The screaming walls of Asunción
Eduardo Galeano, the late Uruguayan writer, once said, “The walls are the publishing press of the poor”. In Asunción — its crumbling walls have become the unyielding pages where gender violence — in all its wicked forms — is denounced and punishment demanded. Here in the Paraguayan capital, they are the screams of protest and scorching condemnation.
Asunción, named after the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, is a timeworn city of approximately 500,000 people. It’s a city — like the rest of this landlocked country — where the political and religious powers conspire to shut down any attempts at gender democracy or the promotion of women rights.
It is a city — and a country — where gender violence goes mostly unpunished. The writings on the walls — a series of photos taken in the early months of 2019 — point the fingers squarely at the perpetrators of the violence: the State, the Catholic and evangelical churches and the patriarchal conservative establishment. Women’s demands, hidden for a long time, are visible on the walls of Asunción.
Antonio Castillo, Asunción, 2019
Crossing to the side of the street spared from the Asunción’s blazing summer sun the graffiti stared at me: “El Mata” — He Kills”. It is a clean text next to a stylized pineapple looking grenade. Women don’t die. Men kill them. In Paraguay, a country of barely seven million, one woman is murdered every week.
In 2018, the country’s Observatory for Women recorded the killing of 59 women, nine more than in 2017. In the first four months of 2019, 17 women had been already killed. In a cacophony of voices — in a pro women’s march in downtown Asunción — I heard a chant “Roikovese ha Roikoveta.” It is in Guarani, the country’s widely spoken indigenous language. It means — one of the protestors translates for me — “We want to live, and we will live”.
I search for a graffiti I saw a few days ago. It took me a few hours to find it. Abortion is illegal in Paraguay. Even in cases of rape, the termination of pregnancy is punishable with up to five years in prison.
When writing this, three women were imprisoned — the crime? They aborted. The prohibition of abortion has pushed women to dodgy clandestine clinics. Many died there. The number of women’s death in clandestine clinics is one of the highest in Latin America.
On average, 17 women die a year. The majority of them are poor. Wealthy women leave the country to abort or manage to do it in Paraguay under safe conditions after paying an exorbitant fee.
Losing myself in the streets of Asunción I saw this graffiti. It is a two words plea for a political system free from the growing influence of conservative ideologies of the Catholic and evangelicals churches. Paraguay is not a secular state. The Catholic Church — as well as evangelical churches — has substantial sway over public policies related to gender and sexuality.
A teaching book on how to promote gender equality in schools was removed in the face of religious leaders’ pressure. To placate Paraguay’s religious leaders, the government promised to “burn all the books” in the public square of Asunción — books that promoted — as religious leaders said — “gender ideology”.
As the afternoon waned, I stood reading this graffiti. The church-state separation is a myth in Paraguay. Presidents, congresspeople, lawmakers, and mayors swear before God. Religious symbols are present in government offices, schools and hospitals — everywhere.
The Church and the State are the bearers of Paraguay’s ankylosed conservative patriarchal system. The country’s political class, mostly belong to two large conservative parties: Partido Colorado (Red Party) and Partido Liberal (Liberal Party). They are closely linked to the Catholic and evangelical churches.
I wandered Asunción. I got lost. In the streets, the chant “more women, better democracy” has become louder and more defiant. Paraguay was the last Latin American country in granting women the right to vote, on July 5, 1961. It was not so long ago.
In 2010 “Kuña Pyrenda” was born — the first and only feminist political party in Latin America. “Kuña Pyrenda” — in Guaraní — means “platform to empower women”. It is a socialist, feminist and environmentalist political party. It was born — as its leader, Lilián Soto said — “to place women as a historical political subject”.
In the 2014 study “Women and politics in Paraguay,” scholars and activists Gabriela Schwartzman and Lilián Soto wrote: “Paraguayan politics is not a particularly kind space for women”.
A law on political gender parity has been bogged down for years in the countries’ corridors of power, dominated mainly by men. The women’s demands have even been parodied. “Do not ask for parity, you are beautiful without any law,” was the answer former president Horacio Cartes gave to women in 2018.
I walked the city not knowing where the next graffiti would be. I saw this after having a black coffee in the ever so cool Café Literario (Literary Café). Paraguay became an independent nation — from the Spanish colonial rule — in 1811. The independence of women is now in the making. It is inexorable.
The second independence — as uttered in this writing above the image of Frida Kahlo — is an act of resistance of Paraguayan women against male oppression. Isabel Donoso is a feminist activist. “The second independence is from patriarchy,” she told me. Paraguayan women continue to endure situations of inferiority, inequality and violence. “I feel our time has come; this is our revolution,” she said.
The silent roars during lunchtime. I headed to the graffiti and paused. Two heavy built men passed in front of my camera. They stopped and looked at the graffiti. Then they turned around and looked at me. I smiled. They didn’t smile back. They walked away while uttering words I was unable to understand.
In conservative Paraguay, the LGBTQ community is increasingly vulnerable. Unlike several of its neighbouring countries, Paraguay does not have laws against all kinds of discrimination or regulations on gender identity. The state doesn’t recognise unions between people of the same sex. Lesbians are discriminated; they are fired continuously, harassed in their workplaces, or forced to keep their sexuality hidden.
In 2013, during the presidential campaign, the former president, Horacio Cartes said that he would shoot himself in the testicles if his son were homosexual. By the way, Cartes is investigated for corruption. Last June around 2,000 people took to the streets of the Asunción demanding that the right-wing government of current president Mario Abdo Benítez ceases his “hate rhetoric” and takes measures to prevent the death of trans-people.
Panambí is a trans-gender organisation based in Asunción. It has been documenting hundreds of cases of violence against LGTBQ people including the murder of 61. “There are more than 50 reported deaths that do not have any type of investigation,” said Simón Cazal, co-founder of “Somosgay” (We are gay) — a non-government pro-LGBTQ organisation.
In 2015 Paraguay’s strict abortion law made world headlines when authorities denied a pregnant 10-year-old an abortion after her stepfather raped her. Following the 2018 abortion debate in neighbouring Argentina that is seeking a legal, safe and free abortion, there were hopes that Paraguay would follow the example. And while this has been discussed at the political level, a free and safe abortion system has no chance of being implemented in Paraguay.
For the left-wing senator, Esperanza Martínez it is necessary to address the clandestine abortion problem. When “it is done clandestinely this type of abortion is the third most common cause of maternal death in our country,” she said. She said that in Paraguay there was “strong hypocrisy” because nobody is responsible when a woman dies when an abortion is done clandestinely.” She pointed her accusatory finger at medical professionals who practice abortion at a high cost — only affordable by the wealthiest.
In Paraguay the State and the Church — and this means the Catholic Church — are closely tied up. The words “invoking God” are part of the preamble of the country’s 1992 Constitution. The graffiti is a warning against the increasing influence of the church — both Catholic and Protestant — in the political sphere.
I sat for hours reading this graffiti, sitting on the pavement remembering the brutal dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, the longest dictatorship in South America (1954–1989). The kidnapping and rape of young people aged 10 to 15 are one of the least investigated crimes that happened during that period. According to the 2008 Truth and Justice Commission Report, these crimes have little documentation because the victim’s families feel “guilt and shame”.
While a small section of the feminist political struggle, Anarcho-Feminism in Paraguay has a long history. It goes back to 1913 when the first organisations of working women appeared: cardboard and cigarette sellers; and the seamstress unions. The pant and vest makers were also part of this first wave of Paraguay’s Anarcho-Feminist movement — they were part of the Tailor Resistance Society.
Rapists walk free. Impunity in cases of rape is the norm. That morning I read about Zully Samudio’s case. It goes back to 2004. She was an obstetrician who killed a man who tried to rape her. In the first sentence, she was found innocent, but the prosecuting lawyers managed to annul this process. She was subjected to a second trial. She was convicted to seven years in prison.
Samudio’s rapist had a long history of sexual assaults. During the trial, Samudio was portrayed in the media as a cold-blooded killer. Her failed rape was described as a minor incident — as “a risk” of being a woman in Asunción.
In Paraguay, there is no serious data about sexual abuse or rape. It is estimated that 80% of cases of gender violence and rape occur within the family. In the country every day, at least three children are victims of sexual abuse; however, many of these cases go unpunished due to judicial inadequacy and due to a society that has ceased to be outraged.
Meliza Fleitas became a symbol of “missing women”. At the age of19, she disappeared in July 2017. She was found dead on October 2018. She was buried in La Recoleta Cemetery in Asunción. Her boyfriend Jaime Fernández was charged with feminicide. In Paraguay, six people, mostly women, disappear a day.
In Paraguay, women are sexually harassed in all spheres, public and private. Whistles, lascivious looks, foul comments, verbal aggression, honking, unwanted compliments, exhibitionism or public masturbation and groping are some of the abuses women face every day in Asunción.
Female harassment is regarded as part of the “country’s male culture” and not as a form of sexual violence. It is trivialised. It was not long ago that the Archbishop of Asunción described the harassment against women as an indecent act, “but not a serious one”.
“I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary in Luke 1:38 — a Biblical statement by the Virgin Mary that feminists repudiate. Time and time again, the Catholic Church has shown to be a significant obstacle for the Paraguayan feminist movement’s demands and aspirations. Eduardo Quintana, a well-known Paraguayan journalist, labelled the country’s Catholic Church as “an enemy and censor of women”.
I walked a long way — a hot day again. The patriarchal system is deeply rooted in Paraguayan history. It is a history of violence. It is a history of neglect. According to Paraguay’s Civil Registry, seven out of every ten children born are registered only by their mothers. They carry only their mothers’ surname. They remain the woman’s sole responsibility.
“Men leave as soon as they know the woman is pregnant,” said Javiera Contador, a primary school teacher who has raised her three children alone. “And when they stay they exercise physical and economic violence against us,” she said.
The Archbishop of Asunción, Edmundo Valenzuela, is regarded as one of the main obstacles for gender democracy and women’s rights. Valenzuela became a defender of Cristian Kriskovich, a law academic at Asuncion’s Catholic University, who in 2014 sexually harassed a female student.
During the investigation, Archbishop Valenzuela, who is the highest authority of the Catholic University, asked the student to stop her accusations against Kriskovich. The academic walked free and the victim, the young girl, sought asylum in Uruguay.
Archbishop Valenzuela has become a ferocious enemy of the country’s LGTBQ community — labelling it as instigators of a “culture of death”. In 2017 he established a special team dedicated to an exorcism for “cases of possessed by the devil” or “dark forces” — in reference to the gay and LGTBQ community. In a rally, last April, he said: “here in Paraguay, we want families with a dad and a mom, with children and with grandparents”.
They have been called the “mother-girls” of Paraguay. An average of 650 girls, between 10 and 14 years of age, become mothers every year in the country, according to the Centre for Documentation and Studies. Sex education is almost non-existent. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern about the prohibition of gender education. It was as a setback for the rights of women said the Centre.
In many cases, the girl’s pregnancy is as a result of a rape. Pregnancy means the expulsion of the girl from the formal education system. They can’t abort — the law of the country bans it. “Forcing a girl who has not finished growing up to carry a pregnancy, become a mother and raise a baby should be considered torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” said the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights.
The streets of Asunción are relentless spaces of peril for women — sexual predators proliferate. Street harassment is the most “culturally accepted violence” against women. It does not differentiate ages or social classes. In the streets of Asunción, women are groped continuously and even chased.
Violence against women on public transport is a daily incidence in Asunción. According to a 2016 Inter-American Development Bank study, two out of every three women in Asunción feel unsafe travelling on public transport.
It was in 1976 when the South African born activist and feminist writer Diana Russell used for the first time the word “femicide”. It was in Brussels, Belgium, when she addressed about 2,000 women who attended the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women. She defined “femicide” as “a hate killing of females perpetrated by males”.
Marcela Lagarde, a Mexican anthropologist and feminist activist, translated and began using the Spanish version of Russell’s term — “feminicidio” — after the notorious cases of female killing in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez were reported in 1993.
Femicides seem unstoppable in the country. The Paraguayan authorities have made bombastic statements on how to stop this national tragedy — but actions have been non-existence. And this is the dreadful thing — the majority of women killed had previously denounced their situation to authorities. They have been seeking help. But the help never arrived.
Written on the walls of a shop that accepts all kinds of credit cards, “We are horrible” seems to be a collective sense of guilt — a sense of collective disenchantment and self-punishment.
Paraguay is an “island surrounded by land,” said once the late Augusto Roa Bastos, the country’s most celebrated writer. The tragic history of his country is one of his recurrent writing themes. Roa Bastos lived in exile for 42 years. “I the Supreme” is his better-known book. It is a novel where the country’s abuses of power and violence are fundamental themes.
“We are a sick, violent society,” told me Isabel Donoso, the activist I had met a few days after arriving in Asunción. “We are a damaged society where the abuses of power seem to be normalised.” We walked away from the graffiti. “We are horrible,” she murmured. “We are horrible”.