Argentina has become the largest Latin American country to legalise abortion after its senate approved the historic law change by 38 votes in favour to 29 against, with one abstention. Elated pro-choice campaigners who had been keeping vigil outside Buenos Aires’s neoclassical congressional palace erupted in celebration as the result was announced in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

“The struggle for women’s rights is always arduous, and this time we even had to contend with a pandemic, so I am overjoyed with this result,” said the journalist and campaigner Ingrid Beck.

The bill, which legalises terminations in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, was approved by Argentina’s lower house earlier this month after being put to congress by the country’s left-wing president Alberto Fernández.

“There is this hypocritical Argentina that denies abortion, just as it used to deny homosexuality,” Fernández said on the eve of this week’s vote, calling abortion a “public health problem” not a police matter. Fernández said that since the return of democracy in 1983 more than 3,000 women had died as a result of unsafe, underground abortions in Argentina.

The landmark decision means Argentina will become only the third South American country to permit elective abortions alongside Uruguay, which decriminalised the practice in 2012, and Guyana, where it has been legal since 1995. The Caribbean island of Cuba legalised the practice in 1965 while Mexico City and the Mexican state of Oaxaca also allow terminations.

Giselle Carino, an Argentinian feminist activist, said she believed the achievement in the home country of Pope Francis would reverberate across a region that is home to powerful Catholic and evangelical churches and some of the harshest abortion laws in the world.

In most countries, such as Brazil, abortions are only permitted in extremely limited circumstances such as rape or risk to the mother’s life, while in some, such as the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, they are banned altogether.

“I feel incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. This is a historic moment for the country, without a doubt,” said Carino, the regional head of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

“It shows how, in spite of all the obstacles, change and progress are possible. Argentinian women and what’s happening right now will have an enormous impact on the region and the world,” Carino added, pointing to parallel struggles in Brazil, Chile and Colombia.

Colombian activists recently filed a lawsuit with the constitutional court asking it to remove abortion from the country’s criminal code while campaigners in Chile hope a new constitution might open the door to expanded women’s rights. In the region’s most populous nation, Brazil, activists are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on a 2018 legal challenge that would decriminalise abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy.

Mariela Belski, Amnesty International’s executive director in Argentina, said: “Both the law passed by the Argentine congress today and the enormous effort of the women’s movement to achieve this are an inspiration to the Americas.”

“Argentina has sent a strong message of hope to our entire continent: that we can change course against the criminalisation of abortion and against clandestine abortions, which pose serious risks to the health and lives of millions of people,” she added.

The senate vote is the result of five long years of mass protest marches by Argentina’s grassroots women’s movement, which began as a Twitter campaign against gender violence that used the hashtag #NiUnaMenos (“Not one less” – meaning no more women lost to gender violence).

The first spontaneous march came on 3 June 2015, in reaction to the murder of 14-year-old Chiara Páez, found buried underneath her boyfriend’s house after being beaten to death and a few months pregnant.

“Are we not going to raise our voices? THEY ARE KILLING US,” the radio journalist Marcela Ojeda tweeted at the time. After that call to arms, a group of female journalists began tweeting under the #NiUnaMenos hashtag, resulting in the first of many marches that brought tens of thousands of women to gather at the congressional square in Buenos Aires.

The following year Argentinian feminists held a mass strike in response to the rape, murder and impalement of 16-year-old Lucía Pérez in the coastal city of Mar del Plata. It was after the 2015 #NiUnaMenos march that pro-choice campaigners realised the fight against “femicide” could also encompass demands for access to legal abortion.

They adopted a green scarf – worn as a bandana, head-scarf, or around the wrist – as a symbol of their movement, a trend that quickly spread to other Latin American countries where green has come to symbolise the broader fight for women’s rights.

That green scarf was an allusion to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo activists who wore white headscarves as they confronted Argentina’s vicious 1976-83 dictatorship over the disappearance of their children. Pro-choice campaigners initially saw their hopes of change dashed in August 2018 when the senate, under pressure from the Catholic Church, rejected a similar bill.

Fernández’s election the following year brought fresh hope, as he promised to throw his weight behind the push for change. “The criminalisation of abortion has achieved nothing,” he said in November as he put the legislation to congress.

Carino said the leftward shift in Argentinian politics that brought Fernández to power had undoubtedly boosted the pro-choice campaign after the previous year’s setback. Among those who helped Fernández win office were many young women who had taken part in the #NiUnaMenos protests and were voting for the first time.

But Carino believed the real credit lay with Argentina’s indefatigable women “who never stopped occupying the streets and the social networks not even against the backdrop of the pandemic – and kept up their struggle, without haste but without rest”. “If anything made the difference, it was this.”