Green handkerchiefs wave in a changing Argentina

Comment International Issues

CW: Abortion, Mention of violence against women

Image description: A protestor in Santa Fe draped in a pride flag with the words ‘feminism disidente’ written in purple paint on her chest.

Earlier this month a bill passed through the lower house of Argentina’s National Congress to legalise abortion up to 14 weeks after conception. The vote passed after a 20-hour debate with 131 for and 117 against the proposal. The bill still has to be passed through the senate near the end of the month. If successful, Argentina will become the fourth Latin American country to legalise abortion after Cuba, Uruguay and Guyana. 

In contrast to the regressive and increasingly polarised way that abortion debate in many areas of the west is progressing, with a few states in the US coming close to outlawing abortion, what has the Argentinian movement managed to do differently?

Many people are crediting the success of the bill to the president, Alberto Fernandez, who has kept stringently to his commitment to increasing gender equality in Argentina. He has reserved around 15% of the 2021 budget for policies to further gender equality, equal rights and representation for members of the LGBTQ+ community. His support for the bill was crucial when compared to the actions of his centre-right predecessor, Mauricio Macri, who opposed the bill when it was first proposed in 2018 and subsequently voted down. 

This latest top-down push to pass the bill has undoubtedly had a massive impact in the way it was received and its success. However, it was only the final step and should not be seen to negate the importance of grassroots movements that have been crucial in changing public opinion in the majority Roman Catholic country. 

Since the summer of 2018, the green handkerchief has been used to symbolise feminism and support for reproductive rights across Latin America. The handkerchief itself is a remembrance of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. While under dictatorship, they used white handkerchiefs to protest against killings of their loved ones. The colour green, used to represent health, alludes to the aim of advancing reproductive rights. The ‘Green Wave’ that swept the region two years ago was acknowledged by Fernandez when he made a speech in favour of the bill while wearing a green tie. 

After Ireland’s 2018 legalisation of abortion, it may seem like it was only a matter of time before other majority Catholic countries also took the same step.

The Ni Una Menos movement (not one less) was founded in 2015 in response to the murder of 14-year-old Ciara Paez. The movement initially focussed on ending violence against women, and spread to inspire protests around Latin America in Chile, Uruguay and Peru. Two years later, new protests sparked by the murder of 16-year-old Lucia Perez became even more international, reaching as far as Spain. Recently the movement has expanded its aims to include economic gender equality and reproductive rights, culminating in the 2018 vote and the predicted success of the latest abortion bill.  

After Ireland’s 2018 legalisation of abortion, it may seem like it was only a matter of time before other majority Catholic countries also took the same step, despite beliefs that large proportions of the population hold surrounding life at conception and the sanctity of the soul. However, for Pope Francis’ home country, the passing of the bill is not uncontroversial. The pope himself has advocated for forgiveness and absolving women who have chosen to not proceed with a pregnancy. Despite this, he has been adamant in his opposition to the bill, describing the procedure as “hir[ing] a hitman” in a letter in support for pro-life Argentinan women. In recent years he has also compared abortion to the Nazi eugenics programmes to paint it as inherently barbaric. Overcoming this kind of condemnation is a feat that should not be understated. 

The movement used social media to gain support, by raising awareness of Ciara Paez’s death and individual stories in a country where 12 women are killed every day and around 40 die each year from complications arising from abortions. They also relied on smaller meeting points in person, fostering a sense of community and belonging in a way that the internet can only ever be supplementary to. They used an emotional connection to the tragic deaths of these young girls and also interconnected communities to make this political movement deeply personal. 

Progress made by women and feminists in Argentina has made waves around the world and encouraged progress everywhere. This has been a substantial positive step in a year that has been full of trauma and pessimism.

Image credit: Rocío Truchet via wikimedia commons


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