In Brief

Mexico’s Women Push Back on Gender-Based Violence

Gender-based killings in Mexico have sparked mass protests, with activists blaming the government for an anemic response.

A pair of gruesome murders rocked Mexico in February, reinvigorating long-standing discontent over systemic violence against women and girls. The fallout, including a call for a nationwide strike on March 9, is a stress test for Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO. Though AMLO campaigned on promises to slash crime, protesters accuse him of overlooking gender-based violence.

What’s happening?

A group of Mexican women raise their hands, which are painted red, during a protest against gender-based violence.
Women protest gender-based violence in Puebla, Mexico. Imelda Medina/Reuters

The killings of twenty-five-year-old Ingrid Escamilla and seven-year-old Fatima Cecilia Aldrighett Anton several days apart triggered national outrage. Thousands of protesters defaced the presidential palace, demanded government action, and castigated the media for publishing images of Escamilla’s body. The photos spread swiftly online, inspiring a social media movement to bury them with pictures of nature.

In response to the murders, activists have called for nationwide demonstrations on March 8, International Women’s Day, and the total disappearance of women from public life on March 9. Calls for a twenty-four-hour strike have won broad support, including from many of Mexico’s largest businesses.

What’s the context?

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This unrest is the latest in a string of campaigns against gender-based violence, including an ongoing, monthslong occupation that has disrupted classes at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Latin America’s largest university.

Such violence has plagued Mexico for decades. Two-thirds of women over fifteen have experienced violence, most from their romantic partners. Mexico’s rate of femicide—the murder of women and girls because of their gender—rose at least 145 percent between 2015 and 2019, from about four hundred cases to more than one thousand. (Unlike most other countries, Mexico and many of its Latin American peers legally distinguish femicide from homicide.) Violent crime is also up more broadly: the country recorded a record-high number of murders last year.

Beyond Mexico, Latin America is among the deadliest regions for women. Of the countries with the world’s twenty-five highest femicide rates, fourteen are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Gender-based violence has recently triggered protests across Latin America, and a Chilean chant condemning rape has become an international anthem.

Some countries have implemented reforms. Chile declared a National Day Against Femicide, and President Sebastian Pinera has signed a law that broadens the country’s definition of femicide and increases punishments for killing pregnant or disabled women and minors. Peru, which unveiled a national plan against gender-based violence in 2016, has sought to increase reporting of violence against women, provide social support to survivors, and prosecute perpetrators.

What factors drive violence against women in Mexico?

Experts argue that a culture of male superiority and ownership of women, known in Spanish as “machismo,” underpins the violence. Critics of Mexico’s dominant Catholic culture, even from within the Church, have argued that it reinforces these traditional gender attitudes. At the same time, the country’s Catholic leadership has expressed its support for the national strike and called for stronger measures to reduce femicide. Organized crime also plays a role: in addition to domestic abuse by relatives and partners, women and girls face sex trafficking by the country’s powerful drug gangs.

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Law enforcement complicity, indifference, and mismanagement of cases likewise perpetuate the violence, activists say. Though Mexico’s prison sentence for femicide ranges from forty to sixty years, longer than for homicide, culprits often go punished.

How has the government responded to the violence?

In November, officials commemorated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women by promising a “zero tolerance” approach and vowing to partner with UN Women to address the issue. They also emphasized existing government efforts to increase public awareness and gender sensitivity training for security forces. After Escamilla’s murder, AMLO pledged solidarity with women and denounced the leak of crime scene photos. He has praised demonstrators for helping pass a bill raising prison sentences for femicide.

However, his administration has also faced backlash, including when the attorney general floated removing femicide from the criminal code. (AMLO later said he did not support the change.) The president has also charged that the media is manipulating the issue, framed feminist activists as ideological adversaries, and accused his political opponents of exploiting the March 9 strike. He blames the crisis on social degeneration tied to his predecessors’ “neoliberal” economic policies and calls instead for Mexico’s “moral regeneration.”

Yet some women say curbing Mexico’s gender-based violence doesn’t require new policies. Instead, they are calling on the government to implement existent protections and for the media to reexamine their coverage of the issue. Meanwhile, whether AMLO can reconcile his opposition to the protesters with his pledges to reduce violence against women remains to be seen.

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