The feminist struggles in Latin America don't stop during the COVID-19 pandemic

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During an academic retreat in late August, we reflected on feminist struggles in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic. We recalled that the last time we had seen each other in person was during the International Women’s Day march in Amsterdam, as part of ‘Feministas en Holanda’, a collective of self-identified feminists from Latin America living in the Netherlands.

The beginning of ‘Feministas en Holanda’ goes back to the summer of 2018, when we joined a group of other Latin American women to protest outside of the Argentinian Embassy in The Hague to demonstrate in favour of the decriminalization of abortion. Even though the bill that could have decriminalized abortion in Argentina didn’t get passed, the protest was a moment for feminist women from Latin American living in the Netherlands to gather and see and recognize each other face to face. It was there where we realized that there were many of us and that we weren’t alone in our struggles; on the contrary, we embraced each other and from that day on the movement continued to bloom, both online and on the streets.

There would later be periodic meetings and events where we would discuss and reflect on issues that affect women in Latin America as well as those problems that affect Latin American migrant women in the Netherlands, and how we could take action. ‘Feministas en Holanda’ became a space of encounters, where we could organize our rage but also defend our joy. Where we could denounce the multiple struggles that affect Latin American women as a result of the ‘colonial/modern gender system’ (Lugones, 2007) and take to the streets to chant and dance along to the batucada.

The multiplicity of struggles of Latin American women has also brought boundless ways of fighting back and resisting.

Some of the most pressing issues that women face in Latin America include feminicides and disappearances, gender and sexual violence, racial discrimination, the lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights, violence targeted against environmental defenders and activists, poverty, and the precarization of work and employment for women. The multiplicity of struggles of Latin American women has also brought boundless ways of fighting back and resisting. Examples include the feminist performance ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (A rapist on your path) in Chile, denouncing violence against women and state violence, the #EleNão movement (Not him) in Brazil against Jair Bolsonaro’s sexism and fascism; the #NiUnaMenos (Not one woman less) movement that started in Argentina against gender-based violence and feminicides and quickly spread to other Latin-American countries; or Mexico's #MiPrimerAcoso campaign denouncing sexual harassment and violence even before #MeToo.

 

We are witnesses and participants of a plural, broad feminist movement, composed of diverse groups: indigenous women, black women, disabled women, trans women and women from different social classes, generations and sexual orientations, among many others who join forces to fight against patriarchy and sexist violence, against racism and coloniality, against the way of life imposed by neoliberal capitalism, against extractivism and religious fundamentalisms. Young women, with new and creative forms of expression and resistance, join these long-standing struggles.

Importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped the feminist struggles in Latin America. While the pandemic has clearly shown us the interconnections between different systems of oppression and its effects on marginalized communities, women and racial and ethnic minorities, it has also magnified and deepened several social inequalities, including gender inequality.

The massive scope of the virus highlights the unequal access to basic services like safe water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as public services such as health and education, access to affordable housing, food and decent work. Quarantine became a privilege accessible only to those who have a house, who could lock themselves up and work remotely. Moreover, in many cases, seeking refuge from the danger of the virus meant being locked up in a situation no less dangerous for some women: a situation of domestic violence and abuse.

International Women's Day march in Amsterdam on 8 March 2020. ©Feministas en Holanda

Restrictive measures taken around the world to fight COVID-19 intensified the risk of domestic violence and increased women’s workload at home. During the pandemic, gender-based violence did not decline, quite the reverse: recent data shows that during the COVID-19 pandemic, violence against girls and women, particularly domestic violence, has intensified. According to reports, domestic violence and feminicides have escalated during quarantine around the world (UN Women, 2020). In Latin America, cases of domestic violence have doubled, in some cases tripled (Bartels-Bland, 2020). The place of greater risk for victims of gender violence is their own home, and the most likely perpetrator is their partner. Protection of life during the COVID-19 pandemic requires that we stay inside our homes. However, this puts many women in greater risk by living 24/7 with their abuser. Unfortunately, due to social distancing and protective sanitary measures, women’s shelters soon reached full capacity, thus preventing women from seeking refuge.

Moreover, household and care work - activities that primarily fall on women’s shoulders - have also increased since the outbreak of the pandemic. Women now have to ensure total hygiene, continuously clean the house, look after their children and elderly relatives, and assist children in virtual schooling, overburdening them even more. The most is being asked of those who have been guaranteed the least (Maffia, 2020). The quarantine made visible what had already been problematized by feminists before: essential work is not only carried out within the framework of wage contracts, it also includes work outside of that order such as care work, community work, parenting and looking out for vulnerable people. In many cases these are low-paid or unpaid jobs (such as those carried out by women in their own homes) since they are not even recognized as such. The pandemic has brought the domestic sphere to centre stage. Many of the issues that feminist movements had already been denouncing, and that were not visible precisely because they were in the realm of the intimate, today emerge strongly. We see that all of this work is essential for society to continue and, above all, for life to be preserved. 

‘Feministas en Holanda’ became a space of encounters, where we could organize our rage but also defend our joy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also disrupted the already limited access to sexual and reproductive health services that women have in Latin America. A UN policy brief reported that an additional 18 million women in the region would cease to have access to contraceptives because of the pandemic (UN, 2020). The ongoing lockdowns, lack of access to birth control and family planning, in addition to an increase in gender-based and sexual violence, could lead to an estimated 600,000 unintended pregnancies in the region (Murray and Moloney, 2020). 

Despite having some of the most strict lockdown measures in the world, feminist groups in Latin America put their bodies on the line and went out on the streets to demand justice for social problems that existed even before the pandemic and those that have intensified because of it.

  • In Mexico for example, women and family members of victims of gender and sexual violence and disappeared women, together with the support of feminist collectives, have occupied the headquarters of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) since early September as a response to the inability of the government to provide access to justice and the impunity of such crimes.
  • In Quito, Ecuador, as in other cities in the region, hundreds of women went out on the streets on 28 September, International Safe Abortion Day, to demand access to legal and safe abortion.
  • In Colombia, feminist collectives started the campaign ‘¡Estamos Putas! ¡Juntas somos más poderosas!’ to support cis and trans women sex workers who have been affected by the coronavirus-related ban on sex work during the lockdown.

These are just some examples of how the feminist movements in Latin America continue to transform society and to enact social change and social justice, even throughout a pandemic. As two migrant women, feminists from Latin America living in Europe and working in academia, we acknowledge our privileges and choose to use our voices to amplify those of our compañeras back home and make visible their struggles and contributions.

The enormous efforts by women who, collectively, support victims of gender violence, accompany women to abortions, report police brutality, look for disappeared people and fight extractive industries, were being made before the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to be made. We hope that now women’s fundamental contributions become even more visible and valued by the whole of our society.

Bibliography

Bartels-Bland, E. (2020) ‘COVID-19 Could Worsen Gender Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean’, The World Bank, in https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2020/05/15/covid-19-could-wors..., M. (2007) ‘Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System’. Hypatia 22(1), 186-209.Maffia, D. (2020) ‘Violencia de Género: ¿La otra pandemia?’ in El futuro después del COVID-19. Argentina Unida. In https://www.argentina.gob.ar/sites/default/files/el_futuro_despues_del_c... C. and Moloney, A. (2020). ‘Pandemic brings growing risk of pregnancy, abuse to Latin American girls’, in https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-latamgirls-trfn-id... (2020), ‘Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’, in https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_o... Women (2020) ‘COVID-19 and ending violence against women and girls.’ In https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/issue-br....

Agustina Solera is a researcher in Latin American Social Studies and a visiting researcher at ISS.

Brenda Rodríguez Cortés is a PhD candidate at ISS working on issues of gender and sexuality.

 

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