Butterflies still soar in the Latin American feminist movement

A report by Nicole Harrison for The Global Americans.

The name Mirabal is known by many in the Dominican Republic (DR) as an echo of strength, resilience, and pain from the era of dictator Rafael Trujillo. Under Trujillo’s oppressive regime from the early to mid-1900s, an array of individuals and groups tried to counter his efforts, several notable actors being the Mirabal sisters: Patria, Minerva, María Teresa, and Dedé. Nicknamed “las mariposas” (the butterflies), these four sisters became a symbol of the revolution against Trujillo for their unwavering efforts to organize a revolution despite multiple arrests, threats, and abuse. Following the deaths of all but Dedé on November 25, 1960, their names became further embedded in Dominican history as icons of democracy and female power.

As this November 25 passes, the loss of the Mirabal sisters holds a prominent weight that has stood the test of time. These lost sisters, and their iconic symbol of the butterfly, became woven into the Latin American feminist movement as people began to walk in an honorary “march of the butterflies” on the anniversary of their deaths. From the official “Marcha de las Mariposas” (March of the Butterflies) in Santo Domingo to the streets of Buenos AiresMexico CityPuerto Rico, and more, these gatherings have become emblematic of the ongoing fight against gender-based violence around the world.

A lack of consistent and accurate reporting continues to make exact numbers of global gender-based violence unavailable. Still, a 2018 analysis from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found the Americas to be the second-leading region in the world in the number of women killed by a partner or family member, with the death rate being 1.6 for every 100,000 women. Femicide rates in El Salvador and Honduras regularly rank among the top five countries globally, and last year numbers were especially high in Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala. Reported numbers like these continue to place Latin America and the Caribbean at the forefront of the modern feminist fight, with these marches acting as an annual reminder that there is much to still be done to protect the rights and safety of women.

Female-led marches advocating for gender equality, better access to health care, general safety, and more causes of the greater movement are not exclusive to November 25, as people often gather after single events, on dates surrounding voting, and other distinct days. But the November 25 marches are unique in their geographical dispersion, unification of all causes that promote a safer world for women, and practices of remembrance for those who have been lost. Often chanting songs or assembling artful displays, the tone of these gatherings is one of pain and protest, refusing to stay silent as death tolls continue to rise.

Such has been the pattern throughout Latin America since 1981, when November 25 was formally recognized throughout the region as the day marking women’s fight against violence. This regional trend advanced to the global stage in 2000, when the United Nations declared November 25 to officially be the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, established in honor of the fallen Mirabal sisters.

Formal acknowledgment of this pervasive issue laid the groundwork for legal recognition of gender-based violence as a distinct crime. Beginning in 2007 with Costa Rica and Venezuela, 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries have adopted laws that define gender violence-related deaths of women as a distinct form of homicide or femicide. However, while these laws exist, the longstanding social order that has enabled this behavior often leads to incomplete or faulty enforcement, impunity issues, and a general disconnect in persecution and policy implementation.

When looking specifically at the Dominican Republic, the current status of gender-based violence is one that would be all too familiar to what the Mirabal sisters knew 60 years ago. The island is one of the 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries that has passed laws identifying femicide as its own crime, however their 2014 legislation is limited in its description, fails to acknowledge crimes committed against women by someone other than an intimate partner, and is frequently unenforced. Traditional gender roles continue to play a part in the country’s violence against women, as a lack of job opportunities has led many to women to participate in sex work, or left them in vulnerable positions in the home.

Though official numbers of gender-based deaths in the Dominican Republic have yet to be released this year, the country will be honoring this November 25 with the backdrop of at least 1,795 female casualties since 2010, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEDAL). The DR frequently ranks among the leading five countries in Latin America for femicide, last year reporting 1.9 femicides for every 100,000 women. It is numbers like these that drive the November 25 gathering in Santo Domingo and worldwide, propelling advocates to continue the battle that they share with the fallen Mirabals.

While the fight that the Mirabal sisters bravely embodied 60 years ago is now more widespread, their advocacy for freedom—particularly of women—remains not only necessary, but continuously challenging. Looking back at the years since their deaths, we must ask ourselves whether we have honored the legacy of the Mirabal sisters by securing a safer reality for women. In order to stop the still-growing lists of gender-based deaths, the recognition of this issue and protective legislation must not only be expanded, but also sufficiently enforced as a means to alter the social mechanisms that allow this violence. Doing so is necessary to achieve the liberty encompassed by the “mariposas,” making the words of author Julia Alvarez as true now as they would have been 60 year ago: “aún es tiempo de las mariposas” (it is still the time of the butterflies). 

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