Photo by Megan Alpert
Walking up to the gathering of a few hundred people in Quito’s Parque El Ejido, I could hear the beating of drums. The fourth annual Marcha de las Putas was just getting underway.
The march is Ecuador’s answer to the global Slut Walk movement, which began in Toronto as a protest of rape culture. But here, deep in the Andes where abortion is illegal and health professionals often send the message than women should “avoid sex and endure pregnancy,” the issues central to the local feminist movement addressed at Marcha de las Putas are wholly different than their North American counterparts. As more and more people joined the march at the park, a few people began to strip but riot police swarmed in to whisk them away just as soon as they got naked. Then we marched. At the front of the march, women held a banner reading in Spanish, “Our best revenge will be joy.”
“My friends and I were looking for feminist spaces but most were very vertical and hierarchical in the way that they worked,” says Violeta Ivanna Carillo, an organizer of Mengana Kolectiva (the Jane Doe Collective), which takes part in the annual protest. “We didn’t want to conform to any of those spaces, so in 2011, Mengana was born.” The collective works to bring attention to violence against women and other issues in Ecuador through art by way of street performances, radio shows, political actions, and zines. “The goal is to take up space in the name of women.” The collective formed just months ahead of the first Marcha de las Putas. At the time, Ecuador’s Intersectoral National Strategy for Family Planning and Pregnancy Prevention (ENIPLA), a joint project of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion, was making progressive strides toward sexual and reproductive justice—they were in working to teach sex education in schools, make birth control more accessible, and lead LGBTQI-friendly campaigns. “ENIPLA wasn’t perfect, but it was a really big move in the right direction, because many of the people involved were feminists and young reproductive justice activists working in law, and we needed people on the inside,” says Ivanna Carillo.
Photo by Bani Amor
Then last fall, President Rafael Correa replaced ENIPLA and everyone who worked there with Plan Familia, a state-run strategy which centers policy on “family values,” abstinence-only education, and the “struggle against hedonism,” (which the propagandist newspaper El Comercio describes as “pleasure for pleasure’s sake.”) By presidential decree, Correa instated ultra-right conservative Mónica Hernández—who is rumored to be a part of the extremely conservative Catholic group Opus Dei—as the head of Plan Familia. What few strides ENIPLA tried to make in the campaign to make abortion legal at least in cases of rape have been scrapped. Unlike ENIPLA, Plan Familia bypasses all the ministries and takes its orders straight from the president, who has called feminist activists in the country “muchachitas malcriadas,” or “bratty little girls.”
Perhaps because of the extreme challenges the sexual and reproductive rights movements face here, Marcha de las Putas strives to be that much more of an inclusive space in its opposition. In attendance were a significant number of men and elders and a strong queer, trans and gender-diverse presence. As clouds closed in on the sunny sky and large drops began to fall on us, we chanted, “Anti-contraceptives so that we don’t abort, safe abortion so that we don’t die,” and “¡Alerta alerta alerta que camina, la marcha de las putas por américa latina!”
Abortion is illegal in Ecuador and anyone who has one can be jailed for up to 5 years for getting one—except in cases of rape only if the survivor is mentally ill. About 95,000 abortions occur in Ecuador every year (about 200 of which are legal) and anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people are admitted to hospitals with complications due to botched abortions each year. At the protest, we chanted, “If the Pope were a woman, abortion would be legal!”
Photo by Bani Amor
In its three years of operation, ENIPLA was able to distribute emergency contraception at medical centers to whoever needed it. Those who were underage were able to access it without the accompaniment or permission of an adult relative. The emergency contraception campaign was created to combat the overwhelming number of adolescent pregnancies in Ecuador and the amount of young girls who die due to pregnancy or botched abortion-related complications. With Plan Familia, that program no longer exists. The government says lowering maternal mortality is one of their key issues but continue to criminalize abortion and fund abstinence-only education in schools. If this is how they choose to combat the issue, maternal mortality in Ecuador can only be expected to rise.
The Marcha de las Putas ended at Plaza Foch, where the “Festival Emputada” took place well into the night. Speakers, bands, and other acts took to the stage, including a group of folkloric dancers made up of trans Kichwa women. The crowd went wild when Spanish rapper Furia took the stage for a full set, followed by the beloved band Black Mama whose lead singer marched onto the stage holding up a sign that read “Putas against racism.” Both frontwomen spoke in between songs of their personal experiences with street harassment and sexual assault while the crowd silently listened. But when it came time to dance, we all responded in high spirits.
During Furia’s set, the crowd formed a spontaneous ring, linking arms and jumping up and down in clockwise motion while yelling, “Chucha con chucha, esto es nuestra lucha!” Whatever the future holds for these Ecuadorian feminist activists, it’s clear that they will respond with organized action, strong numbers and a plenitude of joy.