Six years ago, the brutal murder of 14-year-old Argentinian Chiara Páez sparked a movement.
Páez, who was pregnant at the time, allegedly wanted to keep the baby. But her then-16-year-old boyfriend didn’t. And so, he beat her to death.
Her death, along with other similar high-profile murders of young women in Argentina at the time, was a breaking point for women there.
Latin America is home to 14 of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, according to the United Nations. In Argentina, according to the Women’s Office of the Supreme Court of Justice, one woman is killed every 32 hours.
In the weeks following Páez’s murder, tens of thousands of women in Argentina took to the streets in protest. Holding signs reading Ni Una Menos, or Not One Less, women young and old came together to demand systematic change.
Ni Una Menos started out as a slogan, merged into a viral hashtag used online, and eventually a regionwide movement. The message spread and has continued to expand in the years since. Other women-led demonstrations also erupted in Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and El Salvador — areas that also suffer high rates of femicide.
Years later, “this massive mobilization was also able to draw attention to another longstanding fight which was reproductive health and rights,” Ximena Casas tells NPR. She is an Americas Researcher for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch in Madrid.
Activists in Latin America that emerged from this Ni Una Menos groundswell have successfully pushed for access to abortion in a traditionally conservative region, while continuing the work of the movement’s original mission.
“In the past, regions such as North America and Europe have been at the forefront of movements to expand sexual and reproductive rights,” Mariela Belski, the executive director for Amnesty International Argentina told NPR. “However, it is currently the trans feminist movements in Latin America that are advancing discussions that place reproductive autonomy and gender justice at center stage.”
Activists gain success in Argentina on abortion rights
In 2018, the #NiUnaMenos movement transitioned into the Green Wave demonstrations, which call for legal and safe access to abortions in Latin America.
That year protestors again took to the streets in Argentina decked out in green clothes and waving green flags and handkerchiefs. This time the overarching message to their government was: legalize abortion.
And last December, marking a historic shift, the heavily Roman Catholic country made the elective procedure legal.
The Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Bill permits an abortion to take place throughout the initial 14 weeks of pregnancy. An abortion is only legal in Argentina if the mother’s life is jeopardized or if the pregnancy is a result of rape. Women who fall outside these provisions and get an abortion can still face criminal charges.
More work remains, according to María Florencia Alcaraz, an Argentine journalist and one of the founding members of Ni Una Menos, who spoke with Women Across Frontiers.
“The abortion law is a starting point, not an ending point,” she said. “Now comes a moment of feminist pedagogy about this right to be able to speak about and explain to as many people as possible that this is a right that we have and that we are citizens who can make our own decisions about our bodies.”
Other countries follow Argentina
Women going out into the streets to share their experiences, helped break down the stigma tied to abortion and reproductive health, said Casas, with Human Rights Watch in Madrid.
“Women started talking about their experiences or experiences of a friend. Families started talking about it at the dinner table. Everybody started realizing that they knew someone who had an abortion or they themselves had an abortion,” Casas said. “This opened the door to start talking about these issues, that are a health issue, that for many many years was seen as a taboo.”
She said the major legal victory for abortion rights in Argentina has since launched a domino effect in the region.
Since, activists in Mexico have also held rallies and marched in the streets wearing the symbolic green bandanas.
And in September, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime. The landmark ruling clears the way for the legalization of abortion across the country.
This year, the Mexican state of Veracruz approved the decriminalization of abortion up to 12 weeks of gestation. The Mexican state of Hidalgo also joined Veracruz this year in recognizing this right.
Chile is also moving toward decriminalizing abortion for the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. In September, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies approved a bill that could be passed by the Senate.
The progress in the region is starkly at odds with efforts in the U.S., Belski, with Amnesty International Argentina, noted.
This year, Texas passed a law that bans abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Meanwhile, the U.S Supreme Court is about to hear a case from Mississippi that could challenge the right to an abortion in that state.
The pandemic made violence against women worse
In February, 19-year-old Úrsula Bahillo filed the latest of more than a dozen complaints to authorities about her ex-boyfriend’s abuse and threats.
Two days later, she was murdered.
Bahillo was brutally stabbed to death and her body left in a rural area near Rojas, Argentina.
Her death, like that of Chiara Páez’s six years earlier, again sparked demonstrations across the country.
It’s a case that highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic has made violence against women in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and other countries worse, according to Beatriz Nice, a program assistant for the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.
Nice, who spoke to NPR, co-wrote an essay examining how the pandemic has worsened gender-based violence in the region.
In Bahillo’s home country of Argentina, in the first week of the pandemic, there was a 120% spike in calls reporting domestic violence cases, Nice said.
“And those are the ones that are reported,” she said. “Many go unreported because of the specific situation of the pandemic where you were in your home with your abuser and you wouldn’t necessarily be able to report everything.”
But this time feels a bit different, some activists and human rights watchers say.
The way in which these cases are being talked about is shifting and policymakers have started to view these incidences as what they are: a serious, violent problem that requires public policy fixes, Nice said.
Following Bahillo’s death, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández said, “We must end these events definitively in Argentina. We must be inflexible with the perpetrators of these cases.”
Nice said the work that remains and the barriers that still exist for women is a reminder that the Ni Una Menos and its sister Green Wave movement is a “success story in progress.”
“Women see that it is working,” she said. “That the protesting, reaching out to their authorities and now having a sense of belonging — not so much as a Mexican, an Argentine, or a Chilean, but as Latin American women — I think that has given women a lot of power.”