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‘We Are Living Through A Cultural Change’ Interview With Feminist Writer Ximena Schinca

By | [email protected] | March 6, 2018 4:19pm

‘We Are Living Through A Cultural Change’ Interview With Feminist Writer Ximena Schinca
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Following the watershed inuagural NiUnaMenos demonstration in Argentina in 2015, the women’s movement in the country and across the world has gained momentum while the femicide crisis and deep structural inequalities continue. Ahead of the Global Women’s Strike on Thursday, March 8, The Bubble spoke with influential feminist Writer and Global Women’s Strike Activist Ximena Schinca about the changing environment for feminism in Argentina and the region, challenges, goals and methods for the women’s movement. 

The Bubble: How much influence did NiUnaMenos and the structures you helped to build with that movement have on getting things like the women’s strike to happen?

Ximena Schinca: First of all, there’s a distinction to be made. The slogan and the movement of NiUnaMenos is a popular movement which many people take part in. And then there is a small collective group named NiUnaMenos, but they are about 10 women or so who work in the media. And I prefer to talk about the movement.

It started in 2015 with different activities around the country, and on June 3 there were the first demonstrations on the streets. It was massive because I think women realized that they had been living under violence or the threat of violence for a long time, so we just started to take to the streets.

There was also a group of journalists who helped to publicize this struggle. For example, at certain newspapers the word “femicide” was rejected as a made up word, editors were not interested in giving it any coverage or giving affiliated demos for the legalization of abortion any coverage.

The media was not interested at all in women’s matters. They often focused attention on beauty and aesthetic matters when they addressed women specifically. After that massive demonstration these issues began to be placed on the political agenda and on the media agenda more often. So it was very important.

Now we are talking about abortion on prime time television in Argentina. So mainstream media outlets are now discussing whether abortion ought to be legal or not, why women would interrupt a pregnancy… In prime time television, discussing these issues was not imaginable even just two months ago. Before, you were accused of being a murderer by just mentioning the word “abortion.” So it was very difficult to talk about these things, even to talk about femicide. Just three years ago they said that this word does not even exist. They preferred to use the term “crime of passion.” In that sense the NiUnaMenos movement was very important, by putting this terminology and the women’s agenda in the spotlight.

Did you ever anticipate that it would snowball so much and get as big and influential as it has already become?

I don’t think we anticipated it in the women’s movement, no. For example, the campaign for the legalization of abortion has been proposing legislation in the national Congress for 12 years and the legislators have not once discussed it officially in Congress. So we never anticipated getting so much attention.

The thing is that one realized that women were being more active, talking about their own problems and so on. The mobilization started in 2015 but it was very difficult to anticipate any kind of massive demonstration such as happened in June 2015. In fact, just two months before that, we had a demonstration for the legalization of abortion, and there were around 300 women in attendance.

It’s important to say that women in Argentina and in the rest of Latin America have been working on these issues for decades. It has not been publicized but we and previous generations have been working on these issues since the beginning of the 20th century at least. For the right to vote, for abortion. The problem was that these things were denied by the press, by many men, and by political authority.

Today, a women is killed in Argentina every 30 hours by men who are their husbands, boyfriends, lovers or whatever. They kill us in our own homes. And yet, after all these demonstrations we’ve had since 2015, when we go to the justice system or the police to make a complaint, to denounce violence, they still say they cannot do anything if we don’t have serious injuries.

Really?

Yes. So you have to go to the judge or the police and say “well you know I lost my arm or whatever” just so they take notice of you. It’s very difficult to get restrictions on men who are violent, and even when they have restraining orders, they often break them anyway. If you denounce psychological violence or economic violence, if you denounce sexual harassment, there is no judicial structure in place that can protect women from these things.

‘Today, a women is killed in Argentina every 30 hours by men who are their husbands, boyfriends, lovers. They kill us in our own homes.’

However, we are not demanding just more punitive measures, we are not advocating to “lock up all men” or get more punitive measures against offenders alone. Because we believe these often don’t work in practice anyway.

But there are several measures that must be taken as soon as possible in order to stop violence.

Like what?

Steps in education. To try to change the education curriculum in schools and for a large range of age groups so that children learn how to interact between girls and boys. Because here in Argentina it is very common to say that men have the right to defend themselves, the implication being that they are encouraged to be violent, whereas women are encouraged to be more submissive, kind and so on. And that is the basis of a lot of education in Argentina.

Is this ingrained in the education system explicitly, or is it a cultural phenomenon?

It is a cultural thing and yet culture can be influenced directly by schools. That’s why we want to target education. Though of course it can be difficult to affect change in this way.

Also we are talking about the unpaid work women do, and that too many men do not care about it in this country. You cannot simply divide the ways men and women care for their children. It is important to start paying women who have been doing this work for centuries without anything. I think in England you have subsidies and help for single parents, correct?

Yes we do. We have state benefits for single parents. But they have been/are in the process of being cut by the current government, they’re making them smaller.

That is a great problem we are seeing around the world right now. State benefits towards women are being cut due to the neoliberal-conservative governments around the world. Cuts to welfare from these types of governments often hurt women disproportionately because it is often women who are taking care of the children and because there is no other way for them to work. For instance, in Argentina we have no public, free-to-access kindergartens for children under three.

So personally I am paying for kindergarten to take care of my son while I work in the private sector during the day. Half of my income is allotted to the education of my son. I’m a single mother and no-one pays me for the hours in which I take care of my son. I think we must recognize and pay mothers the work they do in raising children.

Would you say that – the structural economic imbalances like this that negatively affects women – are linked to machismo violence?

Yes. Absolutely. And economic violence is one of the primary ways in which men exert power over women. Men are the privileged ones in this system. That is the way it’s organized. Economic violence is one of the first steps that lead us to a place where we are depending on men. You cannot work because you have to take care of your children.

You don’t have enough income to pay for your own basic needs so you ended up depending on a man who had access to a better job or at least to a job in the first place, and who doesn’t have to take care of elderly or sick people in the family. In Latin America, the most unpaid work is done by women. And the gap is massive.

The problem with neoliberal and conservative governments which are cutting benefits to women and to all kinds of vulnerable groups over the world is that they are also taking this money out of these areas in order to use it for wars, for repression, for police repression, for many things that are collectively called “security.”

And this shift in an allocation of resources is growing wider every day. Worst of all, the relationship or connection between these two things is not made by most people in society.

Image: Baya Simons

Image: Baya Simons

People have not noticed the causal relationship between funding being taken away from state welfare that helps women, for example, and being redirected to other areas? 

No, and this is absolutely what is happening.

The women’s movement is targeting education in particular then? What about positive changes to the legislation?

Well the well-known piece of legislation that targeted violence against women was passed in 2009. And the change regarding femicide in the penal code was introduced in 2012. So it was before NiUnaMenos even started. From 2013 up to today, one women was killed in Argentina every 30 hours. The femicide rate has flatlined, in other words. But what is different, what is happening now, and this is important to understand—what we are living through the beginning of a cultural change.

This is just the beginning. And this is why we cannot see tangible results and a big difference between now and five years ago. Men are continuing to kill women on a massive scale but the cultural change we are seeing is real and powerful. And it is occurring mainly for women. We’re talking about feminism, women’s rights and gender violence against women. Women are starting to visualize and discriminate between different forms of violence and ones that target them directly.

So now, when a woman is hit or mistreated by a man, it has become clear that this is something different. And today women are starting to defend themselves. Starting to react to this kind of violence and mistreatment against themselves.

‘Men are continuing to kill women on a massive scale but the cultural change we are seeing is real and powerful. Women are starting to defend themselves. This is just the beginning.’

Is machismo violence distinct from other forms of oppression and inequality?

Yes, absolutely.

Here in Argentina we talk about women’s rights and oppression in relation to how it was for people of African descent historically. They are two different cases. But what’s interesting these people were one of the first groups to understand that they were mistreated, that they were oppressed, exploited by other groups of people. Like other oppressed groups, it is crucial for women to realize that we are being oppressed, mistreated, and that we have to fight this. We are the ones that must stand up and fight for our rights.

And this is the big change that is occurring in Argentina and throughout Latin America. We are saying that we have the right to decide if we want to continue with a pregnancy or not, if we want to live with this man or not. This is the great change that we are living through right now.

Is the key question one of agency, then? Is it about choices?

It’s not about choices only. It’s about rights. We have those rights. But society is not giving us the chance to exercise those rights. What we say is that we don’t want to talk about abortion. Abortion is our right. In the UK, a woman can interrupt a pregnancy before 12 weeks I think without any kind of discussion at all. Rights enabled that choice. And I think this is the thing that we are realizing as women in Argentina, in Latin America, and all over the world in fact.

For example in Poland, women were the first ones to take to the streets because of changes to the abortion law just a few years ago. This is the key difference between now and a few years ago. Women understanding that it is not a question of “asking” or of “being allowed” to have an abortion or not.

It’s our right to interrupt a pregnancy or not. It’s our right to denounce any kind of violence we are exposed to, whether it be physical violence, economic violence, abuse. Here in Argentina there was a movement of celebrities talking on TV about harassment promoted by popular men who work on TV.

Esfera Radio

Image via Esfera Radio

 

It was something similar to what is taking place in Hollywood and in the US and elsewhere with the Time’s Up movement on that issue but here in Argentina. Because here, men are used to doing whatever they want with regards to women.

Just to be clear, I know that not everyone does this. But if men want to touch your ass or kiss you in public or whatever many of them just do it! Because you are just a woman. And the response to this is that women must be tolerant. Well, you know, they are just men and men will always be men etc.

Well, now in Argentina and the rest of the world women are saying “we do not have to tolerate this kind of behavior.” It can sound farcical but just imagine the scale these things are happening on. Here in Argentina we call things like this piropo (cat calling). The “right” of men to say any kind of thing they want to us on the street. But the difference between catcalling and piropo is that piropo here in Argentina has a positive connotation.

Seriously?

Yes! Men say “oh you know it’s just a piropo, it’s positive, and you’re just a crazy bitch who can’t take a compliment I’m trying to give you.” Well, we are not going to tolerate this anymore. Now that is changing and women and girls are not tolerating this anymore.

Do you think the impact of NiUnaMenos had a direct impact on raising these issues for the wider female population in Argentina?

Well. Let’s say that NiUnaMenos was a platform that allowed us to talk about this. The platform in reality was feminism and the women’s movement in Argentina and elsewhere. NiUnaMenos was an expression of this but it was built on the work of the women’s movement that encompasses many other groups and campaigns.

For abortion, against cat calling and so on, these campaigns that have been going on for decades before NiUnaMenos. But NiUnaMenos gave a focus and a visualization of the importance of these issues since 2015.

So that now, for instance, we are discussing abortion on prime time television with famous TV journalists. Because we have been talking about feminism in the media since 2015. But NiUnaMenos is just one expression of the much wider, much older feminist movement in Argentina.

NiUnaMenos would not have been possible without the feminist movement. Martin Luther King in the US would not have been possible without the work of the civil rights movement and all of the activists and their work that came before him.

I think this is important to say, because here in Argentina, for example, women’s suffrage was promoted by Eva Peron and by the Peronists in the 40s in Argentina. But there were many female activists who were working towards this goal long before she was in power.

Can you describe the way this sort of activism is structured in Argentina today?

So to take the most prescient example, right now we are staging democratic meetings every week to organize the international women’s strike that’s scheduled for March 8. These meeting are massive. We have women from all sorts of organizations, plus LGBT women and so on.

And this is a strike for all of these groups. And at the meetings, each representative from each group speak for one or two minutes in turn, talking about what is important to focus on for this strike and for the wider movement in general. For example, we have identified the right of abortion in Argentina as a key facet of the demonstrations this year. The campaign in favor of abortion has been working in Argentina for many years and this is now coming to the fore.

How big are these meetings? Do they happen at the small local level, the city-wide level?

Well these are taking place all over the country. It’s true that the most important meeting happens in Buenos Aires City, because it’s the biggest. But we in the City are in communication with other groups who stage meetings across the country, and also with activists from other countries too. The slogan we’ve come up with thanks to this communication is “Si nuestras vidas no valen, producen sin nosotros. (If our lives are worthless, then make do without us).”

It’s a powerful slogan.

Yes. This will be one of the slogans for the international women’s strike. We’re planning it for 24 hours, and who is going to take care of our children or elderly relatives while we are doing this, for example? That’s why the strike and our demands and the slogan work together because it is a long-standing and key demand of the women’s movement from around the world.

The message being that society would collapse in a heartbeat without women. I guess that’s why the slogan is so strong.

Absolutely.

Are you in direct contact with other feminist activists outside of Argentina?

Yes. We are working with Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, El Salvador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile… Latin America was the main focus of last year’s women’s strike and this year we are expanding to all corners of the world. But Latin America and the Caribbean countries are the center and focus. Because in the region, 12 women are killed by men every single day. Latin America is the most dangerous place to be a woman on Earth. That’s a fact. 95 percent of all abortions in the region are clandestine, which can be extremely risky as we know. It’s only Uruguay in Latin America where abortion is legal, while everywhere else, women are coerced to putting themselves at risk. And this issue will be a key focus for us.

Will the focal point change? If the strike is taking place all over the world, certain regions like Europe, for example (with some notable exceptions), have already legalized abortion.

Yes. It has a relationship with wider issues, for example, what we discussed before about welfare cuts. In Spain, they will join us and strike focusing on issues such as this, and in that way they will have the support of the trade unions. Here in Argentina we don’t have that. They will focus on unpaid work and the cutting of benefits, while we will focus mostly, but not exclusively, on abortion, as it will be on many other Latin American countries and in other places such as Poland. In Europe, North America and elsewhere, issues surrounding welfare cuts and abuse will be the focus.

Do you want the help and participation of the unions here in Argentina?

We are going to ask for that, the organizations are trying to get union support. But here in Argentina, unions are divided and they are discussing having a general strike against the government. It will be very difficult for us to get support from the unions for a general strike when they cannot even agree about the importance of having a general strike against the current government and its political and economic program. I cannot anticipate what will happen, but last year we didn’t have their support and I think it will be difficult to get that this year too.

I wanted to talk to you about perceptions of feminism in Argentina. Some people have said that feminism is not inclusive, that some people are not welcome on marches and and so on.

We are trying to build a massive and inclusive movement here in Argentina, but this can be difficult for a number of reasons. Like we said before, the problems faced by people who must work all day at their job or at home to then catch a bus or whatever to go to an evening meeting, or to leave your children with someone else to do so… All these things become an issue with getting to a 99 percent popular feminism in Argentina.

There are many different kinds of feminism. There is one that is more elitist, and one that is more popular and massive and tries to be more inclusive as well. We want to build a more inclusive feminism, that’s not only for white intellectual middle-class women. We need feminism to be popular, working class, for women who are working at home and didn’t have access to this sort of thing previously. To have a feminism with a political agenda focus on the popular majority. Because white middle class women are a low percentage of women in Argentina. Here, most women are poor, living in a difficult economic situation, needing to take care of their children, and they don’t have anyone to look out for them often. So that’s the challenge, to build a popular, working class feminism.

Me personally, I’m collaborating with the Global Women’s Strike, an organization founded by the English feminist Selma James. The purpose of the organization is to win a salary or payment for the care and work women do at home. Here in Argentina and in the rest of the world too we have to focus on care and unpaid work that women do. And that’s a challenge. We cannot say that feminism in Argentina or Argentine feminism is one thing. It’s a multiplicity of things, it’s not homogeneous, so the challenge is trying to make it popular and focus it on those people who need this support and solidarity.

Obviously, the meetings will continue, but what other methods are you looking at to expand the movement? What about social media, for example?

Yes, of course. Social media has been a really powerful tool for the women’s movement in Argentina and the rest of the world. It’s a way for us to communicate without leaving our homes or places of work, while continuing the care work. We’ve held international meetings using Skype. These kind of new technologies have been really important for us to discuss and share our experiences across distance. Especially in a country such as Argentina, which is so huge and so it’s often very difficult to arrange and attend meetings spanning faraway places. We really find it very effective. For instance, many women have been helped to find a place for an abortion through social networking. Or women who are suffering gender violence can communicate via Whatsapp, and they don’t have to pay for the call. And it’s very important that they can communicate. A woman who is suffering from gender violence needs a lot of support. Sometimes they just need to talk to other women who can tell them that they don’t have to tolerate this sort of violence anymore. That is very significant, and technology has made it possible. Because sometimes, someone who is suffering from gender violence… It can be very difficult for them to move, to talk to other women, to find help. They are left in a difficult or violent situation because they don’t have the means to find help.

Has a helpline been set-up then, similar to the state-run helplines that address gender violence?

Yes. It’s separate from the state helpline. It’s called the self-managed project. It’s a telephone line or social networking. It’s aimed at women who are suffering from domestic violence or wanting to interrupt a pregnancy, and don’t receive any help from the state. It’s an administrative and independent project and apart from anything done by the government.

Today, there are advertisements for the state helplines targeting victims of domestic violence across Buenos Aires City. Are these grassroots helplines more effective than the state or local government versions?

They are very effective because the projects run by the state are actually very small in scope. There are some other societies where these grassroots projects are not necessary. For example, in the case of abortion, in some societies, if you want to interrupt a pregnancy, you just go to the hospital and you don’t need grassroots help. But here they are very important because we don’t have state support in that sense. Women’s organizations like this are the most effective means. And budget cuts have had a very big impact in this area too. Budget cuts in Argentina have been targeted largely at this area in Argentina. It’s one of the first areas they target for budget cuts. They’re not going to cut the budget of the police, because they’ll have a police strike on their hands. They’ve seen that they don’t have the same problems when they cut funding and support for women’s issues, women’s refuges. They just cut that budget. It’s how the neo-liberal and neo-conservative governments operate here in Argentina and in the rest of the world. And that’s why grassroots and self-managed projects are more effective. We have to demand that the state reacts to this situation and redirects funding to address these issues, to the care of women, in the fight against gender violence, and not just in the police, in war, in a punitive system that is not working.

Do you think there will ever be effective deterrence against gender violence, economic violence against women? Are the law and legislative steps important, or are deep cultural changes the only way to get positive results?

The law is a way of changing culture. But in fact, here we have a slogan that says that the law comes after the cultural change has occurred. When the law arrives, that means the cultural change has preceded it. For example, marriage equality. Here in Argentina, the law arrived after many same-sex couples were already legitimized by large sections of society. The law can promote cultural change, can support cultural change. For instance, if you want to have an educational program focusing on gender equality, you need a law to promote it, to secure state funding for education in this way. Both things ought to happen at the same time, both influence each other, and both are demanded.

What direct actions are planned for the foreseeable future in Argentina, following the legalization of abortion protest on February 19?

The Women’s Strike on March 8th is the primary focus. Following that, we will advocate for a bill to legalize abortion to be debated in Congress, as we have every two years since the campaign started. No political party is introducing this bill, it comes directly from the campaign. No political party has given the campaign sufficient support for our suggestions to be debated.

Can it be debated on the floor without direct political support?

No, we need lawmakers’ support. But I think this year will be a very significant year for promoting that campaign in particular. Throughout the summer, the issue has been in the media, in popular TV programs and in the press. So it’s becoming very difficult for political parties and their members to avoid the debate. The main political parties have avoided talking about it since the campaign started 12 years, I think now it is becoming very difficult for them to maintain that position and not say anything. And if they still don’t discuss it in Congress, they will at least have to talk about the reasons why they’re making that choice.

After that, we have the NiUnaMenos demonstration in June. It’s going to be massive as well. It’s still a new demonstration in the women’s movement calendar as it’s only three years old but has massive importance for us. And then some more demonstrations are planned for November 10 and 25 against violence and women’s health. Plus the National Women’s Meeting in October, which has been staged every year for the last 34 years. This year it’s going to be staged in the south of Argentina. So it’s going to be a very active and important year for the feminist movement in Argentina, with the legalization of abortion in the spotlight.