“The Green Scarf, Emblem Of The Struggle For Legal Abortion, Has Already Transcended Borders,” Mariela Belski, Amnesty Argentina.

By Karina Mirochnik 

“This is a victory for the women’s movement in Argentina, which has been fighting for abortion rights for decades,” said Mariela Belski, Executive Director of Amnesty International Argentina when the bill to legalize abortion was finally passed in the Argentine Senate on December 30, 2020. Until then, abortions were only permitted in cases of rape or when the mother’s health was at risk and as a result, every year, 38,000 women are hospitalized because of dangerous procedures. Ms. Belski, with other abortion rights movements like the National Campaign for the Right to a Legal Abortion, Ni Una Menos and the mighty “green wave” have been campaigning for the change for years and hope the decision will lead other countries in the region to follow suit. She says the fight for abortion rights is borderless and will expand.

Mariela Belski, Executive Director Amnesty International Argentina

Below is our Q&A with Ms Belski:

Women Across Frontiers (WAF): In December, Argentina became the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion in a region where the Catholic church has a strong influence; and that was thanks to years of grassroots women’s movements and in particular, to the young Ni Una Menos movement taking to the streets. What was different this time around? How was this growing women’s movement including the work you do at Amnesty, able to put reproductive rights in the spotlight and create political reform?

Mariela Belski (MB): In recent years, women have been at the forefront of the human rights movement. Ni Una Menos marked a milestone in the participation of new generations on issues related to gender, sexuality and human rights agenda, initiating new forms and spaces of struggle. The agenda against gender violence managed to position itself as a central issue in the public agenda.

This helped prepare the ground for the historical mobilization of the women’s movement during the debate for the legalization of abortion in 2018, when the green wave (women’s rights campaigners wearing verdant green scarves) flooded the streets. It marked a turning point in the demand for women’s right to reproductive autonomy. The struggle for the legalization of abortion became a central issue in the public agenda as an outcome of a public health and human rights discourse. It was prominent in the local and international media, in schools—where young women played a key role in advancing the conversation—and it entered into the family homes. Although the Senate rejected the bill in 2018, the cultural battle was definitely won that year. Abortion ceased to be a taboo subject and became a central topic of public debate at that time.

This paved the way for the 2019 presidential and legislative elections to include the sexual and reproductive rights agenda. Candidates, for the first time in history, were not able to avoid announcing their position on abortion, because it was demanded by their constituency, who wanted to know if their representatives were committed to defending their reproductive rights. For that reason, the presentation of the bill on the voluntary interruption of pregnancy by the Executive Power was the product of the struggle of the women´s movement and an empowered citizenship committed to social, gender, and reproductive justice.

The power of the women’s movement was joined by human rights, social organizations and unions. Important figures in the cultural arena, academia, religious groups, young people, and journalists, also joined the cause. It is difficult to assess the specific weight of each of these groups, but it is certain that the sum of so many diverse voices was decisive.

Another important aspect was to make the struggle for the legalization of abortion a mainstream issue for different political forces. The legal interruption of a pregnancy, as had happened in the debate on equal marriage in 2010, broke the classic partisan loyalties and made it possible to reach the necessary number of votes. During the las 10 years, Amnesty International Argentina has joined this struggle. We have undertaken provocative, cutting-edge research on the criminalization of abortion, and actively promoted the effective exercise of sexual and reproductive rights.  We have also engaged in litigation regarding the criminalization of women for having abortions, and the healthcare providers for enabling access to abortions. Amnesty International Argentina participated in the public debate around legalization of abortion, engaged in international advocacy, worked to apply international human rights standards at the local level, and helped promote human rights education on sexual and reproductive rights to young people. Amnesty International Argentina also facilitated transnational conversations about sexual and reproductive rights to share knowledge and experiences, build relationships, and not only bringing expertise to the local level, but strong communications and campaigning strategies to position abortion at the forefront of the public agenda.

Photo Credit: Amnesty International Argentina

WAF: You have said that “another difficult battle starts now which is the implementation of this law; and the fight is going to be harder.” Could you explain? 

MB: The recognition of the legal right to have an abortion, which allows voluntary termination of pregnancy up to 14 weeks of gestation, is undoubtedly an historic step in the realization of the human rights of women and girls, but there are still important challenges ahead in order to guarantee its effective implementation. The Argentine law incorporated at the federal level, the recognition of abortion and post-abortion care as a free and mandatory service of the health system, which must be guaranteed both in the public and private sectors, within a maximum of 10 days from the moment it is requested and in all the forms recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). In this way, the law establishes a guarantee of minimum basic rights that must be guaranteed throughout the country under equal conditions.

Despite the democratic consensus that was achieved, there are certain sectors that seek to hinder access to legal abortion and have initiated legal actions in different jurisdictions of the country to block the implementation of the law. Undoubtedly, there is hard work ahead of us to defend the law in the courts and to demand active policies for the effective implementation of the law in all the provinces of the country.

For an effective exercise of the right to an abortion, it will be essential to carry out massive campaigns to ensure that females have access to accurate and reliable information and to provide them with tools to demand access to their rights. It will also be necessary to strengthen access to comprehensive sex education, as an indispensable tool for girls and adolescents to make free and informed decisions about their bodies.  It will also be necessary to train health care providers, teachers and agents of the judiciary with a gender perspective.

I do not want to be pessimistic, but I imagine that the exercise of the right to abort a pregnancy by girls and adolescents will be a matter of judicial dispute, despite the fact that the law recognizes their right to autonomous consent for voluntary termination of pregnancy practices, when this practice does not imply a serious risk to their health or life. Our country has high rates of forced child pregnancy. In 2018, there were 2350 girls under the age of 15 years old who gave birth, mostly as a result of sexual abuse. Although the law provided for the right to access legal termination of pregnancy in such a case, the barriers to access this right are many. These barriers include: the violation of the duty of doctor-patient confidentiality; delays and  obstruction in getting legal information; abuse of conscientious objection and state tolerance of bad faith behavior of health providers and public officials; and the influence of the church on national and local governments, among other things.

United Nations experts have praised the adoption of this law, recognizing it as a model for the region and other countries in the world. They have also warned of the need to adopt measures to guarantee its application throughout the country and have expressed their concern about the articles referring to conscientious objection. In this sense, they have pointed out that conscientious objection should not become a new barrier that prevents women and girls from accessing abortion services at the appropriate time.

Supporters of legalizing abortion celebrating outside Congress in Buenos Aires on December 30, 2020. Photo Credit: Amnesty International Argentina

WAF: Argentina’s abortion legalization could have ripple effects throughout the Americas, you called it “an inspiration to the Americas”, how soon do you think this should happen before it loses momentum? 

Our country historically had, and still has, a strong role in setting the regional agenda with laws that expand rights.  It is expected that this progress will have an impact on countries such as Chile, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, where the women’s movement has also been growing stronger.

The green scarf, emblem of the struggle for legal abortion, has already transcended borders. In each country the women’s movement has put its own distinctive identity stamp on it, but there is a clear message: the green tide is unstoppable, it feeds back, strengthens and is inspired by the experiences of neighboring countries.

I believe that the way of sustaining the momentum for the legalization of abortion in Argentina is to keep the issue on the public agenda. To do so, it is important to be creative, explore new forms of activism and advocacy and strengthen the involvement of new generations. It is also important to continue to raise awareness about the impact of the criminalization of abortion and to position the issue as a matter of public health and human rights.

The strength of the Latin American women’s movement lies in the fact that it is a plural, diverse, and intergenerational movement that has demonstrated its resilience and its ability to build networks and work in alliance on a local and international level. That is a special characteristic of the women’s movement. That movement has been growing, and learning.  It started quite small, but learned that we win when we are more.

WAF: In the US, reproductive rights have been under assault. During the last 4 years, several states have passed increasingly restrictive laws dealing with women’s reproductive rights, including access to abortion. As ambassador for the global women’s rights movement She Decides, what do you see as the strengths and the challenges of the different feminist movements that exist around the world?

MB: We have seen the backlashes on sexual and reproductive rights around the world not just in the US.  Take a look on what’s going on in Germany right now for example.  Anti-choice activists increased their presence on political parties, universities, civil society associations, the judicial branch, international human rights protection organizations, and in the media. Co-opting human rights frames, they spread false information that is not based on scientific evidence, but that manages to permeate society through the use of social networks and social media. Brandishing the slogans “Let’s Save the Two Lives,” and “Don’t Mess with My Children,” these groups have become more organized in their efforts to reverse basic human rights agreements, including access to a legal abortion and the implementation of comprehensive sex education. But one of the main weaknesses of anti-choice groups is that they rely on hate speech and violence to impose their ideas.

Women’s struggle for autonomy over their bodies and their lives transcends any political, social and religious dispute. This cultural battle, requires modification of deeply rooted structural inequalities. To do so, it is necessary to continue fighting for the following: access to comprehensive sex education; work on the deconstruction of stereotypes about the role of women, in the media; achieve representation of women in decision making positions; modify laws and policies that deepen gender inequality; and fight against gender-based violence in all its forms.

Photo Credit: Amnesty International Argentina

The challenge for the women’s movement is to prevent these conservative groups from building a polarizing discourse that divides society and pits one group against the other. The reality is that anti-abortion laws do not stop or reduce abortions, but they do make them dangerous.

When carried out with the assistance of a trained health-care provider, insanitary conditions, abortions are one of the safest medical procedures available. But when abortions are restricted or criminalized, people are forced to seek unsafe ways to end pregnancies. It is estimated that worldwide, five million women are hospitalized each year for treatment of abortion-related complications and about 47,000 women die. The US has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, and states with more restrictive abortion laws already have higher rates of both infant and maternal mortality. Being part of a diverse movement comprised of public officials, young activists, people form the private sectors, ministers, as She Decides movement is, is a way of faithing for women’s issues from a very international, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary space and way.

The women’s movement is leading the defense of human rights and raising awareness about a serious public health problem. Their struggle and resilience are inspiring and motivating their peers in many countries around the world, as has been demonstrated by the spreading of the green wave throughout Latin America and around the world. The women’s movement is empowered and has been strengthened by the involvement of younger generations with their prominent force for fighting for the recognition of their rights. They use provocative and creative ways of activism to position abortion at the forefront of the public agenda and have the backing of the women’s movement network around the world. We will not rest until all women can make free and informed decisions about their bodies.

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