In honour of International Women’s Day, LASC looks at one of the most dynamic social movements in Latin America today – NiUnaMenos – and the culture of machismo it is fighting against.
By Laura Fano Morrissey
Once again, feminism has become a truly global force. The #MeToo campaign is now one of the most common topics of debate, both on mainstream media and social networks. In our part of the world, the Global North, most people tend to think that this new wave of feminism started with the massive Women’s March in Washington DC last year in response to the election of Donald Trump.
Yet out of sight of Western eyes, feminism had already emerged as an important factor in political and social life back in 2015. In that year, a group of Argentine journalists coined the term #NiUnaMenos – not one (woman) less – in response to the incredibly high numbers of femicides in their country. However, they could not have known that their call to action would soon become one of the most powerful mass movements in Latin America and the world.
The sheer size of the inaugural 3 June 2015 demonstration in Buenos Aires was entirely unexpected, not least by its organizers. The crowd was so big and spontaneous that it could not even fit into the central square of Plaza de Mayo. The same thing happened the following year.
Yet more than its numbers, what makes this movement so interesting is the intersectionality of its demands and the heterogeneity of its components. While it originated as a form of protest against femicide, it soon grew to include other notions of gender violence, such as sexual violence in all its forms, criminalization of abortion, transphobia, but also economic violence, the massive layoffs of women and their precarious working conditions, and the criminalization of protest by the current Argentine government. The huge 2016 NiUnaMenos demonstration was, in fact, the first occasion where Argentine President Mauricio Macri sent the police to use force against protesters.
The fight against femicide however remains one of the pillars of the movement, and it is a crisis that runs deep throughout Latin America.
Of the 25 highest femicide rates in the world, 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is easy to see why the movement quickly spread throughout the region – it resonated with the countless women across the continent who experience some form of violence every day.
There are numerous theories that try to explain femicides. One of the most authoritative voices on the issue is the anthropologist Rita Laura Segato who explains, “they are nothing but the disciplining that patriarchal forces impose on all those who inhabit the margins of politics, crimes of the modern colonial high-intensity patriarchy against all who destabilize it”.
Building on the fight against femicide and sexual violence, the movement grew to acquire different characteristics in each of the countries where it developed. In Brazil, for example, it has centred on the neo-conservatism of the country’s evangelical fundamentalist groups and their attempts to control women’s bodies. In Paraguay, it has focused on the effects of agro-toxins on women, while in Honduras and Guatemala the issue of women defending the environment and being killed for their activism took centre stage.
The issue of abortion is also top of the agenda of the movement across the region. In Latin America, most countries have very strict legislation on this issue, and only Cuba and Uruguay allow for safe and legal abortion. While this will resonate with the Irish public, women in Latin America find themselves in an even worse situation, as their only option is to resort to clandestine and dangerous practices, while (some) women in Ireland have at least the possibility of travelling to England for a safe medical procedure.
The mass and heterogenous character of the movement is very well exemplified by these words from Marta Dillon – one of the journalists who founded the movement – when describing the last meeting of NiUnaMenos in Buenos Aires in preparation for the upcoming 8 March protest:
“The black, the old, the formal workers, the artists, the unemployed, the housewives, the unionized, the trans, the lesbians, the disabled, those who have been feminist activists for a long time, those who are crying for the first time listening to their lives narrated through the experience of others, those who identify themselves as feminist prostitutes, those who cry out that prostitution is exploitation, social leaders, union leaders, academics, survivors of machista violence, those who are capable of swearing at the harassers […], the journalists, the mothers, those who didn’t want to become mothers, those who aborted and those who accompanied them to get their abortions, the indigenous, those from the suburbs, those from the centre, the left-wing activists, the peronists, the kirchneristas, the anarchists, the independents; the young, especially the young.”
The meeting was so full – more than a thousand women in Buenos Aires alone – that it had to be moved to an open-air space as the attendants would not fit in the room. The plan is to repeat last year’s experience and hold a women’s strike that could bring the entire country to a standstill.
But the act of striking has come to represent the movement’s most contentious and divisive conflicts.
In the words of the organizers, striking was a way to move away from the idea of women as victims – as they are portrayed in the mainstream narrative – towards women as active political agents capable of bringing the country to a halt. However, in a region where the informal economy is a huge part of society, not all women were convinced a strike would be the best tool. As one cartonera woman put it, “If I don’t work for a day, that day I won’t eat”.
Conscious of this barrier, the activists have worked to build connections with women in the popular economy, as well as migrant women, to make sure that they could also be involved in a strike that, instead of damaging them, could turn them into strong political actors.
Nonetheless, the use of the strike has also been criticized by ‘de-colonial’ feminists. According to these feminists, the strike is a Euro-centric tool that originated in contexts that are very different to contemporary Latin America. They see it as yet another form of colonization, as it does not take into account all the communal and non-capitalist forms of organizations that are practised in the region. According to these feminists, the NiUnaMenos movement is still being led by privileged, urban white or white-mestizo women, who fail to represent a huge portion of Latin American women. They also point out that it is not a coincidence that the NiUnaMenos movement originated in one of Latin America’s most “European” countries – Argentina.
Despite these internal critiques, which can only contribute to making the movement more inclusive and more attentive to the complexity of the Latin American context, it is undeniable that NiUnaMenos has positioned itself as a truly transformative opposition movement capable of fighting the resurgence of right wing governments across the continent.
They are operating a deep critique of their own societies, one which goes deeper than left-wing juxtapositions and aims at a substantive change in power relations at all levels. They are not reproducing the same roles they are fighting against; they do not want to replace a male oppressor with a female oppressor; they are not creating new hierarchies and they are politicizing their daily life. That is why, in the words of Raul Zibechi, women have gone very far and men should learn from them, listen, ask and take a step back; “Us men badly need to restrain our egos, especially in the case of revolutionary egos”.