BUENOS AIRES — “He raped me. I’m a prisoner and he’s free,” reads the large pink banner that 17-year-old Florencia Ortiz held with the name of her alleged 50-year old rapist.
She says Roberto, her friend’s father, sexually abused her when she was 10.
“He would make me play ‘the doctor and the nurse’ game in his bedroom,” she recalls.
Florencia said she filed a complaint with the local police in Lanús, her hometown 15 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, but it did no good.
“He keeps threatening me; getting close to my family and my home,” she told me. “It’s been four years and I feel like a prisoner because I’m too scared to leave my home.”
Florencia was surrounded by protesters who beat drums with wooden sticks and chanted slogans against gender violence and femicide. Many were gathered under umbrellas at the base of Buenos Aires’ iconic obelisk.
Despite the torrential rains on this cold Wednesday afternoon, thousands of people flooded into streets of Buenos Aires and other cities across the South American nation to protest against the plague of gender-based violence.
The massive demonstration was triggered by the excruciating murder of 16-year old Lucia Perez, who earlier this month was drugged, raped, tortured and murdered in Mar del Plata, a coastal city 420 kilometers south of the capital.
Her killers, drug dealers, impaled her on a spike from her anus to her heart, local media reported. Prosecutors said the pain the high school woman suffered was so unbearable that she went into cardiac arrest and died.
“I’ve seen a thousand things in my career, but nothing equal to this litany of abhorrent acts,” said lead prosecutor Maria Isabel Sanchez.
Protesters honored her memory on Wednesday by holding letters that spelled out phrase “Somos Todas Lucia” (“We are all Lucia” in Spanish). They painted their face with fake blood to simulate bruises.
Lucia isn’t the only victim of gender violence remembered at Wednesday’s protest.
On the same day of her torture, a mother in Buenos Aires stabbed and killed her daughter for being a lesbian. A day later, men in the park stabbed two teenage girls in the picturesque La Boca neighborhood.
All those women were remembered on Wednesday by protesters holding signs reading “Ni Una Menos” (“Not One Less”), the group’s rallying cry against gender violence. This collective of female activists and journalists, including 50 other organizations, syndicates, university groups and political parties, participated in the rally.
It’s part of a nationwide awakening that started in 2015 following the horrendous murder of a kindergarten teacher who had her throat slit by her husband in front of three- and four-year old children in the classroom. International news outlets have called the Ni Una Menos movement’s Argentina’s version of the Arab Spring.
Wednesday’s protest was massive, as Argentine women suspended all activities across the country between 1- 2 PM. “Enough of macho violence, we want us alive,” read the call to protest on social media.
“My soul couldn’t hurt more because of what happened to Lucia,” says 16-year old Loana Ruiz. “It’s a shame that some local media tried to justify her death because she smoked weed. They’re justifying rape; they’re justifying death. Smoking weed, going out at night or wearing short skirts doesn’t justify being raped.”
Although Argentina included the crime of femicide — the killing of women because of their gender — into its 2012 penal code, gruesome brutality against women is still pervasive.
The women’s rights group Casa del Encuentro found that 2,094 Argentinian women were assassinated because of their gender between 2008 and 2015. And the organization Women of Latin American Matria (MuMaLá) has recorded 226 femicides in Argentina since the beginning of this year — one every 31 hours. That includes 19 women killed in October alone.
“We need a more equal society. We do have laws but we urgently need all of society to assume women’s rights,” Mabel Bianco, president of the Buenos Aires-based Foundation for Studies and Research on Women (FEIM), told Fusion.
Before Wednesday’s march began, Sara Esther Benitez raised a banner with pictures of her daughter with severe bruises on the face. Fernanda was beaten repeatedly by her boyfriend, Benitez explains.
She said she had to pick her daughter up in the emergency room of the Piñero hospital in Buenos Aires after the boyfriend broke her noise and eyebrow, causing her to lose an eye.
“Her face was disfigured. I didn’t recognize her. She was not my daughter,” says Benitez, who, like the other women gathered at the protest, was wearing black for what they called #MiercolesNegro, or Black Wednesday.
Police released the man, who was under the influence of drugs, three days later.
“It’s a shame that the government doesn’t do anything about violence against women. I’m outraged that Argentina is still a patriarchal and machista society,” says Rosia Suyo, a 20-year-old anthropology student at the University of Buenos Aires.
Despite the dour mood, the protest was also an opportunity for women to express messages of hope and solidarity.
“I’m here to share my life story and tell other that you can survive sexual abuse,” says Agustina Fernandez, who was raped repeatedly when she was 5.
The mother of two is now a volunteer at the Fundacion Elegir Sonreir (“Choose Smiling Foundation” in Spanish), which helps youngsters in situation of vulnerability.
“He was a friend of the family. I would call him ‘uncle’,” she says.
Fernandez’s husband, Ernando Danolfo, is one of the few men who joined the protest. “I came to apologize on behalf of all men who misbehave, rape and torture women,” he says, as they held hands.
Sadly, Argentina is not an exception in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The region has long been deemed the most dangerous part of the world for women, especially in Central American nations such as El Salvador, which has the highest murder rate of women on the planet. In Honduras, femicide is considered to be women’s second leading cause of death.
But there has also been somewhat of an awakening to the problem in recent years, with similar protests against gender violence occurring across the region, with women of all ages raising their voices to say Basta Ya!
“I’m afraid to walk in the street because of all this violence. Girls can’t go out at night and they have to live with fear,” says Alexandra Contreras, a chef who came out to protest with her family. “You just can’t live with this way.”