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Argentines Take Feminist Strike to the Streets on International Women’s Day

Activists demand an end to austerity measures, growing poverty and worsening food insecurity under President Milei.

A woman covered with an Argentine flag takes part in a demonstration outside the Argentine Congress during a national strike against the government of Javier Milei in Buenos Aires, on January 24, 2024.

Argentinian women from all walks of life will take to the streets nationwide on 8 March, International Women’s Day, as part of a feminist strike calling for an end to the country’s growing poverty, which already affects 57% of the population of 46 million.

The protesters’ “most important demand” is a solution to Argentina’s “food emergency”, said María Claudia Albornoz, an activist from La Poderosa, a group that defends the rights of the five million people living in the country’s 6,500 slums, or villas miseria (misery villages).

Three months after right-wing libertarian president Javier Milei took office, Argentina’s ever-increasing food inflation has reached 56%, according to the latest analysis from La Poderosa. Government data shows the country’s annual inflation rate is 254%.

Real-terms wages and pensions are deteriorating, and people go to supermarkets not knowing whether the money in their pockets will be enough to buy foods they could afford just a few days ago.

Shoppers have one certainty, though: what were once basic goods such as shampoo are now luxury items. The small local grocery stores that allow their customers to pay on an informal trust-based credit system now keep track of only the items and quantities purchased, no longer bothering to note down the prices that are constantly rising.

The spiralling cost of living has been worsened still by Milei’s cuts to ‘ollas populares’, community kitchens run by social, civil and religious organisations, which are a last resort for the most impoverished families.

There are around 44,000 of these kitchens across Argentina, which were able to produce around 10 million meals a day last year.

Since then, Milei’s administration has stopped the government packages of non-perishable food staples, such as pasta, rice and yerba mate (a traditional herbal drink) being sent to these kitchens, arguing that it must conduct an audit on how they use these resources.

The cuts have led to “a very desperate situation”, said Albornoz, whose group La Poderosa runs 158 kitchens nationwide.

“Without these basic food staples, we cannot cook,” she said. “This causes us enormous distress, sadness and pain, because we can’t feed our families, a role that is very much attached to women and gender non-conforming people.”

Protesters have taken to the streets nationwide to demand the cuts are reversed, but the government has doubled down.

Ministers claim the kitchens’ volunteers — many of whom are part of larger groups of organised unemployed, informal workers and leftist activists known as ‘picketers’ — are committing “extortion” by using food to lure people to their protests. They say they made the cuts to end this practice, advising people to enrol in the government’s food support program rather than relying on the community kitchens.

The minister of human capital, Sandra Pettovello, even mocked protesters as they gathered outside the ministry, saying: “Boys, are you hungry? Come one by one and I’ll write down your ID number, your name, where you’re from and you’ll receive help individually.”

But four days later, as more than 10,000 people lined up to meet her, Pettovello signed a $210,000 food assistance agreement with the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of Argentina. “No longer will the picketing organisations be in charge of distributing food and social plans paid for by the national state with the money contributed by working Argentines,” she said.

Shifting Priorities

It is primarily the austerity measures, growing poverty and worsening food insecurity that the 8M feminist strike will denounce this week.

For the first time since feminists began holding open decision-making assemblies in 2015, participants have agreed to make tackling hunger the demonstration’s priority.

Organisers have drafted a manifesto to read out during the demonstration, which includes statements aiming to challenge ‘libertarian’ ideas advocated by Milei, such as: “With hunger and without rights, there is no freedom” and “Enough of austerity and repression”.

Assemblies allow any civil society group or individual to present their concerns to be discussed. They have achieved something that no other social movement in Argentina has managed to: working together to tackle issues of reproduction of domestic and community life, as well as formal and informal work.

But in previous years, the assemblies’ middle-class feminists, who are more likely to be educated, have sought to give priority to protests on issues such as access to abortion, femicides and gender-based violence.

Now, as the country’s economic situation has worsened, their goals have shifted. They are now in agreement with working-class feminists, who have long argued that food security must be their top concern.

“What seems to me to have changed this year is that we are a priority,” Albornoz said. “Feminists were able to begin to reach a consensus on issues that we, the slum dwellers — the people who cannot cover the basic food basket — consider a priority.”

The food basket Albornoz referred to are the essential food items required to sustain an adult for a month. These cost $110 when converted from pesos at the official exchange rate, more than half the average monthly earnings of a person living in an urban area ($218).

The assemblies allow villeras (women who live in slums), feminist academics, trade unionists and LGBTIQ people to share their lived experiences and political thinking, which has enabled the feminists to agree on strategies of resistance.

This is more important than ever, as the misogynist discourse Milei regularly touted during his election campaign has in recent months materialised as an avalanche of regressive measures stripping away the rights of women and LGBTIQ people.

The president has scrapped the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, replacing the entire department with an undersecretariat for protection against gender violence in the newly created Ministry of Human Capital.

His government has also ended two support programmes for victims of gender violence — one that sought to strengthen their economic independence, and another that provided psycho-social and legal help — and fired many of the public employees who worked on the hotline for counselling and assisting victims.

It also closed the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism, and banned the use of language that is inclusive and gender-neutral in public offices or documents. Defending the move, presidential spokesman Manuel Adorni said inclusive language was being weaponised as “a political business”.

The government has further plans to weaken or dismantle legislation that feminists fought for, such as the 2019 Micaela Law, which introduced mandatory training in gender and gender violence for all public servants and the Law on the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy, which legalised abortion in 2020.

Ministers claim these closures and austerity cuts are needed to fix the ailing economy, but the main attacks on women and LGBTIQ people have come from the president himself.

In his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in mid-January, Milei spoke of “the cruelty of the bloody agenda of abortion”, said gender inequality no longer exists and branded feminism “a ridiculous and unnatural fight between men and women”.

Feminists fear the president’s misogyny, combined with his cuts, mean Argentina is “heading towards a scenario of worsening violence in general and gender violence”, according to Raquel Vivanco, who founded the Observatorio Ahora Que Sí Nos Ven (the Now That They See Us Observatory), which tracks femicides in the country.

“These structural conditions of extreme poverty and unemployment, as they increase inequalities, create more violence that can in turn increase numbers of femicide statistics,” said Vivanco.

There were 42 femicides in Argentina in January and February of this year. The observatory recorded the highest-ever number of femicides (297) in 2019, which was rightist president Mauricio Macri’s last year in office and was characterised by austerity policies that were harsh but not as extreme as those being introduced by Milei.

“Left With Absolutely No Rights

Though widespread hunger and attacks on women’s rights are the protesters’ main priorities, they also want Milei to address his measures of ‘economic terror’ and his denials that gender inequalities exist in Argentina.

Lucía Cavallero, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires and a member of Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), a group that fights gender violence, told openDemocracy about the dire economic situation in Argentina.

“There is an unprecedented devaluation of the peso, a deliberate freezing of wages and social subsidies, so inflation is brutal, and a perverse discourse of warning that it could be worse,” she said. “Added to all this is the deregulation of the economy in almost all areas.”

The government’s own data shows that one million people fell into poverty every month for the past three months. Albornoz believes these figures are an underestimate, though, telling openDemocracy that La Poderosa’s analysis indicates an increase of six million impoverished people in the past two months.

Argentina’s school year recently started, forcing many families to try to find creative solutions to not being able to afford school supplies, which cost an average of $150, or uniforms.

The best case scenario saw children reuse items from previous years or pick up supplies from the donation drives that took place across the country. At worst, though, “mothers said they would have to choose which children to send to school because they don’t have the school supplies or the smocks to send them all,” said Cavallero.

The effects of this economic and political turmoil are also being seen in housing, particularly since the government repealed the law regulating the rental market on 29 December.

“It left us tenants with absolutely no rights,” said Tamara Lescano, an activist from the social movement Inquilinas Agrupadas (Tenants United). “The lack of a legal framework enables real estate abuse”.

Rental contracts now have no minimum period and are able to be terminated at landlords’ discretion, without a need to consult the tenants or give a reason for the eviction — which was previously illegal. Landlords can also include unreasonable clauses in the tenancy agreements.

Lescano said the private rental sector in Argentina, which already encompasses some 10 million people, is growing — yet fewer and fewer landlords own more properties than ever.

Inquilinas Agrupadas receives an average of between 40 and 50 requests for advice every day, mainly from women with dependent children, pressured by their mostly male landlords.

“They Are Coming For Us”

The 8M strike faces a fresh challenge this year. Four days after Milei took office, his government outlawed any public protest involving the blocking of roads with a new ‘anti-picketing’ protocol that contains specific clauses allowing the police to criminalise, persecute and stigmatise protesters.

“They identify you in the marches, they take pictures of you, they film you. When we mobilise, the police, who are very violent, quickly repress us,” said Albornoz.

“This has already happened at various times,” she added, referring to hundreds of protests against Milei’s austerity measures that have been organised by different social organisations across the country in recent months.

The protocol also allows the government to issue protest organisers with hefty fines, deprive demonstrators of social aid, and punish parents or guardians who take minors to the marches.

These measures are attempts to intimidate the poorest, many of whom are women, said Gabriela De la Rosa, a member of the Polo Obrero, a social organisation affiliated to Argentina’s Trotskyist Workers’ Party, which runs 3,000 community kitchens nationwide.

“The movement of the unemployed is made up mostly of women comrades, who mobilise with their entire families because they have no one to leave their children with in order to demand food for their children,” De la Rosa told openDemocracy. “On the picket lines, in the encampments, in the mobilisations, the families often have a pot to eat, and at home, they don’t.”

As well as the risk of harsh policing, Argentinian feminists worry their protest could turn violent — fearing Milei’s repeated attacks, coupled with food insecurity and the general uncertainty caused by inflation and low wages, have set the stage for social unrest.

“There is fear of what might happen in the 8 March demonstration,” Albornoz acknowledged. “We have been holding assemblies to dispel this fear and to make the women understand that if we don’t take to the streets and defend our rights, we are going to lose much more than we have already lost.”

The feminists “will take all possible precautions” to avoid violence in the 8 March demonstration, said economist Candelaria Botto, the director of Economía Feminista, which seeks to expose gender inequalities in the world of work and business.

“But we know that we have to be there, on the streets, because they are coming for us.”

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