National Women’s Meeting in Argentina: on our way to Constitutional power
By Luxx Marina |
For thirty-three years women, lesbians, travestis*, trans and non-binaries met again and again at the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres (National Women’s Meeting). From the beginning in 1986, when 1000 women gathered at the San Martín Theater, the Encuentro has not stopped growing and never stopped its march. Tens of thousands of people organize their year based on the October trip. The host city is flooded by the presence of women and dissidence. Schools are transformed into collective homes. Machismo always reacts, however. Alarmist campaigns from the Catholic and evangelical churches, repression and intimidation from the police, attacks and aggressions on the part of male neighbors, are some of the usual responses. But solidarity always wins. We meet with joy and we participate with enthusiasm. For many, this is the most intense and rewarding moment of the year.
*Travesti is the political identity of some groups in Argentina, which appropriated this slur to remember and honor their fight for identity rights. They do not consider themselves tans women, but a different gender entirely.
Fires of October
The workshops of the Encuentro Nacional are the coven where magic is produced. Over two days, a protective blanket covers the classrooms where the discussion takes place. It is the collective power to take care of each other, to approach with the will to meet each other. The conclusions recorded each year make up a library of over three decades of gender knowledge. From personal and political experiences, from wounds and healings, from experiences and reflections. It is not easy to create and sustain horizontal, self-managed and democratic spaces. Often the participants ourselves turn them into a space of dispute. But we keep insisting. We continue learning.
The road to the Women’s Meeting is not free of obstacles. Over the years, the Organizing Commissions, which are self-convened in each city, repeatedly face bureaucratic obstacles, attempts at religious boycott, bus and travel agency scams, intimidating controls, attacks on buses, schools and loose people, and repression during marches. None of this stops us. On the contrary, every year we sing more strongly “What a moment, despite everything, we made the Encuentro!”. In spite of everything and everyone. Because women, lesbians, travestis, trans and non-binaries, when we get together, we are powerful and that power spills all over the country after returning from each Encuentro Nacional.
Those of us who participated for several years in a row (not to mention those who have perfect or almost perfect attendance during the 33 years of Meetings), have frequently heard the complaint that the meetings “are not resolutive” or that they are “meetings of catharsis” that do not have a plan of struggle as an immediate result. The reality shows that such affirmations are erroneous, but these criticisms also show a lack of understanding of the fundamental bases of the Encuentro Nacional. The workshops of the National Women’s Meeting are not plenary sessions or assemblies, although both are held in other areas of the Encuentro. The exclusion of the voting method has the objective of registering all points of view, and exercising the skills of conciliation and consensus. The conclusions of the workshops are not binding: neither for the participants of the workshop, nor for the Organizing Commision, nor for the participants of the Meeting. Those proposals and statements that are in fact put into practice, are so for the voluntary and self-managed adherence of women, lesbians, travestis and trans who feel called to do so.
Personal and political postcards
The National Meetings are, of course, permeable to the country’s political climates. The first Encuentros breathed the hope and expectations of a newly recovered democracy. During the year 2000, at the XV Encuentro, there was a massive participation of women picketers and popular movements. In 2005, the venue chosen for the XX Women’s Meeting was the city of Mar del Plata, less than a month before the 4th Summit of the Americas, presided by Néstor Kirchner and resulting in the rejection of the FTAA. The Kirchnerist phenomenon was thus introduced, partly by the women from that movement who joined the Encuentro, partly by participants of the Encuentros who joined the Kirchnerist ranks. The XXX National Meeting in 2015 was held again in the city of Mar del Plata, days before the first electoral round that would mark the beginning of the triumph of Mauricio Macri. This XXXIII National Meeting in Trelew, Chubut, was the most southern held so far, and also the first since the safe and free abortion bill was debated in the National Congress.
All these events influenced the climate, the development and the conclusions of the National Women’s Meetings. But the Encuentro is a construction that goes far beyond the political conjunctures. It is a long-term work whose roots reach the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the World Conferences of Women. Among its fruits we can name the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, the massive mobilizations under the slogan Ni Una Menos, and the (first National and then International) Women’s Strike.
However, these fruits are not the main objective of the Encuentros. Its reason for being is the generation of a space of care, power and consensus for the most violated and excluded people. The heart of the Meeting are the workshops, where feminist practices are forged in the here and now. But the Encuentro begins when each group of women is gathered, bags in hand, to start the trip every year. The buses, the schools, the corridors, the streets, the fairs, all these spaces are transformed into places of meetings and solidarity. There we share meals, mates, cleaning or writing elements: everything that is needed. We also share stories, personal anecdotes, scars of violence, experiences of previous meetings. Knowledge circulates at speeds unthinkable for patriarchy, unknown women become sisters, we all learn together to take care of ourselves. We feel and we know ourselves to be powerful.
The Feminist Agenda is on fire
The national debate on legal, safe and free abortion, showed the real power of the debates in workshops, and the flexibility of the National Meeting to allow all of us participate. The road was long. We faced the resounding opposition of the Catholic Church, which in the XII Encounter of San Juan in 1997 made a parallel “Encuentro” in an attempt to distract from the real one. He also sent “infiltrators” since then to obstruct the debates in the new workshop “Contraception and Abortion”. Subsequently, the conformation of the workshop “Strategies for the legalization of abortion” was held at the Encuentro of Rosario in 2003, and the symbol of the green handkerchief was inaugurated during the march that year. The conformation of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was consolidated, after repeated assemblies in the Encuentros, in Mendoza in 2004. It took more than a decade and 7 project presentations, for the law to be debated in the Congress -and all of society.
In the last three years, there has been a notable increase in attendance at the Educación Sexual Integral (Comprehensive Sexual Education) workshop, whose 2006 law has yet to be fully and consistently applied throughout the country. The group of educators Comando ESI, in addition, suffered this year an attack in the form of political sabotage. They stole a bag of full of brochures, booklets, markers, posters with slogans, paper tape, packaging tapes, garlands, a megaphone and folding tables, plus some personal items. “All of these amount to two years of self-managed work. What we did with so much effort, so much dedication, so much love, making raffles to raise money to buy inks, papers, borrowing the guillotine and spending hours and nights, whole afternoons cutting everything, ringing until the back hurts, then continue cutting papers, almanacs… collective effort, self-managed material, work days. They have taken everything from us, we have nothing,” explained Guadalupe Ruiz, one of its members.
The debate about prostitution is also advancing, originally covered in the workshops “Trafficking and sexual exploitation” and “Women in a situation of prostitution”. During the organization of the XXXI Meeting the workshop “Sex Workers” was included in the official roll after an ostentation of political force of the organization AMMAR-CTA before the Organizing Commission of Rosario, in 2016. Since then, the workshop has been criticized for not respecting the horizontal and circular dynamics of the Women’s Meeting, monopolizing the word and the conclusions in a few organized colleagues, and used as a space for dissemination and propaganda of a single organization. This concern was brought by several participants to the workshops on trafficking and prostitution in Trelew, disillusioned by the lack of collective participation experienced in the workshop on sex work. Meanwhile, in the horizontal workshops, the National Campaign Against Trafficking and the Prostitution System was created.
Another debate very present in the National Women’s Meeting of Trelew was the claim of a sector of the indigenous women to rename the Encuentro as Plurinational. From the Movement of Indigenous Women For Good Living they extended a statement on October 11, denouncing racist abuse by the Organizing Commission, and their refusal to propose a decision by ovation during the closing (the way venues are chosen) to rename to the Encuentro as “Plurinational”. This claim was reflected in flags and posters all over the city of Trelew, and even in the conclusions of many workshops which, as we said before, are not binding. The Women of the Originarian Peoples in Fight, responded in a communiqué of their own that many indigenous people have participated from the very beginning in the organization of the Encuentros. “The concept of National, even if it comes from Nation, if the name were “National Meeting of Argentinean Women”, it would be an assimilationist error, discriminating against women of nations and indigenous peoples, and women and peoples of sister countries that live in Argentina. But this is not the case. Nacional refers to the Meeting being held: “in Argentina”, the country where originarian peoples and nations coexist with the people of the Argentinean nation” the statement reads, and adds: “The proposal of a sector of indigenous sisters should be taken into account on the pillars of the Encuentros. Today, as a result of practice, experience and advances in consciousness, it should be defined as plurinational. It is correct and we propose that it be incorporated as the third condition: autonomous, self-convened, plurinational, horizontal, pluralist, self-financed, democratic and federal.”
The centralist pressure of the City of Buenos Aires was felt, as every year, by presenting the city as possible new host city. As every year, the argument was to bring the demonstration of power of the women’s march to the “center of political power” of the country. As every year, the representatives were booed by the crowd. The applause gave the winner to the city of La Plata. The federalism of the Encuentro is a living doctrine, and the reasons cited for choosing the Capital as the venue are the same explicit reasons why the Encuentros are federal in the first place. The march of the Meeting is not the main objective, but a way to make them visible in the city where they take place. It does not look for a media impact, nor do we want it to be capitalized by a few representatives in Buenos Aires.
The metropolitan area of Buenos Aires concentrates almost 30% of the total population of the country. The Women’s Meeting seeks to take the debate workshops to those places where the freedom, diversity and visibility of Buenos Aires is not experienced. It would be a contradiction, therefore, to be held in the Capital city, especially taking into account that two meetings have already been held in it (in 1986 and 1996), and another four in the Province of Buenos Aires: in La Plata in 2001, and in Mar del Plata in 1991, 2005 and 2015. The only other city in the country that hosted the Encuentro three times is Rosario, located less than 300 km from the city of Buenos Aires. To this we must add the fact that there are still seven provinces that have never yet hosted the Women’s Meeting: Catamarca, Formosa, La Pampa, La Rioja, San Luis, Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego.
Federal and Constituent
The insistence of postulating the City -and as a contingency plan, the Province- of Buenos Aires, as a venue for the National Women’s Meeting reflects the monopolistic and asymmetric thinking of the metropolis itself. But it also illustrates the lack of understanding of some political parties and organizations regarding the principles and methodologies of the Encuentro. The political dispute is not just about political capital and the demonstration of power that is the march of women. Buenos Aires would give the advantage of closeness for the abundant organizations that year after year invade the workshops, regardless of the issue or the people present, to give their previously produced speeches. They try to establish the voting methodology in order to impose conclusions that do not come out of the dialogue, but are brought from outside of the Encuentro instead. They burst in to talk and convince, but not to listen, and therefore the very essence of the Meeting escapes them. They militate the Encuentros as if they were partisan or student elections, with a mixture of ignorance and indifference regarding the methodologies of the National Meeting and its raison d’être.
This type of centralist thinking cannot perceive that we seek to dismantle the monopoly of Buenos Aires, not reinforce it. Although the road be long, we are not taking any shortcuts. This debate was also present in the assemblies of the International Women’s Strike, when the City of Buenos Aires tried to assume the leadership of the entire movement. Despite the organization and resistance, they managed to co-opt some cities in the country so they responded to the groups of the Capital, especially those that would guarantee access to the media. This issue is also present in the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, which has been working for 13 years while avoiding being dominated by the political parties and the organizations from Buenos Aires.
From all this learning in an autonomous, self-convoked, horizontal, pluralistic, self-financed, democratic and federal organization, the Constituyente Feminista (Feminist Constituent) emerges. This project is born from the dialogue among participants of the National Women’s Meeting, the assemblies of the National (and later on, International) Women’s Strike, and from the work and illusions of hundreds of women in the whole country. The political and human experience of the Encuentro Nacional is the expression of an original constituent power, never exercised until now by women and diversities. Thus the Feminist Constituent disembarked in the Forum for a New Constitution, which brings together constitutionalists such as Eduardo Barcesat and Gustavo Ferreyra, the head of Legitimate Justice and retired judge María Laura Garrigós de Rébori, and the former judge of the Supreme Court and constituent of the 1994 Constitutional reform, Raúl Zaffaroni, among others.
Looking back, we can see it was the long path of feminism and the movement of women and diversities which has brought us to this new peak of collective consciousness. There can be no truly egalitarian laws based on an unequal and excluding National Constitution. We want and can re-found the nation, the Matria, in full equality and recognition of rights. This can not be done under the tutelage of the City of Buenos Aires, which historically monopolized the resources and administration of the country.
“The current constitutional model does not represent us. It suffers from an illegitimacy of origin, form and substance. The current Constitution can not be solved with a reform” expresses the collective document read by the general coordinator of the Feminist Constituent, the gender lawyer Graciela Álvarez Agudo, at the closing of the Forum for a New Constitution,” it is not enough that they mention us in a Constitution, we must guarantee the effective exercise of our rights in a new institutional order. We will not be the appendix neither of the present nor of the future, we come to co-construct, to solidarize, to weave in community, union, in peace and for peace.”
Women, lesbians, travestis, trans and non-binaries in Argentina are awake and conscious. And we’re going for everything.