A sea of green washed up in Congress square in central Buenos Aires on the evening of June 4th. The high tide of three years of feminist organising, of rising up against violence towards women, against fear, lapped at the seat of legislative power. The #NiUnaMenos movement that became visible in June 2015 has grown and grown in activists and causes that come together for anniversary mobilisations. Many thousands took to the streets all over Argentina, each bringing with them the issues closest to their hearts: an end to violence, economic insecurity, indebtedness. And yesterday there was an overriding theme: the demand for legal abortions.
The colour green was not accidental. The march was a sea of the green handkerchiefs worn in support of the current debate to legalise abortion. In the past few weeks public hearings have been held by Congress to find out what civil society thinks and feels about the reasons to change the law regarding access to free and legal abortion. Congress deputies will debate the law on June 13. Those in favour of extending the current rights were also demanding better implementation of a recent sexual education law. Their motto has been: ‘sexual education to choose, access to contraception to prevent abortions, legal abortions to prevent deaths.’ It is estimated that some 450,000 illegal abortions take place annually in Argentina. Complications resulting from abortions make up the first cause of maternal death.
Although abortion is legal in the case of rape or health complications, there have been numerous reports of doctors in the public health system being pressured by Catholic church organisations to not carry them out. For women who can pay, the extensive private health care system enables them to choose to have a termination; for poorer women who cannot pay, there is no choice but the public health system or backstreet abortions – they are therefore the main victims of death by complications. The class and income differences in access to illegal abortions has been the focus of the current campaign: making clear that illegality kills poor women, and is an issue of social justice.
The original #NiUnaMenos protest in 2015 connected the femicide of 14-year-old Chiara Páez to a systematic critique of the multiple failings of institutions and social norms of behaviour. The anger was funnelled into specific demands: calls for an official register of femicides, measures to be taken by the state to provide services and security to women, among many others. Even as the protest took place, there was an unexpected leap from focused rage to wide-ranging social critique. Since then, the demand for recognition of the overlapping social relations of power between women and men that underpin femicide has only grown, contributing to the success of Women’s Strikes in 2016 and 2018.
The practices of the Ni Una Menos movement include assemblies, distributed networks, autonomous organising by groups and individuals who wish to be part, and parallel campaigning by different groups that come together for moments of mass mobilisation. The values that they have made central to their organising include: embodied presence as sole requirement for participation, equality of voice, inclusion of difference, outreach to ensure plurality, radical openness and horizontality and consensus decision-making.
There has been no attempt to create an identity or a single organisation, a deliberate sidestepping of representation, a refusal to lead. Instead, a shared ethic of enabling whoever came to the assemblies to express their concerns and organise according to their own priorities has spread. Ni Una Menos activists practice egalitarian relationships, empathy, listening and engaged decision-making in contrast with the established power relations of dominance and authority. They seek to build affinity by analogy, to accept parallel struggles that do not negate or undervalue other struggles; they do not define degrees of importance or urgency on a theoretical plane but do so in terms of the practical actions that can be taken by those present.
It is crucial that at the same time that we contest the existing order, we create utopias, and put them into practice
As one of the founders, Cecilia Palmeiro, expressed in an interview to Nacla, ‘organizing in open assemblies guarantees that all voices and bodies matter and that we learn from each other […] we must create empathy between us, and need to develop a deep understanding of our differences and conflicts. It is crucial that at the same time that we contest the existing order, we create utopias, and put them into practice.’ In the process Ni Una Menos has also identified the politics they do not want to reproduce, ‘in the patriarchal capitalist terms of personal accumulation of power and group rivalries.’
The green handkerchiefs echo the white ones of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo – activists today are making the connections to the women who have led struggles and refused to give up on their vision of social justice for decades. The Madres are now in their 80s and Ni Una Menos has brought together all generations, including the very young, in a renewed sense of hope for what a group of thoughtful, committed people can achieve when they come together. The crowds chanted: ‘Now that we’re together, now that you can see us, down with the patriarchy, it’s going to fall, up with feminism, we’re going to win.’
If you are in London and want to find out more about the #NiUnaMenos movement, there are events coming up with activists from Argentina. On Wednesday 27 June a meeting will be held in Hackney, 5pm @ Campoli Presti, 223 Cambridge Heath Road, London, E2 0EL.
Marcela López Levy is an Argentinian researcher and writer who has worked with social justice organisations in the UK and Latin America for the past two decades. She is currently integrating her training in psychology with social theory, looking at the importance of the imagination in social movements and specifically feminist struggles. Her most recent book is Argentina under the Kirchners: The legacy of left populism (LAB 2017, available here).