The Green Bandanna: A Universal Symbol

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Emily Neis

Image of a crowd of women holding up green bandanas.
Demonstrators at the February 29, 2020 protest in front of Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina.[1]

The green bandanna has recently become a universal symbol of abortion rights and solidarity. This symbol’s journey began in Argentina, traveled across Latin America, and reached all corners of the world. The use of the green bandanna as a symbol was sparked by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. In the late 1970s, women gathered outside Argentina’s presidential palace to protest the disappearances of their daughters and sons by the military junta during the Dirty War.[2] These women wore white scarves made of cloth used for children’s diapers on their heads.

Black and white image of women and police.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in 1982.[3]

Around thirty years later, two Argentine women believed the symbolism behind the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement could be applied to abortion rights. Marta Alanis, the founder of Catholics for the Right to Decide in Argentina, was organizing a national protest for women in 2003. Abortion was very much illegal and controversial even amongst feminists. Alanis and other activists hoped to change the narrative around abortion through their movement. Alanis wanted to pay homage to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo but needed a new bandanna color to represent the abortion rights movement. Susana Chiarotti suggested green because it represented nature, growth, and life, disputing the opposing movement known as “pro-life.”[4] Alanis and Chiarotti believed they should reclaim the term “life” and the green bandanna was the start. Their gathering was a huge success, making local news. For the first time in Argentina over 10,000 women demanded the decriminalization of abortion and the right to contraception. This protest created the symbol of the green bandanna which soon spread across Argentina. Teenage girls tied them to their backpacks and activists brought them to protests.

Image of a crowd of women protesting at night.
Alanis and Chiarotti distributed 3,000 green bandannas during the 2003 protest in Rosario, Argentina.[5]

The green bandanna continued to hold significance in Argentina when a 14-year-old Argentine girl named Chiara Páez was murdered. Páez was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, but her then-boyfriend did not and he ended up beating her to death. Her death, along with many other femicide cases, was a breaking point for Argentine women. This prompted the movement that would become known across Latin America as Ni Una Menos or Not One Less.[6] These protests spread to Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and El Salvador. This massive mobilization also drew attention to the ongoing attempt to fight for reproductive health and rights.

In 2018, the Ni Una Menos movement transformed into the Green Wave protests that called for legal and safe access to abortion in Latin America. Millions of women participated in these protests but they faced disappointment as the legalization of abortion failed in the Senate by a 38 to 31 margin in 2018.[7] The movement had passive momentum and Alanis recalls that “abortion started being talked about everywhere, in the home, in the neighborhoods, in the bakery.”[8] Alanis also discusses how the country began running out of green fabric and women began crossing the border to Bolivia to craft enough bandannas. While green was becoming a symbol for abortion rights, anti-abortion activists fought back by wearing blue bandannas that read “Let’s Save the Two Lives.”

However, at the peak of the Green Wave movement, a second bill was brought to the Senate. In December 2020, it was passed after much debate with a 38 to 29 margin. This was a shocking victory for women in Argentina and the decision shook the country. Celebrations erupted in the streets of Argentina with music and dancing. After a generation-long battle, Argentine women felt they had finally made a positive impact.

Image of a crowd of women holding up large green banners.
The Green Wave protest in Argentina, 2020.[9]

Argentina’s success inspired many women to take on the fight for abortion legalization. Mexico followed the path Argentine women took and wore green bandannas during an abortion protest. Soon after, the Supreme Court ruled criminalizing abortion as unconstitutional in September 2021. In Columbia, the green bandannas were used with the abortion rights coalition Causa Justa or Just Cause. In February 2021, Columbia’s constitutional court decriminalized abortion. In Brazil, the green bandanna said “no prison, no death” to protest laws that criminalized abortion. Brazil, however, is still fighting for looser abortion laws.

Image of a woman wearing a green shirt in a crowd.
A protester in Bogotá, Colombia outside the Constitutional Court, February 2021.[10]

The green bandanna even made its way to the West. In Poland, protestors utilized the symbol to attempt to resist the 2021 near-total ban on abortion in the country after years of liberalized access. Abortion activists were also shocked to see the United States move backward in terms of abortion rights when the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. The United States is one of only three countries in the world, along with Poland and Nicaragua, to tighten access to abortion in the 21st century. Women in the United States were vocal about the Supreme Court’s decision and were quick to take to the streets. One protestor called on activists to follow the “example of the women in Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina who came into the streets, day after day, with the color green.”[11]

Image of a woman speaking into a megaphone during a protest.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaking outside the Supreme Court.[12]

The green bandanna has become a symbol of unity amongst women advocating for abortion rights. For instance, women in Argentina gathered in protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires just days after Roe v. Wade fell, waving green bandannas to stand together in protest. The Green Wave movement represents unity and strength among women across the world. Further, the green bandanna is an example of the strength of nonviolent protest. A single item has been recognized globally to stand for an important cause and movement. The green bandanna highlights the significance of nonviolent protest and resistance.

[1] Jaclyn Diaz, “How #NiUnaMenos grew from the streets of Argentina into a regional women’s movement,” NPR, 2021.

[2] Samantha Schmidt, “How green became the color of abortion rights,” The Washington Post, 2022.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Diaz, “How #NiUnaMenos grew from the streets of Argentina into a regional women’s movement,” 2021.

[7] Jaya Nayar & Salomé Garnier, “Abortion as a Human Right: The Fight for Reproductive Rights in Argentina and Poland,” Harvard International Review, 2022.

[8] Schmidt, “How green became the color of abortion rights,” 2022.

[9] Nayar & Garnier, “Abortion as a Human Right: The Fight for Reproductive Rights in Argentina and Poland,” 2022.

[10] Schmidt, “How green became the color of abortion rights,” 2022.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ramon Antonio Vargas, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for supreme court justices to be impeached,” The Guardian, 2022.