Women’s Rights in North America: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

While this issue covers several high-achieving Mexican women, that might create a somewhat misleading portrait about how all women in Mexico are doing. But is the picture of Mexican women that includes femicide, rampant domestic violence, and lives of crushing poverty any more accurate?

Where IS the world on women’s rights?
Women’s rights are human rights – or so say most organizations working on gender equality. Mao ZeDong famously said that women “hold up half the sky,” as he maneuvered his political agenda to maximize their potential in modernizing China. On average, women in Mexico, the United States, and Canada hold up 51% of the sky, but North American women certainly have not achieved anything like an equal share of life’s benefits. We have a long way to go before North American women are working for human, rather than women’s, rights.

Political Rights
The Right to Vote. Without political power, women will still have to petition for rights as if they were privileges to be granted by men. Perhaps the most fundamental political right is the right to vote. Although the Mexican Constitution of 1917, created about two-thirds of the way through the Mexican Revolution, recognized the equality of men and women, women were not granted “full citizenship” until 1937, and the right to vote was not granted until 1953. Canada, due to its relationship with the British Commonwealth, did not have its own constitution until 1982, but most women over 21 who were citizens (i.e., not aboriginal women or women of color) received the right to vote in 1919; most Québécois women achieved the right to vote in 1940, and aboriginal women got the vote in 1960. In 1920, the U.S. granted women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment to its Constitution.

The Right to Hold Office. Perhaps the most important place to achieve equal representation is in a country’s legislature – the place where laws are repealed or enacted. In 2014, after several failed attempts to increase the representation of women, Mexico amended its Constitution to require equal representation in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, making it fourth in the world for women’s legislative power – women hold 51% of the seats in the Senate and 49% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies (numbers 1 – 3 are Rwanda, Cuba, and Bolivia). Without such laws, Canada ranks 61st in the world with women holding about 47% of its Senate seats and about 27% of the seats in the House of Commons. The United States has no quotas either, and is in a three-way tie for 76th place, with women elected to 25% of the Senate seats and about 24% of the seats in the House of Representatives.

Personal Rights
Since its founding in 1945, the United Nations has stood for “equal rights for men and women,” but official language was not enough. In 1981, after thirty years of work on the status of women around the world, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) took effect. Mexico and Canada signed the Convention immediately (July 17, 1980); the United States, however, joined Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Palau, and Tonga, plus the non-state entity of the Vatican, in NOT signing the Convention. (The United States has also failed to amend its Constitution to acknowledge equal rights for women, despite nearly a hundred years of trying.)

CEDAW explicitly identifies a wide range of women’s rights, from bodily integrity to property rights. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international body that tracks how the world is doing on issues of international concern, has identified the three issues most critical to achieving gender equity. The first two involve a woman’s ability to create a sustainable life: inequality of education and employment, and of wages and salaries once she has entered the labor market. The third issue is violence against women.

Education, Employment, and Pay
Perhaps the most telling indicator of gender equality is paid employment in a good quality job that offers the possibility of increasing income and responsibility. Conversely, when a country’s economy depends on low wages, iffy jobs, and unpaid labor in the home to prop itself up, women – and their children – are usually trapped in dead-end, often abusive, situations with little or no hope of escape. The OECD ranks Mexico as having the lowest productivity level in the world, in large part because of the low skill levels of its people (the high school graduation rate is 67%; in Canada, it’s 77%; in the U.S. it’s 85%).

In Mexico, women lag behind men in paid employment – over 80% of Mexican men have paid work, while less than half of women do. The U.S. is about average in terms of women’s paid work, while Canada is above average.

Women’s pay lags 17% behind men’s in Mexico, higher than the international average; both the U.S. and Canada lag further behind (women make 20% less than men).

Unfortunately, over half of the Mexican women who work for pay are working in the informal economy – i.e., off the books, self-employed, or in jobs that probably come and go, so no secure source of income. Although more than half of Mexican men and women work in the informal economy, the negative aspects of insecure employment – unreliable income, hours too short or too long, no social benefits – affect women more than men.

The future does not look rosy for young women – the great majority of whom are single teen mothers; 35% of women aged 15 to 24 are “NEET” (Neither Employed nor participating in any
Education or Training that could lead to paid work). This is nearly double the international average. The chances of lowering the NEET rate for young women is limited by Mexico’s teen pregnancy rate, which is the highest in the world.

Violence Against Women
Violence against Women includes all forms of violence and abuse – physical, psychological, sexual, economic, harassment, trafficking, child marriage, genital mutilation – directed at women because they are women. Obviously, such violence severely constrains a woman’s opportunities for a decent life for herself and her children.

Unfortunately, collecting data on gender-based violence has not yet been standardized, especially in Canada, so we can’t make all comparisons and all numbers are estimates. According to MacLean’s online magazine, Canadian women suffer from domestic violence and femicide, and the rate is going up, but because Canada does not have specific criminal laws separating crimes against women, statistics on violence against women are not collected systematically. Moreover, domestic violence, up to and including rape, is seriously underreported, most sharply so in Canada – data from domestic violence hotlines indicate that only 1 in 5 victims made any kind of police report.

In 2017, almost half (47%) of ALL Mexican women suffered some sort of domestic violence from an intimate partner or family member. Another 39% of ALL Mexican women suffer violence at the hands of strangers. In the United States, over a third of ALL women (36%) experienced domestic violence. OECD estimates that non-indigenous Canadian Police reporting for Canada indicates that indigenous women suffer domestic violence at three times the rate of non-indigenous women. Given the problems in tracking violence against women, the takeaway here is that violence against women is far more prevalent in Mexico than in the countries to the north.

Femicide. The most extreme form of violence against women – femicide, or “mysogynistic murder” – occurs when women are killed because they are women. Various explanations have been offered for femicide in Mexico – the drug cartels don’t want women to resist their inroads, NAFTA changed the relationships between men and women when more women were hired in the maquiladores (factories) built on the Mexican side of the border, men’s attitudes towards women in Mexico make murder all too easy.

In all countries, determining whether the murder of a woman is “femicide” – she was killed because she was a woman – is problematic. Of the 3,142 women murdered in Mexico in 2019, only 795 are being investigated as femicides – activists believe this is way too low. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in its study on gender-related homicides (2019) classified 75% of the murders as femicide.

Starting in 2007, Mexico has had a system of alerts about gender-specific violence; since 2015, alerts have been issued for 18 of Mexico’s 32 states (an area equal to 56% of Mexico). However, there seems to be no common reason for the violence, which makes it seem as if the explanation for femicide is complex and deeply rooted in Mexican culture. Unfortunately, issuing such an alert has not reduced violence against women in general or femicide in particular in the states of Veracruz, Morelos, Mexico, Puebla, Guerrero, or Colima.

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