During the Dirty War in Argentina, waged from 1976 to 1983, the military government abducted, tortured, and killed left-wing militants, and anyone they claimed were subversives, including all political opponents of the regime. Many of the dissenters were young people, students and other youth trying to express their dissatisfactions with the regime. The kidnapped people became referred to as the disappeared. The government obliterated any records that would help the families find the bodies or reclaim their grandchildren. They stole babies born to pregnant prisoners.
The military governments censorships prevented any discussion of the matter. Within a terrorist state, those who spoke out put their own lives in danger. Yet, in the face of the disappearance of their children, in 1977 a group of mothers began to meet each Thursday in the large Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the site of Argentinas government. There they walked in non-violent demonstrations. As they walked they chanted: We want our children; we want them to tell us where they are. The madres said, No matter what our children think they should not be tortured. They should have charges brought before them. We should be able to see them, visit them.
The mothers simple request was the first time any of the public had spoken out against the brutality of the regime. The movement and numbers of women whose children had disappeared grew. In their weekly demonstrations some carried pictures of the missing children. Later they wore white scarfs to symbolize the white dove of peace, which can unit all women.
The mothers nonviolent expression of truth to power eventually drew international attention. Human rights groups arrived to help them open up an office, publish their own newspaper and learn to make speeches. Although the police continued to harass them, (the early founders in fact disappeared themselves), it became more difficult for the government to ignore the moral presence of mothers standing witness to the illegal and brutal acts of the regime. As mothers, they presented a powerful moral symbol which, over time, transformed them from women seeking to protect their children to women wishing to transform the state so that it reflected maternal values.
With the return to civilian government in 1983, the Madres resisted the decision to pardon the Dirty War officials. One group focused on working with the democratic government promoting legislation to help recover remains; another group split from this approach continuing to hold silent vigils until the laws of immunity for former military leaders were lifted.
Madres organizations which used similar non-violent techniques to speak truth to power were formed in other authoritarian countries which also disappeared citizens, such as Bolivia, Brazil, Chile Paraguay and Uruguay in the mid-1970s. A government commission has put the number of unresolved disappearances in Argentina at about 11,000; the Madres say there are about 30,000.
Statements from some of the mothers:
One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of injustice...Now I know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not, we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without fear. This is what I learned.
Becoming aware of all the terrible things the young people were enduring made us see the ferociousness of the enemy clearly. The ferocity of the enemy gives us the strength to face him. I mean, how are you going to allow him to go on?
We realize that to demand the fulfillment of human rights is a revolutionary act, that to question the government about bringing our children back alive was a revolutionary act. We are fighting for liberation, to live in freedom, and that is a revolutionary act...To transform a system is always revolutionary.
- Revolutionizing Motherhood: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Marguerite Guzmán Bouvard, 1994.
- For a stunning poster of the Madres (one of a set of 12 internationally renowned women)
To learn about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize click here
Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Women in World History Curriculum