Abortion Rights Blog

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The Green Scarf – The Fight for Abortion Rights in Latin America

Chilean activist and Abortion Rights volunteer Fernanda Marín Rey writes – why abortion campaigners carry green scarfs in Chile and Argentina.

Latin America has recently experienced a couple of new and exciting changes in the reproductive and sexual rights arena, especially in the extreme south: Chile and Argentina, two neighbour countries but with very different stories. The latter is currently ad portas of approving a new abortion law, whereas in Chile things have been somewhat different for women’s rights.

This last 25th of July, three women were stabbed during a march in favour of legalising abortion in Santiago. Currently, our country has a one year old law in which women, and in some cases girls, can have abortions in three specific cases: rape, ffetal abnormality and if the women’s life is at risk due to the continuance of the pregnancy. Before this, Chile was one of the seven countries in the world in which abortion was illegal.

The 2017 law and its three conditions was a tremendous milestone in terms of human rights for women in our country, but the number of cases that this law actually “solves” in practical terms is low in relation to the annual number of abortions informed by the Health Ministry: 28.000. Until last June, nine months after the abortion bill was approved, 285 cases of legally performed abortions were registered by public health establishments. However, since abortion was banned in 1989, the real number of abortions is an underrepresentation of reality, to say the least.

This law was passed during Michelle Bachelet’s second administration, but our president is now Sebastian Piñera, a right-winged, catholic, very wealthy business man who has publicly declared that his government has no intentions in making deep reforms to our current abortion law. Here is the point where many women wondered, including me, if there was any purpose on marching and getting organised considering the evidently adverse political circumstances. Some said it was not strategic, others that women would not even be heard. But what was happening across the Andes Mountains was something that could not be overlooked: our Argentinian sisters had filled the streets with thousands of women claiming for abortion to be legal in all circumstances until 14 weeks of pregnancy.

They all carried green scarves in honour of the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo” (the Mothers of Mayo Square) a group of women who have never stopped looking for their daughters and sons that were disappeared during the dictatorship. Their symbol is a white triangular scarf. Perhaps this a very personal thought, but when it comes to social movements we have always looked with admiration the energy and strength of Argentinians from this side of the map: they speak up and they are in no way a nation easy to silence.

They experienced one of the most bloody and violent dictatorships in the region and their dictator, Jorge Videla, was processed by the crimes against humanity he committed. Not exactly what happened to Pinochet in Chile. In this sense, Argentinian women and their fight for eradicating clandestine abortions gave the feminist movement in Chile a light of hope, showing us that if they were accomplishing it, and they were being heard, we could be the ones heard too.

But this was not the only thing happening in Chile: during May this year, a series of cases of sexual abuse in different universities were publicly reported to the authorities. Women and particularly students were enraged and responded with paralyzation of activities and indefinite occupation of their studying places. “The Feminist May” as the media referred to it, is, as many would agree, a starting point of a bigger something that will not be ending anytime soon.

I could continue this article by telling you that the kind of violence that the three stabbed women experienced during the abortion march has no precedent in a country like Chile. I could assure that if you ask anyone, literally any person on the streets of Santiago would tell you the exact same thing. Nothing like this, and by this I mean physical attacks with weapons on citizens, had ever happened in a pacific march context.

Unfortunately, this manifestation of violence is not a surprise for many of us Chilean women, because we live in a permanent state of fear and dormant violence. Fear of taking a cab all by ourselves, fear of walking alone, sometimes fear of having to seat next to a man on the bus, or worst, having a meeting with a male coworker who you do not know very well. Many of us sensed that something like this could be coming.

As a former member of a feminist NGO, we were constantly informed on how we could take care of ourselves and how to react to attacks of anti choice movements. In my personal experience, individuals belonging to these groups become violent in one blink of an eye. As an activist, I have had the unpleasant chance to encounter them in different scenarios (protests, congress debates, TV debates, among others) and, with a few exceptions, they are frightening people to be around.

Many of us feminists are fully aware that more rights imply more repression. That more feminist demands neccesarily mean more anti choice groups wanting to shut us up. Earlier this year I was talking to a friend in the context of an obstetric violence discussion, and my main worry was how violent things were going to get and where actually getting. We were discussing that even though we have an abortion law, there had already been cases of women that had been denied access due to the medical right to conscientious objection. The first case of legal abortion in Chile was one of a 13 year old girl that was raped and lived in a southern island, Chiloé, were medical conditions are far more precarious than in the capital. As soon as the girl arrived to the hospital, doctors refused to perform the abortion and she had to be referred to a public health center in Santiago. There is 1.300 kilometers of distance between the island of Chiloé and Santiago. I believe that revictimization is a very polite and warm term to use in this case.

It is hard to convince some people that we are not going to run out human rights if women acquire more of them. They are not fungible goods and they will still be able to hold theirs. Unfortunately, not everyone gets this and we have to regret the three women stabbed by terrorists in the last pro abortion march. A neo nazi group called “Movimiento Social Patriótico” (Patriotic Social Movement) has been related to the facts, since they had earlier published in their social media accounts that they were going to “paint the Alameda with blood” (Alameda is a big central avenue in Santiago, were all the important marches pass through). They have taken credit for the barricades and dead animal’s guts they spilled on the street during the march, but claimed they did not stab the three women.

Is the green scarf going to make us targets? That is something that I have given a lot of thought lately. Marches used to be a safe place, a place where all women could share and peacefully walk in company of others. A place to share with sisters, friends, mothers, grandmothers and daughters and be comfortable in our own space. One that we have worked to gain in legitimate terms even before the return of democracy.

Violence and fear has never been an obstacle for us, and this kind of attacks only brings us closer. We will not allow them to take that space away from us, because fighting for our rights is by far stronger than hate.

Fernanda Marín Rey

Chilean feminist and reproductive and sexual rights activist.