BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — 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, instead of the usual blows, 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 and now has branches in New York, Berlin, Italy, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador and more.
“With Ni Una Menos, women are no longer hiding,” says Maidana, 29, who is scarred in her neck and chest and speaks in whispers. Maidana marched for hours during the latest Ni Una Menos protest earlier this month, holding a banner and beaming with pride.
“Before, we wouldn’t talk,” she says. “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.”
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. In 60 of those cases, the women had previously reported attacks, and some even had a restraining order.
Maidana feared the day would come when her partner would try to kill her.
They met in school in 2003, when he was 14 and she was 15. The first time he beat her up was in 2005. They were playing with schoolmates and he got 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 course of 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.
When their children were young, they witnessed the fights. She would let him beat her up just so that he wouldn’t go after them. When he realized that Maidana no longer loved him, he threatened to kill himself. One day, he grabbed a kitchen knife and began cutting his wrists in front of the kids.
“I was scared,” she says. “The fear would not let me ask for help or escape.”
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. His friends had been planning a hip-hop dance presentation, and she was excited about wearing a new white dress 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. He was jealous and wanted to pick a fight.
Halfway through the party, he decided he wanted to leave. She gave in to avoid a scene in front of her family and friends. They called a cab and went back home with their two young children.
When they arrived, 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, after years of enduring his beatings, she confronted him and told him to go. She felt empowered.
It didn’t last.
One in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence, according to the United Nations. In most countries, fewer than 40 percent of those abused sought help of any sort.
In Argentina, there were 2,384 femicides between 2008 and 2016, according to La Casa del Encuentro, a local women’s rights group. While there are no accurate country-by-country numbers, violence against women in Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala is thought to be even higher, said Ada Rico, the head of La Casa del Encuentro.
The machismo culture is strong in Argentina, where women are often catcalled, hissed at and harassed on the street. Back in 2014, when he was the Mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri said in a radio interview that “all women like to hear pickup lines,” among other sexist comments. He was heavily criticized, and since being elected Argentina’s president in 2015, he has pledged support for the Ni Una Menos movement and the protection of victims.
After she told her boyfriend to leave that night, 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.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “I 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.
He followed her with a blanket in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other. The children heard her screaming.
She was on fire for maybe just minutes, but it seemed like hours. 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.
He didn’t want to call an ambulance, but agreed to call police. He told them he was just a neighbor.
They took her to a small clinic, where she lost consciousness. Hours later, she was transferred to a hospital that treats severe burns.
She was at the hospital for four months, while her mother took care of her children. But one day, her partner picked them up from school. He kept them for more than 10 months, until Maidana got a lwyer’s help to bring them back home.
Even after dozens of surgeries and skin grafts, Maidana’s chest and parts of her face remained scarred. She had 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.
They began by organizing public readings about gender-based violence with family members of victims. But when Chiara Paez, a 14-year-old pregnant girl, was killed by her boyfriend in May 2015 and found buried in his family’s yard, they decided enough was enough.
The first call to protest started with a tweet by local radio journalist Marcela Ojeda: “Women: are we not going to raise our voices? THEY’RE KILLING US!” The public outcry that followed on social media inspired the first march on June 3, 2015.
The organizers thought it would be small. But on that day, millions of demonstrators flooded the streets of 70 cities across Argentina, demanding an end to the killings. The protests made headlines and prompted discussion throughout the country.
Maidana joined the march in front of the Congress building in Buenos Aires because she wanted to “feel alive” after so much pain. When she saw how the protests had united everyone, from women in strollers and schoolchildren to politicians from opposing parties, 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!”
The march grew quickly into a global movement, with the protest echoed by millions of women throughout Latin America. Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi joined the campaign with a message against femicides published on his Twitter account. During a visit to Buenos Aires, Michelle Obama praised the efforts by the Argentine women to fight against violence.
This year, Ni Una Menos helped organize a strike for International Women’s Day on March 8, drawing women from Thailand to Chile and Poland to South Korea. In some countries, members of Ni Una Menos have also joined forces with existing feminist movements, such as Vivas Nos Queremos in Mexico – We Want to Stay Alive.
Ni Una Menos’ demands range from the publishing of official statistics on sexual assaults and the protection of women to the inclusion of gender violence in school curricula. It has had some success. The Supreme Court announced that it would launch a task force to collect violence against women. Some months later, the government passed legislation to protect women who are verbally or physically abused on the streets. And the Reef clothing company ended the Miss Reef best buttocks contest, a 23-year-old summer tradition in the coastal city of Mar del Plata.
“Femicide is the tip of the iceberg, and it’s not solved with more police,” says Marta Dillon, a journalist and one of the founders of Ni Una Menos. “The movement seeks to be revolutionary.”
Argentina’s long tradition of feminist activism and its strong women have contributed to the movement’s success, Dillon said. She mentioned Evita Peron, the combative former first lady who helped get women the right to vote, and the human rights group Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.
Maidana is no longer with her boyfriend, but she has not yet garnered the courage to report him to the police. Still, she has kept the charred flowered dress she wore that night and the bottle of alcohol inside a plastic bag, in case one day she needs them as evidence.
“This is not something that is happening to one person,” she says. “It can happen to you, to your cousin, to your daughter. To everyone.”
Story: Luis Andres Henao, Debora Rey