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Women reclaim Rosario

‘Different people — equal rights’ is the slogan of an anti-violence campaign that has given women in an Argentina town new independence.

‘‘WOMEN no longer put up with being slapped around. Today we expect men to talk with us and show us respect,” said Silvia, one of 200 women participating in an innovative Argentine Red Cross project in Rosario de la Frontera, a northern town of 28,000 people.

In Rosario de la Frontera there are no cinemas and no public transport. One quarter of the town’s population lives beneath the poverty line. But it is a town where women are respected now.

Although there are no official statistics on violence against women in Rosario de la Frontera, or in Argentina as a whole, abuse is believed to be widespread. Across South America crime and violence rates are six times higher than on other continents. Spanish researcher Antonio Sáez estimates that 30 to 75 per cent of Latin American women suffer emotional abuse and 10 to 30 per cent are physically abused.

Violence against women is a worldwide phenomenon. According to the United Nations Population Fund, one in five women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. One in three will have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused, usually by a family member or an acquaintance.

“Violence kills and disables as many women between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer. Its toll on women’s health surpasses that of traffic accidents and malaria combined,” concludes a United Nations Population Fund study from 2005. Mostly the erpetrators go unpunished.

Rosario de la Frontera, which lies 1,200 kilometres north-east of the capital, Buenos Aires, was chosen for a pilot project on gender violence because the problem was believed to be widespread here and the Red Cross branch had good links with the community.

Gabriela Luna, project coordinator at the Rosario de la Frontera branch, remembers how it began.

“We started working with a group of women who were already suffering from violence-related problems. First we organized workshops with these women, conducted an assessment and continued working with non-governmental organizations, government departments and other institutions such as the church.

“We all ended up concluding that violence was an urgent matter that no one was addressing,” she said.

In 2004, with the support of the International Federation and the Swedish Red Cross, the Rosario de la Frontera branch began its campaign, ‘Different People – Equal Rights’.

The branch held meetings to raise awareness and help participants reflect on the problem of violence against women. They ran workshops on sexuality, body awareness and entrepreneurship, organized sports and arts events such as plays, trained professionals and volunteers, and harnessed the power of newspapers, television and radio.

Women and girls in an Argentine town can now exercise their rights.







A family affair

The project fitted well with the strategic priorities of the Argentine Red Cross and the International Federation.

“Our mission is to alleviate suffering without discrimination, and gender-based discrimination is one of the most significant factors excluding women,” explained Fernando Casanova, coordinator of the South America sub-regional office of the International Federation in Buenos Aires.

“In our societies, gender-based assumptions give men and women different positions. These positions are valued differently and are based on a power system whereby women are placed in a subordinate status to men,” he said.

Gabriela Bacin, a gender studies expert and consultant for the International Federation’s Buenos Aires delegation, added that most social programmes ignore gender.

“It is an issue that goes unnoticed, unregistered and unexamined. But once we look into it, we uncover a harsh reality. At the beginning in Rosario, we tried to address gender in a subtle way, without talking about violence, but when we asked women about the main problems they faced, they all gave the same answer — violence.”

An assessment revealed a direct link between obstacles in the community, and physical and emotional abuse against women by their husbands or partners, Bacin said. “In all cases this occurred frequently, was a known, familiar, and even first-hand experience, a family affair. Violence was made invisible by women’s isolation, the internalization of gender stereotypes and the legitimization of hierarchical inequality.”

Rosario’s governmental and nongovernmental organizations expressed concern about violence against women and existing efforts to stop it. All the members of the organizations interviewed for the assessment said domestic violence was “one of the main obstacles that women face in the community, added to unemployment, misinformation and lack of education”.

Dignity for all

One year later, the people and organizations in the project have been transformed.

According to Gabriela Luna, “The issue caught on in the community. There were campaigns to raise awareness and disseminate information. Organizations became aware of the issue and embarked on a joint effort, making it possible to address gender violence in the entire city.

“Public bodies took on staff for handling gender violence — now there are two psychologists and two social workers in the primary health-care services. At the governmental level, a women’s council was established following the training workshops we organized in the branch.” Women’s lives have been changed.

Project participant Mariana said, “We women used put up with a lot of abuse from our husbands. We had to stay with them; otherwise how could we afford to feed our children? But today we would rather go out to work than put up with being beaten or abused.”

Another participant, who asked not to be named, said, “What changed greatly for me was time. I got my time and space back. I used to stay at home and that was it. Now we women do what we want with our time and we also have our own space in which to meet and organize ourselves,” she said.

“Communication in my family improved. My relationship with my husband, parents and children improved. Now I know that this problem stems from the way we are brought up and I raise my children so that they do not repeat the same stories as mine and my parents’.

“I feel less vulnerable than I used to. I no longer see violence in the neighbourhood. And now I give advice to girls so that they don’t have to go through what I went through,” the woman said.

The International Federation and the Argentine Red Cross are analysing Rosario’s experiences to learn from them and see if the programme should be replicated elsewhere.

Gabriela Bacin said the pilot programme in Rosario de la Frontera is a valuable and encouraging lesson for the Movement.

“The actions of National Societies cannot truly be comprehensive until they address gender issues and gender violence in particular. We cannot ignore obstacles affecting half of the population. Even where people’s basic needs are covered, there is no dignity where there is mistreatment, humiliation, violence and abuse. When we say there should be dignity for all, this means dignity for women and men alike.”

[Note: Names have been changed to protect people’s identities.]








Florencia Gemetro
Florencia Gemetro is a journalist in Argentina.


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