World

Argentina grassroots movement fights violence against women

On Christmas Eve of 2011, Maira Maidana lit a candle to the patron saint of Argentina and closed her eyes in prayer - just like she did every time she feared a brutal beating by her partner.

But this time, she felt her whole body catch on fire. When she turned around, she saw him staring at her with a bottle of alcohol in one hand. Ablaze, she ran to three faucets, but not a single drop of water came out.

Fifty-nine surgeries later, Maidana has finally found the courage to tell the truth about what happened to her that awful night. She says she owes that courage to a grassroots movement of tens of thousands of people across Argentina who have mobilized to fight violence against women. Called Ni Una Menos, or Not One Less, the movement has spread rapidly worldwide.

"With Ni Una Menos, women are no longer hiding," says Maidana, who is scarred in her neck and chest and speaks in whispers. "Before, we wouldn't talk...I don't know if it was fear or shame, or feeling that justice was not on your side...I like it that it's now out in the open."

One in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence, according to the United Nations. In 2016 alone, 254 Argentine women died from gender-based violence, according to a report released last month by the Supreme Court. That amounts to one woman killed every 34 hours.

Maidana feared the day would come when her partner would try to kill her.

They met in 2003, when he was 14 and she 15. The first time he beat her up was in 2005. They were playing with schoolmates and he was jealous.

When they got back to her home, he punched her in the face. She went to school the next day with a bruise in one eye. A friend told her to break up with him, warning her that it would happen again and only get worse.

She was right. Over the next eight years, he beat her up regularly, except when she was pregnant with their two children. He did drugs and would often come back home drunk or high.

On the day he would set her on fire, she was helping her mother decorate a ballroom to celebrate her younger brother's 17th birthday. She was excited about wearing a new white dress that she had picked out with her partner.

But when he arrived back from work, he was drunk and no longer wanted to attend the party. She insisted, saying she had worked on the decorations the whole day. As soon as they arrived at the ballroom, he began telling her that her dress was too short.

Halfway through the party, he decided he wanted to leave. When they arrived back home, he asked his sister to lock the children in a room. He began screaming at Maidana.

The argument got heated. At one point, he threatened to leave her. But for the first time, she confronted him and told him to go. She felt empowered.

Maidana went to the bathroom to remove her makeup. Then, with trembling hands, she lit a candle in the small altar to the Virgin of Lujan. It was about 2:45 a.m.

All of a sudden, she felt heat. She was in flames.

Desperate, she tried the shower first, then the bathroom sink, and then the kitchen faucet. No water came out anywhere. He had either closed the taps or let the water run dry.

Finally, she ran to the garden and jumped into a kiddie pool filled with dirty water and mud. She felt like she was burning up inside.

Some minutes later, he told her the water was running again. She took a shower. By then, the ashes from her flowered dress — which she wore only to sleep because he complained about the cleavage — had melted into her charred chest.

She was at the hospital for four months. Her chest and parts of her face remained scarred even after dozens of surgeries and skin grafts. She lost most of her hair, hearing in her right ear and sight in her left eye. She was down to 66 pounds (30 kilograms), less than half her usual weight, and looked skeletal. Her throat was badly damaged, and it was too painful to talk.

She slowly had to learn to eat and walk again with the help of her mother. Yet, fearing for her children's lives, she never reported her boyfriend. Instead, she told family and police that she had doused herself with alcohol and set herself ablaze.

Her parents always doubted that she had tried to take her life. But she kept her story to herself — until the Ni Una Menos march.

Ni Una Menos was created by 20 artists, journalists and activists in 2015, after simmering outrage over a brutal spate of murders. The name came from a poem about a massacre of women in Ciudad Juarez by Mexican writer Susana Chavez, who was killed in 2011.

On June 3, 2015, the day of the first march, millions of demonstrators flooded the streets of 70 cities across Argentina, including Maidana. When she saw how the protests had united everyone, the tears began to roll down her cheeks. She embraced her mother and told her she was finally ready to tell the truth.

"I felt such an immense pain at seeing so many mothers, fathers, friends demanding justice for those girls who were gone," she says. "And at the same time, I was demanding it for myself."

The next day, she woke up and wrote a heartfelt letter thanking the demonstrators.

"I can't stop crying," she wrote. "Yesterday, I finally let out the anguish...Today, I'm thankful that I'm not just a banner, a photo, a name - and that I can fight for them. Today, I thank God that I can fight and scream: Not one less!"