As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to María Angélica Peñas Defago, gender specialist, professor and researcher of Argentina’s National Research Council (CONICET) based at the National University of Córdoba, and co-author of the recent Global Philanthropy Project report, ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights'.
Do you think anti-rights groups have increased their activity in recent times?
We should start by defining what we mean by ‘recent times’, how far back we need to go, and what specific context we are talking about, because for instance in Latin America the situation varies from country to country. In the case of Argentina, we have seen over time – and not only over the past year, when a bill allowing for the voluntary termination of pregnancies was being discussed in Congress – reactions against the progress achieved in claiming rights by women and LGBTQI people. While it is true that, in recent years, anti-rights groups have become more visible and coordinated, largely in response to advances achieved in the area of sexual and reproductive rights, they have been present for decades, always coercing our agendas. In Argentina, they have been actively litigating against any attempt to enact public policy on sexual and reproductive health or even remotely linked to these rights for at least 20 years. In the province of Córdoba, where I live, these efforts have been very successful in the lower courts, although rulings favourable to these groups were eventually overturned in the higher courts.
With regard to street actions, strong reactions by these groups were already recorded in the past, including demonstrations throughout the country, for instance against equal marriage, which was approved in Argentina in 2010. The same groups marched once again against the legalisation of abortion in 2018. There has also been a renewed backlash against sex education in schools, a longstanding battle. Sex education was implemented through a 2006 law that is still being resisted. During the abortion debate, anti-rights groups pretended to promote sex education as an alternative to abortion, but after the bill on the voluntary termination of pregnancy was voted down by the Senate, they restarted their attacks against sex education.
A reorganisation of the conservative camp is currently underway, and I think it is as a result of this that these groups have recently gained more visibility. Although new actors have indeed emerged within civil society, the central phenomenon in the current socio-political context is the reassertion that is taking place in the political and the economic spheres. This can be seen, for example, in the alliances reached in Colombia around the 2016 referendum on the peace process, as well as in Brazil, embodied in the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro.
During the campaign leading to the referendum in Colombia, the forces that rejected the agreement claimed that if ‘yes’ won, so-called 'gender ideology' would be imposed. In Brazil, fake news claiming that the Workers’ Party promoted paedophilia and would try to ‘convert’ children into homosexuals or transsexuals mushroomed during the election campaign.
In other ways, the phenomenon is also seen in Argentina, where all the main actors opposed to the progressive agenda, and specifically to the sexual and reproductive rights agenda, have tended to converge.
Do you think that these are purely reactive groups, whose raison d'être is to curb the progress of the progressive agenda?
As far as I can tell, that is indeed the case. I have monitored congresses of so-called ‘pro-life’ groups and analysed the actions they have undertaken in regional and global spaces, and particularly in the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and it is readily apparent that they are losing ground regarding family formats and the assignment of sexual roles, and they are aware of it. These groups are reacting to what they perceive as a setback. Their reaction is being coordinated not only around the thematic agenda of sexual and reproductive rights, but also around a wider nationalist, neoliberal – and, in some cases, fascist – political and economic agenda.
The Bolsonaro phenomenon is a good example of a reaction to a pluralistic agenda around sexual morality and sexual and reproductive rights. The advances of this pluralist agenda acted as a binding agent for a broader conservative political agenda. Within the framework of the reaction against progress achieved in sexual and reproductive rights, other actors are taking advantage to impose their own conservative agendas, for example around migration issues. There are some new actors at play, especially those joining from other fields – political, economic, religious – but many of the actors that are gaining greater visibility are the same as always, the difference being that they are now unifying agendas that used to run in parallel and in less coordinated ways.
What tactics have these groups used to advance their agenda?
Litigation against sexual and reproductive rights has been an important tool for more than three decades. In Argentina, these groups have litigated, among other things, against the administration of emergency contraception and to stop the implementation of protocols for non-punishable abortions. In Argentina, abortion has been legal since 1921 for cases of rape, unviability of the foetus, or danger to the woman’s life or health; however, these groups have tried to prevent timely and secure access to this right.
For the part of civil society that works in the area of women's rights, these groups have always been there. But litigation is sometimes a quite silent affair and has possibly remained unnoticed by the wider civil society. Often, it all remained within the realm of the administration of justice and health services. This however did not prevent this strategy from having very strong effects, because judicial decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health tend to produce fears, doubts and paralysis among health providers, which are key agents for guaranteeing actual access to these rights.
The presence of anti-rights groups is not news for feminist and LGBTQI groups, but it may very well be so for other sectors of civil society, including human rights organisations, which in recent times have seen them acting more intensely through the occupation of street space and the creation of partisan political alliances, the two key arenas for political struggle in contemporary democracies. These groups are trying to appropriate public space, showcasing themselves as the majority, and in this way they are gaining public visibility. In this area, one of their most successful strategies has involved the use of coordinated messages and symbols. The ‘Don’t mess with my children’ campaign, for example, has used the same phrases and slogans, and even the same symbols and colours, not only throughout Latin America, but also well beyond. We have seen it in Eastern Europe, in Italy, in Spain. These groups are intensively using social media so that their strategies and symbols travel, are shared and ultimately reach us repeatedly from various latitudes.
If anti-rights positions have gained more visibility, it is because the actors that promote them, mostly faith-based, have gained a prominence in the public space that they did not have 20 years ago. Evangelical churches, like the Catholic Church, are plural and heterogeneous. But in much of Latin America, the political processes of resistance to sexual and reproductive rights have been led by very conservative evangelical churches, sometimes in alliance with the higher ranks of the Catholic Church, and in other cases dissenting or even opposing them.
Unlike litigation, the strategy of occupying public space requires support in large numbers. Do you think these groups are gaining in popularity?
The socio-political phenomenon fuelled by these groups is significant. It is not simply about campaigns and slogans; they are deeply embedded at the grassroots level. To understand what is happening in the religious arena and in terms of resistance against progress in sexual and reproductive rights, it is necessary to take into account the socio-economic context and the way that these churches are operating at the grassroots, in strong connection with the populations that they mobilise.
In Argentina, a very politically mobilised society, street mobilisation has been widely used by these groups, so it is nothing new. What is new is the massive character of their mobilisations. These groups were already mobilising 30 years ago, or maybe even earlier, but there was no social media back then. The modes of communication and mobilisation have changed at the same time as the religious field has in the face of advances in sexual and reproductive rights. Evangelical churches have grown throughout the region, and within them, conservative sectors have grown the most.
I think that to understand the phenomenon it is also key to understand the neoliberal context and its general effects that undermine living conditions. In the socio-political context of neoliberalism, as the state has withdrawn from its basic functions, many religious groups have gone on to perform tasks and provide services that should be provided by the state. In some places, such as in the USA, the Catholic Church has been long in charge of providing services to some groups, such as migrants, that are not tended to by the state. In Latin America, the role of evangelical churches, for instance in the area of aid and treatment for addictions, is really impressive. Evangelical sectors are growing exponentially because they are assisting communities that are being forgotten by the state. Evangelical pastors play central roles in communities, are active in providing social assistance, dealing with addictions and providing health and education services, and are also key in mobilising people – partly because many of them are also members of these communities. They live in the same neighbourhoods and maintain close ties with the members of their congregations.
In sum, we are not facing a mere battle of narratives. The discourses that we need to stand up to are rooted in the practices of grassroots communities, and often mobilisations are summoned from the pulpit. Calls from the pulpit are important because to many excluded people the church has become indispensable. In countries that have very high poverty rates, for many people the church is the only place of belonging and protection that remains when both the state and the market have excluded them, and therefore do not have access to work, education, or health services. Beyond the fact that religion remains a central element of many people’s identities, these feelings of belonging and community are not minor issues in contexts of extreme precariousness and individualisation brought about by the economic, political, social and cultural neoliberal model.
What does progressive civil society have to offer in the face of this?
Progressive civil society has a lot to offer, because it focuses on the struggle for and the creation of liveable, rich, plural ways of life, based on solidarity and mutual support. I don't think there is a single recipe, because this work involves very different movements. There are feminist and LGBTQI movements that work from the standpoint of religious pluralism, disputing the idea of the monopoly of faith, and these are very rich spaces of struggle and belonging. Religions, all of them, comprise plural, democratic and horizontal spaces, which many organisations take advantage of in their struggle for meaning. Other organisations have expertise in crafting messages, and that is where they make their contribution. But this battle is not taking place only, or even mainly, on social media, since not everyone has even access to the internet. The dispute over meaning is fundamental both on social media and offline, as can be seen around the ‘pro-life’ label that many anti-rights groups have appropriated. Women’s and LGBTQI groups working at the grassroots level continually reference this label, by asking the question: how much is my life worth if I do not have access to a job, to the recognition of my identity, to the protection of my health – if the kind of life that is being offered to me is not a decent one? Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life, understood as a dignified, fully human life.
To offer this response, progressive civil society needs to ally with others who share its values of pluralism, freedom and equality. The pluralist, inclusive, non-essentialist and decolonial feminist agenda is a good basis on which to form alliances with multiple actors that were not attracted by feminism in the past, in order to take part in the struggle for meaning not only in the rhetorical field, but also in concrete reality. Popular feminism represents a return to the realm of the real, as it focuses on the implications of principles on people’s daily lives. If we talk about abortion, for instance, we must focus on the consequences of the legality or illegality of this practice for the daily reality of pregnant women, families and communities. Religion and faith are an important part of people's lives, and the feminist movement, or at least a good part of it, is now working within this reality.