“As the plight of women facing increasing levels of femicide in Mexico disappears from the international news agenda, the question arises of how to implement change…”
The scene is familiar: crowds of protestors bearing cardboard signs inscribed with witty slogans that criticise gender inequality and call for further rights or recognition. In many ways, the coverage of International Women’s Day 2020 adhered to this tried-and-tested formula, with news footage comparing and contrasting women’s rights demonstrations from across the globe. One protest in particular, however, captured the attention of the international press more than others. With an estimated 80,000 participants involved in vibrant protests that escalated in to clashes between police and activists, the International Women’s Day demonstrations in Mexico City represented a perfect journalistic opportunity to document the international feminist movement in action.
Whilst a more international focus in the UK media is certainly refreshing, the temptation within the press to report on these protests only in the context of International Women’s Day risks simplifying and flattening the protests. Indeed, although many media outlets did acknowledge the deeper issue motivating many of these demonstrators – that of the alarming spike in female murders in Mexico over the last decade – few adequately investigated the causes and consequences of this issue. Clearly, what was newsworthy about Mexico City’s protests was not the growing prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) against women in Mexico, but the impassioned demonstrators who crowded the streets and the petrol bombs as the protests became violent. When these crowds dispersed, so too did international coverage of Mexican women’s struggle for rights – even nationwide women’s strikes (called ‘A Day Without Us’) organised the following day failed to sufficiently shock or entertain to sustain this press attention.
An average of 10 women are killed every day in Mexico; 3,825 women were murdered in 2019 alone. Survivors and families of victims face a justice system in which cases are either not investigated, or are stymied by debates about the legitimacy of a victim’s testimony rather than about the accused’s actions, effectively granting perpetrators impunity. The response of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government to this growing crisis has been half-hearted at best: at worst, it consists of a flat denial of responsibility and a plea that concerns over horrific incidents of mutilation and murder should not disrupt an upcoming presidential raffle. Sadly, violence perpetrated against women is not a new phenomenon (the term ‘feminicidio’ – femicide – was first used in 1993 following a spate of killings in the town of Ciudad Juárez), but the recent surge in GBV, growing by 137% between 2015-20 and showing no sign of abating, is cause for considerable concern.
To begin with, it is undeniable that economic factors, such as a process of mass urbanisation, mainly to more prosperous northern cities, and a widening of existing inequalities have contributed to the rise in female murders over the last decade. The economic development enjoyed by metropolises such as Mexico City has not been shared by other regions within Mexico, where lack of job and educational opportunities leave many in a state of absolute poverty (UNICEF recorded that child poverty in Mexico stood at 27% in 2000). In this precarious economic context, many women have been forced to take on employment and/or migrate to hastily erected suburban areas in northern states in order to survive and/or supplement their family’s income, often doing low-skilled work with few protections, thus rendering them vulnerable to exploitation. Much attention has been paid to the disproportionate number of female maquila workers in Mexico’s northern states, for example, with national women’s groups noting how the irregular working shifts and workplace location mean that employees often have to walk long distances at night, leaving them exposed to violence and assault. Beyond the specific concerns raised about maquila workers, incidents of aggression in the workplace have been reported across employment sectors, and it is easy to see how poverty forces women, out of desperation, in to dangerous, potentially exploitative work where, as a low-skilled and less valuable employee, are more at risk of violence and serious assault.
The rise in female murders needs also to be analysed in the context of the general spread and intensification of violence throughout Mexico from the 1980s: femicide is, as a 2003 UN investigation concluded, the result of a “situation of violence in a structurally violent society”. Fuelled by a legacy of civil unrest in the region and prolonged war on drugs, this conflict, in which government and security forces, insurgent groups, gang members, and regular civilians have all participated as active combatants, not only legitimises the use of aggression, but has also instilled an accepted culture of violence within Mexican society. In reality, this results in a desensitisation to acts of violence, allowing everyday abuse to proliferate and go unquestioned, the cumulative effect of which too often ends in fatal assaults. 60% of women murdered by their partner had previously reported domestic abuse to relevant authorities (though no action was taken), highlighting the climate of violence that many female victims of GBV already live in that is systematically left unchallenged.
Finally, the institutional failure to respond to GBV, despite the repeated efforts of humanitarian groups such as the National Citizens’ Observatory on Femicide, betrays a stubborn patriarchal attitude hostile to implementing tangible change at the heart of civil society. Mainstream media and cultural channels are largely dominated by a more traditional view on gender, propagating conservative gender roles consisting of a ‘machista’ masculine stereotype and a subservient, docile feminine counterpart. These traditional stereotypes are in stark opposition to recent cultural trends regarding gender, the family and equality, evidenced, for example, by a greater use of contraception (increasing by 63% between 1970-99) and, as a report produced by Oxfam contends, ‘Femicide represents a backlash against women who are empowered […] and [who] have moved away from traditional female roles.’. The wider context of economic stagnation only exacerbates the conflict between these juxtaposing gender models by both forcing women into the economic arena (thereby defying the assumption that they will remain in the home) and by rendering many men unemployed (thus failing to support their families as per the machista stereotype). Such resentment towards women, alongside the conservative attitudes reinforced by mass media, percolate in to society’s institutions, most pertinently the police and judiciary, meaning that even cases that are officially reported languish unsolved or fail to bring justice to victims and survivors. Though on a federal level, women’s rights are recognised by 1928 American Convention on Human Rights, individual state laws can be ambiguous, with some, such as Yucatan, still maintaining that reasons of ‘honour’ constitute mitigating circumstances in cases of GBV involving marital infidelity (some perpetrators face a sentence as low as two years under these circumstances). Within courts themselves, there are widespread accounts of judges demonstrating contempt towards survivors of GBV, questioning the legitimacy of their testimonies and heavily emphasising women’s ‘duties and responsibilities’ when forming their verdict. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that, in only 4% of femicide cases between 2010-11 a sentence was passed. Just as the judiciary too frequently displays evidence of patriarchal gender discrimination in its handling of female murder cases, so too does the government dismiss and diminish the issue of femicide, meaning that crucial reforms have not been fully implemented and that structures are not in place to support and protect women most at risk from GBV. For example, state protection orders are notoriously difficult to obtain, and even if one is issued, they are limited to a one year period, leaving women most at need of state protection vulnerable to assault.
The convergence of economic, social and cultural factors has made Mexico fertile terrain for internal violence, cultivating a culture of fear and aggression within the country that has only been exacerbated by the drug war initiated in 2006. Some may argue that, though violence against women is condemnable, it is simply part of the broader intensification of conflict within Mexico, and should not be seen as a separate, isolated problem. Certainly, it is important to note that male homicide rates have, since 2007, grown by 292% and, in 2012, sat 8 times higher than female homicide rates. However, unlike male homicides, which researchers have posited are more likely to be the direct consequence of gang action and/or the war on drugs, the majority of female murders have a definite gender basis. Many female corpses are gruesomely mutilated before being left or displayed in public, so are ‘used as a weapon to spread terror amongst women; in this sense, and because the murders are committed with such brutality, femicide can be seen as a hate crime against women’ (Oxfam). Therefore, these female murders can be classed as examples of GBV or femicides, and, unlike the male homicides that are more closely linked to drug-related hostilities, represent a more pernicious assault on women that seeks to punish and intimidate them.
In light of the sinister, gendered motivations behind many of these femicides, it is all the more crucial that the issue is quickly and decisively tackled. However, given the complexity of factors driving GBV and deeply ingrained nature of the problem, we may question who is best able to address femicides in Mexico – legislators, NGOs, grassroot movements or individuals – and whether any approach can in fact be effective.
Certainly, there is some reason to be optimistic about the possibility of change in Mexico when looking at the steps that have already been taken by these different groups. A constitutional recognition of women’s rights is crucial in opening up a discourse about gender issues and in allowing these rights to be defended and upheld in courts, and successive pieces of legislation, including the 2007 Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence or reforms of the Penal Code in 2000 have specifically noted GBV as a growing threat to women. In recent years, international NGOs and other humanitarian organisations, including Amnesty, Isis International, and the UN, have become increasingly involved in combatting the threat of GBV in Mexico, resulting in the establishment of schemes such as the UN’s ‘Spotlight Initiative’ that aims to ‘eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030’ through reforming institutions, developing services and support systems and working in communities. The attention of internationally respected humanitarian organisations in tackling GBV in Mexico represents an important step forward, not only in providing essential support and guidance to those left most vulnerable to femicide and families of victims, but also in elevating this under-reported issue on to the international stage, increasing the pressure on the Mexican government to be faithful to their own constitutional amendments and to protect women from GBV.
Grassroots movements have also been instrumental in both organising nationwide protests and in running projects on a local level. In terms of raising the agenda of femicide, national demonstrations, such as the ‘Day of the Dead Women’ or marches on International Women’s Day, have been instrumental in drawing attention to the issue and prompting a broader national debate about GBV, as evidenced by the exhibition entitled “Feminicidio en México. ¡Ya basta!”(“Femicide in Mexico! Enough is Enough!”) that opened in the Museum of Memory and Tolerance. On a smaller level, projects initiated by individuals or collectives operated mainly through social media can have an immediate, meaningful impact on the local community. For example, the Women’s Justice Centre in Ecatepec, one of the most dangerous towns in the Chihuahua region, provides counselling and legal advice to victims and survivors of GBV, offering dignity to those affected by GBV and allowing them to better seek justice for crimes perpetrated against them. Equally, the Invisibles Somos Visibles (Invisible We Are Visible) collective organises peaceful protests that seek to engage people in a discussion about GBV, recognising that femicide is a problem that harms the whole community, from boys under pressure to conform to the machista stereotype to those who may harbour concerns about rapid social and cultural change but have no recognised space to voice them. On the other hand, the continuation, and even escalation, of femicide in Mexico surely exposes the shortcomings of these approaches in effectively combatting GBV. Legislation is only as effective as those who enforce it, and the aggression within the country that has only been exacerbated by the drug war initiated in 2006. Some may argue that, though violence against women is condemnable, it is simply part of the broader intensification of conflict within Mexico, and should not be seen as a separate, isolated problem. Certainly, it is important to note that male homicide rates have, since 2007, grown by 292% and, in 2012, sat 8 times higher than female homicide rates. However, unlike male homicides, which researchers have posited are more likely to be the direct consequence of gang action and/or the war on drugs, the majority of female murders have a definite gender basis. Many female corpses are gruesomely mutilated before being left or displayed in public, so are ‘used as a weapon to spread terror amongst women; in this sense, and because the murders are committed with such brutality, femicide can be seen as a hate crime against women’ (Oxfam). Therefore, these female murders can be classed as examples of GBV or femicides, and, unlike the male homicides that are more closely linked to drug-related hostilities, represent a more pernicious assault on women that seeks to punish and intimidate them.
On the other hand, the continuation, and even escalation, of femicide in Mexico surely exposes the shortcomings of these approaches in effectively combatting GBV. Legislation is only as effective as those who enforce it, and the patriarchal unwillingness to address femicide within Mexico’s core institutions has meant that the principles set out in the 2007 Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence are routinely violated. It is only in the last decade that international NGOs have turned their attention to femicide in Mexico, and, as with any intervention from large, multinational NGOs, however, we must be wary about who is targeted, and how. Any scheme implemented must be sensitive to the needs and concerns of the specific community, which is likely to be vulnerable and volatile, or else it will leave underlying resentment and discrimination unresolved. Individuals fighting for rights, recognition and reparation, often supported by grassroots movements, face systemic discrimination and corruption, and few are successful in securing justice.
As the plight of women facing increasing levels of femicide in Mexico disappears from the international news agenda, the question arises of how to implement change or, perhaps, how to ensure that preexisting reforms are adhered to and take hold in areas of highest risk. Whilst further legislative change, particularly in redressing the disparity between states’ penal codes, would undeniably help enshrine a culture of equal rights within Mexico, a greater problem lies in the widespread blindness to the problem of GBV and unwillingness to respond to this crisis. A more open, inclusive discussion of femicide on both local and national levels would help bring to light the factors driving GBV and illuminate the far-reaching implications of femicide. However, with UN’s Women’s Generation Equality Forum (which was to be held in Mexico City in May 2020 to bring together various groups and generate debate about gender issues) potentially facing postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic, the possibility of opening this meaningful, constructive conversation about Mexico’s femicide crisis is again in doubt. It is all the more important, therefore, that we do not allow Mexico’s women and their campaign to end GBV to disappear from global attention as the dust and excitement from International Women’s Day protests settles.
By Jess Dunmore