Last weekend, an estimated 25,000 women descended upon the northern city of Posadas, in Misiones province. The sweltering heat was not enough to stop this yearly ritual, which has taken place every October since 1986: the National Women’s Encounter.
The first Encounter took place in Buenos Aires, and it has been moving to a different city every year. Based on a premise of democracy and horizontal organisation, its aim is to provide a pluralist space to debate issues that are specific to women and the feminist movement.
As debates develop and move forward in society, each year different topics become the banners of the Encounter. This year, the main issues under discussion were the legalisation of abortion and the problems of gender violence and human trafficking.
They were not, however, the only subjects broached. Around 200 workshops were carried out simultaneously in different schools throughout the city, with topics as varied as sexuality, feminism, identity, family, disabilities, health, addictions, prostitution, unionism, indigenous women, politics, human rights, education, sports, art, youth, foreign debt, etc.
The format of the Encounter is repeated year after year. As it takes place on the long weekend of October, the activities are spread throughout three days. On the first day, after the opening event, the workshops are carried out. They are not conceived as experts’ panels, but as truly open spaces for debate where everyone can have a say.
According to the organisers, “the workshops are the heart of the Encounters, they break with the usual structures where only some have the word and the others listen in silence, everyone participates. These workshops are sovereign, the discussions and the conclusions belong only to the women who take part in them.”
On the second day, the workshops are finalised and a traditional march is held in the centre of the host city. Unlike previous years, when the marching women were abused and attacked by religious groups, Posadas welcomed the Encounter with a mix of curiosity and indifference. There were also none of the usual conflicts during the workshops -especially those that discuss the issue of abortion- which ‘pro-life’ and anti-feminist groups have typically attempted to interrupt.
The day finishes off with a big party, in the form of a peña with music, dance, and theatre. This year’s big surprise was a performance by famous singer and musician León Gieco, who said he was there “to representthe many men who support [the women’s'] struggle.”
The third day sees the women off after a closing event in which the conclusions from all the workshops are read out, and the city for the next Encounter is chosen by way of applause. Next year, the 28th Encounter will take place in San Juan, a province deeply involved with one of the issues at the forefront of the agenda in Posadas: ‘mega-mining’. The organisation for next year’s event began as soon as this one finished.
As well as the scheduled activities, such as the workshops and the march, there is a lot of spontaneous activity on the fringes of the event. The streets and parks fill up with women who organise different activities like open radios, debates, and concerts. Whilst all the Encounters take place in Argentine cities, they attract an important number of women for other Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile.
Mónica Tarducci is an anthropologist, a feminist, and one of the founders of the Women’s Encounters. In a recent interview with Página 12 newspaper, Tarducci recalled how the experience of the Feminist Encounters of Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1980s were an inspiration to start something similar in Argentina.
The current Encounters, however, are unique, she says. “There’s nothing like it in the world. In fact, from outside the country it’s seen with curiosity and admiration, the fact that so many women meet up once a year to talk about the problems affecting them.” What makes the Encounters unique, according to Tarducci, is the number and diversity of women who take part, as well as the participative dynamics of the workshops and the impact the experience has on the participants.
This year’s balance is positive. As part of their conclusions, the organisers pointed out the importance of the many different issues discussed and brought to light over the weekend: human trafficking, declaration of a national emergency due to sexual and domestic violence, the “triple slogan” campaign (“sexual education to decide, contraception to avoid abortion, legal abortion to avoid dying”), the rejection of the construction of mega-dams, and the defence of the rights of the earth.
Posadas will be reminded of this extraordinary weekend by the graffiti left behind on walls and windows. “We give birth, we decide”, “I aborted, your mum too”, “No means no”, “Take your rosaries off our ovaries”. As the paint fades away and the city goes back to its quiet routine, the women go back to their cities and their daily struggles. But they do not go back the same. They go back stronger, empowered, with renewed energy. Because no woman is the same after the Encounter.