Four months on from the largest protest for women’s rights in Argentina, Ciara Nugent asks the organisers of #NiUnaMenos: has anything changed?
It’s been four months since the the largest public demonstration in support of women’s rights in Argentine history.
The #NiUnaMenos movement blossomed from a few punchy Tweets into a 300,000-strong crowd on the streets of Buenos Aires – and many thousands more in 120 cities across the country – as Argentines came together to demand an end to femicide and violence against women.
The 3rd June march took as its rallying cry the fact that in Argentina a woman is killed for reasons related to her gender every 30 hours, amounting to 1,808 femicides in the last seven years. The organisers laid down a list of demands including the enforcement of existing laws designed to protect women, improved education on gender violence in schools, and the creation of official figures on femicide.
Yet four months later national and international media interest in gender violence, piqued so spectacularly by the march, has fizzled; more dispiritingly, unofficial figures suggest the number of femicides per month in Argentina has actually continued to rise since 3rd June – the latest having been confirmed on Friday with the death of 17-year-old Evelyn Herrera. An official register – announced in response to the march – has yet to materialise.
So what, then, has #NiUnaMenos accomplished? Can it really have been the turning point many believed it was four months ago if the facts and figures have not changed?
On this the organisers of the march are clear. The institutional level might be lagging behind, but a cultural shift has definitely occurred since the march.
“Culturally there was a before and after,” affirms Florencia Etcheves, one of ten journalists, intellectuals, and activists that co-ordinated the 3rd June event. “People started to talk about violence against women a lot more, where before they avoided it,” she notes.
For Etcheves, a particularly moving example of this newfound openness came in the form of a box of cookies given to the women of #NiUnaMenos by a group of waitresses in their local café. “I got really emotional,” she notes. “I kept thinking, we don’t know if one of them might have been a victim of violence and that’s why she felt so moved. Why did they speak about #NiUnaMenos? Did something happen to one of them? Without the march a conversation like theirs might never have happened… These are tiny things. But I think they happened in many different workplaces, as well as in schools, which is the most important.”
After the march, the average number of daily calls to the National Women’s Council’s helpline for victims of gender violence skyrocketed from 1,500 to 13,700. Calls and consult requests at the Gender Office of the Department for the Protection of the People also increased sharply.
“There are women who’ve been coming forward with complaints and consult requests about incidents from five years ago. It’s like they’re only now realising that they’ve been suffering violence for so long,” notes journalist Ingrid Beck, also involved in the organisation of the march. “I think in that sense 3rd June was like a big collective embrace. It was a show of support for a lot of women who’d been suffering in silence. Because some hadn’t even realised. When you’re in that circle of violence it’s very difficult to realise.“
This “collective embrace”, notes communications consultant Ana Correa, has also engendered a wider awareness of the root cause of violence against women: cultural misogyny. “There’s this kind of alertness to phrases, words and attitudes that could – although they’re not violent themselves – evolve into acts which are violent or discriminatory.”
The ladies offer the example of remarks made by Senator Beatriz Rojkés de Alperovich at a senate session in August. In the midst of an attack on her opposition counterpart she said, “violence comes from both sides; violent marriages are made up of those who like to abuse and those who like to be abused.” A reporter covering the session tweeted the remarks and public outrage exploded all over social media, with many using the #NiUnaMenos hashtag.
“I think these little things are very telling,” notes Etcheves. “When you see that everyone – and it’s mostly young people on Twitter – is upset by what some lawmaker said. It’s amazing that everyone’s upset! In another time a young kid wouldn’t have even heard what about what a Tucumán lawmaker said. There’s been a kind of education, not only in an academic way.”
While sparking a public conversation about misogyny and violence has been key to changing cultural attitudes, the current presidential race has also offered a rare opportunity to convert public enthusiasm into institutional change, avoiding the gradual fade-out suffered by most ‘hashtag activism’.
#NiUnaMenos presented a series of five pledges for fighting violence against women, asking each of the candidates to sign their names to them. Crucially, they did it over Twitter and copied each Tweet onto their website. “We now all have access to these promises,” notes Etcheves, “and the pressure really is very strong. It’s going to be very difficult for them not to follow through. I think it’ll be more difficult not to follow through than to do so.”
Candidates from across the political spectrum not only accepted the movement’s request, but fervently embraced it – Etcheves points out that “several candidates used the slogan ‘#NiUnaMenos’ directly in their campaign ads.”
While to some this may smell of political opportunism, for Beck, Correa, and Etcheves it was important to have the participation of politicians and public figures from both sides of Argentina’s famous ‘grieta’ (gap) – the division between those who oppose the government and those who support it.
“In recent years it’s been very difficult to do marches that weren’t read as either government or opposition-led,” notes Correa. “We wanted to close the gap.” explains Correa. “We fought very hard to ensure that everyone could be there. Every man, every woman. You didn’t have to be a militant feminist to join the march. We didn’t ask for an admission certificate! We understand that the change has to come from everyone, so everyone has to participate.”
“I think that’s what made it a success,” agrees Etcheves. “In that square you had women who are in favour of abortion, women who are anti-abortion. They were all there.” While the controversy that surrounded the abortion issue – with some anti-abortion groups interpreting #NiUnaMenos as referring to the sanctity of the lives of unborn baby girls as well as of their mothers – may have caused some tension in the build-up to the march, Etcheves insists that it was above all evidence that the issue struck a chord with Argentine society. “For me, more than unifying separate political groups – the Kirchnerists and the anti-Kirchnerists – it was the different social groups, different activist groups, which for years had been campaigning for abortion and against abortion. That they could be unified in the same square… Wow.”
With such resounding political and social support for #NiUnaMenos, you’d be forgiven for expecting some optimism from its organisers. But Beck is not sold. “Us women are not a priority for any of the candidates, nor for this government,” she insists. “So I think things are going to keep happening because of social pressure.”
“The thing is,” she explains, “in political terms, most of the tools we need to combat violence already exist. But they’re not used properly. There’s Law 26,485, which is a very progressive law for eradicating violence against women. But these tools aren’t used, for various reasons – laziness, neglect, a lack of political will.”
Law 26,485, enacted in 2009, lays out a National Action Plan for the Prevention, Aid, and Eradication of violence against women, theoretically guaranteeing a comprehensive list of great things like free legal aid for women who are victims of domestic violence, better training for legal and educational authorities and the collection of data. In practice, however, things are more complicated than writing a law.
Part of the problem, Correa explains, is the difficulty of implementing measures in a country as large as Argentina, with so many of the powers necessary to combat violence against women being devolved to different authorities under the federal system. “We’re talking about making all facets of the law arrive in all provinces. The provincial security forces are often very misogynistic. They’re an important part of the [judicial] problem because often they won’t take complaints brought by women. And there’s a different justice department for each province which requires different things from women who make complaints.”
A fragmented justice system is compounded by the wildly unequal distribution of resources across the country. “In the city of Buenos Aires you’ve got all the resources,” notes Beck. “But in the rest of the country people are isolated. It’s difficult to get [to resources]. It ends up depending on the resolve of the individual. And even in Buenos Aires it’s not the same for a woman in a well-to-do or middle class area as it is for a woman who lives in a villa. It can’t be.”
“Yes,” agrees Etcheves. “Some women might not even have the means to find out that there’s an office for domestic violence, even if there is one nearby.”
Another issue beyond failed implementation of existing laws, is the systemic onus placed on women to get themselves out of violent situations. “It’s the woman’s responsibility to get herself out of the circle of abuse. The abuser isn’t excluded from society,” explains Beck. “The woman has to exclude herself and take on, by herself, legal processes from different sets of laws, both criminal and civil.”
This kind of responsibility may discourage a woman from taking steps to escape her abuser, as might other more basic flaws in the system, notes Etcheves. “Many women go to shelters with their children – because children are in many cases also victims – and those shelters will accept boys up to the age of 12. If you have a son who’s older than 12 you can’t take him to the shelter. So where does this boy go? Is his mother going to leave him at home with the abuser? It’s crazy.”
While cultural attitudes may be influenced by a ripple effect from the 3rd June march, and through educational initiatives – Beck points out that the education minister has promised them an expansion of lessons on gender violence under the Law of Comprehensive Sexual Education – institutional systems for protecting and assisting victims of gender violence, and its fulfilment as called for back in June, may prove more slow to manifest.
With an unevenly distributed, fragmented and flawed system, change will have to be pushed from all levels, both national and local. Luckily, as Correa points out, ”The march happened in more than 120 cities throughout the country.” Many splinter groups to #NiUnaMenos formed, as well as other women’s organisations set up to combat violence. “We’re trying to confront problems on a national level and they’re doing it on a local level, because these are very different realities. Some places are more progressive on the issue, others less so.”
On the national level, she says, a key point will be “to incorporate a gender-based perspective into all parts of the judicial system… one thing we’re hoping for is that one of the current vacancies on the Supreme Court be filled by another woman.” The Women’s Office at the Supreme Court has been working on this for years, but, according to Correa, “they’ve said that since the march there’s been more enthusiasm for incorporating these perspectives.”
Yet another promise prompted by the march was the announcement of a national register of femicides. While the #NiUnaMenos ladies praise the numbers that feminist organisation La Casa del Encuentro produces by combing through media reports as “very serious”, Etcheves says it’s “an embarrassment” that these unofficial numbers are the only ones on offer. Proper statistics are crucial to starting to combat the problem, she insists; “It’s like if you wanted to build a house and you didn’t know how much money you had to do it. So you don’t know if it’ll be a small house or a big one, one floor or two. You can’t start building anything until you have the number.”
Media and political attention can be fickle. In a country where, as Etcheves points out, “something big happens everyday”, it’ll be tough to keep the fight against gender violence on the cultural and government agenda. Asked what they will do if political enthusiasm for their cause wanes after 25th October, Etcheves joyfully threatens, “Another march!”.
Other marches have indeed taken place, with women in Uruguay, Chile, and Mexico all showing their support for the movement. Now a #NiUnaMenos march has been scheduled in Spain for 7th November, reflecting the global reach of the “collective embrace” that occurred on 3rd June. Looking over the N7 march’s Twitter account, Correa is touched by the Spaniards’ call for female solidarity. “Look, they’ve written ‘Welcome ladies, we need you all’. I’ve got goosebumps!”
Back in Argentina, however, Beck admits that they don’t know exactly what form the campaign will take in the future. “The start,” however, “has to be to keep applying pressure until things happen.” They’re planning events for both the National Women’s Meeting (10th October) and the International day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25th November).
With all the institutional and legal problems to be confronted, there’s no fun, sexy, overnight solution. Tweeting, marching, and talking about gender violence must be the beginning, not the end of the road. It’s not going to be easy to turn 3rd June’s cultural awakening into lasting change. It will depend on sustained pressure from the public and a refusal to let politicians forget the pledges they have made.
“Here in Argentina promises are easily forgotten,” admits Etcheves. “But now they’re up against women. And while the old stereotype isn’t true – we’re not spiteful – we are, let’s say, better at remembering.”