On Violence against Women, Feminism, and Backlash in Latin America.

An essay.

In April 2018 a man threw petrol over a young woman in a middle class district of Lima, Peru, and set her alight. They were in a bus, so together with the victim, eleven others were rushed to the hospital. The event generated immediate outcry, with people protesting on the streets against the violence that is inflicted on Peru’s women, and discussions in social and traditional media. There were also voices who suggested this was unfortunate fire on the agenda of ‘radical feminists’. Of course, the incident of a woman set alight in a full bus in the centre of a middle class neighbourhood was exceptional, but so was the rape of the three year old the week before, and the killing of a woman in the Amazon a couple of days later. These are all extreme, but unfortunately, they happen so frequently that they are also part of the everyday. These are not incidents, but rather, form part of the tapestry of violent misogyny in contemporary Latin America.  But since a couple of years the feminist fight-back has gained momentum.

Before the outrage around Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, and the following #MeToo movement, feminists throughout Latin America have been using social media to organising large-scale nation-wide protests against gender violence.  Between 2015 and 2016, protests were held in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Each protest was triggered by local events; in Argentina it was the murder of a young woman found in a garbage bag in March 2015; in Brazil, it was the gang rape of a 16 year old girl in May 2016, filmed and uploaded on you-tube; in Peru, it was the impunity in July 2016 surrounding a case of a man seen dragging his girlfriend through a hotel lobby, by her hair, recorded and uploaded for everyone to see. Each movement had its own trigger, but all used the same motto, or one very similar: ‘Ni Una Menos’ (Not One [woman] Less)[1], and all demanded the same: an end to violence against women.

These protests happen in a context of very high levels of intimate partner violence -for example, at least 75% of Peruvian women experience some form of partner violence during their lifetime. The killing of women, or femicide, ranges from an estimated ten women a month in Peru to seven a day in Mexico.[2] Political violence against women rises steadily as more women become active and visible political agents on their own terms. Local politicians and human rights defenders, recently in Brazil, are regularly targeted throughout the continent.  Sexual violence against minors is unaccounted for, and no solid numbers are available, but amalgamating existing data leads to a reliable estimate of at least 1 in 5 girls experiencing sexual violence before they turn 15[3]. With these numbers, it is credible to assume that a majority of teenage pregnancies -such a controversial topic in Catholic Latin America- are the result of rape. This information, in turn, is raising the stakes for debates about the legalisation of abortion, at least in cases of rape. The individual stories behind these numbers are very upsetting.

One of the things that the Ni Una Menos campaigns have done is to make these numbers tangible, imaginable. While hidden in reports and statistics, the numbers happen to others, they can be dismissed beyond a small group of activists. But testimony is a powerful tool: In Peru, the Ni Una Menos campaign was started by three women on a Sunday morning in July 2016. They set up a Facebook page with the aim to create a platform for mobilization, to organise a march similar to those held in Brazil and Argentina. But within twenty-four hours, women of all ages and backgrounds had signed up, and started to tell their stories on the page. Women told about childhood abuse they had never spoken about before, about adolescent experiences with coerced sex, about physical and emotional abuse by partners and ex-partners, and about the impunity that followed and the lack of support from relatives. Suddenly, the numbers came to life.

This phenomenon is new: while similar to earlier feminist consciousness raising groups, the sharing of these traumatic experiences now had a potential audience of 50,000 instead of ten. It might also sound similar to the #MeToo campaign in scale, but the detail relayed in these testimonies in what was perceived to be a safe, supportive and closed online space goes much further than #MeToo. The sudden material reality of the multiple violences women of all social classes experienced and identified with, created an enormous energy among group members and drew in family and friends. In addition, membership was inclusive and diverse: while the initiative might have come from three well educated urban middle-class women, women from other backgrounds and geographies became very much part of the movement. All this energy was turned into a powerful political mobilisation, including alliances with the private sector and state institutions who sponsored and participated in nation-wide marches held on 13 August that year.

Unsurprisingly, after this success of Peruvian feminists to mobilise at least half a million people on the streets in Lima alone, including the then newly installed (and recently resigned due to corruption) President of the republic, the backlash was looking around the corner. Conservative forces in the Church, particularly the highest authority, Cardinal and Archbishop Luis Cipriani, hit back fiercely. In response to calls for legalisation of abortion in cases of child rape, Cipriani stated in late July 2016 that “[They tell us] there are many abortions among young girls, but nobody has abused these girls. Often it is women who put themselves on display, provoking men.’[4] The Archbishop suggests that girls, minors, provoke sexual harassment and thereby denies them even a public debate about abortion, or indeed, sexual violence. After the August protests, Cipriani also supported the mobilisation of counter-movements directed at compulsory sex education in schools, based on the idea that ‘gender ideology’ is harming biologically given roles, and turning children into homosexuals.

This is not unique to Peru: in November 2017, Brazilian evangelical activists staged massive and loud protests against feminist critical theorist Judith Butler attending a conference on democracy in Sao Paulo. An online petition against her promoting ‘gender ideology’ in Brazil apparently gathered some 370.000 signatures, which was widely distributed via social media. Protesters came for a shout-out to the airport where Butler arrived, and they protested in front of the conference venue where she was due to speak. These protests suggest great fear for the undermining of heteronormative family values, for the increasingly changing nature of gender relations in which heteronormativity is questioned, and where women’s autonomy is becoming visible, increasingly acceptable, and even legislated for.

In Latin America, women even become president these days: Michelle Bachelet (Chile, 2006-2010, 2014-2018), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina 2007-2015), and Dilma Youssef (Brazil 2011-2016) have been central to Latin American politics the last fifteen years. More and more women are highly educated participants in politics as well as in the labour market. While black and indigenous groups do significantly worse than their white and mestiza counterparts in terms of education and political participation, and are among the poorest throughout the continent, increasingly they too break with that trend. Poor women are central to World Bank supported innovation in social protection for the poorest, with cash transfers largely directed at poor mothers. Latin America has a long tradition of mobilising women from a maternalist perspective in the social, economic, and indeed political spheres. This suggests that women’s rights are not necessarily central to such a politics, but the greater good is, from a patriarchal perspective. Hence, these advances in women’s emancipation are not without controversy, contestation or ambiguity.

In part, the massive nature of the mobilisations against gender violence in 2016 was possible because it is difficult to openly approve of gender violence, even for the conservative sectors in the Church. Hence, Ni Una Menos received support from all social sectors, poor and rich, from all colours, and indeed, religions. But this could only be done by focusing on violence as the central problem, and not on feminism as a political identity. Ni Una Menos, at least in Peru, did not seek a unified position on issues such as abortion or LGTBQI rights. And these are exactly the themes picked up by conservative sectors to oppose any reform in gender relations, socially, culturally, or legally.

But one cannot oppose violence against women effectively without also supporting women’s rights more broadly -it is the lack of rights and autonomy that makes the violence possible and pervasive. That must include reproductive rights (the right over one’s own body) and sexual rights (the right over one’s own sexuality) for both men and women. But for conservative religious sectors, abortion is an evil tied to the transgression of women and girls’ sexuality. Likewise, sex and gender education that might help foment mutual respect, less sexual violence, and hence, less forced pregnancies, is often seen as sinful. In supporting such perspectives of gendered social change, conservative sectors ultimately help justify continued violence against women and girls.

The backlash against women’s rights in the wake of increasing feminist protest is not only discursive: in March this year, Marielle Franco, Afro-Brazilian city councillor, lesbian feminist activist, and human rights defender for Rio’s marginalised communities, was murdered alongside her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Days previous, she had called out against the formal militarisation of Rio’s favelas. On 14 March, 2018, she was shot four times in the head while driving home after a meeting with women’s organisations. Her case -and that of environmental activist Bertha Caceres in Honduras in 2016, the recent murders of human rights defenders in the Peruvian Amazon, and the multiple human rights defenders in particularly Mexico to this date- suggests that women’s participation in public life other than on maternalist grounds, challenges the status quo in multiple ways.

Male local politicians and human rights defenders are also targeted, again, Mexico stands out as criminal and state violence reached unbearable levels years ago. But the killing of women has to be seen in a context of high levels of gender-based violence, including femicide, and many of the women killed for their politics carried a feminist politics, denouncing the violence of individual men as well as the state and its institutions. In addition, the nature of the threat of violence is gendered due to high levels of everyday sexism and the aggressive trolling that women human rights defenders generally endure, as female public figures do here in the UK as well. And of course, in many cases, impunity is framed in a narrative of blaming the victim: she must have done something transgressive to have provoked the violence.

Indeed, the brutal murder of Mexican poet and activist Susana Chávez Castillo on the streets of Juarez in 2011 was dismissed as a quarrel between her and some street ‘scum’, suggesting that her being on the streets at night was the problem. Her social life, as a woman, was the problem, not those who killed her for her activism. The phrase Ni Una Menos, now used as motto throughout Latin America, originates in one of Susana Chávez’ poems called Ni una mujer menos, ni una muerte más (“not one woman less, not one more death”), which she published in the mid 1990s in protest to the unprecedented spate of unsolved murders -or femicides- of women in Juarez, Mexico.

Resistance to these multiple violences and threats of violence is not ceasing, on the contrary. Social media and its possibilities as a tool for mass feminist consciousness raising, for debate and mobilisation, and indeed, in the absence of criminal accountability and justice, for denouncing violent incidents and their perpetrators, is providing women a powerful tool to keep the pressure on. Activism and sharing on social media draws in allies who might not immediately identify with feminist activism -especially men and family members- and thereby expand the debate and the support base. Social media also allows for ferocious public debates between those who feel the need to protect male privilege and those who have the energy to contest.

In these debates, male fear for mob justice is real, as many men do not see or understand how their own harmful behaviour -normalised harassment- fits the stories of physical violence, child abuse and femicide. Men are keen to defend themselves before being nailed by finding allies in French feminists led by Catherine Deneuve, or by claiming that ‘feminazis’ must be accusing men falsely. All knowledge about gender violence shows that it is much more likely that a woman gets harassed than that a man gets accused of harassing, let alone falsely, so these fears might be real but they are unfounded.

Recently, Nobel for Literature and Peru’s national literary icon Mario Vargas LLosa took his pen to write in the Spanish newspaper El Paìs that ‘feminism is literature’s worse enemy’[5], as feminists critics are unpacking and debating the many machismos in the literary canon of the twentieth century that is dominated by men. This is perhaps not strange to hear from a writer whose work is steeped in multiple machismos unmitigated by reflection or condemnation. Vargas Llosa, with his comments, not only defends his own work and literature as defined by male writers, but forcefully rejects the power of critique and social change. Vargas Llosa’s, and that of other twentieth century’s greats of Latin American literature -particularly Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez- are now rightfully being read in their appropriate context of a violent and misogynist century. Their novels are being debated in universities alongside female writers who give their perspective upon their twentieth century. I hope that the recently discovered and published epistolary novel by Colombian artist Emma Reyes will become part of this new canon.

Emma Reyes (1919-2003) was a quintessential twentieth-century Latin American nomad. She travelled through Colombia before moving to Paris, where she worked with the great and good in the mid-century Latin American intellectual diaspora before she died as a largely unknown artist in Bordeaux. Her only literary work was published for the first time in 2012, by a small and dedicated Colombian publisher, Laguna. The memoir consists of 23 letters written to a friend in Colombia, who collected them, and recognised their quality. In the 1970s, this friend, Germán Arciniegas, a Colombian historian and journalist, showed the letters to Gabriel García Márquez, with the intention to spread the word and get Reyes’s work edited and published. Emma Reyes saw this as a betrayal, as she had not given permission for the personal letters to be shared. She did not write for twenty years, after which she resumed her writing to pen a final letter in 1997.

The letters of Emma Reyes tell a personal story of growing up in extreme poverty, collecting garbage, being locked in dirty rooms and abandoned houses cared for by a mother who was not loved or even recognised as mother. The narrative takes Emma and her sister -one brother is returned to an absent father, and a new baby brother is soon abandoned- from Bogotá to the Colombian provinces and back. The mother, or rather ‘Maria’ as she is referred to, survives on the good will of men who make her pregnant before abandoning her, and her resolve is to abandon her children instead. It is suggested that these are men of standing -they have money and families, houses and political fiefdoms; they are the local bosses of the time. Emma and her younger sister must be about six or seven when Maria leaves them behind at a railway station and end up in a convent. Convent life is cruel to both girls and nuns, a rigid and joyless life of nothingness behind heavily barred doors.

Emma Reyes’ story is the other side of the experience of growing up in twentieth-century Latin America, a contrast to Vargas Llosa’s machismo, or García Marquez’ magical realism. She has given us a different perspective upon this world in which autocrats often ruled houses, communities and countries, in which a conservative Catholicism set the law and turned women into eternal sinners, to be abused, abandoned and disciplined at will, where poverty could be absolute, and race an organising principle. Publication of the Book of Emma Reyes in English in 2017, after the Spanish version in 2012, could not have been more timely considering the feminist revival we find ourselves in; it provides a healthy reminder that twentieth century literature was dominated by men not because women did not write, or did not write well, but because they were not encouraged and published to the same degree as men. The violent misogyny of the twentieth century is still here with us in the twenty-first, but now there is collective resistance. Latin American feminist contestation in literature and the arts, in politics, on social media and on the streets, might be contested by Nobel Prize winners, archbishops and thugs, but it is here to stay.


[1] In Colombia women used ‘No es tiempo de callar’

[2] UN-Women, 2017. La violencia feminicida en México, aproximaciones y tendencias 1985-2016 http://mexico.unwomen.org/es/digiteca/publicaciones/2017/12/violencia-feminicida

[3] European Parliament, 2017. Sexual Violence against Minors in Latin America. Directorate General for External Policies, European Parliament. European Parliament.http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578023/EXPO_STU(2016)578023_EN.pdf

[4] Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, Archbishop of Lima, Peru, on national radio in response to campaigns against sexual violence and in favour of the legalisation of abortion in case of rape, 30 July 2016, RPP Radio.

[5] https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/03/16/opinion/1521215265_029385.html



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