Women from across Argentina gathered in the northwestern province of Jujuy for the 21st National Women’s Congress on the 14th and 15th of October. During the workshops and rallies at this year’s congress, the central outcry was for women to claim self-determination over their bodies and sexuality in Argentina’s highly sexist and religious society. In recent years there has been a surge in women’s groups organized autonomously from the government, political parties and institutes.
Nearly 10,000 women from diverse backgrounds and organizations participated in this year’s congress, which featured over 48 workshops on gender issues ranging from abortion, syndicalism and neighborhood organizing to women’s health. The congress took place in the midst of protests from the Catholic Church and concluded with a massive march in the capital, in which thousands of women protested for the legalization of abortion and end to violence against women.
Liliana Pomilo, from a non-governmental organization which works on educational initiatives for poor women in Cordoba, says that the congress has served to build a women’s movement capable of making strides in gender equality. "For more than 15 years I’ve participated in these congresses. This is an unprecedented experience: women from diverse ideologies, beliefs and organizations gathering together and working on shared issues surrounding what we do in our daily lives. This is what this gathering is for, for us to inform each other about what is occurring in each of our regions. We decided last year in Mar del Plata to hold this year’s congress in Jujuy, because this is homeland of Romina Tejerina who is in jail because abortion is illegal."
"Romina Tejerina: a symbol of violence against women"
Many traveled over 24 hours to make it to Jujuy for a specific demand: the release of Romina Tejerina, a 19-year-old rape victim who is serving 14 years in prison for murdering her newly born baby after secretly giving birth in her bathroom. During the congress, women held a rally outside the prison where Tejerina is serving her term.
Tejerina reported that she had been raped several days after the actual attack. Her violator, a neighbor was jailed for three days and later released on lack of evidence. Tejerina tried to terminate her pregnancy, but did not because abortion is illegal in Argentina. Pomilo says that Tejerina’s imprisonment has made many women’s organizations fight even harder for the legalization of abortion. "If Romina, a rape victim could have had access to a legal abortion, she wouldn’t be in prison today. Romina has made all of us women re-strategies a ton of things and pushes us to struggle for the legalization of abortion. We have yet to make advances in the fight for its legalization."
Though abortion is illegal in Argentina, it is estimated that 500,000 pregnancies are terminated every year through clandestine abortions, which have become the leading cause of maternal mortality in the country. Abortion is only legally permitted in cases of rape when the woman is deemed mentally disturbed or retarded, or when the health or life of the expectant mother is endangered. Religious groups like Opus Die, an ultra-conservative Catholic organization that supported the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, stopped two mentally ill women who were raped from terminating their pregnancies through court actions in July this year.
Natalia García from Zafinas, a lesbian action and reflection group that formed during 2004’s women’s’ conference in the city of Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe, participated in a workshop on lesbianism. She also went to the rally outside Tejerina’s jail, some 20 kilometers from San Salvador de Jujuy. "I told my girlfriend that the rally outside the prison for Romina’s release was worth traveling 2,000 kilometers." Many women had to take over local busses and convince bus drivers to take them to the rally. During their journey to the jail, droves of women chanted for Tejerina’s freedom from the usurped busses and trucks. When they arrived, Tejerina waved and greeted her fellow fighters from her jail cell.
According to participants from Zafinas, Tejerina has become a symbol for all women fighting against gender violence and discrimination. García comments, "Romina Tejerina is a victim of all types of social and institutional violence against women . . . Sexual violence first, then she was stopped from having an abortion. The third institutional aggression was putting her in jail. Why? If a man shoots a woman 10 times he’s given a light sentence because he went crazy or was jealous. A girl who murders her son no, they put her in jail because she didn’t do what society says that she should do: she should be a mother and it doesn’t matter how she feels."
"The objective in this congress is for us to meet [other] women and share our experiences. Lesbians in Argentina have never held a national gathering," says García. "The only place where the lesbians in the country have had the chance to meet has been the national women’s congresses and the congresses have been very important for lesbians organizing. One of the first issues that come to surface is visibility. Lesbians are hidden."
García comments that, despite legal strides for same sex marriage in 2003, the queer community constantly faces legal and physical harassment by religious groups that hold significant sway in politics, especially at the local level. "Right now the Catholic Church has been attacking us on all fronts, wherever we go, on the internet, even when we go to the streets to protest. We are feeling a lot of pressure from the church and fundamentalist groups especially."
Many women are working to open social discussion of gender and sexuality in general. Corina Nunez forms part of a group that facilitates gender workshops for women in working class neighborhoods in Buenos Aires’s suburban belt. She participated in a workshop on sexuality to strategize how to open discussions on gender issues in barrios where machismo is the norm. "We are working with women so that we can end the idea that sexuality is something taboo, secret or something that only women from the bourgeoisie can enjoy. Sexuality is part of who we are; we are sexual beings. Sex education needs to be part of society. Abortion should be free and accessible in all hospitals. All women should have access to free birth control and condoms."
However, discussions weren’t limited to reproductive rights. Many women have become leading protagonists in working class struggles. Public hospital workers, school teachers and factory workers joined together in workshops to discuss strategies for women organizing in the work place and in unions. Women have had to re-organize their households and lives to cope with falling salaries and increasing inflation.
Women from several worker-run enterprises (known as ”recuperated” enterprises) like BAUEN hotel and the Zanon ceramics factory participated in this year’s congress. "This is the second congress I’ve come to, and it has been a great experience to learn from women in other worker cooperatives and recuperated enterprises," says María Eva Losana a worker at BAUEN cooperative. She adds that the workshop on recuperated enterprises has served as a space to discuss the challenges women face in their workplace, even when there isn’t a boss.
The women at Zanon created a Women’s Commission (Comision de Mujeres de Zanon ) nearly a year ago after a national congress on gender and equality in the Coastal city of Mar del Plata. They have begun to print a newsletter, which is distributed to all 470 workers. The objective of the Women’s Commission is for the women at the factory to build their own space to meet and discuss prejudice they must face in a sexist society. Many of the Factories without Bosses (FaSinPat) women have triple roles as working women, mothers and activists, with particular challenges women must face. In Jujuy, Zanon’s Women’s Comission distributed pamphlets explaining the workers’ struggle and specially printed ceramics with the National Women’s Congress’s logo, which sold like hot cakes.
"Taking the congress to the streets"
Before leaving Jujuy, women held a protest outside the hosting city’s cathedral, which has become an annual tradition. A barricade of church goers carrying crosses, rosaries, and pictures of fetuses around the central cathedral met women chanting "take your rosaries out of our ovaries" and "we demand an end to the inquisition against women."
Demonstrators took a no holds barred approach to the protest, acting exactly as women shouldn’t: showing bare breasts, acting in solidarity with other women and screaming for self-determination. The popular education team, Headscarves in Rebellion (Panuelos Rebeldes), dressed up as prisoners of patriarchy, capitalism, church and police. Prisoners of domestic violence, lack of access to sexual education and cultural hegemony marched chained to the hand of patriarchy. They also carried a special message: "Romina we are going to free you."
Catholic groups are currently organizing a counter protest to occur during this year’s upcoming Gay Pride March in Buenos Aires. Ultra-conservative groups have been gaining steam in the past year, especially with the rise in groups rallying for amnesty for military groups accused of human rights abuses, and a return to dictatorship rule. With the wave of threats and attacks against activists, the National Women’s Congress has become even more important to prevent further patriarchal attacks against gender equality. Next year’s congress is to be held in Cordoba, and organizers have said they will not allow protests from local conservative groups to stop the congress from taking place.
Marie Trigona is an independent journalist based in Buenos Aires . She can be reached at email@example.com. Visit Grupo Alavío’s website www.agoratv.org to watch a video documentary on the women’s congress.