In 2016, Lincolnshire County Council introduced the ‘Ask For Angela’ Campaign, in which women and men out in pubs, clubs, and bars were told that they could ‘Ask For Angela’ at the bar if they were feeling unsafe to receive discreet assistance from the bartender. In Buenos Aires, bars around the city are now offering a similar scheme.

The way it works is simple, but clever: anybody feeling vulnerable or unsafe can simply say a key phrase (usually by asking for a particular drink) which is made known with posters or flyers around the bar. By saying this phrase, vulnerable people – who are in this case usually women, including transgender women – make the bar staff aware of their situation. Bar staff are then trained to give appropriate, and discreet, assistance – whether that means calling a cab, accompanying someone to their car, or calling the police. In this way women are able to calmly seek assistance for an issue which can be very isolating and frightening.

But, as María del Mar Ramón from the campaign group Red De Mujeres, tells me, this simple solution comes at the ‘end of a really long and complex training and learning process’. In fact, she says, ‘it requires training and it requires good use of the information to know how to deal with a situation of gender-based violence in nightlife and in general’.

Prior to this campaign, Red De Mujeres’s work had been working with ‘women in neighborhoods [with] harsh social conditions’ about helping them to ‘become aware of [their] rights’; and in the state and other institutions in ‘advising the state and different types of institutions about how to have a gender perspective in their work’. They still do this work, which often involves working with Argentina’s ‘Law 26,485‘, which covers violence against women. ‘[I]n theory it’s a really great law’, Ramón tells me, as this law and other legal training make up a vital part of their work around gender-based violence in bars and other nightlife locations.

However, despite enthusiasm from some politicians to have some of Red De Mujeres’s work with bars enshrined in law, the campaign group ‘don’t think that this a good idea right now’. If their protocols were to become law right now, Ramón says, it could mean that ‘it would fall again into the [situation] where the right answer is that if you have a problem, you have to call the police’. In fact, she says, ‘that’s one of the options you have,’ Ramón ‘clarifies, but it’s not mandatory for a woman to go to the police’.

While going to the police is an option for women, and one that trained bar staff are advised to help with if a woman wants, it can, as Ramón says ‘be really complicated and it can be really violent to go to the police’. ‘Most of the time’, she adds, ‘the police in Argentina are not correctly trained for these cases. It is one of the options you have but it shouldn’t be mandatory for women.’

Nevertheless, she tells me, there is an insidious attitude towards women who have experienced gender-based violence of ‘ok, so you didn’t go to the police, so your word is not going to be taken into account’. The culture of victim-blaming in Argentina is – as it is in so many of our world’s patriarchal societies – institutionalized.

Ramón recounts the case of Melina Romero, the young girl murdered while celebrating her 17th birthday in 2014. Many Argentine newspapers portrayed Romero as a ‘party-girl’, suggesting that she somehow ‘deserved’ her tragic death. Red De Mujeres was infuriated by this coverage, and by the institutional attitudes of victim-blaming. As Ramón says, it’s their ‘job to guarantee your rights’, but in fact there was a victim-blaming attitude in many of these institutions.

In the past there, have been suggestions that schemes like the coded drinks order available in bars may in fact add to a culture of victim-blaming, because they do not address embedded misogyny, or rape culture, but instead place the onus onto women. But Red De Mujeres is sensitive about avoiding this. ‘The first step in defending the rights of women in these places is believing them’, says Ramón. Her definition of these rights is not limited to the most basic rights of survival: ‘Its not just like ‘we don’t want to get killed, we don’t want to get murdered in the street or in the hands of our ex-boyfriends’. We want to have a life where we can be free and we can enjoy and we can go out and have fun.’

‘The first step in defending the rights of women […] is believing them’

In order to preserve these rights, she tells me, engaging with men is important and necessary work. She describes one bar which displays posters stating: ‘In this place we will not tolerate gender-based violence or violence against women’. ‘There is a huge difference between thinking that, and really saying that and being explicit’. The engagement begins with men who may otherwise perpetuate violence, and tells them ‘what you’re doing is wrong and you shouldn’t do it anymore’.

Silvina Martinez from Vuela El Pez – one of at least 10 nightlife spaces across the city who is actively combatting gender-based violence in collaboration with Red de Mujeres – describes the work they are doing. ‘The first forms of intervention were the posters that were placed in the women’s bathrooms. These posters are a code for women and femme people, if they find themselves in a situation that is not what they expected, or feel uncomfortable with a man, they can ask for a drink at the bar and with this code the bartenders already know  […] what to do and how to help it.’

But this does not happen in isolation: ‘The important thing about the posters’, writes Martinez, ‘is for women to know that […] we will accompany them in their decision on how to deal with the situation.’ As well as respecting women’s wishes in such a situation, Vuela El Pez engages with all of their clientele in a bid to prevent such situations entirely. ‘We seek’, they say, ‘to empower women and challenge men so that they can ask themselves and begin to deconstruct some stereotypes of how to relate to a woman.’ Posters and recorded messages defining harassment and rape are used in Vuela El Pez, as well as messages stating that such cases of gender-based violence will not be tolerated.

However, Vuela el Pez have still – sadly but unsurprisingly – had to put their precautionary measures in place several times, and when this has happened their protocols have been successful. They have succeeded in diffusing the situation, respecting women’s wishes, and protecting them from violence.

And so the work of Red De Mujeres, of bars, clubs, and cultural centres like Vuela el Pez, continues. María del Mar Ramón seems optimistic about their ongoing work. Bars that she works with often tell her they had noticed gender-based violence, but that ‘we thought that these situations were normal […] but now that we’ve had these processes [i.e. undergone training] they’re not normal any more’. In the words of Aunt Lydia, from Margaret Atwood‘s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale ‘Ordinary […] is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.’ ‘It is the work of feminists’, Ramón says, ‘to denaturalise such things that are seen as natural’, and to shift perspectives so harassment and victim-blaming are no longer ‘normal’.