Argentina: fighting the Catholic ban on abortion

Submitted by Anon on 11 March, 2006 - 1:57

Andrea D’Atri, a professor at the Argentinian national university of La Plata, is active within the Argentinian women’s group Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses). She spoke to AWL about her campaign.

What is the current situation for women in Argentina?

Until recently feminism in Argentina was relatively weak and very middle-class. After the economic crisis of 2001 and the social movements that emerged in response, feminist groups have politicised and radicalised. In particular, women have begun to mobilise around the issue of abortion rights.

Abortion in Argentina is illegal under any circumstances, even when a woman’s health is at risk. Contraception is only available for those who can afford to pay for it. In Argentina, for every 700,000 births, there are 500,000 backstreet abortions per year. Every year 400 women die because they are denied access to safe, legal abortion. Despite claiming to be progressive, Kirchner’s new government is not interested in improving women’s rights. The health minister likes to talk a lot about decriminalising abortion, but he has not yet brought a single bill to parliament on the issue. Even worse, Kirchner has made a promise to the Vatican that he will not make abortion legal. The role of the Catholic Church is central to the denial of women’s reproductive rights. In Argentina there is no separation of church and state. The state continues to fund the Church and is highly susceptible to its influence.

However, the women’s movement is fighting back. In 2003, 15,000 women marched through the streets, calling for “Free abortion to avoid death, free contraception to avoid abortion”. Every year all the different women’s groups, trade unionists, and community activists come together at a three day national conference to discuss women’s rights and how we can win them. The Catholic Church has begun to feel threatened by us. It sends in its supporters to pose as “normal women” who claim that they do not want abortion rights and to stop us from even discussing the issues. It also tries to intimidate women from coming to the conference by sending large numbers of young men to march around the buildings where the conference is taking place.

But we have ways of standing up to them. Many Catholic women attend the conferences, and they are welcome, but we will not allow the Church establishment to prevent us from discussing our rights. When we want to rid our meetings of these people who have come to disrupt them, we shout “Filthy church, you are the military dictatorship” until they leave. The conferences always finish with a demonstration, and we make sure that we march around the cathedral in whichever city we are in, to make our voices heard. We are always met by at least three lines of young Catholic men (often mobilised by Opus Dei), who hold up rosaries and threaten us. We point out that the Catholic Church calls itself “pro-life” but that it kept very quiet when the disappearances were taking place under the military dictatorship [of 1976-83].

How is the women’s movement related to the wider struggles that have been taking place in Argentina since 2001?

Part of the reason the women’s movement was so weak in Argentina until the post-2001 struggles was because the workers’ movement in the 1970s and 80s was dominated by a trade union bureaucracy which dismissed women’s rights a deviation and subsequently failed to challenge sexism within the movement. As a result, feminism in Argentina became something for a minority of middle-class women, and tended to ignore the needs of women workers.

Paradoxically, the women’s movement has, in the short term, benefited from the fragmented nature of the mobilisations surrounding the 2001 crisis. These mobilisations involved thousands of unemployed people, as well as middle-class protesters and workers occupying their factories, but the trade union movement stood on the side lines, and even called off a general strike because they were worried things would “get out of control”. However, this has meant that there has been more space for workers and women’s activists to come together.

The women’s group I am active in, Pan y Rosas, was initiated by women in the Partido de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (Workers’ Party for Socialism, PTS) as a broad activist organisation for women and particularly women workers to fight for their rights. We have worked especially closely with the women at the Brukman factory. This was one of the first factories to be occupied by its workers, 80 per cent of which were women. Together we organised discussions, workshops and protests on women’s issues such as abortion rights and domestic violence. We argue that women and workers need to work together if they want to win liberation.

On the 2004 demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the coup, on 24 March, the Brukman workers sang “Women! Come with Brukman, without you we cannot win this struggle!”. When the Brukman women were evicted by their old employer, and were out of work for eight months, Pan y Rosas supported them by joining their protests and raising money. After eigh months they were victorious in re-occupying their factory.

Do you describe yourself as a socialist feminist? How do you conceive your politics?

I don’t define myself as a feminist because I am a socialist, which means believing in liberation from all kind of oppression: class, race and sex. I do not think that patriarchy is the fundamental oppression in society, I think that it emerges from a wider economic class-based system of oppression. You cannot end patriarchy until you end capitalism because capitalism sustains patriarchy. Capitalism causes 1,300 million people to live in poverty, 70% of which are women. People ask me, “how can you be so sure that a socialist society will guarantee women’s liberation?” I tell them, “what I do know for sure is that real liberation is impossible under capitalism.”

Marxism is not very fashionable amongst academics at the moment, particularly gender theorists. What do you think about post-modern critiques which reject the idea of class as a unifying factor?

Post-structuralists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have a theory of emancipation which talks about a pluralist and radical democracy, but what they do not ask themselves is what the material basis is which will allow this democracy to come about. Post-modernists have done capitalism a huge favour by never mentioning the fact that capitalist modes of production exist. When post-modernists talk about “exclusion”, they talk about gender, they talk about race and they talk about sexuality, but the one word they never mention is class. Class oppression is different from all these other forms of oppression because it is an inevitable antagonism. We might be able to win respect between men and women, we might be able to win respect between white people and black people, we might be able to win respect between straight people and gay people, but the capitalist will never come to “respect” the worker.

The discussion I had with [US academic] Judith Butler was a novelty, in that the Marxist left has very rarely engaged properly with post-modern theory. Marxists have dismissed postmodernism as wrong, but they have sought to ignore it rather than challenge it head on.

Are you hopeful about the prospects for the struggling women and workers in Argentina?

After two or three years of being active with Pan y Rosas, my view is that the women’s movement is moving backwards. As the economy has begun to recover, the middle class has begun to regain its confidence, and to look to the government as the best guarantee of their interests. Middle-class feminists have begun to abandon the streets, leaving working class women isolated. In my view, middle-class feminists are foolish to believe that Kirchner’s government will grant them their rights. In Argentina, the term used for someone who support’s a woman’s right to choose is “abortionista”. Kirchner’s wife, who is also a member of the senate and considered a progressive, was asked by a journalist if she was an “abortionista”. “Absolutely not,” she replied, “I am a Peronista!” [supporter of the tradition of Juan Peron, nationalist-populist dictator of Argentina, 1946-55 and 1973-4].

However, the experience of the joint action between the Brukman workers and Pan y Rosas has shown that socialism and feminism are not in opposition, but are necessary to each other. Many of the women from the Brukman factory had never been politically active before they took over the factory where they worked. This struggle against their bosses and for their rights as workers, led them to think about their position as women too. The leader of the Brukman workers was one of those for whom the occupation provided her first experience of political activism. She has now joined the PTS and in a recent film made about the occupation, she spoke of how it was no longer enough for her to remain in the home.

Therefore, like Louise Kneeland, I believe that “socialists who are not feminists are narrow-minded. But feminists who are not socialists have no strategy.”

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