Exploring State-Civil Society Interactions in Buenos Aires

Philips - Argentina - asignacion universal
ANSES relies heavily on technology. Each of the recipients I interviewed first learned about the program by TV advertisements. Those who qualify can enroll and set appointments via text message.
It is hard to believe how fast my month of research passed. While in Buenos Aires, I worked at a local ANSES office to learn about the effects of Asignacion Universal por Hijo (AUH), a conditional cash transfer, on women’s empowerment. Interviewing recipient women brought me to see that, in many cases, the grant helps empower a recipient woman by way of strengthening her identity as a mother and enhancing her sense of self-fulfillment. Recipient women told me again and again how AUH helped them to feel that they could now be the mother they had always hoped to be. With the help of the grant, a woman is able provide the food, school supplies, clothing, and other basic needs for her children. The women I interviewed emphasized that they want the best for their children, and without the financial help of the grant each month, many recipient families cannot always afford many things for their children, including a balanced diet or clothes and shoes that properly fit. While the monetary value of the grant is small (about 40 USD per child), the impact it has on low-income families is substantial. With the grant, many families find that they can afford send the children to school where they will learn, make friends, and grow up equipped to be in a better economic position than the previous generation.

One theme that arose several times throughout the project that I found particularly interesting was the role of Civil Society. Because of my focus on women’s empowerment, one theme I examined was domestic violence. I was curious as to whether giving money to the mother allowed her more financial control in the home or caused tension and/or domestic violence. I began to see that there might be a “problem” while doing pre-trip research: in my search of State databases, I was unable to find official reports on domestic violence rates. When I arrived, local organizations confirmed that the State does not collect/report these data. Civil Society, however, has attempted to emphasize this void in State support by collecting its own data. Local NGOs collect and report data, primarily to show the State that there is, in fact, a serious problem and to emphasize that violence toward women is a field toward which the State must allocate financial resources.

While there are resources available for women in Argentina and awareness is increasing, State resources for women’s protection are relatively poor. The Consejo Nacional de la Mujer (CNM) was created under Menem in 1992 to work on women’s issues and originally was to report directly to the Presidential office. Since then, several works have reported that the CNM has taken institutional blows, leaving it with limited resources and legislative capacity. Lack of resources means the CNM is unable to collect and report data on issues like domestic violence–this becomes a cyclical problem because without hard data to indicate a problem, the State does not allocate financial resources toward such initiatives. Without the financial support of the State, the CNM has limited capacities: Civil Society is currently filling the void.

Some of the lack State recognition may be attributed to cultural norms in Argentina: family unity may be valued more than the more-individualistic idea of women’s rights, and culture may dictate what issues are personal or private and therefore out of the realm of State attention (i.e. where does one draw the line to define a “crime”). On a positive note, however, in 2009, the CNM, which had previously lacked the funds to advertise, launched an awareness campaign, including murals around the city, TV commercials, and video campaigns, to accompany a new law which defined every kind of violence toward women (i.e. economic, physical, psychological, workplace discrimination, etc.). While the implementation of the new law does not ensure results, it leaves hope that the State is beginning to recognize the problems Civil Society is presenting. The weakness in legislative capacity of the CNM provides an interesting contrast to the fact that Argentina is run by a female president, and in 1991 it became the world’s first country to require political parties to nominate a minimum percentage of female candidates. The State is making progress but must continue to do so.

Philips - Argentina - Wall
A mural on the city streets reaching out to female victims of domestic violence.

While AUH appears to, in many cases, have a positive effect on women’s empowerment, the State must allocate more resources to data collection and projects like Women’s rights, perhaps by partnering with existing organizations within Civil Society, to create complete datasets that can be used in policy-making to help vulnerable members of Argentine society. While I am finished with my formal research period, I am staying in Buenos Aires for a NYU course entitled Advocacy and Education, which will provide a great opportunity to learn more about the interaction between Civil Society and the Argentine State in another context.

Posted by Kristi Philips — MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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