Women in their thousands last week gathered outside the Supreme Court of Argentina in protest over the rampant levels of violence against women. The huge turnout is a measure of the rage that exists in the country over femicide.
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 legalized 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.
“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.
“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.
Report has it that she had before her demise 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, another victim 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.
“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 trans- femicides, 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.
Violence against women is a global issue. It was reported that violence against women soared during the peak of coronavirus outbreak which witnessed near blanket lockdowns, making UN to describe the scenario as ‘Crisis within a crisis.’ There have been multiple reports from Turkey, India, Fuji et cetera of rallies in their thousands demanding end of violence against women.
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. While in Mexico, an average of 10 women are killed every day.