Paritaristas del fin del mundo: a story about the struggle for equality

by | May 6, 2024 | Uncategorized

When we conducted the interview that gave rise to this article, the era of political and social paradigm change, which has been underway since December 2023, had not yet begun in Argentina. In the current scenario, in which rights that were believed to have been guaranteed are now at risk, and the achievements of long feminist struggles are now in jeopardy, talking about parity might seem somewhat naive. However, it is even more important now that the voices of women and diversities are present in political representation, in governing powers and in the construction of the agenda. After all, it is their bodies, their rights, their existences that are threatened on a daily basis.

Report:  Eloísa Oliva

Translation: Christina Hamilton

Photos: Natalia Roca

Pariataristas

Argentina established in recent decades a regulatory framework that facilitates equality in the political representation of men and women. The Gender Quota Law (1991)1 and the Gender Parity in Political Representation Law (2017)2 were indicative of real progress in terms of rights3. However, in the Province of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and South Atlantic Islands, these national laws contradicted local regulations, leading to the fact that, while the numbers of women in elected positions grew in the rest of Argentina, in the city of Ushuaia, for example, they fell to zero. 

It is in Ushuaia where the Paritaristas del Fin del Mundo went face to face (and won) their battle for parity democracy, using the law and politics as their weapons. In 2022 they published Ambiciosas. Crónica de una lucha colectiva (Ambitious Women. A Chronicle of a Collective Struggle) a book that bears witness to and summarises their experience, and that they have since used as an advocacy tool.

We visited them in Ushuaia, the southernmost city on the continent (and in the world). A city surrounded by black peaks blotched with snow, glaciers, the sea, and where only three tree species grow. We conversed over two full afternoons and toured the city: seeing some of its touristic icons and the buildings where the state power congregates.

The plot and the storylines

“When I was studying in Córdoba I missed all this a lot,” says Constanza Ojeda, and with a sweeping gesture of her hand she makes reference to the breadth of the landscape from the hill that leads to the Martial Glacier. Constanza was born and raised in Tierra del Fuego. She left to study journalism and returned to start her professional career. Until January 2024 she worked at Radio Nacional, like Luz Scarpati (until December 2023), who is also a journalist and also from Tierra del Fuego, who moved from Río Grande to Ushuaia a few years ago. 

Luz met Laura López Entable, a publicist and political communicator, at a bra burning bonfire. They explain that this is the Tierra del Fuego version of the “tetazo”4 (after all it is almost impossible to take your shirt off in this cold southern region).

Laura was born in 1982, a few days after the Malvinas War ended (which is referred to as the Falklands War in the United Kingdom)5. “My mother was seven months pregnant when the conflict started,” she says. While in her belly, Laura experienced the drills, the sirens, the quick dashes to the bomb shelters. “I remember that in primary school (she will add later) there were many girls called Malvina or Soledad” (named after each of the islands). 

Lorena Uribe lives in Río Grande, the most populous city in the province (with 80,000 inhabitants). She drove two hours to come and speak with us. Her speciality is judicial journalism. Like Constanza, she is a descendant of Chileans who emigrated to Argentina. Lorena’s parents, were fleeing the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Fabiana Ríos is a pharmacist and lawyer. She came to Tierra del Fuego from her home town of Rosario for professional reasons. Interested in and active in public and political life, she became governor. She was the first female governor in Argentina, the one who made the first same-sex marriage in the country possible6. Today she works mostly as a lawyer, representing women in conflicts related to gender violence.  

They are some of the current eleven members of Mujeres Paritaristas de Tierra del Fuego, or Paritaristas del Fin del Mundo, as they are also known. A group of women activists who, fighting for different causes, came together to promote what they believe to be one of the foundations for equality: real and effective gender parity across all branches of government.

Electoral lists, seats, the preference system and the photo that started everything

“When we say comprehensive gender parity we are including the Judicial Branch of government, the Judicial Reform. Parity in all branches of government. A real gender-based perspective, because there is a lot written down,” they assert all together. 

As an organisation they began their work together for gender parity in political representation in 2015. However, to really understand the issue we have to go back to 2002, when the Municipal Charter of Ushuaia incorporated, directly following the article that establishes gender parity in the electoral lists, the preference system. 

The “preference system” worked to block and override real parity in political representation, leaving it exclusively at the formal level when establishing the electoral lists. 

In 2015, the situation became crystal clear in an overwhelmingly contradictory image: the Ushuaia City Council, made up of seven men, in suits, posing for a photo, each holding his Ni Una Menos sign7

Fabiana Ríos admits that it was quite challenging to really comprehend why women were not represented in the public sphere, in a country with Gender Quota and Parity laws. “If we hadn’t had those seven men in our faces, it wouldn’t have been so obvious.” 

“What was most disturbing was that the law said that the lists had to reflect gender equality. So, we started to think about what was going wrong. With the Gender Quota Law in force we had between 30 and 40 percent of women with seats, with the Gender Parity Law it fell first to 20, and then to a very revealing zilch,” she adds

Sonia Santoro, a journalist specialised in gender, asks herself in one of the prologues written for Ambiciosas: “Why in 2015, when the heat of the #Niunamenos movement began to burn the backbone of the patriarchal system, was there zero representation of women on the City Council of Ushuaia? It was the middle of the XXI century and not a single woman held a seat. “Seven men, seven councillors, speaking about, deciding on, voting on laws in the name of every man, every woman, everybody.”

As though in a mirror reflection, Diana Maffia replies in the other prologue of the book: “Women as a collective have been alienated from citizenship through all kinds of implicit and explicit manoeuvres for decades (if we use as a reference the republican representative form of government in Argentina; otherwise we could say centuries since the birth of the modern State; millennia since the first forms of social organisation). Late to get the vote, and even later to be included in spaces of representation, still hesitant to open up to gender parity, with misogynistic political parties that exclude women from real dialogue, from spaces where power is held and disputed.  

Returning to Tierra del Fuego, Fabiana explains that “the electoral system of the parliamentary body in Ushuaia has three elements: proportionality (D’Hondt system), parity and preference. The three must be combined. The D’Hondt system establishes the number of seats that corresponds to each party; the preference system establishes the candidate with the most votes by 15 percent (if 15 percent of voters change the order, the most preferred candidate takes the seat of the first on the list). 

“The issue is that, if the preferential system is applied in this way, gender parity is removed from the equation.
So, what did they say? That the most preferred male displaces everyone else. And in party organisation, by default it is always the women who have the least resources to campaign. In all political parties, without differentiation, from left to right, the most preferred have been men. Men always displace women. So, we said: ‘What about parity?’ It is a constitutional principle that is as important as proportionality,” Fabiana explains.

“Why isn’t parity included? Why do they remove it from the equation? We should combine them: the most preferred man displaces the least preferred man, and the most preferred woman displaces the least preferred woman within each party. That’s exactly what they didn’t want to happen. Constanza notes that, in addition, the preference system breaks alliances and agreements: “Each one campaigns individually, and in every election there are casualties

The organisation had to establish extensive alliances to modify this situation of inequality. They investigated, compared and called on female politicians from each party, many of whom had been left without a seat due to the arbitrariness within their own parties. 

This is how, after years of political advocacy and activism, they managed to get the ruling issued that forced the three principles to be combined: proportionality, parity, preference. And have it named after one of them: López Entable8

In 2022, at the constituent convention to modify the Municipal Charter of Ushuaia, the Paritaristas del Fin del Mundo were present and vigilant to ensure the document enshrined what it needed to: real and effective gender parity in political representation, not only on the electoral lists9

One of the difficulties was that, in the previous Municipal Charter, the preferential system had been established as “unamendable patrimony for the people of the city”. “And that has been one of the arguments used to disqualify us over and over again. They used to tell us that we were going against the popular will,” says Lorena.

In an attempt to understand the strange system of preferences, Fabiana believes that it is the consequence of an era in politics, after the 2001 crisis, which led to both a lack of faith in the party system and a strong personalisation of the candidates.

“And why do you think there is so much resistance to parity?” “Because they don’t want to lose their seats. They don’t want to lose power,” says Constanza. “You can just imagine these seven men (those in the photo), they all wanted to be re-elected. If they gave in to parity, at least half would not be able to serve a second term. It was in self-defence, they were defending their own privileges,” Fabiana closes. 

After parity was enshrined in the Municipal Charter of Ushuaia, whose council is currently made up of four female councillors and three male councillors, the next steps of the organisation are to achieve the same thing in the city of Río Grande, and in the provincial constitution.

“Establish something that benefits us all”

The following paragraphs are fragments of the powerful, intermingled, collective conversation that we had one October afternoon with the forest and sea behind us, between videos, books, bandanas and t-shirts, reflecting on what it is and can be, what a democracy with real and effective parity can allow for and what it would shed light on. 

How would you define parity democracy? In addition to the gender perspective, do you think it can include a feminist, grassroots, territorial, diverse perspective?

Laura: For me, parity democracy means that everyone’s voices are included in the making of decisions that affect us globally, as a society and individually.
It has to be something that runs through every decision, a starting point. If we are going to decide on the bus route, we have to think about it using a parity democratic criterion, for example. So, if we are not sitting at those tables, if we do not have a seat where decisions are made, our perspective is not included, and the same decisions as always are made and a lot of people and their needs remain unattended. 

Constanza: With regards to the history of our city and province, there has always been a minority of women within decision-making powers. We always settle for that, with minorities. In fact, I don’t think this movement would have arisen if it weren’t for the fact that the City Council was made up of all men. That woke us all up, made us realise that we counted. We wondered what had happened that there were increasingly fewer women. But we never asked ourselves: “Who is debating certain topics?” In that City Council made up of seven men it just so happened that a project on menstruation was debated. And the seven men debated about menstruation, with only one woman, the Secretary for Women. The same thing happened in the Legislature, we’ve always been a minority, and that led to certain issues never being addressed. Fabiana can speak to this best, with her experience being a legislator.

Fabiana: The first Legislature that had 30 percent of women was in 1999 and for the first time we were able to implement, for example, Sexual and Reproductive Health and include vasectomy and tubal ligation in the discussion. In my opinion, the concept of parity democracy has transcendental relevance in relation to public spaces, which are masculinised by definition. The concept of citizenship itself has always been that of a masculine, bourgeois, property-owning citizenship.

Laura: I believe that feminisms contribute not only to a historical issue of women’s rights, but also incorporate a broader perspective in and of themselves. For example, we are all from different organisations, and we do not agree on everything, but we know what things we have in common so we can dialogue about them and make decisions together, fight together and be activists together. The group includes trans women, from working-class neighbourhoods, and we also understand that there are other people who do not have their voices represented, or that not all of them are like us, and that their perspectives have to be included in order to establish something that benefits us all. I believe feminisms have that know-how. 

Lorena: Of course, and just because women enter decision-making positions does not guarantee that they are feminists. But when there is a feminist woman, things change a lot. During Fabiana’s administration (as governor) there was a female Minister of Labour, who later became Minister of Industry, and there was a female Minister of Public Works. It was not Social Development and Health, Education. They were women, women who were very well prepared for anything, in positions that they were not allowed to be in before. 

Fabiana: Parity democracy allows for inequalities to begin to become visible. So, as a concept, if in everyday life we are 50/50 why aren’t we 50/50 in political representation.
For example, is there a binary concept in the electoral system? Yes, there is. It is a binary, sex-gender, male-female concept. How do diversities come into this? With feminism that incorporates diversities, that understands diversities, that represents diversities and with a feminism that is clear about it, that expresses it. As a feminist woman. Feminism produces all these intersections, because the problems that we discuss with members of our organisation (human trafficking, sexual exploitation for tourism) include race, class, and migration. Feminism brings forward discussions that have been excluded from public space.

Share in first person about the plural

Ambiciosas. Crónica de una lucha colectiva is an ensemble book that, in 169 pages, provides critical analysis, documents, photographs, and the story, the valuable story of the work and impetus of this group of women from Tierra de Fuego. A printed book is a rarity these days, so we asked them what led them to choose this format. 

“History is always written by men. And we were not going to let them tell the story of our struggle, from their point of view. We needed to document it ourselves. And we wanted there to be a physical record of what had happened. Because it seemed to us that using our right to speak up, writing our own history also meant using the written word, and that documenting what we had done could make it easier for other women to do the same,” Fabiana summarises.

They also share that a physical book is an object you can exchange, a gift, a presence. It can be taken to meetings, given to a politician to raise their awareness, and sent to the press. The latter point, highlights Constanza, is related to the idea of creating networks, which led to conversations with journalists and a media presence at the national level. 

Laura also adds that it was important to document the experience of southern feminisms. “The story of the women fighting for gender parity from the extreme south of the Argentine Patagonia”, as Laura and Ayelén Martínez say in the final words of Ambiciosas

Given that the logo of Fondo de Mujeres del Sur is printed on its back cover, we are game to ask what our grant meant for them.
 “It meant a change from ostracism to the possibility of gaining space on the public agenda. It was a substantial difference: we went from sharing information in a group of activists to mass socialisation of the information. The personal contact, the time, being able to pay for the work, we were able to do all of that because we had the resources,” she says.

To finish, we want to quote a fragment of the final words from Ambiciosas, which are helpful to remember in times of loss. “We asked ourselves, what are rights made of and when we reviewed the text, the answer became clear: they are made of stories that other witches began and their daughters continued, and then their granddaughters. They are made of organisation, insistence, sisterhood and collective construction”, and it is the same here, at the end of the world. 

To learn more about their work, check out:

FB: Movimiento Paritaristas TDF 

IG: paritaristastdfaias

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    1. Repealed in 2017 ↩︎
    2. https://www.argentina.gob.ar/interior/observatorioelectoral/paridad-de-genero-0 ↩︎
    3. The Omnibus Law proposal by the Javier Milei government affects the Gender Parity Law: “The proposal for the lists of national deputies is to move from a multi-member system to a single-member system. For this, the proposal is to divide the provincial territory into the number of districts necessary to cover the total number of representatives to be elected at a rate of 1 per district. This division within each province will be designed by the National Executive Branch and political parties may lodge objections with the National Electoral Chamber. If this modification is approved in the National Electoral Code, the application of the Gender Parity Law for the positions of national deputies would be de facto impossible. The current wording of the national law does not establish the need for there to be parity amongst those that head up the lists. This requirement is also not provided for in the proposed text for the reform. Therefore, as is currently the case, it will be left to the free will of the political parties to encourage women to head up the lists. This will inevitably have a negative consequence on the percentages of women’s participation in the Chamber of Deputies. Establishing the need for a 50-50 formation for each gender on the lists implies at least 2 people, therefore it remains abstract as there is only one person per list.” (Source: https://ela.org.ar/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/Ley-Omnibus-Paridad-de-genero_ELA.pdf). ↩︎
    4. In 2016, women gathered in hundreds of squares and corners in Argentina to breastfeed their babies in public. The national “tetazo” for the right to breastfeed in public places was called because on July 12 of that year two police women had forcibly removed a mother for breastfeeding her young son in a public place in San Isidro (Buenos Aires province). ↩︎
    5. The Malvinas War (known as the Falklands War) was a ten-week conflict (April 2 – June 10, 1982) between Argentina and the United Kingdom. The dispute was over the sovereignty of the Malvinas Islands (known as the Falkland Islands in the United Kingdom), South Georgia and South Sandwich, located in the South Atlantic. The claim to sovereignty dates back to the 19th century, the beginning of the British occupation of the territory. The conflict, which ended when Argentina surrendered, is complex and painful for society because it occurred within the framework of a dictatorial and illegitimate government, which subjected civilian soldiers, enrolled as part of compulsory military service, to inhuman conditions (conditions that today are being judged as torture and crimes against humanity). However, the claim to sovereignty remains intact and is deeply rooted in Argentine national identity. ↩︎
    6. http://www.eldiariodelfindelmundo.com/noticias/2009/12/29/26616-se-realizo-en-ushuaia-el-primer-matrimonio-gay ↩︎
    7. Ni Una Menos is the name given in Argentina to the women’s movement that said Enough is enough! No more sexist violence, no more femicides! The first and massive demonstration on June 3, 2015, was held simultaneously in eighty cities across the country. It became a milestone in the history of feminisms and movements. Since then, the call to action continues to spread and it has taken on new dimensions, and beyond just Argentina. Today, Ni Una Menos is a call for the end of sexist violence in Latin America, Europe and Asia. ↩︎
    8. https://www.justierradelfuego.gov.ar/perspectiva-de-genero-fallos-destacados-2019/ ↩︎
    9. https://www.ushuaia.gob.ar/institucional/carta-organica ↩︎