When feminism sets the political agenda

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By Nazaret Castro July 6, 2018
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Equal TimesOn 14 June, the women of Argentina made history: in a very narrow vote (129 in favour, 125 against), and a denouement that left the public on tenterhooks until the very end, the Congress of Deputies approved a bill to decriminalise abortion, processed, to everyone’s surprise, by the country’s conservative president, Mauricio Macri. It is now up to the Senate to decide whether the bill will become law, but the women’s movement nonetheless felt they had secured a victory: they had shown that pressure from below is able to sway a vote that for many years seemed to be a lost cause.

The parliamentary debate lasted 23 hours, throughout which thousands of women, transsexuals and men staged a vigil, maintained throughout the chilly night, outside the Congress building. Protestors were tweeting undecided deputies and wearing the green neck scarf that symbolises one of the feminist movement’s long-standing demands: the legalisation of abortion in a country where an estimated 500,000 clandestine abortions take place every year and, according to official figures, 43 women died of this cause in 2015. The only Latin American countries providing access to safe abortion are Cuba and Uruguay.

During the twelve years of Kirchnerism, the feminist movement secured gains such as the classification of femicide as a specific crime under Argentine law and the protection of domestic workers’ labour rights, but the legalisation of abortion was off limits.

Since becoming president, Macri has reaped growing animosity among feminists, with the rolling back of public policies to combat femicide, the escalation in the repression of feminist demonstrations and his sadly well-known remarks, such as those made in 2014: “All women like compliments, even if you tell them, ‘What a cute ass you have’”. So, when his government announced that it would present the draft law on the voluntary termination of pregnancy before the chambers for the first time, there were those who tagged him as an opportunist, of trying to create a smokescreen to detract from the social discontent created by the structural adjustment reforms and the Executive’s policy on debt.

But it was much more than that: Macri’s decision is a testament to the strength of the feminist movement in Argentina. Ever since the first demonstration, on 3 June 2015, held under the banner Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), the movement has demonstrated its ability to mobilise people in their hundreds of thousands and to set the institutional policy agenda.

“To speak purely in terms of political opportunism is to show disregard for how the unremitting battle waged by women left them with no option but to deal with the issue. It is not only a matter of pushing an agenda: the feminist movement is a movement devoted to radical social change. And in Argentina it plays a leading role in the opposition to the Macrista government,” says Verónica Gago, an academic and a key figure in the Ni Una Menos movement.

“The fact that President Macri should refer to himself as a ‘late feminist’ is not only a grotesque attempt to challenge the term ‘feminism’, but also the movement’s success in placing this debate on the agendas of all social and political forums,” adds Gago.

Intersectional feminisms

When feminist movements aspire to bring about a radical change in society, their demands inevitably go much further than equal representation, the bridging of the gender gap or the eradication of gender-based violence. In Argentina, feminism, or to be more precise, feminisms, intersect with popular struggles of every kind, from the defence of land against extractive projects such as mega-mining or agribusiness to the rejection of restrictions on migration or the neoliberal policies currently being witnessed with a new IMF loan.

Accordingly, in a show of collective creativeness, slogans such as Vivas Nos Queremos (We Want Us All Alive) from the first Ni Una Menos rally, against femicide, have mutated into other such as Ni Una Fumigada Menos, calling for an end to the deaths caused by the spraying of glyphosate on soy plantations – Ni Una Migrante Menos (Not One Migrant Woman Less) or Vivas y Desendeudadas nos Queremos (We Want Us All Alive and Free of Debt).

“I think that the current strength of the feminist movements lies in their linkages with other social struggles. And feminism acts as a vector for the radicalisation of all the premises of the struggles in all these fights,” argues Gago.

The victory secured by Argentinian women is giving new energy to what has been a long-standing demand of women’s movements across the continent. Feminists from Peru, Chile, Mexico and Colombia are starting to use the neck scarf – in yellow, beige or red – as a symbol of that fight. “In Brazil, the victory secured by Argentinian women has spurred us to take to the streets again; in addition to the fact that Brasilia is set to vote on a bill related to decriminalising abortion in August,” explains Helena Silvestre, editor of feminist magazine Amazonas and a member of the Luta Popular movement for affordable housing.

Similar positive steps have been taken in other parts of the world. In Poland, there has been, in the words of Bogna Czałczyńska of the Polish women’s rights movement, “an acceleration, such a rapid joining of forces among women’s movements”.

“In just one year, during just one action of collecting signatures, there has been an increase from 18 to 42 per cent support for liberalising the laws on women’s reproductive rights,” she adds.

In Ireland, meanwhile, slogans such as My Body, My Choice, Trust Women dominated the International Women’s Day demonstrations on 8 March this year. Thousands of people used the opportunity to rally support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which placed severe limitations the possibility of seeking an abortion. In the referendum held at the end of May, a majority voted in favour of the repeal.

Spain’s first female-dominated Council of Ministers

Argentina is not the only country where feminism has risen to become the most dominant social movement. On 8 March this year in Spain the women’s movement made history, achieving an unprecedent level of mass participation, which the current prime minister of the country, Pedro Sánchez, did not fail to note.

Sánchez, who became the head of government on 1 June, selected the first cabinet in the history of Spain in which women are not only equally represented but form a majority, placing some of them, moreover, at the helm of the “tough” ministries, traditionally the reserve of men, such as Defence, Economy and Finance.

Although the fact that the ministers are women provides no guarantee that their policies will be feminist, the mere presence of a majority of women is a far-reaching symbolic gesture that would not have been possible without sustained pressure from below by the women’s movement.

On 26 April, just weeks before the vote of no-confidence (in Mariano Rajoy’s conservative PP government) that propelled Sánchez to power, crowds took to the streets of many Spanish cities under the banners Yo sí te creo (I Do Believe You) and No es abuso, es violación (It’s Not Abuse, It’s Rape), to express their outright rejection of the court ruling on the widely mediatised and controversial La Manada case.

Three judges, two of them men, considered it proven that five adult men cornered an 18-year-old girl, then penetrated her, everywhere, one after the other; the sentence did not however conclude that this was a rape, because, although consent was not given, there was “no evidence of violence”. Many women came to realise, through this ruling, how Spanish law and its jurisprudence understands the concept of violence when it applies to a woman’s body.

The pressure exerted on the streets was such that, in addition to the result of the appeal still to come, an amendment of the Penal Code is already on the table. But, as in Argentina, Spain’s feminists are aspiring to much broader social change. “I think that today feminism is the only movement that can identify itself in this way. Feminist movements are challenging everything: the economy, the environment, consumption, political organisation, how sexuality is understood,” says ecofeminist, engineer and anthropologist Yayo Herrero.

A peace process with a gender perspective

Feminism has also gained visibility, the power to mobilise and to influence public policy in other Latin American countries. In Colombia, pressure from the feminist movement led to the gender perspective being taken on board in the recent peace agreements between the state and the FARC. “The women’s movement recognised and documented the repercussions of the conflict on indigenous, Afro-descendant and campesino communities, underlining the many ways in which femicide and the torture and rape of women were used as weapons of war,” explains feminist economist Natalia Quiroga Díaz.

Black, Indigenous and campesino women have been the hardest hit, suffering the most vicious attacks on their bodies at the hands of the military and paramilitaries.

“Such incidents do not often appear in public records and are not duly dealt with, so that justice is served; there is total impunity. That is why we have now decided to break the silence,” said the Indigenous Women of Northern Cauca in a declaration in 2011.

One of the slogans of the women’s movement called for an end to women’s bodies being treated as the spoils of war. And with good reason: according to the figures of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2005, 52 per cent of the women displaced within the framework of armed conflict suffered physical violence and 36 per cent suffered sexual violence. Women’s groups managed to highlight the fact that violence against women was a systematic strategy deployed by insurgents as well as by the state and its paramilitary forces. They also succeeded in having the gender perspective incorporated into the peace agreements, addressing issues such as the greater obstacles faced by women claiming their land rights.