“Women in the ESMA” exhibit reaches Washington DC

‘Being women in the ESMA’ sheds a gender-based perspective on dictatorships

The 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina disappeared 30,000 people, kidnapped more than 500 babies born in captivity, and devastated the Argentine economy and society, leaving scars that remain open to this day. 

In 2019, the exhibit ‘Being women in the ESMA’ (Ser mujeres en la ESMA, its name in Spanish), was inaugurated to highlight the voices of women survivors of the clandestine centres, shedding light on the acts of gender-based violence they underwent during their detention, and the impact that it had in their lives after the recovery of democracy in 1983. 

The Navy Mechanical School (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada or ESMA) located in Buenos Aires was the biggest clandestine detention and torture center in the country. In 2004, the government turned the 17-hectare complex into a site of memory, including the ‘ESMA Memory Site Museum,’ dedicated to telling the stories about captivity in the building. 

“Argentina had a great advance in terms of truth trials, but there’s a lot left to do for women,” said Julissa Mantilla Falcón, Interamerican Commission for Human Rights (CIDH) Commisioner, told The Herald in an interview. “Even after the trials, there’s still a debt to women in dictatorships.”

Now, the CIDH has brought the ESMA exhibit to the Organization of American States (OAS) Headquarters in Washington DC in an attempt to start a conversation about crimes against women during dictatorships across Latin America. The exhibit will be available for visits throughout the whole month of March, dedicated to both the Argentine feminist struggle and the quest for memory, truth, and justice. 

“The fact that it’s in the OAS Headquarters might help other women to come forward about their experiences,” said Matilla Falcón with hope. “Some might remain in silence, but they will at least know that what happened wasn’t their fault, which is, in itself, a form of reparation.” 

Source: OAS

“Trophies” and “retraining” — the exhibit

Featuring 28 testimonies from women survivors, the exhibit shows the specificities of women’s experiences within the clandestine centres with testimonies from the trials as well as recent interviews. Banners and texts convey the story that the military coup was part of a “systemic and patriarchal” plan to eradicate women victims through gender-based violence. 

Testimonies show how women were generally used as ‘trophies’ by the military, subjected to humiliation and suffered gender-based violence when tortured. This often came in the form of sexual abuse, which sometimes resulted in unwanted pregnancies. 

34 women were forced to deliver their babies in violent conditions, often seeing them taken away immediately  — some were abducted by the military to be raised as their own, but many were murdered. 

The violence was not limited to rape and sexual abuse — several psychological methods were also employed. The military reinforced gender stereotypes on detained women by giving them lessons on wearing makeup and having officers take them on “dates,” among other obligations to “retrain” them as women. 

“Gender-based violence existed before the dictatorship, existed during the dictatorship, and continues to exist,” Mantilla Falcón said. “The Argentine case shows how women’s bodies were completely sexualized, how rapes and pregnancies in conflict affected them differently than men.” 

When the trials were re-opened in Argentina in 2001, it took a long time for the judiciary to incorporate a perspective on gender in their investigations. The first time a torturer was condemned for rape was in 2010. And, in 2011, Judge Sergio Torres, in charge of the ESMA case, declared that the sexual violence in the clandestine center was “a systemic practice carried out by the State within a plan of repression and annihilation”. 

Source: OAS

A regional perspective

The exhibit’s aim in DC is not just to honour the struggles suffered by the Argentine women, but to open a conversation for all Latin American societies, and to discuss who continues to suffer gender-based violence in democracy. 

“No government can claim they don’t know what happened. It’s important to keep talking and asking about memory policy with a gender perspective,” said Mantilla Falcón. 

She highlighted that the recent popularity of feminism in Latin America helped the dictatorship survivors to address their own experiences, often silenced. 

“After Ni Una Menos, some of them started to question the roles that they had during those militant years, when they were accused of ‘leaving their children’, for example,” she said. “These issues continue to happen in Argentina, in Perú, in Chile, in México: to look at things chronologically, to have a sense of continuity, allows us to see that things are slowly changing.” 

“This exhibit is a way of giving back to those women, it’s for them to know that we’re not leaving them behind, that we will continue to remember, that their fight is meaningful.”


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