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Feminism and Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean

Feminism and Revolution

A reflection on the relationship between the concept of revolution and feminist and LGBTQI politics raises a series of questions that provide a stimulating framework for tracing the trajectory of struggles and debates on sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America.1 In a previous moment of dialogue and exchange2 I sought to establish whether the concept of revolution might aid us in understanding the incisiveness of the trajectories taken by feminist struggles for sexual and reproductive health in Latin America. And I have concluded that, in this specific field and geo-political region, feminism is indeed a revolution that aims to bring about certain transformations. In this article I use specific examples (abortion and female sterilization) to argue that struggles for sexual and reproductive rights have represented or do represent a transformative force in women’s material lives; furthermore, I show how these struggles can be understood as a permanent revolutionary project that is incomplete and contested and thus brings about a form of transformation that is subject to continual attack. Indeed, as I will demonstrate through several examples involving abortion, the contestation targeting these struggles often reduces their effectiveness. I thus propose to link up the two poles of the matrix provided by this issue, Transformations without Revolutions? How Feminist Movements and LGBTQI Changed the World; that is to say, I propose to assess the key role that continuous transformations play in keeping a revolutionary project alive.

As noted by the Dialogo del SIMposio organizers, “the concept of revolution usually refers to radical change in institutional and political structures.” This is certainly the most common way of defining revolution, and if we adhere to this definition it may appear difficult to consider feminism to be revolution. And yet what is feminism? Nicole-Claude Mathieu offers a definition of feminism that she describes as minimal:

an analysis conducted by women (that is, beginning from a minority experience) of the mechanisms of the oppression of women as a group or class by men as a group or class, in different societies, and the willingness to act to end it.3

This definition deploys three key elements: analysis, women’s experiences of oppression, and the will to bring about change. Although not all feminists projects have led to revolution, understood here as radical change in institutional and political structures, in many cases such transformation is indeed the objective of the “will for change” that Mathieu identifies. Many understand feminism to be a revolutionary project in and of itself because it offers an analysis that is aimed at structurally subverting social relations between men and women, and it proposes to do so through forms of change, commonly defined as cultural, that touch on the materiality of people’s lives. As I will show in relation to sexual and reproductive health, in some cases certain of these changes also impact on institutions.

The concept of revolution itself must be understood in the specific geo-political context of Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that has hosted various kinds of revolutionary processes with divergent aims. In Cuba, the seizure of power that Castro and Guevara coordinated in 1959 took place through an armed movement called “revolution.” In Chile, the Allende government’s use of elections and political alliances to rise to power in 1970 led to a revolutionary-type effort to transform the entire society through parliamentary measures. In the case of Brazil, the military defined its seizure of power as the “Revolution of 1964.” The military dictatorship was brought down not by revolutionary action4 but rather by a series of events and actions, defined as a “process of democratization,”5 that led to a new 1988 Constitution drafted to include numerous points developed by the political parties and components of civil society who had resisted and struggled during the years of dictatorship. The Brazilian case allows us to observe a scenario in which democratization did not occur through a revolutionary movement but did lead to revolutionary outcomes in relation to certain aspects of the functioning of state institutions and society. In terms of health for example, the Sistema Único de Saúde (Unified healthcare system, 1988) that was developed over the course of the democratization process made it possible to provide health services (albeit often of very poor quality) to all the country’s citizens for the first time. PAISM, Programa de assistência integral à saúde da mulher (Complete women’s health assistance program, 1983) was also developed as part of this process and is based on the idea that women’s health should be understood and addressed through a holistic vision of women as rights-bearing subjects. Finally, the case of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional in Mexico offers an insight into the contemporary vitality and relevance (during the 1990s) of the revolutionary project in the battles waged by indigenous and poor people seeking to extend their struggle to involve the whole of society, as conveyed by the choice to invoke Zapata.6

Despite these divergent uses of the concept of revolution in the Latin American context, here in this article my use of this term reflects my conviction that there is indeed a common element shared between feminist and leftist revolutionary projects: an idea of radical change that is progressive rather than reactionary, moving toward a greater degree of rights, freedom, justice and social equality. It must be noted, however, that Latin American and Caribbean revolutionary movements have shown themselves resistant to granting women recognition as political subjects and refused to consider women’s self-determination or the struggle against sexism as political goals for their initiatives.7 This fact has led at times to rifts and at other times to attempts at cooperation, clearly showing that within the same revolutionary project men and women have divergent interests in terms of social relations between the sexes. This conflict tension and opposition to the achievement of female self-determination notwithstanding, it is useful to examine the links between feminism and revolutionary projects because they are closely related in their shared attempt to bring about greater freedom and social equality.

The Latin American and Caribbean Context

In the Latin America and Caribbean context, militant feminists have raised the issue of reproductive rights in relation to women’s sexuality, that is to say in relation to the material conditions of enacting heterosexual sexuality understood as a social practice conditioned by power relations between the sexes. The issue is thus one of sexual and reproductive rights. I will focus here on the link between heteronormative heterosexual sexuality and women’s reproductive rights, not delving into issues of sexual and reproductive rights from a LGBTQI analytical perspective or in terms of LGBTQI practices. Reproductive health is understood to refer not only to the health issues surrounding the process of human reproduction, understood as simultaneously socio-historical and biological, but also health as it relates to other issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, the feminization of the spread of AIDS, the treatment of female victims of sexual violence, the prevention and treatment of breast and ovarian cancer, menopause, and the health of black and indigenous women, an area in which the feminists of these groups are particularly active. AIDS prevention programs targeting specific groups such as transsexuals, especially those working as prostitutes or as adult film stars for a studio such as https://www.shemalehd.sex/, inevitably address the forms of sexuality and gender roles that are performed in their sexual acts, thereby highlighting the fact that the field of sexual and reproductive health is dynamic, but also subject to constant contestation by conservative and sexist ideologies.

Struggles for sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America have evolved within feminist trajectories, that is to say outside of institutions and political parties, but they are nonetheless characterized by their engagement with institutions: indeed, as I will show, the field of sexual and reproductive rights is linked to the field of health (sexual and reproductive health), a terrain in which women’s movements call on institutions to guarantee all female citizens access to healthcare services regardless of their class, color or geographical origins.

To understand the battles women wage for sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is essential to recall the impact that structural adjustment policies have had throughout this region of the world, albeit with specific repercussions in each country.8 The cuts made by national governments in response to the requirements of international agencies and banks10 and governmental health and educational services, a shortfall that women, socially responsible for the management of the household, are called on to compensate for. Specifically, cuts to health care and policies aimed at “marketizing” healthcare systems have reduced the quantity and quality of maternal-child health services. Moreover, maternal-child healthcare is often one of the most effective channels for providing women with sexual and reproductive health services, as women frequently turn to such institutions – perceived as being able to ensure better conditions for protecting their lives and those of their unborn children – when they are pregnant or preparing to give birth. Finally, to understand the impact of neoliberal policies on women’s health and the struggles women have waged against these policies, we must keep in mind the deeply rooted social and racial inequality in this region and the significant role it plays: in most Latin American countries and the Caribbean, it is poor, indigenous and black women who use public health services, while middle and upper class women, mainly white, can afford to pay for private services and thus enjoy significantly higher levels of quality and professional services.

In addition to feminist struggles, the field of “sexual and reproductive health” in multiple countries has also been defined through academic research investigating sexuality, the construction and transgression of gender roles, forms of homosexuality and ethnic and “racial” relations.11 These fields of study have made a rich and diverse contribution to understanding sexuality and gender as socially and historically specific elements, terrains of conflict and power relations, and therefore to conceptualizing sexual and reproductive behavior as social rather than biological.12 Though not without its conflicts, the intersection of women’s movements and academic research has been very fruitful for the field of sexual and reproductive health. Lastly, there is one additional sector that has contributed to developing reproductive health rhetoric and practice in Latin America and the Caribbean, namely associations and non-governmental organizations funded by international agencies. These organizations are often U.S.-based and guided by goals that have changed over the decades. According to Lynn Morgan and Elizabeth Roberts, “shortly, the rhetoric of reproductive governance shifted from population control to reproductive and sexual health and rights, as public health experts recommended that attention be shifted to programmes that would prevent sexually transmitted diseases, provide abortion services, and treat infertility (Lane, 1994).”13 This shift has been caused by changes in the international scenario and, Morgan and Roberts argue, in particular by the transition from a neo-Malthusian policy of control to a neo-liberal approach based on the individual rights claims.14 Although neoliberalism has differently impacted various parts of Latin America, it can be seen that the issue of birth control is no longer at the center of public debates and legislation, partly as a result of decreases in population growth rates. In contrast, the discourse on rights claims that once occupied a politically central place in struggles against dictatorships in the region is now also gaining ground in relation to individual rights in the framework of neo-liberal logics. This shift has helped generate alliances opposing the right of women to make decisions about their own bodies in that such rights are seen to “compete” with unborn children’s rights to be born.

One of the most interesting features of the Latin Americas and Caribbean context is the political practice of working as part of a network that characterizes the feminist practices of this vast area.15 Notwithstanding regional differences, national groups and projects show a strong drive to dialogue and compare experiences that actually serves to strengthen local and national struggles, extending their scope beyond Latin America and the Caribbean. Since 1981 the various feminist groups in the countries of this region have been meeting up through the Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe. As Alvarez et al. argue, “these regional meetings have helped forge ‘imagined’ Latin American feminist communities. They have been crucial in challenging masculinist, nationalist cultural norms and in creating a common (if always contested) feminist political grammar.”16 In 2012 the 12th edition was held in Bogotà, where 1,200 women participated and celebrated 30 years of Encuentros. These meetings have been an opportunity for engagement between highly divergent positions, and in the past a great deal of discussion centered on assessing the kind of relationship that women and feminists maintained with the broader context of political struggles for democracy and against dictatorial regimes or, in other words, how to participate in movements against dictatorships while also struggling against sexism in both society and the mixed-gender movements women belonged to.

The book dedicated to the 12th Encuentro includes a chapter entitled “Sexual and reproductive rights” in which the authors assert that “we women have learned to impose our desires and discover the pleasure that goes far beyond the single and almost obligatory sexual act.”17 This statement positioned within this chapter is significant in that it places pleasure at the center of the experience of sexuality, asserting women’s right to self-determination in enacting their own sexuality, which is thereby framed as separate from reproduction. By treating the link between sexuality and reproduction as social rather than inevitable, sexuality is defined as a space of female self-determination that may lead to reproduction but not automatically so. This position also involves fighting for motherhood to be a choice rather than an imposition and, relatedly, struggling to ensure that the right to reproduce be extended to homosexual and transsexual people as well.

Struggles for Abortion Legalization

The fight for the right to a safe, legal abortion comprises several key elements of feminist struggles and demands: women’s self-determination over their own bodies, the role played by the state and health services in regulating women’s individual rights, sexual freedom, the link between heterosexual sexuality and reproduction, and the right to choose motherhood. Efforts to legalize abortion in various Latin American and Caribbean countries engage the same issues seen in other contexts such as the “Yo decido” campaign launched in 2013 in Europe;18 these struggles highlight how, despite cultural, geographical and political differences, governments everywhere legislate on women’s bodies, denying them the right to self-determination and implementing health policies that impact their material conditions of life.

The Latin American context is characterized by very strict abortion laws that essentially function to prohibit the voluntary termination of pregnancy: in general, abortion is permitted only in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is in danger, or in cases of severe fetal malformation (the latter two are often referred to as “therapeutic abortion”). In this part of the world, the cultural and political battles for a partial or complete legalization of abortion therefore represent one of the most important and highly developed areas of action in the field of sexual and reproductive health.

Differences in national legislation notwithstanding, the voluntary termination of a pregnancy is almost always illegal, that is to say considered a criminal act in both a legal and cultural sense. To understand this situation, it is necessary to keep in mind the power wielded by the Catholic Church along with the assortment of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that join up to lobby across the political board and are always ready to battle within institutional spaces against any attempt to legalize abortion. Indeed, abortion is seen as a subversion of a woman’s biological destiny as reproducer, and as such cannot be accepted, that is, legalized: “The exercise of women’s sexuality continues to be protected, controlled and monitored by state governments in alliance with the Church and conservative sectors of society.”19 And yet, it is not only the most right-wing and conservative sectors of society that attack a woman’s right to choose; in many countries, it is left-wing parties or governments themselves that have spoken out against abortion legalization. For instance, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia both head left-wing governments that have not decriminalized abortion, instead taking positions defined as “pro-life”, the term used to identify a political position, that joins the Church, in opposing the lives of women.20

A similar stance was also expressed by Cristina Fernándes in Argentina; in her first term, Chilean leader Michelle Bachelet was not able to pass a bill decriminalizing abortion,21 while in June of 2014, during her second term, Bachelet said that before the end of the year she would pass a law legalizing abortion, probably in cases of rape and health risks for the pregnant woman.22 In Brazil, the current president Dilma Rousseff was violently attacked during her first electoral campaign for having declared herself open to the possibility of legalizing abortion, and in the end the pressure was such that she was forced to retract this sentiment. The situation in Nicaragua is even more disappointing in that Daniel Ortega’s government, though nominally Sandinista, acted in 2006 to repeal the 1892 law that allowed therapeutic abortion.23 As Morgan and Roberts remind us, “When Ortega was a leader of the revolutionary Sandinistas, who ruled from 1979-90, the participation and emancipation of women was vital to his political strategy”.24 Uruguay is facing a similar situation, as in 2008 the Parliament passed a bill to decriminalize abortion but President Tabaré Vázquez declined to sign it because it conflicted with his personal religious beliefs.25 According to Vargas’ account, Subcomandante Marcos did not consider the issue of abortion to number among the rights they were fighting for, stating instead that the EZLN has never called for abortion to be decriminalized.26 And lastly, even though Cuba’s 1965 move to legalize abortion made it one of the first countries to do so, when Pope John Paul II visited the island in 2005 Fidel Castro declared himself contrary to abortion and asked the Church to help “fight abortion in Cuba.”27 It is thus clear that these left-wing governments and movements refuse to recognize that the right to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy is essential to achieving full democracy, as well as constituting a right to health for women.

This attack on the right to abort legally, that is, in suitable, hygienic conditions, not only affects women’s possibilities for self-determination in relation to the (non)choice of motherhood; it also powerfully conditions female sexuality, restricting it within the confines of reproductive heterosexuality. In their struggles to legalize abortion, feminist groups continuously emphasize the connection between sexuality and reproduction. Furthermore, this connection can be seen in the definition of abortion as murder or a crime, as in Chile’s Penal Code where abortion is included under Article 342 “Crimes and offenses against the family-based order, public morality and sexual integrity.”28 The concept of sexual integrity, used here paradoxically enough to limit women’s ability to enjoy their own sexual integrity, illustrates the connection between “proper” female sexuality (though not specified as such) and reproduction as the destiny of women.

In some countries, abortion is permitted only in specific cases, usually rape, risk to the mother’s own life, and severe fetal malformations that would compromise survival after birth. At the same time, however, specific situations are highly divergent even within the same country. In Mexico, each state has its own laws: abortion is guaranteed in cases of rape throughout the country; some states specify additional cases while only the capital permits women to terminate a pregnancy by choice within the twelfth week.29 The law in Chile has been even more restrictive since 1989, refusing to allow legal abortion in any case whatsoever. There was a dramatic example of this restrictiveness in 2013 when an 11-year-old girl who had gotten pregnant after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend was prevented from undergoing an abortion.30

Faced with this moratorium, some feminist groups offer practical advice for carrying out a safe abortion. One such group is the Chilean Colectivo de Lesbianas y FeministasLinea Aborto Libre, which drafted a 120-page manual that can be downloaded from the web.31 These kinds of initiatives aim to disseminate information to help women gain independence in managing their own bodies, creating women’s support and exchange networks that compensate for the lack of public services available to those wishing to terminate a pregnancy.

Throughout this area, the expression “safe abortion” generally refers to the procedure of terminating the pregnancy through the use of a pharmaceutical, Misoprostol. This drug was developed to treat gastric ulcers but it also causes uterine contractions and is the most widely used pharmaceutical in the region.32 The WHO also recommends Misoprostol in the manuals, such as Guía para un Aborto Sin Riesgos,33 that it publishes to spread information and thereby reduce the risks associated with illegal abortions, which are often carried out under unsafe technical and medical-hygienic conditions.

It is also important to explore that the laws stipulating specific cases in which women are permitted to terminate a pregnancy also end up producing a dividing line in women’s experiences of abortion, separating those who are able to pay private medical practitioners for an abortion and those who are not able and thus must seek out other, less safe options that involve risks for their health and, often, their very lives. Moreover, even in legal cases such as rape or extreme socio-economic hardship on the part of the woman, it often takes so long to produce the documentation required to substantiate the required conditions that the abortion is delayed until the pregnancy is already quite advanced, thus requiring a more invasive surgical procedure. This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that women in these legal circumstances are obliged to deal with male authorities who often respond with ostracism, sexist violence and a refusal to recognize the women’s rights. In practice, these behaviors tend to drive women further away from state institutions and from the possibility of exercising their legal rights. In Brazil, a Delegacia da Mulher34 was set up to give special training to the workers involved in serving female violence victims and theoretically make it easier for them to navigate the procedures for requesting a legal abortion. However, even in these contexts women who have been raped must interact with male or female functionaries who discourage them from filing charges and blame them for the violence they have suffered.35

The attack on abortion rights unfolds on multiple fronts: restricting or criminalizing access to abortion is one such front, but another is the move to grant the unborn the status of person. In Brazil as in other countries in the region,36 Catholic groups are waging a war to gain approval for a Statute of the unborn, a proposal that has garnered various protests by women’s and feminist groups.37 If this Statute were approved, it would require the state to pay benefits to women who become pregnant as a result of rape and lack the economic means to raise the child. If the rapist in question can be identified, he would be responsible for paying the benefits to the woman, as he would automatically be assigned paternity of the child. This law would make it even more difficult for women who have been raped to get an abortion as permitted by current Brazilian law38 in that it would position the women on the same level as their fertilized ovule; indeed, the fertilized ovum would actually have rights over the woman/its mother, namely the right to have a legal father whether or not the woman in question wishes to recognize him as such. The premise underlying the Statute of the unborn aims to delegitimize the abortion legalization campaign waged by the feminist movement and undermine women’s autonomy in managing their own sexuality and reproductive capacities.

In addition to representing a key area of female self-determination, the struggle to legalize abortion also relates to women’s health framed as a public health issue. Illegal abortions are estimated to cause “approximately 11% of maternal deaths.”39 In some countries, doctors also take a public stand in support of abortion legalization precisely to prevent these serious health risks for women and consequent public health problems. Reports suggest that more than a million girls and women are hospitalized every year in this geographical area for health issues resulting from unsafe abortions40 and some of these cases result in the worst possible outcome, death.41

The issue of struggles to legalize abortion leads us to consider relations with public institutions or, in other words, the way that efforts to revolutionize certain social and institutional structures end up being incorporated, repulsed or accepted by institutions. Struggles for reproductive health necessarily involve institutionalization precisely because acting on women’s health, including reproductive health, means working through public services, and because women make claims on the state to demand these services as a right of citizenship.

In the context of sexual and reproductive health, the process of institutionalization has involved mediation, compromise and accepting limits on claims as they were originally formulated and presented, but it should be stressed that the goal of struggles for sexual and reproductive rights is precisely to institutionalize reproductive health services. All of these rights – the right for women to freely and openly undergo procedures to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy, the right to access, and thus use, contraceptive methods including the female condom that would grant women greater autonomy in protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (getting tested is important, as this will determine for sure whether a woman has caught an STD) and unwanted pregnancies are made substantial through an institutional process and thus require interfacing with the state.

The dialectic between social change and normalization is thus a central and fundamental element of struggles for sexual and reproductive rights. Despite these reflections on relations with institutions and the role they play, it is nonetheless important to frame feminist action in relation to sexual and reproductive rights in terms of autonomy42 because the connection between sexuality and reproduction is constantly rearticulated in ways that may be conservative and subversive. It is not enough to decriminalize abortion; it is also essential to claim women’s right to experience a liberated form of sexuality with their own bodies.

The Multiple Meanings of Female Sterilization in Brazil

One of the issues discussed at the last Encuentro was compulsory or quasi-compulsory female sterilization, a method that is used less now than in previous years but continues to be illegally employed in some countries among certain groups of women, often poor, black, indigenous and HIV positive women. Technically speaking, this is a surgical procedure that involves tying off the fallopian tubes so as to prevent the possibility of fertilization; it is considered an irreversible method of contraception, equivalent to the much less widespread procedure of male vasectomy. The issue of female sterilization should not be seen as distinct from abortion legalization; indeed, they are two sides of the same coin: whether it is preventing certain groups of women from having abortions or from giving birth to children, this remains a means of exercising control over female bodies, of determining which women must have children and which cannot. In both cases, women are denied self-determination in using their own bodies, especially in exercising their individual sexualities and reproductive capacities.

Although it is not representative of the entire Latin American context, the Brazilian case offers highly relevant elements for exploring the issues at play in the practice of sterilization as a contraceptive technique but also in the field of reproductive rights more broadly and in the tensions that characterize this terrain.43 In Brazil, the fight to regulate this practice by approving a law specifying the conditions under which a woman can be subjected to sterilization has constituted an important step forward in the field of reproductive health; at the same time, it also represented a key moment of debate for white and black feminists, allowing them to reflect on the relationship between sexism and racism in Brazilian society.44 It was a chance for white feminists to recognize one of the ways that racism manifests in Brazil, namely through the idea that the black and poor population should limit its growth rates so as to shrink if not disappear altogether.

After being introduced in the 1970s among white, middle-class women in Brazil, female sterilization spread (although illegally) during the 1980s among working class women, mainly black, and was employed in particular in parts of the country with a predominantly black population. Though doctors originally offered this procedure in exchange for favors from the woman or her family, it quickly expanded to become a fee-based service and, in election times, a good to be bartered for votes and popular support.45

Female sterilization was introduced in Brazil in keeping with the neo-Malthusian logic that guided the global policies of international organizations at the time: according to this logic, the reproductive capacities of women in poor countries, as well as poor women in wealthy countries, needed to be limited for their own good and for the good of their countries.46

Between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, the women of movimento negro47 spoke out against this practice, arguing that efforts to regulate poor women’s reproduction represented a more or less implicit way of reactivating the time-worn policy of restricting the growth of the black population, a population that various sectors of Brazilian society consider to be socially backward and a key cause of the country’s lack of economic and social progress. The women of movimento negro also denounced “governments’ and international agencies’ interests in controlling the birth rates of the black population by encouraging the indiscriminate use of contraceptive methods, especially female sterilization.”48 They therefore defined the spread of sterilization among poor and black women as a form of racism in that it represented an attempt to control black people’s population growth. Some black feminists used the term genocide to characterize the planned elimination of the black population that is inherent in the widespread practice of sterilizing black women.49

Thanks to pressure from the women of movimento negro, a national commission was established in 1993 to investigate the mass sterilization of women. Based on this committee’s findings, a law was approved in 1997 stating that women (and men) are only allowed to access sterilization if they are over 25 years old or have at least two living children. If the person seeking sterilization is married, she or he must have the permission of her or his spouse.

The struggle to regulate sterilization therefore also represented a struggle to vindicate the reproductive freedom of the black population, a struggle to highlight one of the ways racism manifests itself in Brazilian society and to oppose it by defending women’s right to reproduce. In this case, the women of movimento negro also expressed their criticism of certain groups in the feminist movement who viewed sterilization as a radical refusal of motherhood or a form of rebellion. According to these criticisms, “in the lives of black and poor women, sterilization actually expressed the absence of freedom and choice.”50

In the fight to restrict the use of female sterilization, the women of the movimento negro succeeded in raising the awareness of white feminists, making them begin to recognize the power and wide reach of racist ideology in Brazilian society, an ideology that can also be seen in the idea that it is acceptable and appropriate to limit the growth of the black population, though in most cases it is defined only as “poor.” Black women were thus able to involve white women in a fight not only to ensure women’s right to self-determination over their own bodies, but also to extend their awareness of racism and the many forms in which it manifests, caught up with sexism and socio-economic inequality. The sphere of sexual and reproductive rights thus also comprises tensions surrounding the multiple forms of sexism that affect women through experiences of racism, class inequalities and anti-lesbian discrimination.

On the one hand, this field comprises demands for better access to birth control methods, including the female condom, and the struggle for legalization of abortion; in other words, the assertion that women do not necessarily need to have children. These demands are often identified with those of urban, middle class white women. On the other hand, black women demand the right to be able to have children; the history of these women’s community is marked by social exclusion, problems with having and raising their own children without being forced to see them killed by the blows of police violence, and struggles to gain access to health care during pregnancy and childbirth without suffering discrimination in these institutional spaces as a result of their being black. Reproductive rights therefore constitutes an open-ended terrain that can best be understood beginning from the concrete experiences of women’s lives, which are in turn conditioned by class relations, racism, sexuality, and geographical position. In the case of female sterilization in Brazil, the trajectory leading to its legal regulation not only gave rise to changes in terms of reproductive health, it also provided a moment for black and white women to dialogue about racism. It was a means for understanding how racism manifests, how it combines with sexism, and how women can make different claims depending on their position in the racist system.

Finally, this case raises the question of why it was possible to pass a law restricting sterilization in Brazil while it has not been possible thus far to pass a law permitting the voluntary termination of pregnancy. The reason is that sterilization is always performed – and, in most cases, this was true in the past as well – after the woman has had at least one child and thus fulfilled what is seen as her reproductive duty. The state agreed to pass legislation on female sterilization because this procedure did not give rise to tensions with conservative political groups or the various Churches that oppose abortion. Furthermore, this law does not call into question women’s reproductive role; indeed, it might be said to reaffirm this role by making sterilization available only to women who have already had children.

In contrast, abortion touches directly on a woman’s ability to decide for herself whether or not to have children and would therefore be tantamount to institutionalizing the recognition that women are entitled to self-determination over their own reproductive capacities.


The terrain of sexual and reproductive rights is a battleground in which the conservative sectors found across the spectrum of political parties clash with feminist groups; at the same time, it is also a terrain of debate among feminists, as illustrated by the case of female sterilization in Brazil.

To return to the question posed by this special issue, “Are we facing a revolution?”, I think it could be argued that, in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean, struggles for sexual and reproductive rights have been and continue to be charged not only with the power to transform women’s lives, but also with revolutionary significance in the sense of seeking a radical change in the material life conditions surrounding reproduction and sexuality. Access to birth control, even irreversible methods, grants women the chance to back out of reproductive labor,51 although it certainly does not work to subvert the structure of social relations between the sexes that exclusively assigns the duty of caretaking and reproductive work to all women, albeit in different ways for black or white, rich or poor women. Despite these differences in women’s reproductive experiences, it is essential that we also investigate what women of different classes, color/geographic origins share as they relate to their partners in the management of their reproductive capacity. Under what circumstances do women have children? How do they divide caretaking and reproductive work with the fathers of their children? These also constitute significant issues in the field of sexual and reproductive health.

As we have seen, struggles to legalize abortion and secure sexual and reproductive rights have a revolutionary character because they seek to eliminate one of the most violent forms of sexual oppression, namely the negation of women’s self-determination over their own sexual and reproductive bodies; in so doing, these struggles undermine the foundational structure of heterosexist society. In many cases, the revolutionary character of these struggles comes into conflict with other political projects of radical societal transformation put forward by left-wing movements, parties and governments52 that join the Church, as well as certain political groups that in other contexts would be considered rivals, to oppose the legalization of abortion. While feminists argue that the decriminalization of abortion constitutes an essential element of any truly democratic plan for society, the leftist parties who oppose it take a stand against a comprehensive democratic project that would involve changing the structure of social relations between the sexes in the management of sexuality and reproduction.

It is also useful to consider the temporal dimension when assessing the relationship between revolution and transformation, particularly in the case of relations between feminist movements and left-wing parties: how long are leftist revolutionary projects maintained over time once the actors involved have begun to govern through state institutions? Once they have gained power, at what point can the governments populated by former revolutionary groups actually be considered allies in the struggle for sexual and reproductive rights?53 Not only are there numerous rights to be secured in this context, but feminists must simultaneously defend past achievements from ongoing attacks against women’s self-determination. The situation thus requires thinking in terms of an ongoing revolution; not so much a single episode as a continuous effort to ensure the reproduction of revolutionary transformations.

Morgan and Roberts have delved into the reasons behind the breach between left-wing governments and efforts to legalize abortion in Latin America. Among the various factors, the authors highlight the fact that leftist parties and the Catholic Church consolidated a bond of collaboration during the period of resistance against military dictatorships, and so “the quid pro quo for their support may be that leftist leaders do not challenge the Church’s condemnation of abortion.”54 The role of the Catholic Church may indeed be useful for understanding this breach, but the truly determining factor is that the men in these left-wing parties are unwilling to institutionalize a political transformation of social relation between the sexes that cuts across political positions, even though they know full well that in practice women do get abortions.

In the field of sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America, the relationship between revolution and transformation therefore unfolds in two different directions: on one hand, there is the relationship between women’s struggles for self-determination and leftist revolutionary projects that are characterized by predominantly male participation and have refused to make space for the revolution championed by women and feminists; on the other, there is the relationship between the demands of women’s groups and feminists in terms of gender relations and the management of sexuality and continuing resistance on the part of governments, whether left- or right-wing, that seek to counter the revolutionary character of the transformations implicit in these demands. Women are constantly responding to these dual sources of resistance both collectively and individually, through struggles, negotiations and forms of transformation.


  1. I would like to thank Gail Pheterson for her invaluable suggestions, which helped me in developing this article.
  2. “Transformations without revolution? Come femminismi e movimenti lgbtqi hanno cambiato il mondo” dialogue held July 25, 2013 in Monte del Lago, Italy during the summer SIMposio on the history of social conflict organized by Storie in movimento and Zapruder.
  3. Nicole-Claude Mathieu, L’anatomie politique. Catégorisations et idéologies du sexe, Côté-femmes, Paris 1991, p. 135.
  4. As in the majority of Latin American countries that were held by dictatorial regimes.
  5. Democratic transition in Brazil was a particularly lengthy and complex process; it can be said to have begun in 1974, managed entirely by the military officials then in power, and to have ended in 1988 with the approval of the new Constitution and in 1989 with the direct election of the president of the Republic.
  6. One proof of the current relevance and vitality enjoyed by the concept of revolution in Latin America is the Encuentro latinoamericano progressista organized in Quito, Ecuador September 29 and 30, 2014, and titled Las revoluciones de la Patria Grande: retos y desafíos (The revolutions of the great homeland: challenges and objectives). This gathering brought together various Latin American movements and leftist parties, who discussed the fact that conservative forces have returned to this area.
  7. For discussions of the double militancy enacted by women and the relationship between the feminist movement and the male-dominated revolutionary left as well as the tensions between the demands put forward by parties, unions and movements and those made by women and feminists in the Latin American and Caribbean context, see Nancy Saporta Sternbach, Marysa Navarro-Aranguren, Patricia Chuchryk, Sonia E. Alvarez, “Feminisms in Latin America: From Bogota to San Bernardo”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1992, vol.17, 2, pp. 393-434.
  8. By structural adjustment policies, I refer to the requirements set by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the 1980s, asking countries of the South to reduce public spending for social services, carry out privatization and dismantle trade barriers; these economic reforms were established as the conditions countries must respect in order to secure new loans.
  9. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (BIRD) in particular./note] have impacted women (especially poor, indigenous and black women) even more than men precisely because of the areas most significantly affected: the labor market, where women already occupied a position structurally inferior to that of men,9Mary Garcia Castro, Mujer y feminismos en tiempos neoliberales en America latina. Balance y utopias de fin de decada, ecos de Brasil, ­paper presented at LASA 98 – Latin American Studies Association, XXI International Congress, Chicago, September 24-26 1998.
  10. These lines of investigation have been developed in the context of the social sciences, but the courses offered by public health schools often also address issues concerning the role of social relations in the sphere of sexuality and relations between the sexes, exploring their intersections with the variables of ethnicity/”race”; see for example Simone Monteiro and Livio Sansone, Etnicidade na América Latina: um debate sobre raça, saúde e direitos reprodutivos, Editora FioCruz, Rio de Janeiro 2004, and Richard Parker et al., Framing the Sexual Subject, The politics of gender, sexuality and power, University of California Press, Berkeley 2000.
  11. On this issue, one of the concepts most widely used in this literature is William Simon and John Gagnon’s idea of the sexual script as introduced in their 1984 article “Sexual Scripts,” in: Culture Society and Sexuality, Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton, UCL Press, London 1999, pp. 29-38.
  12. Lynn M. Morgan and Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, “Reproductive governance in Latin America”, Anthropology & Medicine, vol. 19, 2, p. 245, 2012.
  13. In reality, this shift is more of a trend than a series of distinct stages, as neo-Malthusian and neoliberal logics can coexist in the same context.
  14. In relation to women’s health, see in particular Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe, http://rsmlac.blogspot.it.
  15. Sonia Alvarez et al., “Encountering Latin American and Caribbean Feminisms”, Signs, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, 2, p. 541, 2002. For a discussion of the Encuentros and feminist experiences they represent, see Valeria Ribeiro Corossacz, “Pratiche e discorsi dei femminismi in America latina: l’esperienza degli Encuentros”, Genesis, Femminismi e culture oltre l’Europa, vol. IV, 2, pp. 57-78, 2005.
  16. Encuentro feminista latinoamericano y del Caribe, Desatar, Desnudar, Reanudar. Memorias 12 Encuentro feminista latinoamericano y del Caribe, Editorial Kimpres, Bogotá 2012, p. 63, available at http://www.12encuentrofeminista.org.
  17. When the Rajoy government filed a bill in the Spanish House in December 2013 that would have modified the law governing abortion to render it more restrictive, making abortion available only in cases of sexual violence and serious physical or mental health risks to the woman, Spanish women organized a protest campaign called “Yo decido” that was subsequently taken up by women in other European countries as well. The mobilization by Spanish women led to the proposed bill being withdrawn in September of 2014.
  18. Encuentro feminista latinoamericano y del Caribe, Desatar, Desnudar, Reanudar. Memorias 12 Encuentro feminista latinoamericano y del Caribe, Editorial Kimpres, Bogotá 2012, p. 63.
  19. Yamila Azize Vargas, “La izquierda y el aborto en América Latina y el Caribe: Un pasito adelante y… diez atrás”, En Rojo, 5-11 March, pp. 22-23, 2009.
  20. Yamila Azize Vargas, “La izquierda y el aborto en América Latina y el Caribe: Un pasito adelante y… diez atrás”, En Rojo, March 5-11, p. 23, 2009.
  21. http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2014/06/26/politica/1403745655_277010.html; Jacqueine Heinen, “Onslaughts on the right to choose. A transcontinental panorama”, in AboutGender, vol. 3, 5, p. 24, 2014.
  22. Yamila Azize Vargas, “La izquierda y el aborto en América Latina y el Caribe: Un pasito adelante y… diez atrás”, En Rojo, March 5-11, pp. 22-23, 2009; Ana María Pizarro, “Nicaragua: La vida de las Mujeres, la ‘Izquierda’ y el aborto”, En Rojo, March 5-11, pp. 28-29, 2009.
  23. Lynn M. Morgan and Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, “Reproductive governance in Latin America”, Anthropology & Medicine, vol. 19, 2, p. 247, 2012.
  24. Ana María Pizarro, “Nicaragua: La vida de las Mujeres, la ‘Izquierda’ y el aborto”, En Rojo, March 5-11, p. 28, 2009. In 2012 the parliament approved a law decriminalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy that was finally signed by the at the time president Mujica.
  25. Yamila Azize Vargas, “La izquierda y el aborto en América Latina y el Caribe: Un pasito adelante y… diez atrás”, En Rojo, March 5-11, p. 22, 2009.
  26. Yamila Azize Vargas, “La izquierda y el aborto en América Latina y el Caribe: Un pasito adelante y… diez atrás”, En Rojo, March 5-11, p. 22, 2009.
  27. Linea Aborto Chile: El Manual, no date, p. 16.
  28. Encuentro feminista latinoamericano y del Caribe, Desatar, Desnudar, Reanudar. Memorias 12 Encuentro feminista latinoamericano y del Caribe, Editorial Kimpres, Bogotá 2012.
  29. There are a total of seven countries in the area in which abortion is completely banned and considered a crime: Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Surinam and the Dominican Republic.
  30. http://infoabortochile.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/manual.pdf. This text is modeled after a manual drafted by an Argentinian group, which illustrates the circulation of information and practices made easier by linguistic commonalities (it is quite easy for Brazilian women to read Spanish).
  31. This drug is also used in hospitals to aid in the process of abortion, whether spontaneous or initiated by women before coming to the hospital. For the case of Brazil, see Valeria Ribeiro Corossacz, O corpo da nação. Classificação racial e gestão social da reprodução em hospitais da rede pública do Rio de Janeiro, Editora UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro 2009.
  32. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/77079/1/9789243548432_spa.pdf
  33. The Delegacias da Mulher (Police Station for Women) were founded in the mid-1980s and spread throughout the main cities during the 1990s.
  34. http://blogueirasfeministas.com/2013/08/nao-va-sozinha-a-delegacia-da-mulher/
  35. Lynn M. Morgan and Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, “Reproductive governance in Latin America”, Anthropology & Medicine, vol. 19, 2, pp. 241-254, 2012.
  36. http://www.correiobraziliense.com.br/app/noticia/brasil/2013/06/15/interna_brasil,371620/paulistanos-e-cariocas-protestam-contra-o-estatuto-do-nascituro.shtml
  37. For a discussion of Brazilian laws regarding abortion, see Maria Isabel Baltar da Rocha, “The abortion Issue in Brazil: A study of the debate in Congress”, in: Population Change in Brazil: contemporary perspectives, Daniel Joseph Hogan, Unicamp, Campinas 2001, pp. 141-155.
  38. Available at: http://www.september28.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/09/Llamado-a-la-acción-2013.pdf.
  39. Available at: http://www.september28.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/09/Llamado-a-la-acción-2013.pdf.
  40. In September 2014, two women in Rio de Janeiro disappeared only to be found dead after having sought to abort in clandestine clinics. These incidents have led to intense mobilization in favor of legalizing abortion, although so far it is difficult to predict what outcome this will have in terms of legislation. Available at: http://www.tribunahoje.com/noticia/116953/brasil/2014/09/12/rj-policia-prende-mais-dois-suspeitos-em-caso-de-gravida-desaparecida.html; http://extra.globo.com/casos-de-policia/mulher-sai-para-fazer-aborto-e-encontrada-morta-em-niteroi-14009639.html.
  41. For some reflections on the role of autonomy in Latin American feminist movements of the 1970s/1990s, see Amalia Fischer, “Les chemins complexes de l’autonomie”, Nouvelles Questions Féministes, Féminismes dissidents en Amérique latine et aux Caraïbes, vol. 24, 2, pp. 65-85, 2005.
  42. For a more detailed discussion, see Valeria Ribeiro Corossacz, O corpo da nação. Classificação racial e gestão social da reprodução em hospitais da rede pública do Rio de Janeiro, Editora UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro 2009.
  43. Valeria Ribeiro Corossacz, “Racismo e sexismo: reflexões a partir de algumas experiências feministas brasileiras”, in: Relações de Gênero, Raça, Classe, e Identidade Social no Brasil e na França, Antonia dos Santos Garcia and Afrânio-Raul Garcia Jr., LetraCapital, Rio de Janeiro 2013, pp. 34-46.
  44. Multiple studies have documented these electoral exchanges, but for one of the earliest investigations of female sterilization see Corrêa Sonia, SOS CORPO, Projeto: causas e condições da esterilização feminina voluntária na região metropolitana do Recife, SOS Corpo, Recife 1983.
  45. Gail Pheterson, “Grossesse et prostitution. Les femmes sous la tutelle de l’État”, in Femmes en flagrant délit d’indépendance, Éditions Tahin-Party 2010, pp. 51-79.
  46. The term movimento negro indicates the sexually mixed militant black associations as well as the groups made up of only women, involved in the struggle against racism in Brazilian society.
  47. Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra, Esterilização: impunidade ou regulamentação, Cadernos Geledés 2, Programa de Saúde, São Paulo, out. 1991, p. 8.
  48. Jurema Werneck, “Esterilização: do controle da natalidade ao genocídio do povo negro!”, in Cadernos CEAP (Centro de articulação de populações marginalizadas), n.1, Rio de Janeiro 1990; Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra, Esterilização: impunidade ou regulamentação, Cadernos Geledés 2, Programa de Saúde, São Paulo, out. 1991; Fernanda Carneiro and Jurema Werneck, Os Mitos da Esterilização Voluntária, texto apresentado na sessão pública de encerramento da CPI/ALERJ que investiga a Esterilização em Massa no Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro 1991; Edna Roland, “Saúde reprodutiva da população negra no Brasil: entre Malthus e Gobineau”, in: Políticas, Mercado, Ética, Margareth Arilha and Tereza Citeli, Comissão de Cidadania e Reprodução, Editora 34, São Paulo 1998, pp. 97-110.
  49. Edna Roland, “O movimento das mulheres negras brasileiras”, in: Tirando a máscara. Ensaios sobre racismo no Brasil, Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães and Lynn Huntley, Paz e Terra, São Paulo 2000, p. 248.
  50. Paola Tabet, Le dita tagliate, Ediesse, Roma 2014.
  51. Parties and groups that are also carried forward by the same women working to defend sexual and reproductive rights.
  52. At the same time, it would be necessary to identify which non-institutionalized revolutionary projects do make room for the recognition of women’s self-determination as a long-term objective.
  53. Lynn M. Morgan and Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, “Reproductive governance in Latin America”, Anthropology & Medicine, vol. 19, 2, p. 249, 2012.

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