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The Relevance of the Feminist Encuentro for Latin American Feminist Movements

The 12th Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Gathering (EFLAC or Encuentro) will take place in Bogota, Colombia, November 23-26. This meeting space, which was started 30 years ago[1] has attempted to be diverse and plural, and has undoubtedly been provocative. AWID spoke to Virgina (Gina) Vargas*, about the history of the Encuentros and the importance beyond the regional focus. By Gabriela De Cicco

AWID: What is the historical relevance of the Encuentros for feminist movements in Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) and for the international feminist movement?

Virginia Vargas (VG): I believe that Latin American feminisms have been built through the Encuentros, and have given us all a perspective that transcends the national. They have stimulated an internationalist perspective on feminism and several networks have been born out of the interactions that have taken place at the Encuentros. The Encuentros have always been spaces for theoretical reflection and for assuming political positions and they have been spaces where differences and disagreements have been confronted.

The Encuentros have also established key mobilization dates in the calendar of feminist struggles like November 25 (International Day for Eliminating Violence against Women)[2] and September 28 (Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean).

I think the meetings have helped pluralize feminisms, and that would be one of the most important dimensions of the Encuentros[3].

AWID: In your opinion, what have been the key achievements and developments of feminist movements organizing and action in the region in the last 30 years?

VG: I think that one of the key achievements of feminisms in LAC is to have driven a cultural revolution, a radical proposal – as Giuilia Tamayo said – to turn women’s discomfort into something political. Julieta Kirkwood’s slogan “Democracy in the country and at home” summarizes feminist contributions to understanding politics in a different way.

Feminisms have also radically contributed to broadening democracy. Our movements were born under dictatorships in most countries or under democratic governments that did not really look like that, as they were quite authoritarian. Then, our first struggles were basically to bring back democracy.

We have also been able to influence national and regional policies: we have the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence Against Women[4]- a very important achievement - and equality laws in all LAC countries. Their enforcement is a different matter, because in many States equality does not go beyond the formal. But having positive laws is an important basis to continue the struggle from different trenches and perspectives.

AWID: Currently women are in power as Presidents in several LAC countries. How has this been influenced by these 30 years of feminisms?

VG: This is the product of that capacity to influence national and regional politics that I was telling you about. It is important not only to have women in Parliament but also women presidents. There is a politics of presence that is absolutely essential. But I am not so sure that we already have a critical mass of policy ideas in relation to political participation. We have had very positive experiences with several women presidents, but not with all of them. A woman’s body does not guarantee transformative thinking from a woman’s perspective.

However, I believe there are also significant changes in the way we understand official political spaces. For many of us, the current struggle is no longer about quotas but about parity. Quotas are also not enforced, or are partially enforced in some countries. We need to strike precisely where patriarchal control is strongest - institutional politics and formal politics. This is a disputed field in spite of the achievements.

AWID: An issue that has caused division in the movement is autonomy. What can you tell us about that debate and the impact it has had on how the movement in the region has been built?

VG: It has been a painful learning process for all sectors in the movements; these are the risks movements face. Until that time we had theoretically been a singular movement, which, in fact, was not true. It was a learning process on the complexity and diversity of movements and also on their risks.

Clearly, the institutionalization of feminisms is a risk. But institutionalization does not automatically imply a loss of autonomy[5]. I believe there is the other dimension; the risk of taking positions that are not open to dialogue, that then become dichotomous. I think these debates have helped us to be more aware of the complexities of this diverse movement across the region, and also of the difficulties that always spring out of negotiations with the State and public powers, when they are not carried out from an autonomous political position. For me, that was one of the most interesting learnings.

I also believe that now we are at a different place. I don’t think that this moment in LAC is marked by the dispute between the institutionalized and the autonomous feminists, because I think that perspective has been quite diluted. The current time is about diversity at other levels, not only in terms of those ideological positions but also in the existence of a diversity of feminisms, in the ways in which agendas are being built by diverse, multiple actors that were not present as strongly before as they are now. And then the intersections of ethnicity, race, class, non-conforming sexualities, age, etc. are for me the core of feminist reflection and strategies to move towards more intercultural dialogues.

AWID: When did the discussion on autonomy begin and when did the issue of inclusion and diversity come in with greater intensity?

VG: Discussions on autonomies and institutionalizations started in the process towards the Beijing Conference, and reached their clearest expression in the Chile feminist Encuentro (1996) but had already begun in the previous Encuentro. A section of the feminist movement disagreed with some of us participating in the Beijing process and that resulted in strong polarization between the self-named ‘autonomous’ and what they called ‘institutionalized’ feminists. It was a process that exposed the complexity of processes and perspectives.

The fact is that we did not go into the Beijing process as mere experts; we went in fighting with the UN to change the appointed representative for the region who was a Chilean woman from the Opus Dei and we managed to replace her with a person we had chosen. It happened to be me who became the face for this fight with the UN and we, as a movement, were held responsible for the Beijing process. The dynamics within the Conference that came out of LAC reflected the movement much more than expert women lobbying. We had two strategies: to influence the Platform and at the same time to strengthen the radical nature of feminisms in the region. As I told you, we confronted each other around this and that was the first serious disagreement we had. That, in my view, made us grow up.

With regard to inclusion, this is an issue that has always been around feminist spaces but it became more evident in Brazil (1985), when trans feminists wanted to come to the Encuentro and at first there was no agreement about it, so much so that for the first time in an EFLAC we held a vote. And those of us who wanted our trans compañeras in won.

In Mexico (2009), indigenous women were very well positioned, with clear criticisms about a feminism they felt was too ‘white’, as they put it. From the very beginning, our Black, Afro-Latin compañeras were present at the Encuentros but the issue of race was still never present as strongly as it should have been in feminist thinking. It is not that it was absent but rather, as Leila Gonzalez, a Black Brazilian feminist said, the feminist movement is racist not by commission but by omission, because it does not speak about race, it does not place racial issues among its core strategies.

Together with young women, these are presences that have broadened the feminist front, that have democratized the movement’s spaces with new actors and new voices. Now feminisms are a collection of these diverse transgressive perspectives on a reality that is racist, homophobic, and classist.

AWID: From your vision and experience, how do you see the future of EFLACs?

VG: I would like the Encuentros to last forever, but we are increasingly facing difficulties. To travel across LAC has become expensive and complicated. This might also depend on how the new feminist generations prefer to articulate themselves at the regional level.

I think it is very important to organize encuentros in each country, something that has not always happened; also to convene sub-regional encuentros, and then maybe we will have a dynamic in which different kinds of encuentros will begin interacting with each other and this will allow for more years to pass between EFLACs. I know it is difficult to keep them as they are now. For me it is crucial to coordinate women at the different levels – national, sub-regional and regional.

* Centro Flora Tristan, Peru and Articulacion Feminista Marcosur, Latin Americas

[1] Chronology of EFLACs: Colombia, 1981; then Peru, 1983; Brazil, 1985; Mexico, 1987; Argentina, 1990; El Salvador, 1993; Chile, 1996; Dominican Republic, 1999; Costa Rica, 2002; Brazil, 2005; Mexico, 2009.

[2] “A few weeks ago I attended a meeting in the Kurdish area of Turkey, and I went to visit the women there, who were young, feminists, wonderful, and one of the posters they had was about the Mirabal sisters, with the text in Kurdish. Impressive. You can imagine how moved I was. They celebrate the 25th and everything”. (GV)

[3] “That famous and important article by Julieta Kirkwood on the knots in feminist politics, she wrote it based on her experience at the Encuentro in Peru in 1983, showing our reflections, our uncertainties, our perspectives on that Encuentro that was very rich but also had the tensions that always come up at the Encuentros because of the new perspectives, the new voices. Well, then she came up with this extraordinary article on the knots, titled ‘The Knots of the Feminist Wisdom”. (GV)

[4] Known in Spanish as Convención de Belem do Pará

[5]For further explanation see Globalization and feminist activism – Outsiders, Insiders and Outsiders Within