Sophie Coombs | Latin America Fellow
Abusers in the corridors of power, a pandemic-induced spike in domestic violence and accounts of horrific femicides are all weighing heavily on Mexico’s public consciousness.
The nation is currently in the midst of a cultural reckoning over how to address systemic violence against women. Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has weighed in on the issue, making carefully curated statements against violence in general and vague allusions to “moral regeneration”. But unaccompanied by any tangible action, these superficial comments are worthless in a country that sees an average of 10 women murdered each day. While men in the nation’s centres of power deliberate (or not) over the issue of gender-based violence, women are disappearing.
Women are disappearing from bus stops, from university campuses, from primary schools, from their workplaces and from their own homes. Women are simply disappearing everywhere.
Members of Mexico’s feminist movement have decided they aren’t waiting much longer for their male family members, colleagues and neighbours to imagine what a world without them would look like. In early March this year, they took matters into their own hands, mobilising for the country’s second annual women’s strike. Millions of women of all ages and professions absented from work, school or university and refrained from spending for 24 hours - all to impart the simple message that women are human beings and should be treated as such.
The #UnDiaSinNosotras (a day without us) movement has garnered widespread support from across Mexican society. Its ability to generate economic disruption is also significant: last year the country’s economy lost an estimated 37 billion pesos (2.2 million AUD) due to women’s participation in the strike. While the immediate shock factor of such a protest movement is undeniable, can it produce the necessary cultural and political change needed to address gender-based violence?
Barriers to engagement between feminists and President Obrador
At a political level, demands for greater action against femicide as well as accountability to be placed on the perpetrators of sexual assault seem to have fallen on deaf ears. An example of this surfaced in February, with President Obrador’s decision to endorse Félix Salgado Macedonio as gubernatorial candidate, despite him being accused of sexual assault by five women. Unaffected by the objections of congresswomen from his own party, outraged citizens, and even former conservative President Felipe Calderón, Obrador has persisted with his support of Salgado Macedonio’s candidacy.
Obrador’s endorsement became the subject of intense protest in the week preceding International Women’s day this year, with cries of “a rapist cannot be a governor!” resounding in the square outside the nation’s Presidential Palace. However, in a move symbolic of the government’s unwillingness to act on violence against women, authorities erected 3-metre-high barriers outside the National Palace and other public buildings. The same barriers were also installed outside the homes of several high-profile figures accused of sexual assault.
This display of women’s frustration and men’s reluctance to listen comes after a string of political decisions made mid-pandemic which have made many question the President’s commitment to protecting women. For instance, last year as crisis services were overrun with demand, Obrador’s government approved budget cuts for women’s shelters while denying the severity of domestic violence in the country.
Indifference to femicide and sexual assault at a federal level is perhaps a symptom of the institutionalised machismo of the Mexican political sphere. While the country’s Congress and Chamber of Deputies achieved gender parity following constitutional reform in 2014, political power is still largely concentrated in the hands of men. Key decision-making bodies like party-based committees and parliamentary working groups, which fall outside of gender parity guidelines, are all overwhelmingly male. Meaningful legislative change, will likely require a cultural reset of the nation’s power structures, starting with the inclusion of more women in decision making.
Cultural change precedes political change
Though change is proving slow within Mexico’s political institutions, it can be argued that the true value of movements like #UnDiaSinNosotras or the Latin America wide campaign #NiUnaMenos (Not one [woman] less), is their ability to firmly plant the issue of gender-based violence in the public consciousness when governments wish to do anything but.
What is undeniable is that Mexico’s feminist movement has achieved a mass-conscientisation of the population on these issues, it has forced the nation to face its uncomfortable truths. With an estimated 22 million Mexican women taking part in last year’s strike and a strong social media presence that aims to spread awareness on femicide between demonstrations, feminist organisers are pushing for if not structural change, then a cultural change. This will provide the impetus needed for Mexicans to revaluate sexist behaviour in their communities or in congress.
Finally, not to be underestimated are the countless networks of politically engaged women and youth that have formed online, at universities and in local communities, due to the movement. While Obrador and those he supports may be content with excusing their own moral failings, the thousands of young people taking part in these movements are the country’s future voters and legislators and will not be so forgiving towards the murderers, abusers and rapists that generations of complacency have helped to protect.
Sophie Coombs is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs