Social Activism: When the Context Matters

By Armando Chaguaceda

Photo: Kaloian Santos Cabrera

HAVANA TIMES – In Argentina, the Senate legalized abortion up until the 14th week of pregnancy, with 38 votes in favor, 29 against and 1 abstention. Before, abortion was only allowed if the mother’s life was in danger or in the case of rape.

The flood of congratulations following this historic day included United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. She wrote that “almost all deaths from #abortion occur in countries which severely restrict or criminalize it, forcing women to turn to unsafe procedures.” It’s the harsh reality.

This monumental occasion can be explained via different media-linked, analytical and political perspectives. However, there is one that is able to put this victory into context. Understanding how and why Argentina was able to make such progress in the field of women’s rights and of general society as a whole. It’s a matter of concentrating on what democracy – as a political system, social movement and historic process -, allows for. As well as what “other alternatives” hinder, on the other hand.

If we understand democracy as a system, the mere existence of mechanisms such as Parliament and elections, have allowed Argentina to discuss the issue both in and outside political institutions. For a social demand to become no.1 on the public agenda and then result in a new legal framework, which must go hand-in-hand and executed with concrete policies and actions.

If we also understand democracy as a process and movement, we can appreciate how a series of struggles, mass mobilizations and demands have happened over time and been expressed in society, leading to citizen-led change last Wednesday. Democracy, as a system of governance, process and movement, made a huge difference in Argentina last week. No complaint against the system that really exists (which is what radical intellectuals and social movements normally do) should ignore this.

While this was happening, rights were being trampled elsewhere. In China, reporter Zhang Zhan, who covered the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She has been under arrest since May, when she held long hunger strikes which have led to health repercussions. [i]

In Saudi Arabia, feminist activist Loujain al Hathloul has been sentenced to five years and eight months in prison for “serving a foreign agenda using the Internet.” Al Hathloul was arrested alongside other activists back in May 2018, after demanding the right to drive and vote for Saudi women, as well as the end of the male guardianship system in force in the kingdom.[ii]

In Russia, professor Yulia Galyamina was sentenced to two years in prison and faces a life-long ban on teaching at Russian universities. An independent candidate – banned from running in the last local elections, Yulia took part in the 2020 campaign against amendments to the Russian Constitution that reinforce Putin’s autocracy.[iii]

Zhan, Al Hathloul and Galyamina have different professions, life stories and social, cultural and religious contexts in each of their countries. The thing that unites them is being empowered women, with the right to have rights. As well as the commitment to give other people these rights. However, they are also similar in the fact they have to stand up to and are suffering at the hands of autocratic political systems.

In politics, the context is very important for processes to develop and yield good fruits.  Zhan, Al Hathloul and Galyamina are fighting to empower their fellow women in places where corrupt entourages, Strong Men and tyrannical dogma establish what every member in society can and can’t do. Where citizens are denied their real status. Where there is a lot of capitalism – it’s savage there! – but they still need a Republic. Where there aren’t boring, possible, formal, vilified and imperfect options to this human construction called democracy.


[i] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-55466529

[ii] https://www.es.amnesty.org/actua/acciones/defensoras-arabia-dic19/

[iii] https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/12/18/i-want-to-say-thank-you-to-putin-personally

Read more from Armando Chaguaceda’s diary here.

Armando Chaguaceda

Armando Chaguaceda: My curriculum vitae presents me as a historian and political scientist. I'm from an unclassifiable generation who collected the achievements, frustrations and promises of the Cuban Revolution and now resists on the island or contributes through numerous websites, trying to remain human without dying in the attempt.


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