Despite the Coronavirus, Mexican Women Are Fighting Femicide

With little help from the government, citizens are now relying on grassroots organizing and support to combat gendered violence and discrimination.

A student walks through the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, on March 9 during a day of national strike to denounce gender violence and the increasing toll of femicide.
A student walks through the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California in Tijuana, Mexico, on March 9 during a day of national strike to denounce gender violence and the increasing toll of femicide. GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP via Getty Images

On March 8, International Women’s Day, an estimated 100,000 women of all walks of life poured into Mexico City’s center. With a small group of male allies taking up the rear, they marched the mile and a half from the Monument to the Mexican Revolution to the Zócalo, Mexico City’s central plaza. The march coincided with other large demonstrations in cities across the country, from Tapachula to Tijuana. The outsized rallies were just the beginning of a landmark 48-hour effort by Mexican women to demonstrate the urgency of the national emergency of femicide and other violence against women in the country.

In 2019, on average, 10 women were killed per day in Mexico, and the figure remained unchanged going into 2020. Moreover, Mexico’s near-total impunity for crime (hovering around a 90 percent rate of impunity) is even worse when it comes to femicides—more like 99 percent, according to the National Citizen’s Observatory on Femicide. Women are also over-represented in the already high numbers of kidnappings and forced disappearances in Mexico. The last major survey on family violence in Mexico, conducted in 2016, found that for approximately every 100 women aged 15 years and over who have had a partner or husband, 42 of the married women and 59 of the separated, divorced, or widowed women have experienced situations of emotional or economic abuse, or physical or sexual violence during their current or last relationship—a clear indication of women’s overall vulnerability to security risks of all kinds.

Following large demonstrations in August and November 2019, which left parts of the center of Mexico City covered in graffiti and broken glass from the smashed windows of government buildings, feminist organizers went into 2020 saying that women would continue to take political action until real policy changes were made. On March 9, following the International Women’s Day rallies, tens of thousands of Mexican women went on strike—staying indoors, not going to work, and not buying products—in a coordinated national effort to demonstrate to the country what it would be like if women simply ceased to contribute to society, if they continued to die and disappear. Up to 57 percent of women in the Mexican workforce intended to participate in the daylong strike when surveyed, resulting, by some estimates, in a potential economic loss to the country of $1.5 billion.

In a somewhat surreal twist of events, within two weeks women were once again being called on to stay away from their workplaces—this time for public health reasons, as part of Mexico’s measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and this time with an amplified risk of violence against women as family incomes are threatened and the majority of the population is required to stay in their homes, potentially trapped with abusive family members. Advocates for women are determined that the momentum of March 8-9 not be lost as the country faces the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

Layda Negrete, a lawyer and researcher with the World Justice Project and expert on impunity in Mexico, said the events of March 8 and 9 mark a key moment for a political solution to violence against women in Mexico, noting that the numbers in the streets and on strike was “a very clear display of political muscle … that has really caught the attention of the federal administration.” Against this background, the renewed “political muscle” observed by Negrete is already facing its first test as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.

The Brujas del Mar (Sea Witches), a collective that played a key role in calling for the strike, has swung into action to mitigate the increased risks to women that come with a country facing a period of lockdown. The group has established a hotline for women to access psychological help if they are experiencing domestic violence. They are often approached by women in their home state of Veracruz, and from elsewhere in the country, for assistance to find refuge or to report abusers, and they are putting together a network to provide accessible legal advice. The collective is also coordinating a system of food donations for women who work in the informal sector and are likely to be hit the hardest by the economic fallout of quarantines and lockdowns.

In the first month of coronavirus quarantine starting in March, the national network of women’s shelters reported an 80 percent increase in calls seeking help for gender-based violence. Forty-four percent of the calls were from the capital region, where stay-at-home and social distancing measures are scheduled to be in place until May 30. As per some media and activist estimates, 209 women have been killed as stay-at-home measures were announced, with at least 163 of these registered as femicides, or crimes in which the woman was killed because of her gender.

In early May, the president said he did not believe there had been an increase in domestic violence under the stay-at-home measures. In response, a group of feminists shared an open letter on social media that noted the high number of family violence-related calls to 911 per hour during that period—a figure that comes from his own government’s data, which shows calls to report abuse or violence in the home increased overall by 22.7 percent between February and March. Then, the president claimed 90 percent of these calls were false reports.

In the first month of coronavirus quarantine starting in March, the national network of women’s shelters reported an 80 percent increase in calls seeking help for gender-based violence.

Women’s shelters remain operational as an essential service while coronavirus measures are in place in Mexico, new government funding has been provisioned, and the federal government says a woman experiencing violence can call the emergency number for a response from police or a variety of hotlines to find a place in a shelter. But Mexico is already grappling with several preexisting conditions that will make an effective response more difficult: funding cuts to shelters that occurred in 2019, a decrease in funding for the Mexican federal government’s department for women’s issues, a systemic underspending of funds allocated to state governments for programs to support women, and near-blanket impunity for criminal violence against women. As the pandemic progresses, it’s clear that Mexican society will still rely on the leadership of citizens, as demonstrated during the protests, to prevent and punish violence against women.

There’s little doubt that structural sexism and impunity are the greatest barriers to justice for victims of femicide, and to bringing the numbers down. Additionally, indigenous women, transgender women, and women with disabilities face compounded discrimination and risk. Women who work in Mexico’s large informal economy are particularly vulnerable to poverty and violence.

Despite the current stay-at-home measures, many of these women must continue to seek a salary, placing them between the precarity of a slowed street economy and the economic pressures of raising a family. These factors are correlated with gendered violence: In a 2018 study, researchers found a link between disruption of employment in the informal economy and violence against women in Mexico City—women already vulnerable to high levels of violence at home find it increases when there are disruptions to their earning income.

Mexico does have a powerful law in place, the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence, which was passed in 2007. The law provided sweeping measures to “prevent, treat, punish, and eradicate violence against women,” defined as including psychological, physical, economic, patrimonial (involving violation of women’s property rights), and sexual violence; it also defined femicide as a hate crime targeting women. But as too many cases have demonstrated, the mandate is not enough.

Despite relatively high levels of reporting of family violence to police, women have come to expect little to no response from authorities. “When a woman is experiencing such violence, she has very little recourse,” Negrete said. “If she calls the police, they might not come, and even if they do, they have no training in how to respond to family violence. To pursue charges and protection from the violence they must go to the prosecutor’s office, who typically fail to do anything about the complaint.”

Under the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “there are no clear proposals different from previous governments at the federal level or the local level,” said María de la Luz Estrada, a sociologist and the coordinator of the National Citizen’s Observatory on Femicide. In response to the rallies and the strike, the administration said it will not be altering current policy or making new policy to fight femicide and other violence against women. “We see a lot of money being put into things like a national policy against drug cartels, but not to prevent violence against women,” Negrete said.

A recent government service measure known as Women’s Justice Centers was starting to work until budget cuts hit. “The woman would arrive, and they would have a social worker, a psychologist, and child care provided; they would also have a legal branch to it, so they could prosecute cases that were suitable for prosecution,” Negrete said. Similar service responses are successful elsewhere in the world, but most of the centers have struggled to maintain the full suite of services since López Obrador cut the public security budget, resulting in a loss of nearly 80 percent of funding. Most of the centers are still operational at reduced hours and must do a lot more with a lot less as needs for their services rise under coronavirus conditions.

The mass demonstrations of early March were largely initiated through online media, and campaigning for gender justice in Mexico continues via those networks while the country remains in lockdown. Young women at the country’s largest public university who have been protesting against sexual assault and rape on campus over the last several months hacked the intranet of the Department of Political and Social Science, which had scheduled virtual classes. The Organized Women of the Department of Political and Social Sciences collective then published a communique accusing department administration of punishing women professors for supporting students who speak out against gender violence, and they disabled the intranet’s functions so that grades could not be assigned and classes could not be scheduled.

Other examples of online campaigning include a virtual vigil for Ana Paola, a 13-year-old victim of femicide in her home after stay-at-home measures began, and a virtual protest, coordinated with other countries in Latin America, held on May 9, the day before Mother’s Day, with the purpose of posting material en masse to social media networks, depicting the dangers being faced by women in the home under coronavirus measures.

The massive support for a social transformation of gender relations in Mexico, evidenced by the protests of early 2020, continues despite the quarantine, and there are clear budget and policy decisions that Mexican authorities can take in order to respond right now. For women at risk in their homes, there need to be clearer, better-funded avenues to support women and children fleeing violence, enabled by community support. Mexican women do reach out for help—if they are asked to stay in their homes to stop the spread of a dangerously contagious virus, authorities must ensure they are not exposing them to greater vulnerability.

Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher. Twitter: @Ann_dLandes