One year after Argentina’s Senate defeated a bill to legalise abortion, the country’s feminists are keeping up the fight and leading Latin America’s struggle for abortion rights.
Apart from Cuba, Uruguay and Mexico City, voluntary abortion is illegal in Latin America, although it does take place, clandestinely, in conditions that are usually deplorable.
At the same time, killings of women in Argentina have not abated despite increased public awareness. The country of 44mn people recorded 278 cases of femicide last year, according to official data.
“There’s a convergence of battles” in Argentina, says Celeste Mac Dougall, a prominent figure in the campaign for abortion rights – a hugely divisive issue in her country.
“If the feminist movement is so large, with so many supporters, it’s because Argentina has a great tradition of fighting for human rights,” Mac Dougall says, referring to the mothers and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a movement that fights for accountability over those who were disappeared during the 1976-83 dictatorship.
“The fight for women’s rights is part of this struggle,” she said.
Florencia Alcaraz, a leader of the feminist NiUnaMenos collective, says an important part of that battle is the national women’s assembly every October 12.
That movement has grown increasingly popular. It attracted 100,000 supporters in 2018 and organizers are hoping to break that record this year.
“We need a collective mourning, to bring attention to femicide and to challenge not just the state, but society as a whole,” Alcaraz said.
NiUnaMenos has spearheaded these mass gatherings, which have thrust Argentina into the spotlight of the regional campaign.
Thousands of women also flooded the streets of Buenos Aires in June to push for abortion rights and denounce violence against women.
Many sported the green scarves that have become the symbol of the abortion rights movement.
Taking to the streets, not only in Buenos Aires but in other major cities, reflects the spread of a movement previously confined to the middle classes in university lecture halls.
But the green scarves have faced stiff resistance in the homeland of Pope Francis, where the Roman Catholic Church put its financial weight behind the opposition to legalised abortions.
The country’s senate in August last year voted 38-31 against allowing the procedure, defeating the measure after it narrowly passed the lower house.
Argentina’s vote followed a referendum in Ireland, another traditionally Catholic country, which voted to repeal its abortion ban.
In May of this year, Argentine lawmakers presented a new bill to Congress, while a vast crowd gathered outside in support. Most were young women dressed in green.
The campaign gained international visibility with the airing of the documentary “Let It Be Law” by Argentine director Juan Solanas at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
But Argentine Bishop Alberto Bochatey has described further efforts to pass an abortion bill as “fanaticism and desperate populism.”
“There are still a lot of chains in society. The majority continue to find extenuating circumstances for violence against women,” said Florencia Pata, 22, a student and NiUnaMenos activist.
She says she’s “ashamed” of how backward Latin America is in this area.
While the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment has flourished elsewhere, Pata says her country is an exception.
“We’re not asking for anything more than equality, rights that Europeans or Americans won in the 1960s and 70s,” she adds.
“The church continues to hinder women’s progress.”
Various charities estimate that 500,000 illegal, secret abortions are carried out every year in Argentina, resulting in the deaths of about 100 women.
Argentina currently allows abortion in only three cases, similar to most of Latin America: rape, a threat to the mother’s life or if the fetus is disabled.
Laws in Central America are even more restrictive. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua ban abortion completely.
Lissell Quiroz-Perez, a history professor specialising in Latin America and feminism at Rouen University in France, says the abortion movement “is responding to a regional emergency.”
“We’re finally realising that this violence against women is an issue that needs to be a priority in the political agenda,” she said.
The latest legislative attempt to legalise abortion in Argentina is unlikely to return to the Senate before the end of this year, observers say, because presidential elections are only three months away.
But activists are determined to ensure that the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy remains at the heart of the political debate.
“We’ve achieved the social legalisation of abortion and the realisation that it’s a right. That’s the key for the future,” said Mac Dougall.