The campaign for abortion in Argentina was a model for militancy, writes Martina Rodriguez
On the dawn of Thursday 30th December, after a heated 12 hour debate, the Argentinian Senate marked the historic YES for reproductive rights, with 38 votes in favour, 29 against and 1 abstention. In November, the Lower House had also passed it with a close win (131 versus 117). Both parliamentary sessions were accompanied by vigils outside the building, with hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t move all night to make sure their rights were guaranteed.
The majority of the country, and most of our neighbours in the region, were very vigilant and anxious because the vote count was very tight, and all predictions suggested a close 50/50 split. But the ruling party pushed to get a majority until the very last minute and the streets and social media were exploding with local, regional and global support for the #AbortoLegal outcry.
It was an interminable night and not an easy fight. The influence of the Catholic Church and ever-present conservative dogmatism still fill some Senate seats, and were deploying all their weaponry. The Vatican and its Argentinian head-of-state himself were making sure its adherents were hindering the bill.
But the Green Tide was ready for revenge after the ‘defeat’ in 2018. In June of that year, the Argentine Congress had approved the legalisation of abortion as well, mainly thanks to the millions of feminists who took the streets and demonstrated around the whole country and organised rallies internationally. But the Senate rejected it only a couple of months afterwards. At that time, the legislative party line was aligned to Mauricio Macri’s government and it meant the neoliberal programme did not have reproductive rights in mind. In 2018, Mauricio Macri’s right-wing party didn’t exactly have a parliamentary majority but still controlled the Senate with some ‘blue’ Justicialist and Liberal alliances and the final count was 38 (-) against 31 (+).
Contrastingly, in 2020, Peronists had 25 senators voting for the bill, and 12 against it; whereas all the opposition parties combined had 13 in favour and 17 against. What is more, two Peronist senators even claimed to have ‘deconstructed’ their vote thanks to the influence of the ‘new generation’s struggle’. The change of administration and the movement’s pressure had made the difference.
2018’s loss was not the first though. The last one was actually the eighth time the bill was presented and battled through, and it was finally attained despite having immense opposition from such powerful actors. The strength of feminist militancy was remarkable, and it has won a place in the history books. Such an achievement was extraordinarily hard fought and it is why we are all still incredulous and have tears of joy to spare for this massive accomplishment for women’s rights.
There are many possible angles that one could approach when reading and analysing recent events. How abortion began to be considered a public health and social justice issue, how reproductive rights were recognised as a feminist battle, how traditional parties started to identify their patriarchal structures, among many different yet important interpretations. Nonetheless, this victory is certainly more transcendental than just the approval of an abortion bill. Above all, I see it as the coronation of a militant struggle, as the placing a new emphasis on the importance of politics in all its senses.
It was the congruence of different political forces and the work of years of nourishing social consciousness and cultural battles fought on the ground. The government’s arm was forced by persistent mass mobilisations yet, at the same time, without Peronism’s pressure on its majoritarian legislative party, we would not have a bill. The Justicialist Party has always been divided on this – and many other topics but Alberto Fernandez was the first of the ‘Personista’ Presidents to endorse an abortion bill, which ultimately led to the law’s approval. As one analyst said, “The Peronists never send a project to Congress if they think they’re going to lose”.
Then, why is it relevant to signal the party’s involvement if the law was drafted and knitted from the grassroots? In essence, it is a sharp demonstration of how institutional power was able to effectively translate a collective feminist struggle into laws and public policies by virtue of recognising and embracing the popular will – which is exactly what we need from our political systems in place.
Despite the Peronist leverage, the struggle was certainly transversal and cut through all political parties, not just Peronism. It came from the masses, the people, intersectional and intergenerational, within and beyond partisan politics, within and beyond the state, and the crucial political actor was the Green Tide – relentlessly pressing for change, being vocal in the streets and in every home and every community, demanding what is ours: our freedom and our autonomy. The streets, the neighbourhoods and the screens were all dyed green – a green that is a popular tide with a thirst for freedom and that has been forcing the institutions of power to make sure they secure our rights.
I’m sure many will recognise the green scarves, the symbol of our fight in Argentina (and now globally), as it has been very visible in most feminist gatherings for the past couple of years. This emblem is a product of 15 years of organised struggle that the ‘National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion” has been engaged in and it has now been adopted as a flag to represent our feminist revolution. What characterises the National Campaign is its horizontal, democratic, federal and plural construction, in which diverse feminisms from all over the country come together to demand laws that expand and guarantee rights.
The Campaign emerged from the ‘Pluri-national Encounters of Women, Lesbians, Trans and Non-binary People’, which are annual national gatherings where tens of thousands of people meet to discuss gender issues in a weekend-long conference with activities, workshops, talks, festivals, and open assemblies. The 34 year-old tradition has been pivotal in harvesting the new feminist tide of the 99%. From the streets to Congress, the feminist tide has been building networks throughout the different territories.
But, how was feminism able to stand up to the old bastions of conservatism and the rising waves of far-right and libertarian movements? Well, by not giving up. Not conceding. After every defeat, we stood up and tried again. The key to these years of campaigning, culminating in the conquest of our rights, was perseverance. The most important thing we achieved within feminism was to make a dent in the mentality of society and put sexual and reproductive rights – as well as femicide and wider patriarchal violence – into homes and on the political agenda.
The organisational efforts of Ni Una Menos, the Abortion Campaign and the Pluri-national Encounters (as pillars of this new tide) were critical in harnessing the powerful societal responses, capturing the outrage over machista violence and building on the feminist movement. And this was done with constant, resilient, tireless work from below. Periodic popular assemblies were at the centre of this organisation, working inside all activist spaces and wider communities too. A feminist praxis was starting to infiltrate all political and every-day territories. What also made the difference was the political will. We needed the state’s complicity to accompany and materialise our demands.
As a motto and a social movement, Ni Una Menos has been making visible feminist demands such as the abortion campaign, at a mass level. Since its emergence and rise over the past five years, it has strengthened this inspiring new tide that is going for it all. The intersectional feminist tide is not taking any breaks nor slowing its pace, we have organised ourselves and we are here to fight until the end. The work is constant. It is tiring, frustrating, infuriating. But it has to be done every day, at every possible opportunity. And it starts from home, from uncomfortable conversations with family, close ones, colleagues.
There is a lesson that I think should be an example for Western politics, especially in the UK, which is that you can never lower your arms. In Argentina we have a phrase that characterises wider Latin American political movements: ‘no te des por vencido ni aun vencido’ – don’t give up even when defeated. Constantly battling the insurmountable, whether it be dictatorships, or neoliberal and imperial powers crushing our economies and societies, we just keep resurging from the ashes, somehow more revitalised and rejuvenated.
This is not to say that there isn’t division in Argentinian politics nor that we never encounter backlashes or setbacks. As if. Obviously we are completely riddled with polarising and divisive views. But feminism with Ni Una Menos and the Green Tide, were able to permeate all sectors of society, soaking through traditional and old fashioned views, and have a huge impact, which meant wide societal support for this bill.
More than anything, I want these words to be a ray of hope among so much uncertainty and adversity, and reaffirm that if we were able to obtain our sexual freedom, even against all odds and right in the middle of a pandemic, then it absolutely shows that change is and will be possible. Argentina’s Green Tide example not only should be praised, it should be imitated. Militancy working together with political will for the people’s emancipation can happen.
The political structures of the Global South have been underestimated and belittled for far too long, even from comrades on this side of the pond. But Western politics has a lot to learn from us and our political plays and moves. Working as an international force against the evils that we are facing is now more important than ever. So we must start weaving this power together, whether it’s for the feminist revolution or the destruction of white supremacist and imperial neoliberalism.
Argentina’s victory is already having a domino effect in South America, with Chile ready to present a decriminalisation bill that will be debated on 13th January. This is beautifully hopeful. This is all we have got and we must capitalise on this moment. We have the courage and the organisation. What we need is others to follow suit. We must understand that surrender is not an option. Not now, not ever.
Martina Rodriguez is an Argentinian living in London. She is a Spanish teacher at United Voices of the World union, a freelance writer and a co-founder of Ni Una Menos UK and the Argentina Solidarity Campaign.
Image: Amnistía Internacional Argentina
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