For months, Claudia Guebel could only tell family and friends about a traumatising encounter with a colleague in Argentina’s Senate.
At the beginning of this year, she said, Pedro Fiorda, a senator’s chief of staff, grabbed her violently by the arms like a “hunter who catches prey”. Then, she felt his tongue inside her mouth. The terror that seized her made those minutes seem eternal, she said.
“I didn’t know how to react, I was paralysed,” said Guebel, a congressional aide who previously worked for the same senator.
In December, she was finally moved to file a formal complaint with judicial authorities after actress Thelma Fardin publicly accused actor Juan Darthes of raping her in 2009 when she was 16 and he was 45. Writers, politicians and journalists expressed support for Fardin on social media.
“With Thelma’s statements, everything was awakened in me,” said Guebel, 52.
Fiorda could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press, and Darthes says he is innocent.
But Guebel is now part of a wave of women who have come forward in the South American country with sexual misconduct accusations in what has inevitably been compared to the (hash)MeToo movement in the United States, where the worlds of media, business, entertainment and politics have been roiled by allegations against powerful men.
Women say they are also taking a cue from “Ni Una Menos”, an Argentine grassroots movement that emerged in 2015 and spread globally. The movement has drawn thousands into massive demonstrations against feminicide and violence against women in Argentina, where a bill attempting to legalise abortion was defeated in August.
“For a while in Argentina we have been witnessing a paradigm shift … where the voices of women are beginning to be heard, understood and, most importantly, accompanied by others,” said Fabiana Tunez, executive director of the National Institute for Women in Argentina, who said the accusations by Fardin lent the movement more visibility.
On December 11, the actress announced she had filed a criminal complaint in Nicaragua, where she says she was raped by Darthes in a hotel during a promotional tour for “Ugly Duckling”, a children’s television series. Darthes, who has since moved to his native Brazil, has denied the allegation.
Three other women also have accused him of harassment or abuse.
“We are all very shocked,” said Sabrina Cartabia, Fardin’s lawyer. “It is opening up the possibility of talking about something very painful.”
In Argentina, there is no national registry of victims of sexual abuse. But a survey found that 45 per cent of the 2,750 students polled at public and private universities in Buenos Aires reported suffering physical or psychological abuse and 9 per cent had suffered sexual abuse. The survey was published in a 2016 report by UNICEF Argentina.
Another poll conducted by the Argentine Management Society of Actors found that 66 per cent of actresses said they had suffered some type of harassment or abuse while exercising their profession.
The wave of women speaking out is now threatening an entrenched machismo culture in a country where women are often catcalled, hissed at and harassed on the street.
In recent weeks, telephone lines that receive reports of gender violence have seen sharp increases — the largest coming on December 12, the day after Fardin’s news conference.
Tunez, who has helped manage the phone lines, said she was surprised by calls from women 70 to 80 years old with stories of childhood abuse. “They just wanted someone to hear them, because legally nothing can be done,” she said.
In recent days, alumnae of the ORT Jewish community school, including the daughter of Argentine politician Daniel Filmus, have also publicly accused a school doctor of sexually abusing them when they were between 13 and 14 years old. School authorities announced that they are willing to cooperate with an investigation.
But the reverberations of the larger movement have spread much further. Women from political parties and youth groups like La Campora have started reporting sexual aggression to blogs, social media and press outlets. The main content producer of Argentine television, Pol-Ka, has committed itself to incorporating a protocol for giving assistance in cases of sexual harassment and abuse. And the Senate passed a law that requires the state to provide training to public employees about gender-related topics.
“Argentina is leading the social mobilisation of thousands and thousands of women like never before seen in Latin America, which is having an impact on sister countries,” said Maria Elena Naddeo, who works at the ombudsman’s office in the city of Buenos Aires, referring to similar movements in Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile.
For her part, Guebel, the assistant to lawmakers, says she will continue working to eradicate a culture of patriarchy.
In addition to her complaint against Fiorda, she has filed a complaint against Senator Juan Carlos Marino for allegedly touching her breasts, and against congressional staffer Juan Carlos Amarilla, who she says sexually harassed her. Both Marino and Amarilla have declared themselves innocent. All three have been formally charged by a public prosecutor.
“I am dealing with an incredible level of exhaustion that has caused me many health problems and wear and tear on my soul,” said Guebel, who has worked in the Senate for nearly 20 years.
“The message that I can give to women is that they become bold,” she said. “This is just the beginning, we are becoming more powerful.”
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