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.
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the most important place to achieve equal representation is in a country’s legislature – the place where laws are repealed or enacted.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.
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.
By Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken
The Zapatistas are an organized activist group in the Mexican state of Chiapas, east of the state of Oaxaca and bordering on Guatemala. They perhaps are best remembered for their military occupation of numerous towns in Chiapas and hostile takeover of city squares in 1994 during their march to demand changes from the federal government in Mexico City. Currently, however, they are a peaceable, grassroots leftist movement that works in cooperation with the federal government of Mexico and the state of Chiapas.
The Zapatistas are recognized for developing successful local structures for political, economic, and cultural autonomy. Their adherents are mostly indigenous people (primarily Mayan), although the leader of the movement from the beginning (then known as Subcomandante Marcos) is not indigenous Maya. The Zapatistas went public and began taking control of territory in Chiapas on the day that NAFTA went into effect in 1994, as a symbolic way of emphasizing their opposition to globalization and their anticipation that NAFTA would have deleterious effects on rural and indigenous communities – an assessment which turned out to be basically correct.
From their founding in 1983 until they went public in 1994, the Zapatistas gradually built their membership, organizational structure, and laws that would govern their operations. In December 1993 they enacted their “Revolutionary Law of Women,” which was the foundation for the role of women in their movement. This 1993 law provided that women, without regard to their race, creed, or political affiliation, could hold positions in battle or leadership according to their desire and ability. The law stated that women would have equal pay, access to employment and land; could decide how many children to have; had first preference (along with their children) for medical attention; could select their partners; were not obligated to marry; and were protected by legal provisions against assault and maltreatment.
Although these idealistic assertions seem forward-looking even today, they were in marked contrast with the actual status of indigenous women elsewhere and represent continuing aspirations for activist Zapatista women in their own communities. Elsewhere in Chiapas and many other Mexican states, indigenous women are normally prevented from owning or inheriting land. They are typically forced into arranged marriages at young ages and often have 10 or more children.
Still, at the turn of the millennium, over half of indigenous women had no knowledge of contraception and a larger proportion had no access to contraceptives. Obtaining an abortion was very difficult and, if done, often fatal. As among many other indigenous groups in North America, domestic violence was widespread and the disappearance of many women without explanation was relatively commonplace.
According to historians, the participation of women as Zapatista guerrillas far exceeded their role in any other revolutionary or political movement in Latin America. Two women, Comandanta Ramona and Comandanta Susana, were top-ranking and well-known figures in communicating between the armed forces and the pueblos being run by the Zapatistas. By 2004, women constituted a third of the armed forces of the Zapatistas, and half of the support personnel. The influence of a handful of women in key leadership roles transformed the lives of women in the movement. Working within the Zapatista structure enabled the women to free themselves from the misery of their previous ways of living, to take on a wide range of responsible occupations, to select when and whom they marry, to have 2 to 4 children, and to fight for better conditions of health, literacy, education and justice for their communities, particularly women.
Initially the focus of women’s participation was to support the revolution, but gradually the Zapatistas took on a statewide and national mission of ending economic gender inequality, dismantling patriarchy, fighting violence against women, and investigating the disappearance of women. At the national level in Mexico, the Zapatistas have taken an unwavering anti-capitalist stance and are committed to local solutions to problems. For example, alcohol is prohibited in Zapatista-controlled villages — a measure that has reportedly substantially reduced domestic violence.
Beginning in 2018, the women Zapatistas have expanded their horizons by sponsoring international “gatherings of women who struggle.” Their invitation to participate in the 2019 gathering stated, “We fight against discrimination at home, in the street, at school, at work, on public transportation, against both those people we know and those who are strangers. . . . [Some] want to tell us we’re asking for it, that we are at fault for dying. No, we aren’t simply dying, we are being raped, murdered, cut up and disappeared. Anybody who faults us is sexist, and even women can demonstrate sexist thinking.” They are highlighting and addressing a problem that persists not only in Chiapas, not only in Mexico, but among indigenous women in numerous countries. Activists have established the social media hashtag #MMIW (missing and murdered indigenous women) to bring attention to this violence.
In the run up to the 2019 international gathering in Chiapas, the US president issued an executive order to establish a task force on missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. It stated that there is an ongoing and serious problem of missing and murdered indigenous people in the US, especially women and girls. Federal studies in the US have shown that native women are killed at a rate 10 times the national average. Other studies have made clear that men who rape, assault and murder indigenous women in the US are more likely to be white than Indian. Simply convening a task force to talk about these statistics is unlikely to bring about any change.
Twenty years ago pioneering collaborations between US city police, county sheriffs, tribal police, tribal councils and victim service organizations were making progress toward establishing networks that endangered women could access and escape violence. The amount of federal funds needed to foster these local collaborations was minimal and served primarily to validate and bolster these services. When the US federal administration changed, the funds and focus were withdrawn. It is about time that, heeding the cry of the Zapatista and other indigenous women, federal, state and local governments collaborate to provide access to services so desperately needed to save lives.