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Since 2015, this South American country’s potent feminist movement has pushed for new legal protections for women, and won. But as deaths continue, activists see more hard work ahead

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Carolina Caro sits with her mother, Maria Silvia Barreto, in her home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Ms. Caro's sister, Vanesa Caro, was set on fire by her husband and later died of her injuries.Natalie Alcoba/The Globe and Mail

Carolina Caro remembers seeing her nephews and niece running toward her on the street and thinking: Their mother must be just over the horizon. Vanesa, her older sister, was often a few steps behind her four children when they came to visit.

This time, the little ones had tears streaming down their faces.

“Help my mom,” the eldest, a 10-year-old boy, cried out, his aunt recalls. “That asshole of a father of mine set her on fire, and now everything is burning.”

The neighbours poured out of their houses onto the dusty streets of Ingeniero Budge, a municipality on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, to envelop the children as Ms. Caro ran to her sister’s house, a couple of blocks away. She found her with her hair charred and shirt still on fire.

At the hospital, the doctors didn’t think Vanesa would make it through the night. She spent weeks in an induced coma.

It was early last March, a year after Vanesa had filed her first police complaint against her husband and got a restraining order, alleging he had beaten and disfigured her with a cane.

When she was well enough, she wrote a detailed account of what had happened to her. She moved in with her sister and took care of her children again. She was trying to put things in order, Ms. Caro said.

But Vanesa’s internal injuries meant that mucus and other secretions would build up in her respiratory tract and impede her breathing. She rushed back to the hospital countless times to have her airways unclogged.

But on Sept. 14, she died in the hospital. She was 38.

“He destroyed her completely, in body and soul,” said Ms. Caro, seated at the table of her modest home, a faraway look in her eyes.

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Tributes to victims sit in front of Argentina's National Congress building in Buenos Aires on Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

The levels of violence against women in Latin America are among the highest in the world. In Mexico, a woman is killed every 2½ hours. In Brazil, there were 1,133 confirmed victims in 2017, while El Salvador shouldered the region’s highest rate of femicide: 10 women murdered per 100,000 people.

Argentina, a country with a broad and potent feminist movement, became a cauldron of pent-up indignation and rage in 2015 when the body of 14-year-old Chiara Paez was discovered buried in the backyard of her boyfriend’s grandparents’ house. She was six weeks pregnant.

Argentine journalist Marcela Ojeda fired off a tweet – “Actresses, politicians, artists, businesswomen, social leaders … all women … Aren’t we going to raise our voices? THEY ARE KILLING US” – and a massive protest movement that became known as #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less) was born. Organizers drew the phrase from Mexican poet Susana Chavez, writing in 1995 about the murder of women in Ciudad Juarez, and it rose like a wave across Latin America, with similar movements in Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Brazil.

Five years later, Argentina is still in the grip of that societal reckoning. Ni Una Menos was the spark that lit up a constellation of grievances and injustices around gender inequality and violence.

Fighting the patriarchy is embedded in solemn theatre productions, in the orations of politicians, in subway ads that reassure women they’re "not crazy” and urge them to report harassment. It’s in a growing movement to adopt a gender-neutral form of the Spanish language and in a court ruling that ordered a radio host who made misogynistic and discriminatory comments to allocate airtime to feminists. A coalition of actresses made public allegations of rape, which led to a surge in women denouncing sexual violence. And the fight to legalize abortion has the support of president-elect Alberto Fernandez, who plans to introduce a bill in Congress – something that would have been unheard of a few years ago in this Catholic country.

“I think Ni Una Menos was, above all else, a battle over common sense and public discourses. And I think that battle is largely won,” said Ingrid Beck, a journalist and one of the founders of the movement. “As of 2015, every murder of a woman because of her gender is treated as a femicide. That’s not a small thing.”

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Women take part in a Ni Una Menos march in Buenos Aires on June 3, 2019, the fourth anniversary of the movement's first major demonstration.

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Demonstrators hold a banner of black ribbons, each representing a murdered woman.Photos: Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press

But alongside the massive demonstrations and solidarity in the streets, there is a painful sense, every time another femicide occurs, that impunity still reigns. The weekend that Vanesa Caro died, three other women were violently killed in Argentina – Navila Garay, 15; Cecilia Burgat, 42; and Cielo Lopez, 18 – unleashing a fresh wave of outrage over a seemingly intractable crisis. Since then, the lives of dozens more have been brutally cut short.

“On the symbolic side, we have advanced enormously as a society,” said Victoria Donda, a national legislator and part of the incoming government. “But in crude terms, since 2015, the number of femicides has not dropped. In fact, it’s the opposite.”

In 2018, there were 281 cases, including the killings of six trans women and 29 linked femicides (often children killed in the context of gender-based violence), according to a national tally that differs from other counts by the Supreme Court and NGOs.

Last month, outgoing Security Minister Patricia Bullrich celebrated a 12-per-cent drop in femicides from 2017 to 2018, publishing numbers that did not match other counts and surprised a lot of feminists working in the field. They maintain that the tally this year is nothing to celebrate: Mumala, a feminist organization that tracks cases, reports 226 cases as of the end of October; another group, Ahora Que Si Nos Ven, says the number is already 290, which means a woman has been murdered every 26 hours in 2019.

It’s difficult to know if the violence is increasing or if the cases are simply tracked more accurately now. What is known is that most femicides occur in the home, at the hands of a partner or another man well known by the victim.

“It’s almost as if it’s not enough,” said Mara Avila, a Buenos Aires filmmaker whose mother was murdered by her partner in 2005. “All this empowerment, taking to the streets, mobilizations that are huge in numbers – it’s not enough, it seems.”

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Filmmaker Mara Avila attends a Ni Una Menos rally in 2016.Colectivo M.A.F.I.A./Colectivo M.A.F.I.A.

Carla Pitiot, a national congresswoman, believes the government has taken important steps forward with laws that provide financial assistance to the children of victims and ensure that all public servants in the executive, legislative and judicial branches receive training on gender issues and violence against women.

“In Argentina, we have advanced legislation, like our violence prevention law that is on the vanguard of the issue, but the reality is that we’re getting there too late,” Ms. Pitiot said in an interview from the Argentine Congress.

The law enshrined in 2009 the right of a woman to live a life free of violence. The National Institute of Women, established in 2017, is in charge of developing policies that turn that into reality. It runs a helpline that fields hundreds of thousands of calls annually – 30,000 this year specifically about cases of violence – and mobile units that bring counselling services into communities. Much of its focus is on programs that work to unravel the structures and power dynamics that normalize violence against women.

Like other Latin American countries, Argentina has written femicide into its criminal code and assigned it a stiffer sentence than homicide. But, from 2012 to 2018, only about 100 convictions acknowledged gender violence as an aggravating factor, according to the head of the unit in the attorney-general’s office that specializes in cases of violence against women.

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Argentine President Mauricio Macri, right, shakes hands with his elected successor Alberto Fernandez in October.Presidencia de la Nacion via AP

Before he lost in the October election, outgoing president Mauricio Macri announced a plan to eradicate femicide that included allowing family members or friends, not just the victim, to lodge complaints about abuse. Ms. Beck called the proposal “ridiculous” because it treats femicide as a "security” issue rather than a societal problem that requires prevention and education.

“In fact, there are a high number of women who make complaints, but are still killed. The conditions aren’t there for the justice system to protect them,” Ms. Beck said. Tools such as restraining orders must be enforced, and shelters must be built, but activists say any measures have to get at the root of the problem. Ms. Beck pointed to sex ed in schools, which is mandated by law but not being taught properly, as key to changing societal views.

Victoria Gallo, a sociologist with the Latin American Justice and Gender Team in Buenos Aires, said structural changes that address economic autonomy – giving women the ability to leave violent relationships if they need to – are key.

It comes down to resources, of which there are too few, said Sabrina Cartabia, a feminist lawyer and member of the NGO Red de Mujeres. This year, Argentina allocated 3.7 per cent of its federal public spending to initiatives and programs with a “gender perspective,” according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office. Most of that was earmarked as child subsidies for low-income families. Less than 1 per cent went to programs that fight gender violence, and even that small allocation has gone vastly underutilized. President-elect Mr. Fernandez has promised to create a Ministry of Women, Diversity and Equality, a project that was spearheaded by Ms. Donda and other women.

“I don’t think that the root causes of femicides here are very different than in other places,” Ms. Gallo said. “What we do have is a civil society, and a society in general, that problematizes the issue much more. And a movement of women that is diverse, that is organized, that is intersectional. Not all women confront the same forms of discrimination and violence. Some are much more exposed.”

There is also a sense, among some, that as women have become more empowered, the violence has become uglier, more disciplinary. “The thing is that we’ve reached a moment where that violence will no longer serve to domesticate us,” Ms. Cartabia said. “We are at a turning point.”

For Ms. Avila, art has been the key to her journey. Her documentary Femicide: One Case, Many Struggles helped her through a mourning process she had shelved for many years after her mother, Maria Elena Gomez, was murdered.

“This is not about words, this is about being present, being in the streets,” says Ms. Avila, seated in a coffee shop near the Argentine Congress. “For me, I don’t know if I should say this, but this is how I feel now, it has been tiring and emotionally exhausting and I feel it in my body also. … Because I have anguish, because my heart aches from time to time. And also because in all of these debates that I have been taking part in, I’ve met family members of victims, mothers mainly. We really are in need of company in this, on the policy side.”

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Andrea Lescano, left, is shown with her daughter Micaela Garcia in an undated photo.Photo courtesy of Micaela García's family/courtesy of Micaela García's family

Andrea Lescano agrees. Her daughter, Micaela Garcia, was a 21-year-old university student who volunteered helping children in impoverished communities in the city of Gualeguay, Entre Rios, and was an active participant of the Ni Una Menos movement. In 2017, she was raped and strangled to death by Sebastian Wagner, a man who had been imprisoned for the sexual assault of two women but had been released by a judge. Outrage over her murder led to the gender sensitivity training law that bears her name.

“They say that the level of violence is greater today. It’s not. It’s the same as it always was, it’s just that now, women aren’t staying silent,” Ms. Lescano said from her home in Entre Rios. She now runs a foundation with her husband and travels the country raising awareness about Micaela’s Law.

She says it’s thanks to the women’s movement, not the government, that things are beginning to change on a cultural level. Protest, it seems, is the only way to be heard, she said. “Mica used to always say to me, ‘Mom, you’re always leaving things until later, but later doesn’t exist, we only have today,’ ” Ms. Lescano said. “Well, today I’m doing a lot of the things that I didn’t do before.”

Carolina Caro’s life has also changed completely. She’s raising her sister’s four children, alongside her partner, mother, sisters and brother, and navigating a court process against a man, now accused of femicide, who pleads his innocence. Vanesa is present in their lives – in the hundreds of people who marched for justice after her death; in a local park bench painted red in her honour; in her children, who cut slices of cake for her at family gatherings.

“Now we live the best way we can,” Ms. Caro said. “There’s no time to mourn. You can’t collapse. But I also think that being together, supporting one another and looking after each other, we are going to move forward.”

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Natalie Alcoba/The Globe and Mail

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