Gender, Feminism, and Abortion in Argentina

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

How my experience in Latin America made me understand the importance of the women’s rights movement.

Laura Hülsemann

Feminist movements are currently very strong in Argentina due to the women's rights protests that have dominated Argentinian politics in the past years. During massive marches, Argentina’s young women and man are steadily uniting to stand up against the entrenched patriarchy system of their country to demand equality in social, political and economic realm. They have been fighting, they have been rejected and they are now standing up again.

In 2017, three women were sunbathing toplessly on a warm summer day on an Argentine beach, until 20 police officers arrived to threaten to arrest and handcuff them if they would not get dressed. “Arrested for showing boobs”, yelled one of the women, calling out the sexism of the action. In solidarity with the women, hundreds united in Buenos Aires to make a tetazo - a protest against the objectification and sexualization of women bodies. During this time, I was living as an exchange student in Rosario for one year. Nearly all of my high school was participating in these protests and marches, most of my friends were engaged in the debates and challenging family members, teachers and members of the older generations.

The topic was omnipresent, the women’s rights movement that surged was mobilizing and polarizing the majority of society in one direction or the other - beyond family and friendship ties. A 16-year-old friend of mine for example posted a picture of herself topless at the protest on Instagram and her brother responded “You are not my sister anymore” - and got 10 likes for this comment. At that moment, the debate in Argentina had long surpassed the initial topic of “toplessness” and the criticism spread to the entrenched sexism of Argentina. The movement evolved into the organised, bottom-up campaign, known as the “ni una menos” (Eng. not one women less). The movement campaigns against femicide and for gender equality.

Coming from Germany and having only been in Highschool there, I had not experienced serious gender inequality, which made it difficult for me to understand when my Highschool friends tried to explain to me the term femicide. As such, I did initially not understand, why it was necessary to define femicide as a separate category different to homicide. “Who would kill women only because they are women?”, I was thinking – “this is exaggerated, there must be other reasons for killing them, beyond their gender”. Only after living one year there, I understood how gender inequality is entrenched in Argentine society, family life and daily thought.

Especially in the domestic sphere there is a strong disparity between the expectations. In Argentina the “average woman with full-time employment dedicates five and a half more hours to domestic tasks than does an unemployed man“, Diana Broggi explains.

Of course, I cannot speak for all families in Argentina, but I did notice the heavier burden lying on women regarding household work. In Argentina, It was the first time that I for example became aware of how emancipating a dishwasher is for a women – because it does make a huge difference if you have to wash and dry the dishes of an entire family 3 times a day or if you can put everything in a dishwasher and continue with your actual interests. Something I took for granted in Germany.

On average one women dies every thirty hours because of gender violence in Argentina. Femicide as such is a sex-based hate crime and is demonstrated by the unequal numbers of homicides mostly against women by man. The term femicide was first defined by Diana E.H. Russel in 1976 as "the killing of females by males because they are female".

It is also in the domestic realm that femicide has to be understood. Studies show that there is a gendered difference between homicides committed by intimate partners. The “proportion was six times higher for female homicides than for male homicides”. Russel, who defined the term, has helped raise the awareness to the role of misogyny influencing hate crimes against women. By defining a gender difference in homicide, she gave women’s rights activist a tool to denounce these inequalities – she literally equipped them with a language of protest. Especially in Latin America this terminology fell on fruitful ground and was adopted quickly.

My host cousin, Natalia Maderna, a radio journalist, rewrote the song Despacito to point to the violence against women, the failing judiciary support and the problem of femicide in Argentina. The video went viral in Argentina within a few days, soon reaching half a million klicks. With its popularity also came the hate followed by comments telling her to “go back to do the household” or to “stop corrupting her child with feminist propaganda”.

The term “Feminazi” was widely used at the time to discredit the movement as an extremist one. Using a term historically as laden as Nazi is not only deeply ignorant, it also demonizes women’s rights activists and implies that standing up for equality between the genders is actually comparable to the atrocities of the Second World War.

Abortion is another topic influencing current Latin American politics and especially the Argentinean discourse. Abortion is illegal and considered a crime against a life and a person - and it can be result in up to fifteen years in prison. In Argentina, the penalty on abortion may only be waived if the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother and in cases of rape.

Meanwhile, abortion is legal in most of European countries and thus has visually disappeared from the discourse of modern European politics. Because those rights are already granted to women, I grew up with abortion rights being a norm. In Argentina, it was the first time I experienced first-hand that there are rights which I enjoy in my home country, while people in other countries still have to fight for them.

In 2018, the abortion debate exploded in Argentina and the “Campana Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal, Seguro y Gratuito” rose to national attention. Argentinian women and man united to fight for legal abortion rights and protested for raising the abortion period up to 14 weeks, demanding that “not a single woman shall die due to clandestine abortion”. While I was not living in Argentina at this time, my Instagram feed blew up with green handkerchiefs and protest pictures. The handkerchief is the movements symbol and is making references to a group of Argentine human rights’ activists during the military dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. Further the abortion activists also demanded sexual education in the school system, which is often not part of Argentinian high school and thus leaves a majority of children uneducated on sexual and health matters.

Not granting abortion rights is problematic because many women die suffering the consequences of clandestine abortions with lacking medical assistance. Due to possible legal persecution these women often refrain from going to hospitals in the case that the clandestine abortions fail and endanger the women’s lives. An Argentine doctor explains that “Illegality forces the poorest women to use the most desperate practices”.

The “Aborto-Legal-Ya” (Engl. give us legal abortion finally) movement has moved more than a million Argentines on the streets. The protestors managed to push the government to take their demands into consideration. The former president Mauricio Macri agreed to open a regular session of the National Congress of Argentina on the debate. However, while the movement enjoys large support of the society, the Senate rejected the bill on 9 August 2018. The demand to make abortion legal was disapproved with 38 votes against it, while 31 Senators voted in favour and 2 abstained. Thus, abortion still remains illegal in Argentina.

Having visited the county for two weeks during the elections in October in 2019, I realized that the topic is still present in today's politics, even after the proposal failed in the Senate. From the outside it might seem like the movement failed and died with the rejected bill, however Argentina continues to fight for women’s rights. While many women as well as man continue to use the green handkerchief, there is also a lot of street art, stickers and Instagram posts about women’s rights.

Furthermore, Argentina’s recent presidential election on Sunday the 26th of October were concerned with this debate. While some candidates - generally form the right -, such as Roberto Lavagna have opposed legal abortion, the left’s Nicolas del Cano went as far as campaigning with the green handkerchief in his hand. Moreover, Argentina's new president Alberto Fernández is publicly favouring abortion.

After all, we must not forget that Argentina’s women’s rights movement was by far one of the strongest once Latin America has witnessed in the past decade. Argentinian women’s rights activists have long not given up on the issue. On the contrary; Argentine women have shown that change and progress is possible and will continue to fight against discrimination.

*Laura Hülsemann is the Brazil Correspondent for Frank Creations. She is a German student of the Bachelor “International Relations and Organisations” at Leiden University. At the moment she is doing an exchange with the Institute of Philosophies and Humanities (Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas) at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. There she writes a column about international affairs in the Human Rights Journal “Humanista” and specializes in Human & Women Rights, Brazilian & Colonial History and Journalism. Contact:

Picture Sources:

Where not to be female:

Protest Picture: “Tantas veces me mataron, tantas veces me morí, sin embargo estoy aquí resucitando” (Engl: so many timesthey killed me, so many times I died, without doubt I am here getting up again)

This picture is taken by an Argentine friend of mine. Her Instagram is @cande.abril_.

Protest Picture: I took this picture during a women’s rights protest on the 3rd of June 2017 in Rosario

World Abortion Laws:

Protest Picture: “Que Sea legal no clandestino” (Engl: That it (abortion) be legal and not clandestine). This picture is taken by an Argentinian friend of mine. Her Instagram is @valccho.

Graffiti picture: “America Latina vai ser toda Feminista.” (Engl: All of Latin America will be Feminist) This picture is taken by an Argentine friend of mine. Her Instagram is @trinus_.

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