Last month, women around the world celebrated International Women’s Day with outdoor concerts, film screenings and poetry readings. However, in Latin America, women were not feeling very celebratory. Thousands flooded into the streets of Brazil, Peru and Argentina in support of the International Women’s Day Strike to rally against gender-based violence, street harassment and income inequality. Women carried signs reading ‘Machismo Kills’ and the popular social media hashtag #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess).
Women’s growing intolerance with sexual and domestic violence, femicide and impunity for perpetrators appeared to have compelled them to take to the streets. Latin America remains one of the worst places for femicide, the gender-based killing of women by men, in the world: seven out of ten of the countries with the worst rates of femicide are located in this region. El Salvador has the highest rate in the world, but fewer than three per cent of these cases are taken to court. Most femicides occur within the context of a romantic relationship when a woman has had sex before marriage, outside of marriage or was raped. This means that they are often deployed to defend the honour of male husbands, boyfriends, fathers and brothers. Domestic violence is a daily reality for many Latin American women: there is a higher-than-average instance of this crime within the region. However, despite the Inter-American Convention of Belem de Para (1994), which established domestic violence legislation in the vast majority of Latin American countries, there is still a shocking level of impunity for crimes against women. Legislative initiatives have not always influenced cultural norms and practices in the region. In reality, judges and police officials have often dismissed cases of femicide and domestic and sexual violence despite their illegality.
Much of this sexual violence and everyday harassment has been attributed to a pervasive culture of machismo, an ideology prevalent across Latin America that perceives women to be inferior to men and paints them either as sexual objects to be conquered or as docile mothers to be confined to the home. This has created a culture of pervasive inequality, where men feel free to chant lewd jeers at women on the street and to behave in a sexually aggressive manner. On the continent that has produced more Miss Universe winners than any other region in the world, girls are taught from an early age to derive their social value from their femininity and beauty. In Venezuela, many girls are groomed from an early age to compete in these pageants and are even placed in special ‘beauty schools’ to prepare for the task. In 2009, forty-eight per cent of Latin Americans believed that women ‘would have problems’ if they earned more money than the men in their lives. Few female leaders are willing to call themselves feminists in this environment, and feel compelled to project an image of balancing their power with a soft and feminine approach.
On the surface, the persisting culture of machismo appears largely inconsistent with contemporary trends. In the past two centuries, Latin American women have made huge strides in educational attainment, political life and the business world. Women are now more likely to be educated than their male counterparts in the region. In recent years, Latin America has become one of the most gender-equal regions of the world in terms of political representation, bested only by Scandinavia. Isabel Perón, the former President of Argentina, was the first woman to become a head of state anywhere in the world after her 1974 election. Sixteen countries in the region had adopted quotas for female leadership and from 1990-2014 a record number of women were elected as heads of state. This can partially be attributed to the role that women have played in Latin America’s many revolutionary struggles during the 1970s and 1980s. Leftist guerrilla groups have long incorporated women into their ranks, a pattern that is particularly evident in Nicaragua and Colombia. This means that women have often been at the forefront of their new states’ political systems during the region’s transition to democracy in the 1990s. However, old habits die hard. Countries with more economic opportunities for women have seen a backlash in support of female leadership. News tabloids often carry blatantly sexist headlines about female politicians. For example, the Argentinian publication Noticias once featured a headline that showed then-President Cristina Fernandez de Kircher in a sexual position, with a full animated video available online for viewing pleasure, claiming that she had become increasingly ‘sensual’ and ‘shameless.’ Such incidents make the Daily Mail look feminist.
Lately, Latin American women have had just about enough. International Women’s Day provided a small taste of a movement that has been brewing in the region for decades. The ‘Ni Una Menos’ movement has gained huge momentum since it began in Argentina last year after the shocking death of pregnant fourteen-year-old Chiara Paez, who was murdered by her boyfriend and forcibly given an abortion in 2015. This has mobilised women across the continent, who are infuriated by the frequency of domestic violence and femicide, and by the impunity and silence that these crimes are met with. In Argentina, feminist activists and NGOs were able to lobby the government to consider laws outlawing cat calling after college student Aixa Rizzo reported an otherwise routine incident that became threatening when three men followed her down the street repeating lewd and menacing phrases. When police refused to respond to this incident, Rizzo found a receptive audience among the Argentinian public and in the national congress. Other Latin American states have considered or passed similar laws, taking a stance against a cultural convention that has served as the epitome of machismo and perpetuated gendered violence and rape culture.
While Latin America remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, things are slowly but surely changing. Recent influxes of feminist NGOs and activists have emerged in the past decades, tirelessly working to challenge the culture of sexual violence and impunity as well as the region’s chauvinistic attitudes towards women. With a female population that is more educated, mobilised and politically active than ever, Latin America seems to be ready for change.