The Collective Voice: following the call of Latin America’s women
With an eye on the challenges that face gender equality, Sophie Ivatts looks to Latin America to see how women across the continent marked International Women’s Day.
Images: Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo, whose recent exhibition at the Rollo Gallery in London brought together video and photographic work from a broad oeuvre dealing with persistent social hierarchies in her home country.
Female voices have historically been driven to the margin: confined to the private sphere of the home and forcibly restricted from public or political debate. Female anger has been dismissed as hysteria; female dissent as nagging; feminists as bra-burners. The widespread stigma attached to the notion of being a feminist is testament to how effective this belittling has been and how we are still operating from within a framework of male subjectivity.
Vocalise this inequality, however, and the statistics will still shock – both in terms of economic status and personal freedoms. Women do 80% of the world’s work, produce 85% of the world’s food, and own 1% of the world’s assets. The biggest killer of women worldwide between the ages of 15 – 44 is domestic violence and at least 1 in 3 women has at some point in her life been abused, beaten, or forced into sex. There are 5000 honour killings every year.
In Latin America women are almost 17% more likely than men to suffer from extreme poverty and more than half of Latin America’s working women are employed in the informal economy, receiving no insurance or benefits. Meanwhile, in the formal sector Latin American women are paid an average of 75 cents per every dollar their male counterparts make, compared to a global average of 84 cents per dollar.
Perhaps most worrying though, is the violence of reactions when voices are raised. Approximately one in three women in Latin America and the Caribbean has been a victim of sexual, physical, or psychological violence at the hands of intimate partners, according to survey data collected by the Pan American Health Organization in 2006. Since the 1990s, a majority of the countries in Latin America have taken some action to outlaw violence against women. However, conservative courts often choose not to rule for women, especially in cases of domestic violence. The region’s women and their allies have given a name to the worst crime of violence against women: femicide. This is defined as the murder of women by men simply because they are women, and it is by no means rare: the death of a 16 year-old girl on International Women’s day after being burned at the hands of her partner was the 15th ‘femicide by fire‘ Argentina has seen since the start of this year and the 50th reported femicide this year overall. The 400 femicides in Cuidad Juarez during the 1990s have achieved a morbid notoriety worldwide that echoes across the literary and academic spheres.
Sexual violence and femicide is the most terrorising means of smothering the female voice and it is something women in every country in Latin America are experiencing every day. Last week, however, as the world celebrated the 100th International Women’s Day, women across Latin America raised their voices in unison to speak out for equality, integration and an end to sexual violence.
In her new role as the UN Women Executive Director, former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, made an impressive address from Monrovia, Liberia, in which she announced the celebration of a century of progress, of women using their collective voice to organise for change. She pointed to the incorporation of women into the global workforce, the electorate and public office and pledged her determination for UN Women to live up to the hopes of its creators in generating new energy and change. Alongside the likes of Ingrid Betancourt and Angela Merkel, Bachelet was listed in Newsweek’s ‘150 Women Who Shake the World‘.
Meanwhile Chile’s current first lady, Cecilia Morel, in Spain as part of the couple’s presidential visit, spoke in recognition of the work and achievements of Chilean women, pledging the government’s focus on incorporating women into the workforce and combating physical and psychological abuse. She also announced government plans to extend maternity leave, so that motherhood ceases to be an impediment to work, nor work an impediment to fulfilling aspirations of motherhood. Back in Santiago de Chile singer Myriam Hernandez performed in a free concert in the Plaza de Armas to a crowd of 5000.
In Lima the annual march organized by ‘El Colectivo Canto a la Vida’ encompassed a myriad of feminist groups, human rights organisations, and campaign groups; indigenous groups, gay rights groups and independent activists. Together they marched through the political heart of the city to culminate in a fiesta of music, speeches and performance in the Plaza San Martín. Their campaign will rally towards the impending general elections of 10th April , in a call for the legislative agenda to reflect women’s presence as half of the electorate.
In Mexico, the young female politician, Yndira Sandoval, under-secretary to the PRD party’s youth section, fasted 100 hours in memory of the murdered women of Mexico and to demand that femicide be recognised as a crime in all 32 states. Sandoval cited official figures which show a 40% increase in murders for every 100, 000 women between 2005 and 2009.
At the women’s District Prison in Bogotá the day was celebrated with a morning Eucharist, followed by a breakfast with musical performances and the screening of a film.
In Buenos Aires, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo raised a commemorative banner depicting Argentine heroine Eva Duarte Perón side by side with current president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whilst the Centre for Argentine Workers (CTA) and other groups took over the Avenida de Mayo and Avenida 9 de Julio to campaign for the legalisation of abortion and the realisation of law 26, 485 which promises “integral protection”, to the end of eradicating gender-motivated violence.
Easy enough, you might say, to rally the troops for one day. But the collective female voice continues to strengthen, as it must, across Latin America and the world. As Michelle Bachelet pointed to in her speech, evidence shows that where women have access to education, employment, land and other assets, national growth and stability are enhanced bearing witness to lower rates of maternal mortality, improved child nutrition, a lower risk of HIV/Aids and greater food security. In the face of fear and violent threat, women are coming together to initiate economic and cultural actions for change. Here are just a handful of examples:
British artist Tamsyn Challenger has drawn international attention to the brutal rape and murder of women in the border region of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico through her ambitious exhibition. She invited nearly 200 artists to create the 400 portraits of the victims. Amnesty International are producing an action postcard to accompany the project, the idea being that people sign a postcard and send it to the Mexican government. Read more here.
The International Museum of Women is an online museum dedicated to exhibiting the work and telling the stories of women from around the world. Their online economics magazine, Economica, has just launched a season of Focussing on Latin America, exhibiting some of the most exciting new work from female artists from Mexico, Costa Rica and Argentina. Details of all their projects can be found at their website.
Participatory work cooperatives are being forged among women themselves, such as the Coopa-Roca in Brazil, where women from one of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest neighbourhoods are paid a fair wage to sew high-fashion garments for designers.
When the men of San Miguel Amatitlán, a small village in the Sierra Madre in southern Mexico migrated to find work, the women left behind suffering ramshackle accommodation took it upon themselves to build new, sturdy houses where they and their families could live. Despite initial scorn and prejudice from the village elders for stepping beyond the traditional female, their work has brought respect and empowerment in their community. Follow Marcela Taboada’s photo record of the work here.
In Costa Rica artist Susana Sanchez Carballo calls attention to the sex tourism industry. Although prostitution is legal in Costa Rica the women receive no legal protection and often face public prejudice and scorn.
100 million women in Latin America are working in paid jobs outside the home, this is more than ever before. Women are being elected to public office at rates which surpass that of the US and other more developed countries. For example in Costa Rica and Argentina 40% of legislators are women, compared to 17% in the US, not to mention newly elected female head of state in Brazil, the continent’s most burgeoning economy, as well as in Argentina and Costa Rica. The foundation of UN Women in July last year has already seen numerous projects being put into action across the Americas and the Caribbean.
The obstacles remain great, but there is only one option: to reclaim the collective voice of women in the fight for gender equality, be it in the semantics of ‘feminism’, in challenging legal and economic disparity, or through combating gender and sexual violence. The only option is to raise this voice until it drowns out any lingering echoes of fear, intimidation, or marginalisation.
Sophie graduated last year with a degree in German and Spanish from Wadham College, Oxford. Since then she has been working and training as a theatre director in London, but has also worked at theatres in Berlin and Buenos Aires. She hopes to work as internationally as possible, both in terms of location and material.