Javier Milei from the far-right Liberty Advances coalition shakes hands with supporters outside his campaign headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Sunday. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

‘Ghosts from the past’: fears of abortion setback after Milei wins in Argentina

Newly elected president and far-right libertarian has vowed to repeal country’s 2020 landmark legalisation of abortion

and in Buenos Aires
Mon 20 Nov 2023 15.11 EST
Last modified on Mon 20 Nov 2023 21.30 EST

Three years after Argentina made history as the first large Latin American country to legalise abortion, women’s rights campaigners are gearing up to again go to battle after the election of Javier Milei as president.

"It’s a very bleak picture," said Soledad Deza of the Fundación Mujeres x Mujeres. "This is a government that is promising us greater inequality and – from the first minute – that the autonomy, sovereignty and independence of our bodies is not going to be supported by the state."

Milei, a volatile, far-right libertarian, has routinely taken a hardline stance on women’s issues; vowing to hold a plebiscite on whether to repeal the country’s 2020 landmark legalisation of abortion, describing social justice as an "aberration" and promising to shutter the country’s ministry of women, gender and diversity.

He’s denied the existence of a gender pay gap, despite statistics that suggest women in the country earn 27% less than men, and has been accused of ignoring the existence of gender violence and discrimination in a country where one woman was murdered every 35 hours on average last year.

"Without a doubt, the results are a blow to the heart," said Deza. "For those of us who work in these issues, I think we have a lot of struggle and organising ahead of us."

The discourse unleashed by Milei echoes that of Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, hinting at what may lie ahead for Argentina, said Giselle Carino of Fòs Feminista, an international alliance of women’s rights organisations focused on reproductive justice. "The result of the election, while expected, is devastating for all of us working on these issues."

While analysts have suggested that the country’s highly fragmented congress may force Milei to temper some of his more radical proposals, Carino said it was too early to tell. "What we have learned, most unfortunately, is that when people put forward declarations on our issues like he did, we have to take that seriously."

The election saw a shift in tone that could have far-reaching effects, said Claudia Laudano, a researcher and professor of feminist studies at the University of La Plata. "The legitimacy of all the work we have been carrying out for so long is being put into question, and that is very worrying," she said.


She pointed to Milei’s efforts to play down violence against women as an example. "Publicly recognising how violence affects women in particularly is something we have worked on for a long time and Milei is saying that all violence is the same. This fuels a discourse that is very dangerous."

Members of the LGBTQ+ community said they were also bracing for a rollback of their rights in the wake of the election. "My first feeling was fear, ghosts from the past," said Mariana Gisela Tissone, 50, a trans woman and activist who said she was able to transition thanks to a law implemented during the administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

"I never thought the far right was going to win here, specially with those messages supporting the dictatorship," she added. "I’m not sure what Milei will do tomorrow, no one knows, but I’m worried about a setback when it comes to human rights, those we have conquered. I feel the same way I felt 20 years ago."

The campaign saw Milei and his La Libertad Avanza party seek to repeatedly marginalise LGBTQ+ people, said the journalist Adriana Carrasco, citing as an example comments made by a Milei spokesperson that likened same-sex marriage to choosing not to bathe, getting lice and later complaining that people don’t like those who have lice.

For many in the community, the discrimination by politicians had translated into a barrage of personal insults and abuses, she said. "During this whole time we’ve suffered many attacks from their followers, particularly on social media."

Some of the election result could be interpreted as a backlash to the progress made in recent years, she said. "There is a hard nucleus of La Libertad Avanza voters who are young men, some of them quite financially hard off and others who are not, who are resistant to the advances of women and the LGBT community."

Argentina has long ranked as a regional leader when it comes to progressive policies on gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, ushering in Latin America’s first gender quota law in 1991 and legalising same-sex marriage in 2010. In 2021, legislation was brought in that allowed non-binary people to mark their gender with an X.

But Carrasco believed that the bulk of those who voted for Milei were driven by their pocketbooks, hoping to shake up an economy that has left 40% of the country’s 45 million citizens grappling with poverty amid inflation rates that have climbed to more than 140%.

Even so, she was certain that Milei would seek to capitalise on his win to usher in social reforms alongside his economic policies. "They’re going to take advantage of it to do everything they want," said Carrasco.

Any push in this direction would likely yield a fierce standoff with Argentina’s vibrant social movements, said Carino of Fòs Feminista. "We are going to keep fighting," she said. "These laws didn’t just happen in congress. These laws happened because people fought on the streets. And we will continue doing that."

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