Indigenous women explain what’s at stake in Argentina’s abortion debate

“In my town, we die of malnutrition and there are no water wells. How do we talk about sexual rights when they aren’t even recognised? The hospital where…

“In my town, we die of malnutrition and there are no water wells. How do we talk about sexual rights when they aren’t even recognised? The hospital where I now work existed when I was a child. There has never been a legal termination there,” Gea says, even in cases that would fall into the allowed exceptions. 

“Why? Because the local people don’t even know they have the right to request them. So the hospital doesn’t even have to deny the right,” Gea says.

“It’s pure fantasy,” she adds, “to believe that once abortion is legal, everything will be solved. We obviously want it to be legal. But first you need to reform the healthcare system, and get the church and the patriarchy out of the heads of medical staff.”

‘Let’s walk together’

Argentina is officially a secular state. But Mapuche activist and social psychologist Irma Caupán Perriot, from the Indigenous Women’s Movement for Good Living, says that religious institutions are powerful opponents to sexual and reproductive rights.

“The church represses, codifies, decides and constrains. We still cannot speak freely. It has to do with centuries of violence, oppression, invisibility”, she says. 

Her own history has been marked by these challenges. “My biological mother gave birth to a stillborn and buried it in her backyard as an ancestral ritual, but for that reason she went to jail. She was then raped in prison, and I was born. At no time was she entitled to anything. She was poor, she was indigenous, she was a woman.”

Indigenous women, Caupán Perriot says, “are disrespected even when giving birth. Violence and genocide are carried out in our bodies. Our sisters don’t have translators. Whenthey go to an [outpatient facility],  nobody understands their language, and they are just left and not helped. They are dismissed as ‘indians’, as if they weren’t people.”

A proposal to legalise abortion made it to the senate in 2018 before being voted down. Amid the recent debates, Edith Martiarena, a Wichí presenter at an indigenous radio station in Tartagal, Salta province, told legislators that native women and girls “personally endure the inequities of poverty”, which “oblige us to be mothers by force”.

Bashe Nuhem, from the Qom community in north-east Argentina, adds: “Even in some feminist circles, they don’t care much about us. I tell them about a sister who was abused and no one reacts. We owe ourselves to be listened to. We embrace the struggles of all our compañeras (fellows), criollas (European descendants), gringas (North Americans or Europeans). But it’s time that they also listen to indigenous women. Do not just use us as your poster people. Let’s walk together.” 


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