Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.
Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights work around the world.
And in this episode, we’re in South America
- first to hear the extraordinary story of the long struggle to legalize abortion in Argentina
- and later in our Coda: a Brazilian Samba that wasn’t what it seemed
Part One: Interview
AA: On almost the last day of 2020, Argentina’s women won an incredible victory. This Catholic country – home nation of Pope Francis – saw its Congress vote on December the 30th to legalize abortion, and not by a whisker. The Senate voted 38 to 29 in favor, where only two years earlier it had voted the bill down. The movement to make abortion legal has roots going back decades and mobilized hundreds of thousands of people. And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Argentina’s women became globally known for their courageous human rights movement; the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo demanding to know the whereabouts of the tens of thousands of people disappeared by its military regimes. Huge numbers of women continue to be engaged in civic activism, alongside other civil society, groups and unions. I really wanted to understand how this campaign was waged and won in a period in which activists elsewhere in the world have had to absorb so many defeats. So I called someone who’s been deep in the movement, Victoria Tesoriero, who worked in both Catholics for choice and the national campaign for the right to legal, safe, and free abortion over several years.
AA: So welcome Victoria.
VT: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure.
AA: So this victory, for the right to have an abortion was pretty extraordinary, particularly in a Catholic country that has had some reputation for conservatism; and the campaign that you built was obviously extraordinary too. So I’ve been trying to understand what were the critical ingredients in this campaign, because it’s been going on now, I think for many decades. Something obviously changed in the last five years that led to this success – what is that?
VT: First of all, we can’t ignore the history of feminist activism in Argentina, which is very powerful. We have had national women’s meetings every year since 1986 – a meeting that started with a thousand women and now we are a hundred thousand women going every year to a different province, and that allowed us to make a movement that is not just in the city of Buenos Aires: it’s in every province because that meeting takes place every year in a different province during three days – so that is very important. And then, I think that the most important thing of the national campaign for legal abortion is the strategy of alliances – to look for alliances in other movements, in other organized sectors, such as neighborhood organizations, political organizations, students movements, unions, universities, professional groups: many, many, many groups that we look for them to support legal abortion because 15 years ago when the campaign started, nobody was talking about abortion and abortion was very linked to murder, and it was a very tough issue. So we did, a slow and very specific work to join more people and more organizations.
AA: Could you say something about leadership of this campaign? How was it organized?
VT: A group of women in the national women’s meeting first in Mendoza, and then in the province of Santa Fe, they decided to launch a national campaign for legal abortion that in the first time would, would last, five months from May 28th to September 28th, 2005. And there was a meeting of 70 organizations to launch, women’s organizations, unions, well, I mean, women from unions – women from human rights organizations. And they decided that we have to be identified by something, and they thought about this green scarf. It was green because, we don’t have a party with green, or we don’t have anything with green. So green was the color of life; was the color of hope; and no political space has green on their under brand, let’s say.
AA: It’s very interesting. It makes me remember the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo who always wore white. Was that a deliberate reference to connect with that history?
VT: Yes. And it was connected because we wanted to join our fight with the historic fight of human rights in our country and the mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo were a strong reference for us. So it was very important to link with their strategy of the scarf. And other thing was that the scarf was very important for us to identify which women were supporting legal abortion because at that time, not every woman from the movement was supporting legal abortion, so it was a strategy to recognize each other… They started to call all the activists in the provinces, and they built a group of activists who were lawyers also. And they started to write a bill and to present it in the Congress. In 2006, we had the bill, and then in 2007, we started to try to take that bill to the Congress. So in the Argentinian legislation, you can present a bill if you join like many thousands of signs from people to support that bill.
AA: I see. So if you don’t have the support of a specific representative, if you have enough signatures, it gets onto the business agenda anyway –
VT: Yeah, so we started with a little tables on the street to join support from people and some activities. But in 2008, we finally get the support of five deputies from different parties – from the Peronism, from the socialism, from very different political spaces, so we started with that. Every two years, if the project was not discussed, we had to present it again. That’s how we arrived to the conclusion that not only we have to prepare the social conditions for legal abortion, but also we have to prepare the politicians to create the conditions in the super structure of the politics and our country. So we have to visit senators, deputies, decision-making people, people from the ministry of health and we started to convince more deputies. And we arrived to the signs of 70 –
AA: 70 signatures
VT: Yes, of politicians. Our deputies camera has 257 deputies. So 70 was a very strong number. It was the project with the most support of deputies in the history of the Congress.
AA: And what year was that? How long had this taken you
VT: Oh, [laugh] well until 2018, ten years.
AA: And where do you fit into this story? Can you give me a sense of how you yourself got into it and what role you were playing?
VT: Yes. I joined the women’s movement at 21 and started to go to the national women’s meeting, and it changed me and it started to change my life. And in one of the meetings in 2007, I met the national campaign for legal abortion and I came to talk to them to see how can I join. And I started to go to the meetings in 2008 and joined more strongly in 2010. And in 2010 we launched the advocacy commission to work with the politicians. And I joined there very, very strongly. And then I joined Catholics for choice. I thought that it was an organization who has a very strategical vision about the legalization of abortion in our country and I was strongly dedicated in that commission. We prepared activities. We went to convince organizations. We called to convince unions. We thought about everything.
AA: Now I’ve read that – maybe to some people, this would be a little bit surprising – but this campaign got a big boost from another campaign, uh, somewhere around 2015, called Ni Una Menos, which was dedicated to ending gender-based violence – What was the connection between that campaign and the abortion rights campaign?
VT: The national campaign for legal abortion. I have to say that it’s not only a campaign, it works like an organization because we have strategies. We have goals every year. We decide about a strategy for every year that we discuss in the national meeting – I think that the murders of women started to be seen in our country and to be a problem for society. And in 2014, we had a scale of murders that was very terrible – very, very terrible – of kids; of little girls. And it was very shocking for the Argentine society. And one day, a journalist put on the Twitter, “Not one less. We want not one less.”
AA: And what did that mean?
VT: We don’t want one more girl dying because of being a girl, or of being a woman, we don’t want any femicide. No one dying for that.
AA: This has to end.
VT: Yes, it has to end. We have to end violence against women it’s not a passionate murder; it’s just a femicide. So that was very strong. And since the launch of the slogan of the “not one less”, a group of journalists realized that they had the power to put that on the public agenda, so they decided to make a call for a protest for June 3rd, 2015. And people were there – a lot of people, but not just activists – because of course all the activists went to that mobilization – there were the common people that it was very hard for us to reach. Just people coming out from their jobs and joining the mobilization. It was very, very strong – half a million people on the Congress at that time just spontaneously went to the mobilization. And since then, it was so powerful because no other movement has put that amount of people on the streets, even though we have a country with a history of social mobilization – of powerful unions, of powerful social movements – and no other movement has put half a million people on the street. Everyone started to talk about gender things: the gender agenda, the gender issue. And as a campaign, we tried to join to that call “Ni Una Menos” with our own slogan, that was, “Ni Una Menos Por Aborto Clandestino” – “Not one less due to clandestine abortion”.
AA: So I see, so this was the connection: here on the one side you have women and girls being killed by men; and here on the other side you have women who are pregnant, having to die as a result of going to a back street abortion because they had no other option.
VT: Yes. Let’s put into the public agenda all the things that happen to women, and all the reasons why a woman died and something that could be avoided. And I think from then on, the group of journalists who launched “Not one less”, just started to talk with the National Campaign for Legal Abortion because we were the most organized group that was fighting for a feminist agenda in the country. I mean, it was the group you can call to say, “We want to do that, what do you think, because you have activists in every province.” So that’s how we get together… And something that I have to say is that in the middle of all this, Bergoglio was declared a Pope. So we have a priest of the city of Buenos Aires declared Pope, so that was a very difficult time for us [laugh].
AA: In fact, I wanted to ask you about that because not only is it a Catholic country, but it is the country that has provided the current Pope. And I imagined…
VT: Yes, and not just a common Pope! A Pope who fights against poverty; a pope who fights against neoliberalism. It was something pretty hard for us. And sometimes we thought, well, we will never do it. We will never do it with an Argentina Pope. So we have to forget about this! [laugh]
AA: Why were you wrong? What, what, what do you think allowed you to overcome such a huge obstacle?
VT: Something that was very important for us was the new generation: The girls. When they joined the struggle for legal abortion, we said, well, there’s no point of coming back. At the beginning, like in 2012, let’s say, the girls were very hard to convince. They were with this discourse of “an abortion is a murder”. And then that changed. That changed because I think that the girls started with the sexual education agenda; the implementation of the law, of the bill that we have in our country of sexual education. So that’s how they linked with the abortion activists because they ask us for support with their workshops and activities. And they organized in 2018 when we discussed legal abortion, they organized little strikes. They stopped going to school, or they took their schools – very powerful – and they were girls like 12, 13, 15, 17, and they joined. And then they became a political actor – actress let’s say – in the scene. So that was very important.
AA: I have the impression that you downplayed in this campaign the personal rights of women, and you emphasized something more like a public health argument; a safety argument; a social or a socioeconomic argument. You had this slogan that said “the rich get abortions, the poor die”. And I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about why that choice was made, because I think in many countries, the woman’s personal right to choose has been the leading edge of the campaign.
VT: Yes. Of course we are all feminists and we support strongly. And we think that abortion, has to do with our bodies, has to do with our lives, has to do with our decisions. And it’s one of the feminists main issues because if we can’t decide on our bodies, then we can’t decide on anything else. We wanted to make a massive campaign. We don’t want to talk to feminists: We wanted to talk to common people. When we make a little book with all the arguments we have to decide which arguments we would prioritize. So we discussed it a lot and we were checking with conversations with our families, with our friends, with just common people, about, legal abortion. And we saw that the that the argument of “my body, my choice” was rejecting (by) people because we have very patriarchal societies. And, people will reject that argument. If we talk about public health and we tell people, you know, that there are many, many women in the hospital because they decide to make an abortion and they didn’t have money to go to a clinic because in the history of Argentina, all the women made an abortion and they go to clinics and they go with private doctors or to places where they pay a lot of money and, the, abortion was made. So it was something that it was a double discourse from the moral morality perception. So we decided that the public health argument; the social justice argument that has to do with the history of Argentina; and of course the human’s rights agenda was very, very strong. And so we decided to say abortion is a human right for a woman. Those three arguments were the main arguments that we used at the beginning.
AA: Let’s go back to 2018. You’ve been working at this for a decade. You have got, million people in the streets outside the Congress when the bill is presented again, but it fails. So what was your reaction at that point? You must have been very disappointed.
VT: The first reaction is that there’s nothing else we can do. There’s nothing else. We did everything we could. We lost the Parliament discussion, but we win the streets. We won the public opinion. We win the girls. We win the journalists. We lost, but we really win. We were starting an electoral year in 2019, and we said, we have to make abortion to get into the platform of all the parties. And we will do it. We will do it. We made a change of society. We arrived to a huge change. We make political parties look old. We make organizations to look old. We could engage thousands of girls around the country, around the region, around the world. We made such a huge thing that there’s no chance to lose it.
AA: So that was the moment that the presidential election, comes forward. And you have support from a presidential candidate.
VT: Incredible! The first time in history that we have support with our president, the first time. And it’s not the party or the candidate. It was us. We make the candidates have to position about this issue. So it was our power, our power as a movement.
AA: So president Alberto Fernandez is elected at the end of 2019 and early in 2020, you have him saying, I’m putting my own bill forward to legalize abortion.
VT: Yes. I promised that on the electoral campaign, Abortion will be legal in our country. I don’t want any girl, a woman to die because of an abortion. And it was very, very historical for us.
AA: I, I feel that your story, the story of this campaign is a huge vindication of having a strong strategy. That it’s not just about building passion and support among voters. It’s about having a plan; identifying the alliances that you think are important and going out and working for them; and keeping that strategic process going on throughout a decade. You have this history of a very passionate and decentralized women’s movement. Did you receive negative feedback from people who thought that you were trying to exert too much pressure from the top – too strong a strategy, not respecting the grassroots to go however they wanted to go? Did you experience any skepticism from the movement about this very strong strategic approach?
VT: I don’t think we have very, very big problems with the movement. On the contrary, we have very open spaces to discuss the strategy. There were many, many spaces to discuss all the things that the activist add was value. We didn’t reject any strategy. For example, we have groups that started to talk about abortion in the union or a public library or any public space to say how to have an abortion with pills, and how to get the pills. it was a strong strategy because you can go to jail and they did it. And it was a very, very important strategy because it started to put on the street that we can talk about the abortion: “Let’s talk about it. Just take abortion out of the closet. There are pills that you can take to have an abortion at your home.” And so there were many actions who add value and make the campaign stronger, I think, and we didn’t have trouble with the activists. We have trouble at the beginning with the political parties and with some unions or with some groups, but we didn’t have problems with the movement.
AA: So you’ve had this incredible victory – what are you going to do?
VT: We launched another organization to, to work with the participation of women – how women and involved in different causes just change things: change the politics, change the social spaces; change the institutions. We are involved very strongly with the press; the abortion; the women in jail for abortion – we want to work that. We’ll keep working on the feminist agenda. And personally I wanted to run for a deputy. I wanted to run for the Congress because we, as women, we feel more comfortable in the movements, not in the institutional politics. We have to change the institutional politics that are very masculine spaces, and we can make many things from there to change our conditions. We are a lot of women who are convinced of that and we have to get involved.
Okay. Victoria, thank you so much.
Well, thank you. Take care.
Part Two: The Coda
AA: Time for our Coda, in which someone active in the human rights field shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. This week, it’s the turn of Brazilian activist, Alessandra Orofino, who wanted to tell us about a song dating from 1970 during the military dictatorship in her country. Although it was already a couple of decades old by the time Alessandra was born, she grew up hearing it around the house and eventually learned the story of how it sent a veiled message of hope to Brazilians.
“Apesar de Voce” by Chico Buarque
Alessandra Orofino: This is a song by a Brazilian artist called Chico Buarque. He’s one of the greatest, songwriters and artists of the 20th century in Brazil. And he wrote a lot and recorded a lot of songs during the military dictatorship, which ran from 1964 until the late eighties. And one of the things that makes him special is that he was sometimes censored, but he was actually able to get away with a lot of his most political songs, because it was kind of clever about how he hid the political meaning of the songs behind these seemingly simple love songs or other kinds of music.
AO: This is a samba and this is a traditional sort of Brazilian rhythm. And it talks about a someone – he never really names the person he is directing his words to – he essentially positioned this as being about a bad break-up and someone getting a divorce or something, or having gone through an abusive relationship or something like that, and breaking free. He says that in spite of that person, tomorrow will be another day. And then he proceeds to describe what that they will look like and how happy he will be and how much love there will be, but really it was about the military dictators. And I just think it’s kind of amazing that the censorship office never really understood this.
AO: Of course the song is just fun. It’s good to dance to, it’s not heavy, you know, he is describing a difficult situation, a difficult political situation, but not in a heavy, sad way, there’s a lot of joy in it. And I think that joy can be very subversive, and keeping that joy in difficult times can be a revolutionary act, in many ways.
AO: Brazil has a long tradition of singer-songwriters, and in many ways they’re like poets, but they put their words into song. And that’s been a fixture of Brazilian popular music for a really long time, especially in samba which was a rhythm that was outlawed, literally outlawed, for a long time. In Rio, if you were carrying a samba instrument, that would be considered a reason for the police to stop you and arrest you. I think that this ability that the Brazilian people famously have to combine party and festivity with real indignation and action, I think is really striking to me. And it’s not a cliché, it’s true. It’s a country that knows how to party, but it also knows how to organize. And I think that these two things come together very well in song in Brazilian popular music.
AO: Brazil is definitely living through a period of renewed authoritarianism. I don’t think we are quite at the place that we were, in the military dictatorship period yet, but I do think there are enough worrying signs… When I’m going through my most difficult moments, I just remind myself that, you know, this too shall pass and the artistes of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies and ‘eighties in Brazil, I think, often remind us of that – they were able to keep their work going, and their art going.
AA: Apesar de Voce by Chico Buarque, celebrated Brazilian musician and novelist. Our thanks to Alessandra Orofino for those reflections, you can find out more about the song and Chico Buarque himself, on our podcast page.
AA: Okay. That’s all from this sixth episode of Strength and Solidarity. Check out our website for more on whatever you hear on the podcast, and we’d love your feedback. Wherever you access us, you’ll find a link to tell us how we’re doing or make a suggestion and please, yes, add us to your podcast library and give us a rating. For now, though, thanks to our producer, Peter Coccoma, I’m Akwe Amosu. Until next time.