- Interview by
- Camila Baron
Ofelia Fernández, a rising star of the Left in Argentina, first appeared in the public eye in 2018. That year, the Chamber of Deputies was holding its first — but not its last — congressional hearing to debate a proposed abortion bill. Only seventeen years old, Fernández had already been active in student politics from the age of twelve, and it showed in her speech delivered before the congressional committee: In a week-long session featuring the country’s leading doctors, religious leaders, psychologists, activists, lawyers, and government officials, her speech was head and shoulders above the rest.
Fernández had been swept up in the “Green Tide” — a new wave of feminist activism named after the green kerchief, symbolizing the fight for the right to free, safe, and legal abortions. A year later, that same surge of feminist militancy turned Fernández, still only nineteen years old, into the youngest legislator in Latin America.
For nearly a year in Argentina the abortion debate was at the top of the public agenda: talks were held in schools, on television, in street gatherings, and virtually anywhere where people gathered. A series of related demands began to swirl around the abortion issue — matters of public health, bodily autonomy, freedom, and collective solidarity were drawn into the debate. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers were also drawn into the national discussion, and were politicized through feminist activism.
In 2019, Fernández joined Frente de Todos, an electoral front that backed current president Alberto Fernández in his bid to defeat the neoliberal incumbent, Mauricio Macri. The Frente succeeded, and the prominence of feminist figures like Ofelia among its ranks reflects the growing stature of feminism in national politics in Argentina.
In a matter of days, the Argentine Senate will again vote on a bill that — if passed — would make Argentina one of the few Latin American countries where abortion is legally sanctioned. Fernández feels confident that, this time, the bill will go through.
In conversation with Camila Baron for Jacobin, Fernández discusses the upcoming vote and the future challenges that the feminist movement must tackle once the abortion battle has been won. She places emphasis on the need for feminists to assume the struggle against inequality, and reflects on the challenges of doing legislative work alongside social movements and remaining answerable to her base.
Feminism played a pivotal role in your political development. How do you see the movement today? Two years after the “Green Wave,” do you think it remains strong?
My first introduction to politics actually came before Argentina’s feminist wave. When I first got involved politically in 2013, feminism was not yet at the front of my concerns.
For my generation there were two key political landmarks. The first involved the democratic agenda of presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Among other measures, they passed the student council law [providing students with formal representation in school administrative matters] and gave young people sixteen years or older the right to vote in elections — a measure that drew the youth into the process of political participation and organization. The second landmark was, of course, the feminist wave. I see my own trajectory situated at the intersection of those two tendencies.
I think the feminist movement is as strong as ever. True, it may have been harder to see this past year, given the current circumstances. Especially for a movement whose strength lies largely in in its presence in the streets and in face-to-face gatherings — in the annual Plurinational Gathering of Women, Lesbians, Transvestites and Transgender People, in the workplace, in schools and so on.
But the movement remains strong. The evidence is in the resilience of the movement to keep pushing for the abortion law’s passage — despite all kinds of setbacks (failure to uphold limited cases of legal abortion, for example). When the bill recently passed in the Chamber of Deputies, we were out in numbers.
After the law’s passage in the Senate we’ll need to look toward the next battle and figure out where our focus should be placed. We will always have an important role in terms of calling out injustices — but there needs to be greater clarity among feminists around a program and concrete proposals.
And if you were to win the abortion battle in Argentina, what do you personally feel — or hope — would be the next struggle for the feminist movement?
As soon as abortion is legalized, there needs to be a campaign to guarantee its proper implementation. And that also means the implementation of an Integral Sex Education curriculum — educational institutions are currently still able to opt out of teaching that curriculum.
In my mind, there are three fundamental points. First, we are closing out a year in which levels of inequality have risen starkly, in the context of the pandemic and the economic crisis. So I would say that we need to establish what our main economic struggles will be in the next period. We need to work to create and promote a National System of Care Work that would categorize as “work” the diverse types of existing care labor. During lockdown we have seen that it takes a full day’s work to maintain a household, provide childcare, and so on.
That type of labor extends beyond the household, too. There is a series of vital activities that the state does not recognize as work; these are activities primarily carried out by women in neighborhood organizations, and include maintaining community-run kitchens, food banks, or nursing care. Why is there no law providing economic compensation for community care work?
We need to map out the different types of precarity and with that outline create a ground-level framework of dignity and recognition of economic activity, which means discussing the general distribution of wealth in society.
A second point: we need to implement legal reform from a feminist perspective. Where femicides and gender violence are concerned, it gets tiresome to see the same loop repeated: there are acts of remembrance, homages, denunciations, and so on, but concretely if the responsible institutions are not held accountable it’s hard to see how matters will progress. So we need to see a wave of feminist legal reform that includes something more than mere punishment as the only available tool.
I believe there should be punishment for those who commit femicide, but I’d much prefer that femicide not take place. I’m not saying that it can be solved through purely legal measures either, but by applying things like restorative justice, creating an efficient institutional climate for denouncing these crimes and a responsible preventative agency would go a long way.
A third point is to assume in full seriousness the rights of the transgender population. If you look at the labor market for this group, the numbers are simply scandalous. Ninety percent lack access to the formal job market. And that’s without mentioning the lack of proper housing or shelter, medical care, and so on. They’re a population almost entirely lacking in any kind of basic human rights provisions.
Do you feel there is anything unique about Argentina’s feminist movement?
I’m certainly in contact with feminist movements in other parts of the world, but I don’t have a good enough basis for comparison. One thing that might be distinctive about Argentina’s feminist movement is that it has a very powerful tradition of militancy, which is not to say we’re absolutely unique in that sense, but there is a priority placed on building a solid feminist strategy and developing long-term processes.
It’s not by accident that the symbol of the green kerchief became the feminist symbol for all Latin America. The kerchief representing the struggle for abortion comes from the kerchiefs of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who represent Argentina’s rich tradition of fighting for human rights.
That symbolism has a clear strategic end: to coordinate a common demand in the absence of any clear coordination from above. Argentine feminism has been pioneering in terms of spurring debates that eventually spread all over. I don’t mean to put feminism in a vanguard role either — although many characterize it as fulfilling that role. But the feminist movement has a capacity for spontaneous growth, of generating broad sympathy.
Feminism is of course a rich and diverse tradition. Is there one current of feminism that you most closely identify with?
If I were forced to choose a category, I would say “popular feminism.” That, at least, is what we call ourselves. Popular feminism is basically defined by its practical orientation, recognizing that while it is complex to be a woman in this world, it is even more so to be a poor woman, a poor migrant woman, a poor trans migrant women, and so on. Some call that perspective “intersectionality,” which as a concept I suppose makes sense, insofar as it implies a type of feminism that can question its own privileges.
In practical terms — which are the terms that most interest popular feminism — it means a type of feminist activity that develops in step with the struggle against different forms oppression from above. It can take the form of self-managed women’s centers or workplaces, or community care work like the popular kitchens I mentioned.
It can take the form of worker cooperatives meant to help recently incarcerated women reenter the workforce, or programs run by political organizations that help women deal with drug and addiction problems, and the ways those types of experience impact women differently from men. The list goes on and on.
What would you say has been the impact of the feminist movement in national politics, specifically institutional politics?
This year we saw a presidential decree establishing a job quota for transgender people in civil service jobs. A program was approved that provides economic assistance to victims of gender violence. There were several important measures passed this year, pointing toward how the state can take part in issues raised by the movement.
The thing is, the inclusion of feminism in the public agenda was very abrupt. One gets the sense that we’ve come a long way in a short time, but I think there’s potential to go much further. What is certain is we wouldn’t see any institutional changes if the movement weren’t so dynamic.
Feminism, as both an institutional tendency and as a movement, has put issues on the agenda that were simply not there before. There were, for example, policies of income distribution before feminism had become a mass movement. But distribution policies specifically framed in feminist terms is a new phenomenon.
The fact that there is a Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity in Argentina is a form of concrete recognition of the feminist agenda and movement. I would prefer that there were feminists in every administration, rather than a specific Ministry. We want to be at the table for a variety of decision-making processes and not be just be left to discuss among ourselves while the biggest decisions are taking place elsewhere. Now that the feminist movement has a place in the halls of power, it’s time to go further.
In 2018, the abortion debate in Congress was criticized for being framed in excessively conservative terms. Has the debate in 2020 shown any changes?
We’re hearing the same barbarous sentiments expressed as in 2018, but it’s worse now because it’s the second time the issue is under discussion and not much has changed.
Two years have passed and underground abortions are still a regular occurrence. The limited cases of legally sanctioned abortions — in cases of rape, for health reasons — are not being upheld as they should, which is a problem because the reactionary sectors of Argentina point to that existing legislation and say that abortion “is already legal.” What that means is that the inability to uphold the most minimal implementation of abortion legislation is blocking the more progressive program.
There are strong reactionary forces mobilizing against any progress, groups who want to restrict the scope of the debate as much as possible. It’s disheartening to see how they can act with such impunity to deny basic rights.
Do you feel concerned about the influence of reactionary politics among younger people?
Yes and no. The current right-wing movement in Argentina is very “reactionary” in the sense that it responds in a very mechanical way to the massive participation of youth in progressive politics.
That is especially true for the small group of young people drawn to right-wing politics. A certain progressive agenda has taken hold so powerfully among a younger generation that a smaller group begins to think that the rebellious thing is to uphold the status quo.
Speaking of generational politics, the environmental movement has become a trademark of a younger generation. How do you think that movement can develop in Argentina, a country characterized by its dependency on the export of agricultural commodities and raw materials?
My first serious interaction with the environmental movement has been with a group called Jóvenes por el Clima (Youth for the Environment) — an environmental organization with a real popular base, not at all liberal.
Then, in Argentina, there are the organizations that are mobilized around environmental causes in a very practical sense: the Unión de Trabajadores de la Tierra (Union of the Workers of the Land) and the Movimiento de Trabajadores Excluidos (Movement of Excluded Workers), two groups that connect environmental issues to broader discussions of structural transformation.
What seems most important to me is to connect the struggle for social and environmental justice — to understand that environmental injustices reinforce existing inequalities. Without connecting those two sides, you can easily promote an environmental policy that maintains the privileges of the few while ignoring the poor quality in which the majority of the population lives.
In your work as a legislator, how have you built up alliances with social movements?
I believe in situated knowledge. There are certain areas where I’m more knowledgeable and capable of thinking of policy from my own experience and that of people like me — questions related to feminism, education. There are other issues where I’m less knowledgeable.
I don’t mean to say that my agenda is just limited to what I know. What I mean is, on housing issues, social policy, and other matters, I prefer to bring in people that are politically active in those areas and put them at the center of my legislative work. I may feel that I have a grasp on the housing issue, for example, and even lend an ear to groups working in that area, but I’m more interested in forms of representation in the first person; when the most sensitive issues are given legislative treatment, I want the groups affected to have their own voice. The key is to bring in people who are responsible to their comrades and their base, and who are responsive to their demands of commitment and efficiency in carrying out proposals.
What has your experience been as the youngest legislator in Latin America? And as a woman? What has it been like to work with the more conservative elements of the alliance of which you form part?
It’s been difficult in terms of what happens internally, more so than what goes on externally with my public figure. I don’t want to be viewed as a victim, as someone subject to constant public attacks from people with a conservative agenda. I don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. There’s so much hostility and violence shown toward me that, internally, some comrades assume a paternal attitude toward me. That’s actually quite stressful to deal with, too.
I also have comrades who take my position seriously and with whom I can debate in an open manner.
Is there one political figure you especially admire?
There are several, and for different reasons. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the current vice president is someone I admire. Juan Grabois, of the Excluded Workers Movement, is the leader of my organization within Frente de Todos. Grabois, who is a close friend of Pope Francisco, is someone with whom I have lots of differences and we go head-to-head sometimes. But Grabois spearheads important policy and is one of the transparent figures today in public debate. I have been following Nora Cortiñas, one of the founders of the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, since I was twelve years old.
Greta Thunberg is someone with whom I identify, for raising the flag of generational rebellion and a powerful level of commitment to the environmental cause.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is for me an emblem of sorts. She is someone who approaches political representation in the sense that I was speaking about earlier: who contests the established way of doing representative politics. AOC is someone I feel a great sympathy for.
The years 2019 and 2020 were marked by intense levels of political demonstration. In Latin America, Chile was certainly the standout case, but there were powerful anti-racist demonstrations in the United States and around the world. What do these movements mean to you in terms of the future of left-wing politics?
I think they are a powerful expression of the types of political contestation that will exist in years to come. If we think of the crisis as an opportunity for change, I think we can speak of two very real, and opposed, possibilities.
On the one hand, there is the possibility that society will simply accept that the powers-that-be are the most capable of solving our problems, that the concentration of wealth is part of society and that the only thing to do is accept a certain culture of meritocracy and privilege.
The other possibility is that the crisis might force us to question how people can live such degraded standards of living, with such a low standard for dignity. In Argentina we find clear expressions of this: completely privatized neighborhoods with their own lakes and land, and beside them, neighborhoods lacking potable water.
I think the recent wave of protests has raised the stakes on the political imagination: its not simply an abstract dream that we might be able to restructure society and our lives. There is a collective capacity to effect concrete transformations of reality.
In Argentina, what was one important measure passed during the pandemic? What was a measure that should have been passed but wasn’t?
There were many laws passed this year. I would say the most important in terms of setting the tone for future debates was the Tax on Large Fortunes, passed last November. It left a lot to be desired but it passed and will set the stage for further struggles.
What was the last book that you really enjoyed reading?
Una lectura feminista de la deuda, by Lucía Cavallero and Verónica Gago. It’s a short book but it provides a lot of interesting clues on how to think in concrete terms about complex issues around debt, from a feminist perspective.