Your freedom, my fight – global struggles for safe and legal abortion

by Virgina López Calvo

© WeMove.EU

Virgina López Calvo is a Spanish feminist activist weaving transnational and intercontinental networks, particularly those working in the intersection of gender, economic and environmental justice. As a feminist advocate Virginia has worked on decriminalisation of abortion, women’s participation in macroeconomic policy-making and trade justice. She is currently working as a campaigner for We Move Europe (WeMove.EU).

In most Central American and some Latin American countries there are high levels of sexual abuse and rape, particularly against young women. Rape and abuse are directly connected to high rates of unwanted and forced pregnancy. In addition, taking these horrendous circumstances into account, in many countries there is no access to safe and legal abortion. Instead abortion is socially stigmatised and criminalised under all circumstances – even in the case of rape or health risks for the pregnant women. For instance, in El Salvador, a teenager was raped a year ago and got pregnant. Last summer, she was sentenced to 30 years in jail because of a miscarriage. Months before, another woman, Mirna Ramírez, explained that she was put in jail because she had had a premature birth and was accused of an abortion, which is seen as a crime.
There has been an outpour of international solidarity with the Central American region to support the hundreds of litigation cases working to free women imprisoned for abortion or miscarriage. Support has also come from development organisations in the form of advocacy and public education campaigning, women’s empowerment projects and feminist soap operas (i.e. “La corriente” in Nicaragua).
In the last years however, solidarity work hasn’t been easy. According to the World Bank funding for ‘development’ in developing countries has drastically shrank, as some of these countries have recently been categorised as “middle-income” countries. Donor countries in Europe have mostly shifted their attention towards their own economic and migration crises and the rise of the populist right-wing.

© Magda Fabianczyk

With reduced funds and public attention to issues of inequality and injustices beyond our borders, those who have been engaged in ‘development work’ have to look for new strategies. Engaging in issues of global justice is increasingly challenging – and it doesn’t seem this trend is going to reverse any time soon. How do we continue to fight for reproductive rights and against maternal mortality on a global scale, to mention one important ‘development issue’?
Some are experimenting with the idea of building identities of shared struggles. If the money for projects implemented by International Non-governmental Organisations (INGOs) is drying up, if Europeans primarily worry about terrorism, migration, and diminished rights in Europe, global justice advocates’ efforts to foster international solidarity might be futile. But what if solidarity is not something one does for the ‘other’, but in close cooperation with a colleague in the struggle for my and her/his, our rights? This idea is not new, we are not inventing the wheel here, but as ‘development’ or rather global justice’ activists we could make more and better use of this mobilisation strategy.

The Festival of Choice

I would like to use an incipient but exiciting initiative to illustrate my point: the Festival of Choice. The first paragraph of its manifesto reads: “The Festival of Choice aims to raise awareness of threats to reproductive rights and the plight of those in countries around the world who do not have access to safe and legal abortion. The Festival also wishes to celebrate feminist solidarity and activism and to strengthen and support the pro-choice message, locally and globally.”
The awareness-raising endeavour takes a lighter than usual tone, as celebration is the backbone of the festival. Building identities is about generating emotions, but also about shared lived experiences, in our case experiences of shared struggles. Since the festival’s aim is to mobilise beyond ‘the converted’, focusing on pointing out the wrongs and injustices is not sufficient – the Festival of Choice wants to take participants on a more sustained journey.
The journey starts with the (joyful) realisation of the ‘choice’ rights we already enjoy in certain parts of the world; it continues through a recognition of the rights we are still missing to achieve ‘full choice’; it then moves on to a better understanding of the challenges women and sexual/reproductive rights’ activists living in other countries (i.e. in Central America) face, finally moves towards ‘fuller choice’, and it ends in a new state of awareness that wants to become action.

© Magda Fabianczyk

By connecting ‘what happens there’ with ‘what happens here’ empathy is activated. Investing in strengthening empathy amongst our peers, so that they can feel sufficiently close to the peoples who have traditionally been the beneficiaries of ‘development’ programmes is a sustainable strategy to revitalise what used to be called ‘international solidarity’ – but that should instead become ‘global struggles.
The argument of the Festival of Choice is: “To revitalise international solidarity we must transform it into global struggles experiences; in order to achieve that, people need to go through an awareness journey.”
What does this mean in very practical terms? Quizzes, poetry evenings, film screenings, gigs and parties. Sounds banal? It is not. Feminists have said it for a while: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” – and with reason. But in any case, the journey does not stop there: it moves on to the recognition of the rights we and others are still missing in order to achieve ‘full choice’. Roundtables, panel discussions, assemblies are the spaces where discussions for this purpose can happen. The journey is completed when participants feel the urge to move on to action and organise workshops on tactics to counteract the anti-choice, marches, flash-mobs or raise funds to finance these actions, for example. The festival caters for all four phases in the journey. In 2017 it is running the fourth edition.
There are mounting challenges in the 21 century and there are new ways of mobilisation and collective activism. Social media and digital communication is changing the face of mobilisations across the world, and we notice a proliferation of social movements born with an internationalist narrative. Ende Gelände, DiEM25, Climate Camps, the anti-TTIP campaign, Occupy, 15M/Indignados, the first international women’s strike – to mention a few that come to mind. They seek to advance social, economic and environmental justice and new forms of democracy – each of them through different means: deliberation, direct action, lobbying, alternative policy proposals, alternative narratives etc.
Time has come to invest in creating identities through shared struggles, to set in motion revolutionary empathy in terms of fighting for everyone’s freedom (25 September 2017).