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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 07-03-2020 14:24

A new portfolio for the female majority

Elizabeth Victoria Gómez Alcorta has defined her two policy priorities as the campaign against gender violence and the defence of equality and diversity, creating three departments to cover them – all headed by women.

International Women’s Day tomorrow, plus the protagonism given to abortion legislation in last Sunday’s stateof-the-nation address by President Alberto Fernández, make the Women, Gender and Diversity Ministry a natural choice for today’s “Ministry Positions” column. This will be the first column in this series not to include any ministerial history for the simple reason that there is none – this brand-new ministry is still less than 100 days old.

Between Isabel Perón and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner there has been a female president for fully a decade of Argentina’s history (even if the wife of the previous president in both cases) but women have never had a ministry of their own until now. It could also be argued that democracy owes women this ministry since the 2010 census recorded 100 females in Argentina for every 95 males, making them the clear majority (20,593,330 as against 19,525,766, to be exact, or over a million more).

Since this ministry is very much the minister for now, let us start with her. Until her ascent into the Cabinet, Elizabeth Victoria Gómez Alcorta, 47, was perhaps best-known as one of Jujuy indigenous activist Milagro Sala’s lawyers but with her curriculum vitae marking her out in general as very much a human rights activist along Kirchnerite lines, clearly aligned with the female half of the Frente de Todos presidential ticket (as perhaps befits the minister for women). A senior member of CELS (Centre for Legal and Social Studies) human rights organisation, where she is especially close to Horacio Verbitsky, she was the deputy coordinator of the Justice Ministry’s Memory, Truth and Justice programme for 10 months in 2015-2016 (including the first two months of the Mauricio Macri presidency).

Despite the above, she is probably the Cabinet member with the least Peronism in her background. Born in upmarket San Isidro (although denying the patrician origins her double-barrelled name might suggest), her parents were lifelong Radicals. She herself did not enter party politics until 2017, enlisting in Unidad Ciudadana (“Civic Unity”), formed to back Fernández de Kirchner’s senatorial campaign running explicitly against the Justicialist Party of mainstream Peronism (whose campaign manager was Alberto Fernández). Nor is she a lifelong lawyer despite having been a University of Buenos Aires (UBA) law professor throughout this century – the first university graduate in her family, her first degree was political science and sociology at FLACSO (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales).

Gómez Alcorta’s main claim to fame as Milagro Sala’s lawyer is thus incomplete as a description, but it is not misleading. In recent years she has defended other indigenous activists in court such as the Mapuche leader Moira Millán, sitting on the executive committee of the Asociación de Abogados de Derechos Indígenas. While Argentina’s original peoples have yet to have their own ministry (like Canada’s Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Department, for example), perhaps Gómez Alcorta covers that vacuum, in a way.

But this series is designed to cover ministries more than ministers. In this particular case the ministerial structure is chosen, not inherited. She has defined her two policy priorities as the campaign against gender violence and the defence of equality and diversity (she reportedly first had her eye on heading the INADI anti-discrimination institute, which eventually went to deputy Victoria Donda), creating three departments to cover them – all headed by women. Policies for Equality and Diversity goes to ex-deputy Cecilia Merchan and Policies against Gender Violence to lawyer Josefina Kelly, both of whom will have secretarial rank, while there will further be a Research and Training for Cultural Policies for Equality department headed by undersecretary Diana Broggi, a feminist psychologist. Kelly’s mission against femicide etc. (assisted by two undersecretaries) should be self-evident while Merchan’s brief is to cover the whole LGBT spectrum. Gómez Alcorta wants these federal departments to understand their work as guaranteeing human rights nationwide, looking beyond the cities where these problems and these communities are most visible to the more remote rural and urban zones.

A passionate feminist, Gómez Alcorta obviously favours the legalisation of abortion but her personal obligation here does not go much beyond donning a green headscarf since this bill does not fall within her ministerial brief, despite being eminently a women’s issue – since 2003 the drafting of abortion legislation has been the work of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, an NGO grouping over 500 organisations, who then present the bill to Congress for approval with the role of the executive branch limited to fixing its ranking within the list of government priorities (largely a presidential decision).

Instead of abortion, the core challenge facing the new ministry is femicide, a considerably less divisive issue without the need to debate whether one or two lives are at stake. Last year there were an estimated 290 femicides in Argentina – a focal point for local feminism with the “Ni Una Menos” marches eclipsing any “Me Too” movement until now. Femicide as such is not the ministry’s work, of course – men killing women have to face justice, and rightly so – but rather the roots of gender violence, which can also take subtler psychological forms as well as inflicting physical harm. These psychological aspects can also extend to women because gender violence often becomes more persistent if internalised – the battered wife syndrome of seeing her plight as a lesser evil to another woman being the centre of such attentions, along with other forms of lowered self-esteem.

Social psychologists have identified at least seven different types of gender violence (physical, psychological, sexual, economic, patrimonial, social and vicarious) with abuses not limited to the family homes – the workplace is also a scene of the crime which can even extend to the institutional level. The first five types of violence should be self-explanatory – social refers to isolation, while vicarious means hurting the target via violence against somebody else, usually the children. It is no accident that the word “machismo” now so widely used in English should have its origins in this region from a peculiarly Latin American brand of patriarchy.

Last Sunday the launch of an abortion bill with the government’s clear support (as opposed to the open-ended presentation of two years ago) constitutes a major advance for feminism while tomorrow Argentina will be marking International Women’s Day with that gender’s own ministry for the first time. A ministry with no history might well have an interesting future.

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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