In February 2021, 18-year-old Úrsula Bahillo was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, an officer in the Buenos Aires police force. The femicide led a group of Argentine women to create the organization Mujeres en Acción, an entirely volunteer brigade of women providing support to survivors of gender-based violence in the Latin American region.
Úrsula’s untimely death was the 44th femicide registered in Argentina in the first two months of 2021, and its occurrence prompted immediate outrage in the country. After all, the 18-year-old victim had followed all the recommended steps: she reported her attacker to the police stations and the courthouse. She got a restraining order that made it illegal for him to come near her, but he broke the restraining order numerous times. One major way the system fell apart for her: Úrsula requested a “panic button” from the police, but she never got one. Her last message to her friends read: If I don’t come back, tear everything down.
In Rojas, Úrsula’s home town, young women took over the city center with signs and banners bearing Úrsula’s photograph and the message “Stop killing us!”
Úrsula’s Murder Prompts New Activism
Since 2015, massive marches in Argentina have taken place on every March 8th for International Women’s Day. This year’s slogans were particularly focused on the country’s problem with killing women. One slogan this year was “Ni una menos!” (“Not one more woman”), taken from a poem written by Mexican activist Susana Chávez protesting gender violence in her country, which began: “Ni una mujer menos, ni una muerte más” (“Not one more woman, not one more death”).
In 2021, Úrsula’s murder demonstrated the sad fact that the protest marches were not enough. The women who gathered online that February to beginMujeres en Acción, after a spontaneous summons via social media, did so with newfound urgency — a deep desire to do something that could help prevent new deaths, and change the mindset that made those deaths possible.
In only a few days, the chat room created by these women grew to over a hundred women-strong. Six Latin American countries were represented in this group, coming from around 30 different professions, and spanning in age from 22 to 75.
“We held many virtual meetings, explored different ideas, tested them out and discarded them,” said Fabiana Fondevila, founder of Mujeres en Acción, in an email interview with Philanthropy Women. “Finally, we reached a conclusion: the most valuable asset we could offer, in the face of such a daunting challenge, was our presence, our empathy, our collective resources, our love.”
What started out as a grassroots movement of passionate women trying to raise awareness and put an end to this atrocity, has evolved into a 6-country network of support and resources for women who are suffering and in need of help.
With assistance from GetBEE, a woman-led, knowledge-sharing platform based in Dubai, Mujeres en Acción has been able to reach many women and offer help. Volunteers for the organization provide contact around the clock. “We are quite sure that if we had launched with an “ordinary” website, and been available through regular means (emails or phone calls to an institution, rather than a specific volunteer), we would not have attracted the attention we did,” clarified Fondevila.
Women In Action Helping Women In Real Time
This online responsiveness of Women in Action is helping the self-organized group to reach women at critical moments in their survivor trajectory. Fondevila described an example of how the organization worked in real time for a woman named Paula, an 18-year old living with a 42-year old man in a small town in Córdoba province, Argentina, who found herself suddenly held prisoner by the 42-year old man she was living with.
“In a fit of jealousy, he forbade her to go to an office party, and then to leave the house,” said Fondevila. “He kept her captive in their apartment, hit her and cut her face. She was finally able to escape the following morning,” said Fondevila. Later that day Paula contacted Mujeres en Acción.
“We helped her travel to Buenos Aires to stay with her maternal grandmother, provided legal assistance, and are now helping her get a job,” said Fondevila. “She is also taking part in one of our weekly therapeutic groups. She is still shocked by everything that happened, but says she feels supported and cared for.”
Fondevila also described the case of Maria, who had been separated from her husband for four years. Her husband was estranged from the family and would not consent to a divorce. With better legal advice and support through Mujeres en Acción, Maria was able to put pressure on a state-appointed attorney to get the paperwork done for a unilateral divorce and start receiving alimony. Fondevila shared a quote from Maria regarding the support and advocacy she received from Mujeres en Acción, “I could not be more grateful. I didn’t even know you could request a unilateral divorce, and my attorneys hadn’t told me so. The help I received has been crucial in my life.”
The Critical Role of a Versatile, Multifunctional Platform
Fondevila emphasized the serendipitous path-crossing of Women in Action and GetBEE. “As if on schedule, we stumbled upon GetBEE through a mutual acquaintance, who had previously worked with the platform,” said Fondevila. “Members of Mujeres en Acción then spoke to Founder and CEO, Thea Myhrvold, and told her about our initiative. Her enthusiastic response and willingness to help encouraged us to keep on hashing out the project, until it became what it is now.”
“Thea, and then Linda and Federica, as well as all rest of the astounding GetBEE crew, offered us the priceless gift of their platform and services,” said Fondevila. “With their state-of-the-art design and technology, it became possible for us to reach the women out there who need our help. And thus, overnight, our vision had a home where it could come true.”
On GetBEE, volunteers and survivors use video calls, group sessions, trainings, seminars and other services to help at-risk women across Latin America. Fondevila further outlined the full array of services being provided by Women in Action, all free of charge:
- Around-the-clock attention via 31 volunteers trained in empathic listening, who take turns being online in the GetBEE platform.
- A council of lawyers, who are available to advise women and represent them.
- Therapeutic groups led by teams of psychologists, counselors, and coaches.
- Crafts and trade workshops designed to offer women paths towards self-sustenance, so they may be economically empowered to leave abusive relationships.
- A story that metaphorically depicts the subtle ways in which abusive relationships often begin, with a list of suggested questions for discussion in schools and workplaces.
Visibility is Key to the Network’s Ability to Help
“We have no donors at the moment,” said Fabiana Fondevila, when I asked about how the organization is funded. “We are trying to get by without funding for now. Down the road, though, it could be useful to have funds to be able to have our lawyers travel to other provinces to represent the women who reach out to us.”
“The biggest challenge we face is visibility,” said Fondevila. “We need to be well-known in order to reach the women who need our services. We are thus working on getting more press coverage, and also trusting that the word-of-mouth will slowly take effect.”
Fondevila predicted that the network will most likely continue to add services and resources as they go along, building on ways to reach women in the different countries they represent — Argentina, México, Chile, Perú, Uruguay, Ecuador. “Whichever ways we may grow, the focus of our initiative will always be that of woman-to-woman alliance and assistance, in the fight against gender-based violence.”