Will Argentina's 'Not one less' protests make change in Latin America?

After 16-year-old Lucia Perez was killed in Argentina early this month, anti-violence advocates took to the streets on Wednesday to protest violence against women. 

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
A woman takes part in a march in Mexico City, Mexico, on Wednesday to protest violence against women and the murder of a 16-year-old girl in a coastal town of Argentina last week. The sign reads, 'We want to live.'

Thousands of Argentinians across the country and in dozens of cities worldwide donned black clothing on Wednesday and protested in the memory of Argentinian teenager Lucia Perez, a 16-year-old who was raped and murdered earlier this month.

Lucia’s death occurred at a time when public outrage about violence against women is finally gaining traction as local media continue to spotlight the issue and Argentina’s legislators draft new laws to protect women. The breadth of Wednesday’s outcry is leading some to hope that the "Black Wednesday" protests will not only be seen as a political statement but also lead to lasting change in Latin American society, long criticized for its entrenched machismo culture.

"This is an important moment of progress in Argentina, and it goes beyond Argentina as well," says Lorraine Bayard de Volo, the chair of the Women and Gender Studies department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "It is an impactful moment for the hemisphere and for the world."

Just 16 years old, Lucia was abducted outside of her school on Oct. 8. She was drugged, raped, and tortured by a group of men, who then handed her over to a local hospital where she later died of her injuries.  

Social activists were quick to organize a march in response. Men and women in 80 Argentinian cities took to the streets in protest on Wednesday, with people in 58 additional cities worldwide turning out to show their support as well.

"It was a huge demonstration. Very moving and touching," protester and feminist professor Corina Rodríguez Enríquez tells the Monitor by email who added that both men and women attended the protests en masse despite inclement weather. "I think it is the responsibility of each of us to raise our voice against violence against women. I also felt I was part of a collective power, that at its present shape feels unstoppable."

Gendered violence is a real and present problem in many Latin American countries, where activists have repeatedly called attention to the high rate of violence and murder against women. A 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey found that fully 25 percent of the countries with high femicide rates are located in the Latin America and the Caribbean region. 

Experts point to a number of factors involved in high rates of femicide and gender-based violence across Latin America, from the drug trade to culturally accepted masculine aggression. The problem is compounded by the fact that, in many countries, prosecution rates are incredibly low.

"This is gender violence and it's institutionalized, then it repeats itself in smaller settings, among families," protestor Mariela Arri told CNN.

In Honduras, for example, femicide is the second leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. In Bolivia, of the 442,000 reports of violence against women between 2007 and 2011, only 96 had been prosecuted as of 2013.

In 2015, between 2008 and 2015, 1,800 women and young girls were killed in Argentina alone, The Guardian reported.

There is reason for hope, however. Wednesday's organized marches were not the first protest against gender-based violence, and legislators are beginning to take notice. After a similar march last year, legislators began to draft a national plan to fight violence against women, according to Dr. Enriquez.

Dr. Bayard de Volo tells the Monitor that Argentina recently passed a law against femicide, and both legislators and members of the justice system are beginning to speak about the issue of violence with sensitive language.

In neighboring Chile, President Michelle Bachelet tweeted about the protests in Spanish, using the hashtag associated with the protests, #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”).

"For Florencia Aguirre de Coyhaique. For Lucía Pérez of Mar del Plata," President Bachelet wrote. "For all women, I say with strength: Not One Less."

And the message is sinking in with the public.

"There’s clear progress in terms of public attention," Bayard de Volo says. "These protests are portrayed by the press in a positive light. They’re not being written off – instead, protesters are being treated with admiration."

The question of public attention is important, according to Bayard de Volo, because without public attention, even the most stringently worded laws on paper can have no teeth in reality. Protests like "Black Wednesday" ensure that perpetrators of violence will not be handed light sentences.

Lucia's brother Matías Perez also called for a cessation of violence against women in an open letter released this week.

"This time, it was Lucy who suffered this beast-like violence, but the next time it could happen to you, or the person you love most in this world," he wrote. "We have to be strong and go into the street to shout all together, now more than ever: not one less."

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