INTERVIEW WITH WLW 2018 FELLOW, Monica Menini
In December 2020, Monica and her fellow pro-choice activists, including our Women Leader for the World Alum Victoria Tesoriero, prevailed in their fight for Argentinian reproductive rights. Just last month, Mexico decided to decriminalize abortion rights for women, and what a joy to see the same green bandanas worn by our Argentinian friends — especially after the heinous new law in Texas that passed just weeks before that attacks reproductive rights and puts the lives, safety, and dignity of women and girls on the line.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Monica earlier this year to chat about her journey in the fight for abortion legalization and where she thinks this journey will take her next.
The interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.
Interviewer is in bold
Victoria is in normal font
Hi Monica, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’m so excited to hear and share your story. First and foremost, congratulations on achieving abortion legalization in Argentina! I’d love to start by learning a little bit more about you and how you got involved in championing women’s reproductive rights.
I am a lawyer in Argentina, and I belong to “Catholics for the Right to Decide”. It is one of the founding organizations of the “National Campaign for the Right to Have a Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion” in Argentina.
The journey in our country to legalize abortion started before we put together the campaign. There was an abortion commission that also promoted another law project named after Dora Kovaleski. In Argentina, lately, the laws about the expansion of women's rights are named after women like Brisa Law. This law is being talked about as the Dora law.
Between the path from the commission for the right to abortion, in which I did not participate because I was very young at that time and the national meetings of women that follow, I began to participate and then around the year 2005 I started with the Catholics.They called a meeting in Córdoba that we can consider the first plenary session of the abortion campaign in which they invited feminists women. Of the 24 provinces of Argentina, 12 organizations, I was the one invited to assist in representing the province of Salta, where I am from. We arrived in Córdoba and, we worked on the slogan of the campaign, “sex education to decide, contraceptives not to abort, and legal abortion not to die.” We decided to start a national campaign by launching it on May 28th, 2005, because that is the International Day of Action for Women's Health. In at least 12 Argentina provinces, in addition to Buenos Aires, the national campaign for the right to abortion, for the right to decide was launched on the same day.
In 2006 we began to write the first bill to present to Congress as one of the strategies that we were going to carry out to achieve decriminalization and legalization of abortion. We wrote 8 projects until 2019, and I was part of the last 2 drafting commissions that achieved half approval in Congress, which in 2020 was still in parliamentary status. In 2020, Congress was called with 2 files, one the Executive's project and ours. As I say, the presentation of the projects was one of the actions. Another of the very important actions that Catholics have always promoted is strategic litigation, both within our territories and internationally, and in which, since I am a lawyer, I have participated.
Then the first very important litigation that Catholics led for the right to decide, was against the Argentina state which led to the Human Rights Commission and we raised awareness for the first time about the violation of the right to abort for reasons that were in our Penal Code since 1921. That obstruction had a pattern of violations. This is very important because it is the same line with which, for example, the militaries were judged about the appropriation of children during the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 70s.
In our justice system, there is a pattern of violations that is not against a single person, but there are many equal cases in which human rights are being violated in our country. This is how this injustice was raised about the preexisting abortion rights. This was the prelude to the ruling that finally gave us access to abortion with cause in Argentina.
What motivated you to get involved with campaigning for reproductive rights?
We were already feminists. We were activists of other issues such as gender violence and human trafficking. We were women's rights activists and we needed autonomy over our bodies. That was something that we were not having the right to carry out. We needed the right to have free birth control in the hospital. We were told in our country, “contraceptives are legal, but women do not have access, only wealthy women have access”. That was our first huge struggle.
We managed to create the “National Program for sexual and reproductive health” in 2002 and that led to contraceptives being distributed free of charge in Argentine hospitals.
When we achieved this, abortion was the next big step. Women die from clandestine abortions and it is always the most vulnerable women because women who can afford an abortion pay for it and do not die. We do not want the only options to be clandestine or pay, we want it to be legal and for the hospital to provide it for free. That is why the campaign is called “legal, safe, and free.”
My motivation to start fighting for women started very young. My first internal uprising was against the injustice of the military dictatorship and the lack of democracy in Argentina. When I started attending University one of the first issues that I tackled was Human Rights for children in Argentina. That is when I decided to study Law, to fight for the most vulnerable people and the injustices they experience. Feminist organizations began calling me because I had much knowledge on these issues and I started working for women's rights and immediately upon graduation, I began to work in organizations that assist women victims of violence.
Can you share a little bit about where you are in your leadership journey now?
Well, leadership has a lot to do with finding yourself and knowing who you are. For me, that means to use my voice when other people do not or cannot. I never suffered having to go through the fear of speaking in public -- whether in front of people at university events, political parties, neighborhoods, or in the house of a comrade who brought together 4 or 5 others. I am not afraid to speak out especially when it pertains to human rights. I also have a lot of academic training on the subject which gives me self-confidence and authority.
Colleagues have also taught me things that I had not been taught at University, such as coordinating groups, facilitating workshops, and achieving to distribute education to women who have less academic knowledge. Those skills have been extremely beneficial in my leadership and ability to lead with other Argentinian women by my side and not just the University-educated women.
What was it like for you the day that Argentina passed the Abortion law?
My comrades asked me how I felt that day. At the moment, my mind immediately went to the memory of when Argentina decriminalized abortion in 2018. The night before the decriminalization of the law, I went out to face a press conference where everyone pointed out that we were losing. There were journalists in the streets and on television saying that we lost. And then we succeeded. We didn’t achieve the law, but we succeeded at getting it socially decriminalized. And that alone had such a profound impact on the people. It was the first step and I knew that one day we would have people screaming in the streets “abortion is legal in Argentina!”, and finally that day came.
I felt so much joy; I had all the mixed feelings, especially excitement. It thrills me again, just thinking about it, but nothing surpasses the feeling I felt that moment in 2018, not even December 30 of 2020.
What’s a recent challenge you encountered during the pandemic and how did you navigate through that challenge?
With the pandemic, we started to face our problems inside our movement. “How do we sustain our networks and the support on the streets, virtually?” “How is something like this sustained and how do we sustain our strength?” “How do we sustain it?”
We took action every day since the pandemic started in March. From March 20 until September 28, we did 65 virtual events. People learned to communicate virtually, and we learned to use the virtual world to be present and active within our causes. We got to have training events where 7000 people attended at the same time. For example, training teachers. It was impressive to see how many thousands of people joined the event.
There were 10,000 people on Facebook, I don't know how many thousands of thousands on YouTube, it was impressive because you were also in front of the computer and saw that the numbers rose by the thousands. We managed to stay aligned with our original agenda, even through a global pandemic and achieved legal abortion.
In what ways did the Women Leaders for the World fellowship empower you in your leadership journey and can you share a little bit about your experience working with the coaches and your advisor?
It is always very important that when we meet people, we seek to understand each other and know that we are not alone. And being a part of the WLW fellowship provided me with a heightened level of support, community, and resources. It was such a great experience to have a community there to get to know us, love us, accompany us and follow us through our social impact journeys. That’s one of the things that this program supported me with. The fellowship also helped us take the time to reflect on our cause. As leaders within our causes, we wear the cause and we often do not take time to sit for a week or 10 days in a quiet place to reflect on the effect that our causes have on us. We don’t talk about how our constant causes make an impact on our lives. The WLW fellowship helps to maintain self-care during heavy periods of advocacy.
I used to smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day. And my WLW coach made me realize, I can't talk about the importance of women's health while I smoke 2 packs of cigarettes a day. The truth is, nobody had ever held me accountable and let me know that I needed to fully practice what I was fighting for. Possibly, because I am surrounded by very strong women who don't sit down and tell each other what to do. Well, she gave me some very helpful tips and I don't smoke anymore. I have not smoked for more than a year and I am very happy. I got through the initial stages of the covid pandemic without smoking.
What pro-tips do you have for other women looking to be social impact entrepreneurs of their own?
Think about what kind of leader you want to be. Also, be willing to lean inward. Knowing yourself helps to make you a stronger leader and fighter. You spend your life fighting on the street for something bigger than yourself and still you are being pointed out as the mom that misses the meeting with the teacher. There’s a lot of blaming and emphasis among women, and between colleagues, about being a good mother and taking care of children. However, our sense of fulfillment needs to also be bigger than solely being the caretaker of our loved ones. Remember to take care of yourself along with the people around you who understand the fight.
What advice/recommendations do you have for women who are considering programs like WLW?
I want other women considering joining a program like WLW to know that they can achieve anything they want. And if they have the chance to be part of the WLW program they should take it and apply to be a fellow. For women who are heavily involved in a social impact cause, this is an experience that will be so influential in your overall journey.
I promote the WLW program in Argentina and tell my colleagues to be part of it. We have young women that show great leadership skills and even if they don't speak English, I encourage them to experience this fellowship program. There are so many impressive young women that you have the opportunity to meet in this program. Going into the program, I knew that there would be a language barrier, and I knew that it would not be easy for me to articulate myself at times. But I still chose to do the program and I am so happy I did.
If you or a Latina, Latinx, Chicana, or Hispanic, social justice leader, philanthropist, and/or nonprofit entrepreneur you know might be interested in being a fellow for the Spring 2022 WLW program please visit https://www.howwomenlead.com/women-leaders-for-the-world.
To learn more about the National Campaign for Legal Abortion, visit http://www.abortolegal.com.ar/