Feminists and Trans Activists Rise Against State Violence in Argentina

In Argentina, a long-awaited congressional bill to legalize abortion was defeated on August 8, 2018. But according to many of the estimated 2 million feminist activists gathered on the day of the vote, the loss was only provisional. Decriminalization remains a possibility. As organizer and scholar Cecilia Palmeiro commented, “We already won in the streets, in public opinion.”

The feminist collective Ni Una Menos (“Not One Less”) was key in mobilizing the demonstration. Access to abortion is not the collective’s sole objective; the group originally formed in response to a series of femicides, and it continues to work to end gendered violence. Ni Una Menos also protests economic exploitation and neoliberal economic restructuring, and supports Indigenous land struggles and the extension of reparations for victims of state violence to trans people and “travestis” (a term generally used in Argentina by working-class, trans-feminine people — often migrants from majority Indigenous and Mestizo non-urban provinces who organize with trans people but do not describe themselves as “trans”).

On March 8, 2018, these wide-ranging positions were articulated as part of an International Women’s Day strike. Demands issued for Ni Una Menos’s annual march in June of 2018 were similarly broad, opening with the anti-colonialist gesture: “Our bodies, our Earth and our people are not territories of conquest.”

In this manner, the “feminist tide” sweeping Argentina and Latin America takes issue with gendered and sexual violence in their structural and interpersonal expressions. Linking neoliberal reforms with rape and political marginalization with murder, Argentinian feminists are struggling against the diffuse harms of institutionalized violence. Meanwhile, they have also found ways to connect the struggle for gender-affirming health care to the struggle for abortion access.

Legal, Safe and Free Abortion

Ni Una Menos is not the only group in Argentina advocating for decriminalization of and increased access to abortion. The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion has been working for 13 years to make abortion, contraception and sex education widely available throughout the nation. The campaign’s objectives foreground the disparate effects of economic marginalization in the struggle for reproductive autonomy. Sociologist Julia McReynolds-Pérez describes the “dual system of clandestine abortions,” in which people with wealth can access illegal but safe abortions, while poor people risk their lives to seek them. In addition, as McReynolds-Pérez has described, groups such as Lesbians and Feminists for the Decriminalization of Abortion address this divide by providing information about affordable pharmaceutical abortions. While the notion of “choice” remains central for Argentinian feminist activists—signs reading “My body, my choice” were common in street demonstrations—the problem of the “dual system” remains at the center of struggles for access.

While femicide has most commonly referred to murders and sexual violence, Ni Una Menos members and other feminists describe deaths from clandestine abortions as “femicides at the hands of the state.” During the debate leading up to the vote, Sen. María de los Ángeles Sacnun echoed these assertions, calling these deaths “part of an institutional violence that we cannot continue to permit.”

Institutional violence is a concept with particular salience in Argentina. The phrase is frequently invoked in the condemnation of state terrorism that took place during the nation’s dictatorship. It has also been extended by activists criticizing present-day police repression, including in recent protests against state austerity measures.

In this regard, many activists understand criminalization of abortion to be a problem affecting a much broader group than only those who might seek these services. They frame it as one of the many effects of institutional and state violence that place certain forms of life above others. Activist and historian Emmanuel Theumer points out how, despite certain tensions, activist coalitions generally recognize commonalities among those who are targets of state violence, control, marginalization or extermination.

A feminist collective named after the late travesti and feminist activist Lohana Berkins advocates for abortion access as a vital objective for coalition politics. In a similar vein, the transnationally penned Yogyakarta Principles—upon which Argentina’s Gender Identity Law was partially based—position bodily autonomy for all as a guiding principle. In so doing, the document synthesizes political and economic concerns about access to reproductive autonomy, intersex self-determination and gender-affirming care for trans people (among others).

Activists have also worked to contest the presumption that only women are invested in access to abortion. Trans activists have issued the reminder that “Trans men also get abortions.” Travesti activists have asserted the imperative of solidarity and of trans-inclusive sisterhood. Over a decade before the vote, Berkins urged travestis to support the decriminalization of abortion, describing bodies as “the first peaceful territory to defend.”

“To Recognize Is to Repair”

In May of 2018, the province of Santa Fe expanded a law providing economic reparations for people who were persecuted during the military dictatorship to travestis and trans people. Organizers have been working on a national version of this expansion since 2014. The bill was conceived and co-authored by travesti activist Marlene Wayar, who advocated for it alongside the late Berkins and Diana Sacayán. The Colectiva Lohana Berkins and other travesti and legal groups have advanced the “To Recognize is to Repair” (#ReconocerEsReparar) campaign to extend pensions to “victims of institutional violence related to gender identity.” The proposal seeks redress not only for historical persecution on the basis of gender identity, but also for ongoing criminalization and arbitrary arrest.

Legal recognition of trans identities has been a primary objective for trans activists worldwide, but the #ReconocerEsReparar campaign is unique in its assertion of the state’s economic responsibility to address systemic marginalization in the past and present. Blas Radi and Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani assert that travestis and trans people “are excluded from the opportunities of life,” and the proposed law aims to economically mitigate these conditions for some survivors of state violence. The bill has twice been introduced in Congress but has not yet come up for vote.

Social Travesticide

#ReconocerEsReparar was gaining momentum when travesti activist Sacayán was killed in 2015. In June 2018, her murderer was convicted of “travesticidio,” or travesticide. It was at this point that activists introduced the term “travesticidio social,” or social travesticide. Pointing to the estimated 35-year average life expectancy for travestis, activists like Florencia Guimaraes-García charged state complicity: “Society and the State are responsible for our lives being so short.”

Referring obliquely to the nation’s historical dictatorship, travesti, LGBT and feminist activists assert that “the state is at fault” for multiple forms of gendered and sexual violence. In so doing, the wave of leftist resistance to the center-right neoliberal Mauricio Macri administration connects gendered/sexualized violence to economic distribution as intertwined forms of state violence.

As author Maria Mariasch comments, femicide “is a more extreme expression of a series of violence that is expressed daily in distinct ways…. Not all of these expressions have to do with physical, psychological, or even symbolic violence, but also economic, political, laboral, and institutional violence.”

While legal struggles may be stalled, activists are generating sharp political critiques of state violence and abandonment. Charges of “state femicide” and “social travesticide” produce wide-ranging demands not only for recognition but for material guarantees to support life and survival.