High School Students: A Glimpse of the Future Right Now

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By: Marta Dillon / Source: Página 12 / October 6, 2017

Photo credit: Página 12

A few days ago, the dean of the Buenos Aires National School told media about the case of a female student who had been abused inside the school, violating her privacy in a clear attempt to vilify the occupation of high schools by students.

Since September, many high schools in Buenos Aires began to be occupied by their students, who demand better conditions for education, protest against the latest education reform and denounce the lack of solutions provided by schools for cases of gender-based violence and sexual abuse.

But the dean didn’t tell media that students were fighting for this, nor that they were demanding the implementation of the Integral Sexual Education program, which was approved in 2006 but is seldom applied.

“Who do I trust? The girls! And some boys who are developing consciousness”, Malena says, with confidence, as she sits taller, her neck long, her head filled with moving ideas that seem to be audible even when she’s silent. All of her gestures exude desire, desire to do, to know, to project herself; she’s growing into the world and she likes, it, she’s coming straight at life with a founded conviction: those girls and a few of the boys who, like her, want to change everything. And right now, they feel that the world they know is like a piece of clay that you have to amass all the time so that it doesn’t dry and set before taking a shape that fits their desire.

Therefore, even though she arrives with the smile of achievement, she’s already thinking about the following step: the coordination of gender commissions in the Center of Grassroots Students, the creation of a protocol against gender-based violence in the schools, a meeting with the Ni Una Menos movement, the incessant questioning of everything that surrounds them, from music and TV to the forms of having fun, of loving and of living. “Before, when we were at a party and we saw a group of boys leave with a girl who was drunk, we didn’t question what they were doing. Now it’s not like that anymore. We know we can get rapists kicked out of schools”, Male says and she smiles at her achievement. “We managed to get a restraining order against the culprit so that he can’t be in our class anymore”. Her friend and schoolmate Luciana won’t have to convive with the boy who abused her. She won’t have to tolerate him playing the victim, or expressing he is fed up everytime gender is discussed, or explaining it was a mistake and it could happen to anyone. No more tolerating the class discussions where the abuse was analyzed and her word was questioned, no more attempts to create impossible conciliation, because the aggressor didn’t even respect her desire not to be near him. Luciana says she has cried a lot, but she affirms herself: “it’s over now, sorority is a beautiful word”, and this sounds like an embrace and also like strength.

Male and Luciana are finishing their last year at the Rogelio Yrurtia School of Arts. Ofelia, proud president of the Student Center of the Carlos Pellegrini school, is joining them for this afternoon meeting of talk, mate and croissants with dulce de leche, along with Antonella, who attends the Manuel Belgrano School of Arts, and Valentina, of the Juan Pedro Esnaola Music School. All five are feminists and activists.

They protagonized the occupation of schools that demanded Integral Sexual Education and resisted an education reform that was going to be imposed without consultation. The government’s plan, announced very succinctly, intends to rearrange subjects and mercantilize education by obliging public high school students to work as interns for private companies and public organisms during their last year. The students consider that the school occupations were useful to get their voices to be heard.

They are angry about the way in which the dean of the Buenos Aires National High School, Gustavo Zorzoli, spoke to the media about a case of abuse that occurred in order to stigmatize the student occupations. “This case clearly exposes the situation of vulnerability our students are exposed to”, the dean said, as if occupied schools were chicken pens with their doors open to wolves.

“Stop focusing on the occupations and get the state to do something”, says Malena, angry, and Ofelia completes her: “What happened in the National School is sad, because we have an Integral Sexual Education law since 2006 and still the dean doesn’t know the basic principles on how to act in these cases to protect the victim, and instead of protecting her identity and her wishes she tells it to the entire nation. She wrote a letter precisely to request that her identity was protected, to keep the exposure from increasing”.

The story that Malena and Luciana tell is not about being vulnerable due to their autonomous decision-making. On the contrary, the occupations are to the students a sort of laboratory of coexistence where social conflicts are not foreign.

“We said: we’ll be governing the school dr¡uring these days, so what do we want? We want teachers and experts to come and talk to us about Integral Sexual Education, we want to make student trips to the National Women’s Meeting and we began to raise money. We want, for example non-gendered bathrooms, for everybody to use”.

“We made great use of the space”, Luciana says, “to have personal conversations and to open many minds. In our school there were already two abuse denounces and that had been concerning us”. But the girls looked for resources to back up their decision of ending machista violence and have organized two feminist discussion panels so far this year. And although it is harder to reach most boys, they don’t give up. “It wasn’t until after the occupation was over that a male classmate said to me that he understood why I had made the denounce and offered his support”, said Luciana.

When I ask whether it would be useful to set some rules during the occupation, Malena dissipates my naïveté: “you can put up a sign that says ‘DON’T RAPE’, but it’s no good. What’s useful is talking, if anything”.

Valentina: we have also held talks about Integral Sexual Education and Ni Una Menos, but it is much more difficult for boys to get involved. In the last one there were only two. When there’s a march, many more come, but we need to do a ton of work on machismo and micro-machismo.

Those who commit the abuses are not distant people nor strangers, and that is difficult. “For us, it is grieving, because we lose a friend”, says Male. “More than one, in fact, because he was a part of our group”. But losing this relationship was the way to recover safety, to stop crying, to realize what had happened, individually and collectively.

Antonella: In the beginning we organized roadblocks to demand justice for Nuria (Couto) and Nadia (Grebenshikova) [two girls who were murdered by a man as they were chatting with friends one afternoon near the Belgrano school they attended]. Back then, we didn’t realize that something serious had to happen to get everyone to wake up. But we woke up and now we’re not just denouncing, but we’re one a level of more political discussion where we question all our preconceived notions about who we are, how we relate to each other—everything.

Ofelia: This year was the first time that schools were occupied demanding Integral Sexual Education. Because truthfully, in the last five years we had perhaps three days of sexual education, tops.

Valentina: And frequently things are easier said than done. For example, the Physical Education teacher taught us about sexism in the Olympics, but in class they still treat girls differently. Boys can arrive late and join the practice, we can’t.

Ofelia: We had to make our own protocol to act in cases of violence, because what they gave us in our Sexual Education class is useless. They come in one day and say: “this is Sexual Education and I’m going to talk about contraception”… And then they warn us that alcohol affects women more than men and therefore we shouldn’t drink if we want to be safe.

In this short dialogue, girls constantly bring their own creativity in to provide answers where adults only see risks and offer only disciplining as a solution.

Antonella: When Nuria and Nadia were in intensive care, they told us to “pray”, but when they passed away, their message to us was “well, no more partying for you”. They insisted on us girls not going out alone—Nuria and Nadia were with male friends when they were murdered and that didn’t save them. They hired private security. They always take the road of covering things up instead of questioning them.

Luciana: And some students echo that logic.

Malena: They are teaching us to cover things up, to discredit the victims, to listen to the boy’s justification. They only care for abuse when it happens in the context of a school occupation. Our teachers come from a generation that is more used to remaining silent, they lived under a military dictatorship. We can step forward and talk.

Ofelia: We took advantage of the wave caused by the Ni Una Menos movement, because it created a change in common sense that allowed us to have more female leaders, to have words like machismo and feminism be used in schools and to be able to deconstruct our beliefs, change, revise everything. I’m now in a heterosexual relationship and I know there are things I will never consent.

Speaking to these teenagers is like being in an anticyclone center. They are a wind of future that is already tangling the hairs of many. They transform themselves and those around them can’t feign indifference. It happens in their schools, in parties, in their homes.

Ofelia: Last summer we went to Villa Gesell [a beach town and popular summer destination in Argentina] with some friends and we were disgusted at the way in which everything is organized to make us girls the product. They usher us in clubs early in the night so that boys are motivated to pay to come in. The level of harassment is also alarming, but we took care of each other, we questioned things. We don’t shave or wax if we don’t feel like it. We set our own limits. And we always say we’re feminists so that people know who they’re talking to.

Luciana: I live with my father and my brother. After I made the denounce there are thing I don’t tolerate anymore and they have to respect that, although it is very difficult to convince my brother, we is very machista and calls me a feminazi. For example, at dinnertime, there are TV shows I don’t tolerate. If they put on “Polémica en el Bar” or “Showmatch” [Argentine TV programs that famously objectify women], I ask them to change the channel or I don’t sit down to eat. And eventually they change it.

Ofelia: My mom and father are separated. My mother is cool. And my brother, well, I think I finally got to him. Since I had my five minutes of fame—after TV journalists interviewed her and demeaned her until she corrected them: “don’t call me ‘little girl’”—he googled the video and listened to what I said and then he had to discuss a lot of things with my mom.

Valentina: My parents talk about these things but they speak with fear. They’re afraid something will happen to us. That’s not right, because we shouldn’t be disciplined by fear.

Antonella: My problem with my mom is that she watches this awful soap opera called El Sultán. The story shows all the things we don’t want to happen to women. So that is my crusade, to get her to stop watching that.

Ofelia: We’re questioning that sort of things every day.

“That sort of things” includes gender hierarchies, the discourse on women that justifies abuse, mandatory heterosexuality, dress codes, the idea that women who have sex are whores and men who have sex are winners. The girls avidly seek reading material and training that gives them arguments. They use internet as a tool. They speak about it. They analyze what happens on the streets every time women go out to march. And the progressively quicker response against repression to lesbians, gays, and transexuals and other genders.

Valentina: We should add that our schools are pretty privileged, because there’s organization, because many focus on arts and are generally more open. But I have a friend who is a lesbian who transferred schools and told me she had been locked inside a bathroom because of it.

Regarding the protocols they made with their peers to deal with gender-based violence, they say:

Ofelia: In my school, we designed a protocol which includes an outside female authority on the subject, so that she is not contaminated by the usual argument: “I trust this boy, I know him and he’s incapable of doing such a thing”.

Male: We need a common protocol to avoid shouting matches about who to believe, so that we stop being accused of “buying into the feminist fashion”. There has to be immediate action to separate the victim from the abuser. But the victim shouldn’t have to change classes.

Ofelia: You can’t always make the denounce at a police headquarters or a Prosecutors’ office. There’s too much risk of being revictimized. A few days ago, a friend of mine went to the police because she had lost her personal ID and heard a girl being interrogated in front of everybody else after having being abused.

Male: That’s why we need to know how everybody has to act inside the school: teachers, directors, mothers and fathers. And also the prosecutors.

Luciana: Yes, when I went to denounce they made me retell everything five times, it’s awful, they don’t know how to speak to the victim. In the OVD [the Domestic Violence Office of the Supreme Court of the Nation] it’s completely different. This goes to show how much training is needed.

Antonella: We need to stop feeding the patriarchy, to stop empowering sexists and to offer something else. Because some boys are scared, they think that anyone can accidentally commit rape. And that’s not it, abuse is abuse.

Male: Yes! Boys are scared, a few days ago a boy sent an e-mail to the student center claiming he hadn’t done anything and he changed schools. But there wasn’t any denounce against him.

The girls, instead, feel empowered. They have each other, they trust “the girls and some boys who are developing consciousness”. Listening to them sounds like an embrace and also like strength. Like desire in movement to bring the future on today.

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