Que momento, Que momento
A pesar de todo
Les hicimos el encuentro
Days later, the theme song of the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres, the “National Women’s Encounter” (ENM) continues to ring loud. At first, it felt like any other day in Rosario, a city 300km northwest of Buenos Aires in the province of Santa Fe. This was before Saturday’s opening act at the city’s Flag Monument, attended by tens of thousands of Argentine women from all over the country. That first unilateral cry of “que momento” (What a moment) charged the city air.
From 8-10th October, women of all ages took to the pavement in pairs or groups — 70,000 in total. A friend remarked that she had never felt so safe in a public space. Indeed, the familiar leers and kissing noises were notably absent; the “encuentro” as it is commonly known, had shaped a new social mandate for the moment. While many participants distinguished themselves with t-shirts and banners displaying the names of activist groups, almost all had tied the trademark green handkerchief on their wrists, heads and necks to support the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion.
The idea for the gathering was born in 1985, when a group of Argentine women participated in the World Conference on Women in Kenya. Upon their return, they discussed the need to address issues specific to women in this country. Following the same format of open workshops used in Nairobi, the group launched the first ENM the very next year in Buenos Aires.
The tradition has since been repeated annually on different long weekends in order to accommodate as many participants as possible. Numbers have jumped from around 1,000 in the first to an estimated 70,000 this year.
“Every year it exceeds expectations,” says Noel Gassman, a member of the organising commission. “This is because the space has proved to be a tool of participation and democracy seen in very few places in the world, and we women value that very much.”
Even with our differences, we are sharing a political view, which is fighting for our rights and fighting for equality – Marcela, ENM participant
According to the official website, “The format of the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres is unique in the world…it is self-organised, horizontal, federal, self-financed, diverse, and deeply democratic.” Each year, the organising commission is open to women in the chosen city and surrounding area. There is no hierarchical structure, and they have autonomy from political/governmental institutions and foundations. If politicians participate, their role is the same as any other woman in the workshops.
By uniting Argentine women from all walks of life, the ENM aims to convert problems that seem individual into something universal. “We are all the encuentro” appears on written documents and banners throughout the weekend, as does the phrase “something changes in every woman that participates.”
The ENM has been held twice before in Rosario, in 1989 and 2003. To accommodate the many participants, 200 local schools offered their floors as spaces for around 35,000 women to sleep.
Marcela, a participant from Rosario, says that the summit has much more visibility this year than before: “all the television channels are talking about it, the main newspapers all over the country.”
She believes that this visibility derives in large part from the #NiUnaMenos movement that female journalists started on social media in 2015 to address violence against women head-on, and has already let to two mass marches.
The arrival of the new government of Mauricio Macri in December also seems to have motivated many women to take part this year. As Marcela explains: “it is the first time that all of the ENM is clearly against the national government.”
Why is this? First and foremost, because Macri’s government has made its conservative stance on abortion clear. Undeterred, women in Rosario handed out informational pamphlets on how to safely realise an abortion and discussed strategies to achieve its legalisation at workshops.
The slogan of the National Campaign for the Right to a Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion resounded throughout the weekend: “Sexual education so we can decide, contraceptives so we don’t have to abort, and legal abortion so we don’t die.” According to the organisation’s website, 3,000 women die a year trying to carry out illegal abortions. While it is relatively easy for middle and upper class women to procure an abortion at a private hospital, the poor are the ones that die from a lack of access to legal, safe, and free abortion.
Another reason for this year’s political leaning is the austerity introduced by the Macri administration, measures that afflict the poorest members of society, and tend to hit women doubly.
As noted in one of many activist pamphlets, women are often the first to be fired. Their salaries, already below that of their male counterparts for the same work, fall further behind. At the same time, many suffer increased violence at the hands of their domestic partners and have had to join the workforce to make ends meet while still shouldering all the responsibility at home.
This common opposition to the government unified the participants of the ENM in a particular way this year. While in previous events, groups have marched separately and taken different routes, this year the organising commission agreed on a common path for the march, a historic move. “Even with our differences,” Marcela affirms, “we are sharing a political view, which is fighting for our rights and fighting for equality.”
On Saturday and Sunday, workshops met three times for three hours to debate 70 different issues relevant to women. This year, the most popular workshops were related to violence, abortion, and sex trafficking. While many divided into multiple groups due to the immense quantity of participants, others elected to meet all together; this included 400 members in the “Transgender, Transsexual, and Transvestite People” workshop and 700 members in “Women of Native Origin”.
Often referred to as “the heart of the encuentros”, an enduring characteristic that sets the workshops apart, as illuminated by organiser Laura Del Monte, is that women do not vote on a conclusion, “because we reach a consensus among all the women that participate and in which the conclusion also includes the dissent.” The conclusions are then recorded and given to the organizing commission at the next gathering.
More than anything, attendees say the ENM provides a space for women to share their experiences and find solidarity in other women who deal with similar issues. As a teacher, Marcela participated in a workshop where she could discuss how to educate students with a gender perspective.
Marta, meanwhile, originally found feminism through her husband and her daughters. As a women’s rights activist, she participated in workshops focusing on the access to justice and strategies for the support of victims. She finds that the most important part of the ENM occurs in the forming and strengthening of networks.
Another participant, Dora, added that women today “talk about things that before they kept quiet about…They know that they can find find support like in the group that I have, that they can talk, there are people that can help you.”
According to the Ni Una Menos Facebook page, only one national newspaper—Página 12—actually covered the encuentro in full. The rest only focused on a violent incident that occurred during the march. This frustrated many organising members, especially given that they feel the positive grass-roots work of the ENM is minimised every year by the media.
The headlines concerned the outbreak of violence on the Sunday night, as thousands of women marched through the streets of Rosario. In past years, participants have spray-painted local churches to condemn the historic denial of women’s rights. Though the organising commission had this year voted on a path that specifically avoided the church, the building had still been closed off and covered in plastic wrap.
Before the march even began, a small group of male church members huddled together outside, praying repeatedly. In response, some of the more radical participants of the ENM march diverted their path from the main gathering to taunt the men, who were already surrounded by a crowd of onlookers and reporters.
Soon after, dozens of armed police forces appeared from behind the scaffolding the church and formed a line. Though the protest was nonviolent apart from a few participants that threw bottles, the police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd, injuring several journalists and participants.
The organising commission consequently released a statement condemning the police repression for putting at risk “the security and lives of the thousands of women that came together.” A message from Ni Una Menos condemned the “abuse of authority” by the Santa Fe police, adding “All of the bullet wounds were from the waist upwards. It was not a deterrent, it was persecution.”
The next morning, defiant graffiti still marked buildings and sidewalks. The side of the church read: “defend happiness and organise fury!” The onset of rain did not stop thousands of women from returning to the Flag Monument for the final ceremony, in which the location of the next ENM is traditionally determined by audience applause.
The enthusiastic winner for 2017 was Chaco, a province in northeastern Argentina. As asserted by Marcela: “Some provinces here in Argentina are more liberal and open-minded, others are more conservative, so I think it is very important that every year the encuentro is organised in a different part of the country.”
One participant from Salta, Mirta, thinks that the gathering will soon reach over 100,000 thousand women. When asked what the slogan, “something changes in every woman that participates,” means for her, she responds:
“The change comes from the strength that you give… I am 72, and I can give one grain of sand to contribute to the coming generations, and I learn from all the young women that are still with us in the street, so it’s that. Unite in the fight so that tomorrow we can have the country we deserve and not this.”