National Women’s Meeting in Argentina: Thousands Marching for Their Rights

The 29th National Meeting of Women (ENM) in Argentina took place this October in the city of Salta. Thousands of women from across the country met there to discuss issues of visiblizing gender inequality, gender violence, rape culture, and women’s rights violations. The history of the ENM dates back to 1986, when the first Meeting was held in Buenos Aires at a time when Argentina still did not have a divorce law and parental authority was held by the father only.

From October 13th to 15th, Salta, capital city of the homonymous northwestern Argentine province, received thousands of women from across the country to celebrate the 29th National Meeting of Women in Argentina (ENM). This meeting aims at discussing and visiblizing gender inequality, gender violence, including its most extreme form femicide, rape culture, and women’s rights violations, as well as different kinds of discrimination against women, such as discrimination in the workplace.

The story of the ENM dates back to 1986, when the first Meeting was held in Buenos Aires at a time when Argentina still did not have a divorce law and parental authority was held by the father only. Some of the workshops organized then included Women and [Political] Participation, Women and Domestic Violence, Identity, The Church and Women, Sexual Stereotypes in Education, Sexuality, Traditional Families and New Family Models, and Indigenous Women.

There have been many advances since the ’80s, including the passage of Law 26.364 for the Prevention and Punishment of Trafficking in Persons and Assistance to its Victims in 2008, the legalization of same sex marriage in the 2010 Law 26.618 on Equal Marriage (In Spanish, Ley de Matrimonio Igualitario, which modified the civil code) and the 2012 passage of Law 26.743, known as the Gender Identity Law.

However, there are still many struggles that have not been won,  and new and old issues that still need to be discussed and visiblized. Participants took up these issues in the 60 workshops organized this year. Several workshops took on the issue of stereotypes, including discussions of  “Women and the Media,” which focused on stereotypes in the media that reproduce symbolic violence. Other panels included “Women and the Feminization of Poverty,” and a workshop on “Women and Sexuality/Lesbianism/Bisexuality,” which dismantled stereotypes and phobias/hatred, created from religious, heterosexual, patriarchal doctrines.

Participants discussed the issue of violence as it pertains to women in workshops entitled “Women and Feminicide”  and “Women and Violence,” which generated debates that resulted in several demands, including a declaration of national emergency to deal with violence against women. Participants in the workshop on “Women and Human Trafficking/Prostitution” concluded that prostitution is not a job but violence perpetrated on women in the form of sex, thus there are no “clients”, but “prostituyentes,” people who force women into prostitution, and that State complicity and trafficking and prostitution networks must be dismantled.

Another theme of the Meeting was that of identity, seen in panels discussing “Women and the Family,” and “Women and Native Populations.” Workshops also addressed problems of access and participation in panels entitled “Women and Access to Land, Home, and Services” and “Women and Political Parties.”

A theme that had its own workshop too but also traverses almost all others is Women and the Secular State. In this regard, there is a reason why 2013 ENM organizers chose Salta  to be the next Meeting venue for the second time. Salta is a province with a virtually non-existent secular state, where religion is a mandatory subject in all public schools, and the Catholic Church still has an anachronistic power over politics and everyday life. This was evidenced by the comments with which some of the participants (including myself) were welcomed to the city: “whores!,” “bitches!,” “go back home!”… and even “Think about God before talking!” These dominant paradigms were also demonstrated by the bewilderment of a group of girls who approached us to ask what the Meeting was about, and after a few minutes’ talk, told us they were interested in the themes, but that they found the idea of organizing themselves to discuss these topics unthinkable. The local fear mongering reached a level of hysteria in a “prophesy” created by some local media, warning Salta residents of a catastrophic invasion of the city by women-hordes determined on breaking families and destroying local institutions.

This does not mean that Salta is the only province in Argentina where the Catholic Church holds such a sway. In fact, one of the ever-present struggles –for the right to abortion– was of particular interest in this occasion. A new Civil and Commercial Code was passed this year in Argentina. In the latest legislation, the beginning of human existence was established as the moment when the embryo was placed in the mother’s womb and, in the case of assisted reproduction, the existence of the person (a person before the law) begins with embryo implantation. Not only did the new Code include no advancement in women’s right to reproductive choice −which could have paved the way to the legalization of abortion− but it actually takes a step backwards by establishing conception as the beginning of existence. Currently the right to abortion in Argentina is only permitted in the case of rape, to preserve the woman’s health, or in the case of intellectual disability. In reality, though, even women in these situations are often not able to access a safe abortion procedure. The State does not guarantee the presence of at least one physician who is not a conscientious objector to perform the abortion in any public hospital. This is why the separation of church and state was a recurring demand expressed in the workshop discussions, in the artistic interventions and graffiti around the city. Participants expressed these demands in posters and chants sung during the closing parade on Sunday, with slogans including “If the Pope were a woman, abortion would be legal” or “Get your rosaries off our ovaries.”

The 2014 meeting also included new issues in the workshops. Although the theme of obstetric violence was discussed at past meetings, this year there was a workshop fully devoted to it. Obstetric violence was defined as a form of gender violence, and participants’ expressed their demands for increased regulation of the humanized birth law and an end to the commodification of pregnancy and birth.

A transgender workshop was held for the second time in ENM history. This discussion also highlighted the demand for a separation between the Catholic Church and the State, since the religious institution hinders the development of inclusive policies. Some of the conclusions of this workshop, in fact, included the fact that real inclusion of transgender people does not exist yet, particularly in the workplace, a space so necessary for economic empowerment and access to a dignified life. Nor is there a recognized inclusion of transgender issues in the health system, since despite the enactment of the gender identity law in 2008, no regulations have been laid down to date by the Argentine Ministry of Health in order to guarantee transgender people full access to health care.

The conclusions of each workshop were read on Monday the 15th. Participants also chose the next venue: Mar del Plata, in the Province of Buenos Aires, due to the numerous brothels there which were shut down under charges of sex trafficking and forced prostitution – only to re-open a few days later.

There is still a long way to go, but raising awareness, visiblizing injustices, and tirelessly fighting for our rights have proved to be the only way to win more victories, and inspire more people −women and men− to join the movement and make it bigger every year.

Laura Beratti is an Argentinian translator, feminist activist and avid traveler; she recently joined and accompanied Las Ramonas, a gender issues group, to the National Meeting of Women. Photos by Laura Beratti.