, your heart beating fit to burst. You’d need to go through the annoyance, anger, fear, anxiety that becomes part of your body, creeps under your skin, pervades your synapses and changes your instincts so that any man approaching you at night becomes an instant potential threat. You’d have to live your life reading the gory details of femicide after femicide in the press, and worse still, hear constant rumours of women “disappeared” – kidnapped and killed? Whisked off the street or public transport and forced into the sex industry? Drugged, raped and discarded in a rubbish dump? Were the perpetrators the police? Drugs traffickers? Men she knew from her neighbourhood who decided they wanted to have some fun? There are so many unanswered questions. You’d have to experience that paranoia to understand how we feel, what we are up against and why hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of women across the country have simply had enough. It was out of this nebulous anger that the organisation Ni Una Menos was born in 2015.
I can’t report precise numbers or data to you because there is no official state institution dedicated to recording incidents of domestic violence, gendered violence and femicide. That is part of the problem and one of the central demands of this incipient women’s movement. However, there are various state agencies, NGOs and social movement organisations that over the last few years have been attempting to compile this information. The data is incomplete, partly because without access to judicial records, these organisations have to largely rely on information circulating in the media, which invisibilises murders of sex workers and trans women who are among the most vulnerable groups. But with help from victims’ families, a national picture is emerging. One woman is killed every 30 hours in Argentina. Roughly 80%, perhaps up to 90% of those women are killed by a partner or ex-partner, and more than half are killed in the home they share with their abuser. Despite dire lack of state funding and institutions to deal with what is often described as a pandemic of violence, under the rubric of the 2009 law “to eradicate violence against women”, 4 and a half million women have filed complaints – that’s equivalent to 10% of the entire population.
Women are denied abortion in Argentina, and even in rape cases the local or federal government directly intervenes to obstruct abortions in public hospitals. The list of inequalities goes on and on – in economic terms, the gender wage gap is 27% (one of the highest in Latin America). Another huge dimension of the patriarchal violence we face is the complicity of the police, the state, and men (local gangsters, drugs traffickers etc.) who are considered untouchable. In Mexico as here, this analysis of the shadowy connections between criminal and institutional violence is captured by slogans like “the state is responsible”, “it was the state”, and “he’s not crazy, he’s a well-adjusted son of the patriarchal order”, my personal favourite as it punctures the idea of “crimes of passion” committed by aberrant individuals. The capitalist sexual division of labour backed up by the brutality of the repressive state means that governments either turn a blind eye or actively participate in slave labour/indentured labour (with all kinds of symbolic, legal, and institutional ways of enforcing and ensuring its continuity), trafficking and kidnap, and the impunity of violence of the “big men” in the barrios. Just a couple of weeks ago, a new story was uncovered in which police were found with teenage girls handcuffed in their police station. They had been raping them. This resembles the modus operandi of military dictatorships in Latin America found to operate systems of kidnap and sequestering of large numbers of children and adolescent girls as sex slaves. These networks were never uprooted properly by the democratic transitions, even though in Argentina the public trials of the military figures from the junta are a much more advanced example of justice than we have seen elsewhere on the continent.
“Ni Una Menos” – No Woman Left Behind
After a series of especially gut-wrenching femicides of young women in 2014-15, who the press immediately and disgracefully attacked for their dress, their drinking and socialising habits, their sexual history and their educational background (Melina Romero killed on her 17th birthday to name just one), the first Ni Una Menos demonstration was called by a group of prominent feminists, and spread like wildfire through social media networks practically overnight. It felt like someone just threw a match onto an enormous tinderbox, decades in the making. Hundreds and thousands of men and women filled the city centre that winter night in June 2015 in an angry, but also joyously diverse mass of people. One of my favourite memories is of kids wearing homemade t-shirts with the slogan “we are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn”. A document was read out through loudspeakers with some initial demands, mainly directed at the state, which is clearly identifiable as patriarchal and at least partly responsible for the crisis. The document called for guarantees that victims of gendered violence can freely access the justice system, that a national register be set up, that the law to eradicate violence against women be implemented with state-funded institutions and resources, and that integral sex education be provided at all levels of education. The march was also explicitly supportive of trans women and lesbians who face particular brutality and oppression and feature prominently among those killed for their gender and sexuality in recent years.
Much more radical groups and demands also formed part of the march. A small but significant militant feminist movement has been growing over the last few years, especially amongst students, using a diversity of tactics and analyses. Some, like Acción Respeto, perform interventions in public spaces (like leaving an instruction brochure for men about how not to sexually harass women on the subway) to provoke debate about sexual assault and give people the confidence to challenge it. Others have a more over-arching, anti-capitalist perspective and root their understanding of sexism in a socio-economic analysis of capitalist society and the patriarchal state.
The Ni Una Menos march and one-hour lunchtime strike last month took place just a week after the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres (an annual women’s conference held in a different province every year that attracts up to 70,000 to hundreds of seminars and workshops). The national demo was called through the networks forged at the ENM, through the Ni Una Menos umbrella organisation, and through social media. Despite torrential rain, tens of thousands of people turned out dressed in black under a canopy of umbrellas. It was very horizontal; I saw lots of homemade placards, as well as local organisation and union banners. There were some clear delegations and sections marching – left parties, local union branches, student groups, the national campaign to legalise abortion. On the way there I walked past workplaces in the center (where there are lots of ministries, state departments, public sector state workers etc) where women were gathering outside in groups to join the protesters. Some national labour unions backed the one hour strike, which was a small scale but important symbolic and organisational gesture – probably taking inspiration from the recent women’s strike in Poland against restrictions to abortion rights.
In Argentina and across Latin America, there are thorny debates we have to unpick, for example around trafficking and sex work, which in liberal discourse are conflated. It’s hard to convey the real oppressive sense of paranoia that women have to deal with on a daily basis – stories of kidnappings and young women drugged and forced into prostitution. It’s a hard (and sometimes dangerous) but crucial task to disentangle myth and rumour from truth.
Our incipient movement has forced a national debate onto the agenda. This can only be healthy, but we have a long way to go in terms of rights and protection, in terms of basic rights such as abortion and the provision of services for women suffering domestic violence, but also towards economic equality. Macri’s new neoliberal conservative government represents a huge step backwards in many respects – especially for women. We are going to need to build a critical mass across the whole of Argentinian society in order to defeat his socially and economically regressive policies.
One positive outcome is that for the first time I’m aware of, there is real reflection going on by men – particularly men on the left – in terms of thinking about their own sexist attitudes and practices that are naturalised. There’s huge resistance to this, and some men on the left are even more intransigent because they feel “their” understanding of patriarchal structure means they do not have to do this work. This is exemplified by debates about whether NiUnaMenos or Nadie/Ni Uno Menos (similar to “Men’s Lives Matter Too”) is a more appropriate slogan, and whether men should be leading this movement “as well”. Men seem to be so unused to being marginal that they baulk at the prospect of not leading movements, but I can’t help but feel that means we’re actually getting somewhere! Part of the positivity of this movement is that it has historical perspective but is also confrontational, proud, collective, fearless, unafraid to upend custom and tradition: I read in a blog the phrase “feminism is the last punk”. So while there’s a large liberal element, this movement is also consciously disruptive.
We have a long way to go and there are many potential pitfalls, many fundamental rights yet to be won. Nevertheless, this visible, confident movement has given me hope that I didn’t have before. It boosts our confidence to challenge harassment in the streets on a small personal level, and there’s a sense of a real collective reaching critical mass which could push through some fundamental changes.
An example of the rising women’s tide expressed in popular culture, by the Chilean Ana Tijoux: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoKoj8bFg2E&ab_channel=NacionalRecords