Rage boils over amid Argentina’s unrelenting femicide crisis
Femicide of 18-year-old Ursula Bahillo pushed thousands into the streets of Buenos Aires this month to demand action.
Buenos Aires, Argentina – The women huddle close, crane their necks and take photos of the ornate advertising stand in the core of Argentina’s capital city that has been papered over with posters of men accused or convicted of murdering women.
The word “FEMICIDA” – woman killer – screams out in large black letters under each name.
The posters, like the thousands who gathered outside the Supreme Court of Argentina last week in protest, are a measure of the rage that exists in the country over rampant levels of violence against women.
It was the murder of 18-year-old Ursula Bahillo that pushed the women’s movement into the streets on February 17 in numbers not seen since Argentina’s Congress legalised elective abortion in December. This time, the mood was much more sombre.
Bahillo was killed in her hometown of Rojas, in the province of Buenos Aires, on February 8. Her ex-boyfriend, police officer Matias Ezequiel Martinez, has been charged with femicide, with the aggravating factors of premeditation and cruelty.
“We want to be able to walk the streets without having to look over our shoulders,” said Fabiana Costa, a 26-year-old mother who lives in Quilmes, on the outskirts of the capital city, standing with a sign calling for “feminist judicial reform” outside the Supreme Court.
Advocates say Bahillo’s case has been a lightning rod because it clearly demonstrates the many ways the state is failing to protect women.
She had filed several police complaints against her ex-boyfriend and obtained a restraining order that was not enforced. The last time she went to authorities to report a complaint, she was told they did not work on weekends and that she would have to come back another day. On the following Monday, the day her panic button was slated to arrive, she was dead.
An autopsy revealed Bahillo was stabbed 15 times in the back, torso and neck with a butcher’s knife that was found at the scene. Martinez, her ex-boyfriend, was found in the same rural area where her body was discovered, with a self-inflicted stab wound.
Since Bahillo’s death, more cases of femicide have been reported across Argentina. The body of Ivana Modica was found buried behind a hotel in the city of La Falda, in the province of Cordoba, after her ex-boyfriend confessed to the crime. Miriam Beatriz Farias, who was lit on fire in the city of Cordoba by her partner, also a police officer, died of her injuries.
On Tuesday night, Guadalupe Curual, 21, was stabbed to death on a busy street in the southern city of Villa La Angostura, reportedly by an ex-boyfriend whom she had also obtained a restraining order against.
“The cases are everywhere. We all have a neighbour, or someone we know, who has gone through it, who is living it now, but the judicial system doesn’t do anything about it,” said Costa at the Buenos Aires rally.
“You go to make a complaint at the police station, and they just look at you. They record your complaint and that’s it. The restraining order never arrives. [Or] it arrives after the person is already gone. We want to live.”
High rates of violence against women triggered a new wave of activism for Argentina’s feminist movement in 2015, after the body of 14-year-old Chiara Paez was found buried in the yard of her boyfriend’s family. The pent-up outrage drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets under the banner of #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less).
The movement seeks to eradicate gender-based violence and has spread across several Latin American countries.
Nearly 300 femicides were reported in the country in 2020, according to organisations tracking cases through the media. In the first 52 days of 2021, there have been 43 femicides and transfemicides, according to Mumala, a feminist organisation that tallies the cases. Of those, 38 were direct victims and five were children or other people connected to the woman who was killed.
But the crisis stretches across beyond Argentina. Most countries in Latin America have modified their laws so that the murder of a woman appears specifically as a femicide in the criminal code or is considered an aggravating factor to a homicide.
Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic recorded the highest rates of femicide in the region in 2019, with more than six women killed per 100,000 people in Honduras, and around three killed in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
In Mexico, an average of 10 women are killed every day.
“Femicides are the bloodiest expression of a machista society that we must end once and for all,” Argentine President Alberto Fernandez said on Twitter on the day of the protest in front of the Supreme Court.
He met with Bahillo’s parents and announced a plan to create a federal council for the prevention of femicides, transvesticides and transfemicides. Its mandate will be to coordinate an integrated response to the issue by different government agencies.
“We know that the state has a duty to guarantee the prevention, the assistance, the sanction and reparation of gender-based violence, but we also need everyone to adopt a cultural change that eliminates violent machismo in all aspects of our lives,” the president wrote in a letter to the country’s governors.
But for many, the council is not going to cut it.
Soledad Deza, a well-known lawyer from the province of Tucuman who has worked extensively on women’s rights, said Argentina already has a Ministry of Women, Genders and Diversity and does not need to create more organisations.
Instead, she said the focus must be on prevention. “We tend to think that violence is a private problem. Violence is a political, social and cultural problem that is built on patterns of inequality, patterns that enable violent masculinities,” she told Al Jazeera.
For her, education that breaks those cultural patterns at an early age is crucial. The government also needs to ensure that a gender-based approach permeates all corners of the state.
Argentina has a law that makes training on gender-based violence mandatory across the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, but Deza said the sheer number of femicides this year indicates much more is required.
“We need public policies, and we need effective implementation of those public policies, so that what we have works,” she said, adding more men need to be involved in discussions about how to prevent, eradicate and sanction this violence.
“Since they are part of the problem, they need to be part of the solution.”
‘More of the same’
For Marta Montero, what she is hearing from the government is “more of the same”.
The 2016 murder and rape of her 16-year-old daughter, Lucia Perez, became an emblematic case of femicide in Argentina. Three men were acquitted of her sexual abuse and femicide, and two were convicted only of administering drugs. A new trial has since been ordered.
Montero is now a member of a group of families of femicide victims that is seeking an audience with the government to improve what she described as a painful, labyrinthine journey families must take in search of justice for their loved ones.
There is not enough help or financial support for the legal battle, she said, and the swift justice they seek seldom arrives.
“I don’t need the state to spend money pointlessly on people who talk. As families of victims of femicides, we want actions. We want things to get done, we want things that are concrete,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Why do we have to spend three, or four or five years bouncing around looking for justice?” she said. “I need the state to get to work, to take responsibility for the deaths, the orphans, families that end up destroyed.”