Last year on March 8, International Women’s Day, Nuriluz Hermosilla joined nearly a million feminists in the streets of Santiago, Chile, in what has become an annual protest across Latin America against gender-based violence. A day later, the same women who marched vanished from the workplace to show how a world without women would look. After years of localized efforts to change abortion and domestic violence laws, the demonstrations were the largest feminist mobilizations Latin America had ever seen and indicated the movement’s growing power.
Nearly a year later, Hermosilla showed me her dog-eared Spanish-language copy of Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid over Zoom. “You have to consider that we are a people in revolt,” she said, referencing the protests that have pushed Chile to rewrite its Constitution. “We were mired in poverty for practically a year. And forced to organize among ourselves, because the state government never gave even a single peso to the people.”
That commitment to self-help and mutual aid is informing Chilean feminists’ plans for this year’s International Women’s Day. As Hermosilla, a spokeswoman for the Feminist Coordinator, which is organizing the March 8 demonstrations, said, the pandemic has forced women to stay home with abusive partners, increasing rates of gender-based violence and showing that “the entire judicial branch, the legislative branch, the police forces, the churches, all the male hierarchies, support each other and are true mafia organizations in the way they support each other.”
“So, in return,” she said, “we support each other more.”
The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic just three days after last year’s International Women’s Strike. By May, the number of Argentine women killed in acts of gender-based violence had reached a 10-year high. In Chile, so many women left the workforce that by June the country lost a decade of economic progress. And by November, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean was reporting that 47 million people had lost work across the region—disproportionately women, youth, and migrants.
“The pandemic has shown and complicated the problems that have always existed,” said Arussi Unda, spokeswoman for the Mexican feminist group Las Brujas del Mar, listing them off: “No access to justice, unemployment, the historical impoverishment of women, sexual and reproductive exploitation, femicides, forced disappearances, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, double and triple working hours, unpaid work, informal employment”—all added to new problems, like “budget cuts in shelters for victims of violence, child care centers, and programs to combat violence against women.”
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Democrats Are on a Winning Streak That Could Transform Our Politics
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As they prepare marches and strikes this year, feminists across Latin America are invoking the goals of the region’s first Women’s Strike, which was a protest against rising rates of femicide, with newer hopes to dismantle the capitalist systems that have made women especially vulnerable to economic and physical violence.
Latin America’s March 8 Women’s Strike is a relatively young demonstration. In October 2016, while Argentine feminists were gathered at their annual National Women’s Conference, news broke that a 16-year-old girl had been kidnapped, raped, and killed after leaving school. Many feminists felt that her death represented a pattern of gender-based violence, specifically femicide, that had been growing across Latin America. In response, Argentine activists began to organize under the banner of a new feminist group called Ni Una Menos (Not One Less). Inspired by Polish feminists striking for abortion rights, they decided to not work for a day to protest femicide. That first National Women’s Strike took place on October 19, 2016, but since then Ni Una Menos has led the demonstration on International Women’s Day—a day associated with women’s strikes since female garment workers left work to rally for better working conditions in New York City in 1857.
Although Argentina’s National Women’s Strike initially protested physical violence against women, Ni Una Menos soon incorporated fighting economic violence into its mission. After Argentina received a $57 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to combat the country’s currency crisis in 2018, the National Congress passed an austerity budget to comply with the loan’s terms. At a demonstration in June 2019, Ni Una Menos member Cecilia Palmeiro explained to me that Argentina’s precarious economic situation made women vulnerable to abusive labor practices and domestic violence. “Violence against women is intimately related to the accumulation of capital,” she told me at the time, and it’s a situation that has only worsened under Covid-19.
When the pandemic began last year, Palmeiro’s fellow Ni Una Menos members Verónica Gago and Luci Cavallero authored a feminist agenda for when the pandemic ends. They noted that Covid-19 revealed what forms of work society values, the types of violence women face in their own homes, and whose work can even be paused for a strike.
“The record of femicides in the time of quarantine shows something that had already been diagnosed: the implosion of homes, real battlefields for many women, lesbians, travestis, and trans people who practice escape tactics and who now, with the virus here, spend 24 hours with their abusers,” Gago and Cavallero wrote. “Today, the battle between capital and life is fought over which jobs are declared essential and how to remunerate them according to that criterion.”
This year, Ni Una Menos is planning marches in cities across Argentina. Just months after thousands of feminists turned out for a vigil during the country’s abortion debate, activists are prepared to protest with masks, hand sanitizer, and social-distancing protocols.
“We believe that a ‘feminism of the masses’ is developing in Argentina, capable of traversing and convening different organizations, generations, and demands,” Gago said. In the wake of the murder of 18-year-old Ursula Bahillo by her cop ex-boyfriend last month, the feminist movement will denounce police violence this year. But she said it will also “place special emphasis on all reproductive work” and “the so-called ‘essential’ jobs that are the worst paid or done free of charge.”
Gago noted that during the pandemic, this reproductive labor, typically the work of raising a family, has evolved into “neighborhood, community work, which has been developed as a feminist response to the crisis of the pandemic.” Like their Chilean colleagues, Argentine feminists are taking care of one another in the absence of government support.
In Mexico, feminists with the Veracruz-based collective Las Brujas del Mar organized last year’s National Strike in collaboration with actress Vanessa Bauche. With International Women’s Day falling on a Sunday last year, they planned a demonstration for March 8 and a separate strike the following day, which became known as #UnDíaSinNosotras (A Day Without Us).
But this year, Arussi Unda told me, “the social and economic crisis that the pandemic brought about makes us think that striking would not have the same impact.” Unlike 2020, when disappearing from the workplace was a powerful statement, she said Las Brujas Del Mar “want there to never be a Mexico without us again.”
Despite the pandemic, many feminist groups are planning actions for March 8 and 9, ranging from physical demonstrations to virtual events depending on local quarantine policies. In Veracruz, Las Brujas del Mar are planning a “chain of women,” encouraging protesters to come out into the streets while maintaining a safe distance from one another.
Hermosilla said Chilean feminists are also planning a diverse set of demonstrations, depending on what is safe in each province. In Santiago, she said she expects that women will fill the city’s many plazas while feminists in towns that are under lockdown are planning to ask permission to leave their homes for groceries and form socially distanced lines, connected by green banners, as they go about their business.
Similarly, Hermosilla said she thinks that women will strike if and how they are able. “There are many unemployed women,” she said, and “there are many women who have very precarious work environments,” like migrants and domestic workers, who may not be able to strike for fear of losing their income. And there are other types of work, she said, that cannot be abandoned, like caring for the hospitalized or breastfeeding your child. “So, for the strike aspect, we have thought about it and created a catalog called 100 Ways to Strike,” Hermosilla said, giving examples like domestic workers hanging their aprons outside their employers’ homes or students raising their hands in Zoom class.
The organizers of this year’s Women’s Strike in Chile have named multiple priorities—from anti-racism to work to social security—but above all, Hermosilla said, they are centering the idea of mutual aid.
“We are in the hands of a criminal government here in Chile. That is, what is at its base, a criminal government that murders us, gouges our eyes out, and rapes us,” she said.
Amid Chile’s revolt and a deadly pandemic, the march’s coordinators have announced across social media, “The feminist strike goes on!” “We will not pay for this crisis with our bodies, and we will never return to silence.”