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Argentine women: in the crossfire. (National Contexts).

Undeniably, advances have been achieved in drawing attention to women's human rights in the collective consciousness of most women. We cannot deny the triumphs in the legislative, discursive, academic and institutional realms. But if we understand and interpret human rights in their full context, never before have the mechanisms for continuing to violate these rights been so refined.

In Argentina, the human rights of women are now in the crossfire, besieged by an unjust economic model which excludes the majority of the population, as well as the patriarchal, ideological prejudices still dominant among leadership elites and opinion-makers.

Equality of Misery, with Special Disadvantages

Our country has 37 million inhabitants, half of whom are today living below the poverty line, 23% in extreme poverty; most of these poor are women. Although more women have entered the work force in the last decade, they also constitute the majority of the unemployed. The latest statistical survey of May 2002, which set a lamentable new record for the highest unemployment rate in Argentine history, shows that 45% of the work force have employment problems: while 21.6% are out of work altogether, another 18.6% are underemployed, with men taking the lead over women in under- and unemployment for the first time in a decade. However, Argentine women continue to earn less than their male compatriots, and although on the average this gap has narrowed in Latin America, during the 1990s women's earning power dropped from 70 to 67% of men's salaries. Differences between women and men are diminishing in Argentina only because men's working conditions worsened with the recent decline, the real value of their wages fell, and more male workers were pushed into the informal sector, especially those aged 15 to 19. That is, the crisis has produced a sustained, downward equalization of the sexes in terms of work and socioeconomic status, first slowly and now more abruptly.

Women head 30% of all households, but unlike male heads of household, they are usually solely responsible for maintaining the home and caring for children. In the impoverished middle classes, and even among two-parent homes, the crisis has had a different impact on women and men: women are facing it creatively and finding alternatives to the market which has excluded them, although even these survival tactics also have repercussions in the multiplication of their tasks and in their increased isolation.

Likewise, the consequences of the increased precariousness of jobs, which frequently leads to the loss of medical coverage, have different impacts for men and women because of the risks implied by the biological reality of repeated pregnancies, births and post-partum recoveries that women often face without proper care.

As for our retirement system, women suffer an inherent bias because of their longer life expectancy. Having earned less in both the public and private sectors, when they reach retirement age, they will be penalized with a lower income for a longer period.

This economic model which concentrates wealth among the few aggravates all kinds of exclusions and injustices. But the model alone does not fully explain gender-based inequality.

For over a decade, the women's movement has been lobbying for actions to repair these injustices, and our government has made certain international commitments in this regard without ever translating them into concrete actions. Furthermore, just when the fulfillment of these promises is more urgent than ever due to the severe economic crisis, the government argues that it is in no condition to absorb the costs which their implementation would entail. As a result, governments, parliaments, businesses and unions all continue to carry this debt to women, while their structures, with a few honorable exceptions, remain monopolized by men or by women being utilized by those who do not want to give up their privileges and who do not grasp the profound social revolution of the last 50 years in the public and private roles of men and women.

Argentina has not implemented plans to achieve workplace equality; neither the federal government nor the private sector has created equality watchdogs. Proposed legislation to erase the distinction between maternity and paternity leave or to mandate daycare subsidies or services for workers of both sexes have been gathering dust in the Congress since the restoration of democracy in 1983.

For the most part, private enterprises of whatever size, structure or nationality have not perceived--nor has the government explained--the positive effects on productivity that often accompany changing relations with and among the work force and incorporating women and men equally. Nor do they seem to grasp their social responsibilities with regard to the care of future generations, still considered an individual problem of the couples or the women who choose to have children.

Unions also share in this responsibility. Only the new Argentine Workers Central supports the obligatory 20% minimum quota of women in leadership positions; for its part, the National Civil Service Union has introduced positive actions in its collective bargaining agreement. According to the Ministry of Labor, only 20 out of 1,000 labor contracts require any system of daycare subsidies or arrangements for workers with children.

Their Rosaries on Our Ovaries

The other most frequently violated human right of women in Argentina is that of self-determination over our bodies in the most intimate sphere, that of sexual and reproductive autonomy.

Slowly, more women are daring to speak up and are understanding the different kinds of violence which condition them. The majority of the population, men and women of all ages and religions, agrees that sex education should be part of school curricula, that public hospitals should provide free contraceptives and fully inform users about their options and that adolescents have sexual and reproductive rights. In most cases, they believe that women who abort should not be punished. (1) Despite all these social changes, laws, public policies and the actions of the judicial and medical sectors do not respond adequately to the needs of women and frequently violate their rights in this area, either through actions or omissions.

Mortality linked to pregnancy in Argentina, while on average relatively low compared with other countries in the world, remains high in relation with the rates observed in Uruguay or Cuba. In addition, some provinces in the northeast and northwest of the country report rates which triple and quadruple the national average; even more alarming, an estimated 75% of these deaths are preventable.

In our country, the main cause of the misnamed "maternal" deaths is abortion, in contrast with the rest of Latin America where abortion generally occupies third place. Forty-three percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Argentina are caused by abortion. In the northeast and northwest, the figure rises to 85 and 89% respectively. (2) The estimated number of abortions in the country oscillates between 335,000 and 500,000 per year, approximately 1,300 abortions daily. According to figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Census, 37% of all pregnancies in Argentina end in abortion. (3)

Adolescent fertility is relatively high. According to the Ministry of Health and Social Action (1995), 23% of the women who give birth are under 20 years of age. In the provinces of Salta, Misiones, Chubut, Formosa and Rfo Negro, the rates of adolescent fertility are similar to those of the least developed countries of Latin America, more than 50/1,000. (4)

Sexually transmitted diseases statistics are distorted by a high rate of underreporting as the information generally relies on reports from public health services; (5) in addition, statistics are not disaggregated by sex. In regards to HIV/AIDS, in 1987 the male/female ratio was 84:1 but by 1999 the gap had dropped to 3:1. (6) Women are infected with HIV/AIDS at younger ages than men, with heterosexual transmission predominating among the female population.

Between 1970 and 1996, 6,000 sex crimes were reported to police, an estimated 10% of all the sexual assaults that actually occurred. An average of only 622 cases per year resulted in prosecutions and convictions during this period. The apparent motive for this disproportion is insufficient evidence. (7)

With few exceptions, national sex education in schools does not exist in our country. Nor do massive public information campaigns occur, except for the voluntary efforts of NGOs working on this issue. There are no stable public policies in sexual and reproductive health nor budgets for information and prevention efforts. Argentina has no national reproductive health law that would obligate public hospitals and Social Welfare units to provide these services for free. For the second time, a bill in this regard is on the verge of parliamentary oblivion, after being watered down to such an extent that its passage might be worse than nothing. (Eds. Note: The National Reproductive Health Law was passed after this article was written. See clarifying note, p. 98).

Most Argentine provinces lack reproductive health laws; where these do exist, they generally prohibit certain methods. For example, tubal ligation and vasectomy are explicitly permitted only in the province of Rio Negro.

Although the Penal Code was modified in 1999 to replace the misnamed section on "crimes against honesty" with the more appropriate term "crimes against sexual integrity," the judicial application of the code still leaves much to be desired. Gender perspective has not been incorporated into the study of the rights at stake in these laws, nor to sensitizing those in charge of applying them. (8)

Although as far back as 1921, the Penal Code recognized grounds for legal abortion, the general conviction that abortion is always against the law has limited the exercise of this right by women who recur systematically to clandestine procedures. In recent years, requests for abortions in public hospitals have increased, but doctors are hesitant to intervene without explicit judicial authorization, making the public health problem of abortion into a legal problem and leading to the public revictimization of women. Judges have refused voluntary interruption of pregnancies in most cases, using an extremely restrictive interpretation of the legal norms or simply invoking their own philosophical or religious principles and ignoring the concept of comprehensive health for women.

Overall, jurisprudence in this area shows only slight advances, along with numerous setbacks and contradictions. In some decisions, the right to interrupt a pregnancy in the case of anencephalia is recognized, with references to the women's psychological health, but these rulings are full of inconsistencies in attempting to distinguish between "abortion" and "voluntary interruption of pregnancy" (9) Some decisions recognize adolescents' right to privacy and autonomy and to access to health services without the need for parental permission; other rulings protest that such freedoms for young people contradict parental authority. A dangerous decision by the Supreme Court declared emergency contraceptive methods a form of abortion. There are decisions both in favor and against authorization of tubal ligation.

In summary, more women are attempting to exercise their citizenship in this area but remain subjected to the abuses and whims of decision-makers over their bodies, health and lives. These actions demonstrate insensitivity and little efficacy in terms of the results achieved, not to mention the levels of hypocrisy involved when the policies are juxtaposed with the lifestyles and habits of many of the decision-makers themselves.

Global Solutions in a Changing World

Over the last 20 years, Latin America has rarely had so many democratic governments, along with unprecedented levels of poverty and misery. This suggests that our systems of political representation do not fulfill popular expectations and, day by day, not only generate more exclusion and despair but also undermine the sustainability of democracy itself.

In most countries of Latin America, the principal problems which affect women are the violation of our economic and social rights, as well as our sexual and reproductive rights.

Paradoxically, the governments of the region obey the supposedly global directives in economic matters but resist the international consensus on matters related to sexual and reproductive rights. Argentina has been the paradigmatic Latin American country in fulfilling this axiom. During the Menem government, we reached a paroxysm of simultaneous alignment with Wall Street and the Vatican, at least in the areas that suited us. We tuned in to Clinton's advice in economic affairs while refusing to listen to his recommendations with respect to sexual and reproductive rights. We bowed to the pronouncements of John Paul II in reproductive matters but refused to countenance his social critique or pleas to humanize capitalism.

The governments which followed have remained faithful to these allegiances, but the change of leadership in the White House reduced the contradictions: now all the advice they give us is harmful.

We used to say that only when more women committed to human rights and gender perspective are in decision-making positions at national and international levels, both in the North and the South, will we reverse course on these issues. Now we realize that changes in the way decisions are made are also necessary.

Argentina needs to progress from these supposedly representative systems, which in fact control the will of those represented, to a system of truly participatory democracy in which citizens are involved in developing laws, economic plans and public policies. All those concerns which previously have been considered technical issues or matters for experts should be reviewed and addressed by the citizenry.

At the international level, changes are urgently needed to ensure the full application of human rights. For instance, the United Nations system needs to become more democratic for it is the arena in Which rules are established to deal with violence, war and terrorism, fundamentalist intolerance and the injustice of the increased concentration of wealth and the exclusion of the majority from scientific and technological advances and the economic resources which this progress generates.

We are confident that many women will be the protagonists of these changes. We're not asking permission, and we're not waiting. We are going to go it. We are doing it.


(1.) See ISPM (2001). Primera Encuesta Nacional sobre Derechos sexuales y reproductivos. On-line at http://www.

(2.) Correia, Maria (1999). Las relaciones de genero en la Argentina. Un panorama sectorial. Buenos Aires, Argentina: World Bank, December, p.14.

(3.) Ibid.

(4.) Bianco, Mabel. Mimeograph.

(5.) Bianco, Mabel (1997). Fecundidad, salud y pobreza en America Latina. El caso Argentino. Buenos Aires, Argentina: FEIM/UNFPA, p. 88.

(6.) "La epidemia en Argentina," in SIDA: Boletin Oficial de Argentina. On-line at

(7.) CECYM (1997). La consulta medica en los casos de violacion. Buenos Aires, Argentina: CECYM, p. 11.

(8.) See CRLP and Universidad de los Andes (2001). Cuerpo y Derecho. Legislacion y jurisprudencia en America Latina. Chapter on Argentina. Bogota, Colombia: Ed. Temis.

(9.) Ibid.

Slow Progress on Women's Political Participation

A new report, launched on May 1, 2003 by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), revealed that although women have progressed relatively slowly in the last two years in the areas of education, literacy and employment, there have been encouraging signs of improvement in women's legislative representation. The increase in women's share of seats in parliaments worldwide was attributed mainly to political measures in several countries where quotas were legislated or adopted on a voluntary basis.

Progress 2002 assesses improvements made towards women's empowerment within the context of the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight goals created by the international community in 2000 to focus global efforts to end poverty, hunger and inequality. Progress 2002 monitors the extent of progress for women in education, literacy, non-agricultural wage employment and parliamentary representation.

The goal of increasing women's political participation is a long-standing one. The target of 30% representation in key decision-making positions has been agreed upon at numerous international conferences in the last decade. Nonetheless, Progress 2002 indicates that women are still on the whole largely absent from parliaments, accounting for only about 14% of members in 2002 overall. Only 11 countries had reached the 30% benchmark in 2002--Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, South Africa, Costa Rica, Argentina and Mozambique. All of these countries have used quotas. The United States, France and Japan, where women's share of parliamentary seats are 12%, 11.8% and 10% respectively, lag behind 13 developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region of the world. In South Africa and Mozambique, women's share of seats is 30%, while Rwanda and Uganda have 25.7% and 24.7% respectively.

Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM, reiterated the need for women's presence in political decision-making positions. "There is much more to be done to ensure that women are accepted as equal partners in key decision-making processes. Especially in post-conflict situations, where new constitutions and legislative structures are being created, it is critical that women are present at the peace table and in postwar policymaking. Real progress towards gender equality will be seen when women have more say in the decisions that affect their lives," she said. UNIFEM is working with several organizations around the world to urge that more attention be paid to women's participation.

Source: AVIVA,, from the UNIFEM website, May 1, 2003,

The author is president of the Instituto Social y Politico de la Mujer (ISPM, Women's Social and Political Institute) and professor of human rights at the School of Law of the Universidad de Buenos Aires.
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Author:Beltran, Maria Jose Lubertino
Publication:Women's Health Collection
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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