8th of March 2021 – What are you afraid of? This was the cry as thousands of women marked International Women’s Day by marching on The National Palace and Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City to protest the government’s ineptitude in tackling the growing epidemic of gender based violence in Mexico. Somewhat ironically, a large three-meter high fence had been erected around the palace due to fears of ‘vandalism’. The reason for said ‘vandalism’, the brutal murder of a seven year old girl in February 2020 and the states failure in handling the case. In Ciudad Juarez, a city close to the US-Mexico border, women held pink crosses with the words, ‘¡ni una mas!’ (not one more) written across them in a city infamous for the high number of women who have disappeared in the last 15 years. On this day of ‘celebration’ the frustration is palpable, the indignation justified. In 2020 alone, almost 1,000 women were murdered.
The link between the Mexican authorities struggle to wrestle back control of the country from the drug cartels and the rise in violence is often cited as a reason for the rise in gender violence, but perhaps there are more deep rooted issues within Mexican society that are contributing to its prevalence.
In searching for these answers, I spoke to three Mexican women who told me about the reality of life in Mexico as a women, the issues they face, and the frustration and anger they have for a society not willing to listen to them.
*Interviews translated from Spanish to English
How did you feel watching the demonstrations and protests by women on the 8th of March?
To be honest, I felt annoyed when I saw how the women were responding to the situation we have in the country. I understand that a lot of women have experienced terrible things and want to be heard, to be seen. To ask for help, support. On the other hand, acting like this is vandalism. For me it’s not the best way to find a solution for this problem, reacting with violence. I think there is a fine line between demanding equal rights and respect, and acting in a way that people will choose to ignore or not take seriously. Marlene, 30, Puebla
For me it was a mixture of happiness and anger. Happiness for seeing so many women together fighting for a single cause, but also anger at the government and how they act as if there is no problem when ten women disappear every day in Mexico. I felt pride seeing women fighting for justice but it pains me to see the violence that occurs at some of these protests. We have to show that we can stand tall in the face of this problem but this is only one day and the fight is more than just one day. I think it’s important that we don’t lose focus and see this as something that is only an issue at this time of the year. Avi, 29, Ciudad de Mexico
This year I didn’t see much of the protests but I know every year in March there are protests like this. Women asking for justice, to feel safe, and it makes me incredibly angry because I don’t think anyone in the world should have to go into the street and protest a need for justice, freedom, safety etc. It also annoys me to see those who don’t support the movement. People who don’t know about the problem of femicido, who aren’t interested in combating the problem and who don’t really understand how it’s a problem. That post messages making fun of the protests and see the situation as normal. Having said that, I feel very proud to see so many women bravely standing up for our rights and letting people know that this is not something that we are going to tolerate any longer. Maria, 30, Baja California
In your opinion, what are the reasons for Mexico’s problem with gender based violence?
In the last few years there has been a big rise in violence towards women, especially in the north of the country and the government is trying to help women in these situations. Here in Puebla, we have a government department which specifically helps women but I’m not sure how many people actually use it. Another issue is that despite larger cities being more progressive in terms of how men and women are treated, in smaller towns and villages there is a more traditional culture where men are seen as leaders in society and women much more servient. There is a more sexist, misogynistic attitude and women are afraid to speak out against it as they are worried about the repercussions. Marlene, 30, Puebla
I think one of the main reasons is how we educate in our culture. We have a very sexist and patriarchal society. I remember how when I was a child I would see my grandmother and her entire existence was to serve my grandfather. I think these ideas have continued through to my generation. The issue is more how we raise children rather than what we teach them in school. There is a lot of poverty here in Mexico and for children in these families they often don’t graduate high school. As a result they often imitate what they see at home and adopt these traditional ideas of the role of men and women. There are even degrees such as home economics where essentially women learn to be housewives. While things are changing, these ideas are still a part of society here. Avi, 29, Ciudad de Mexico
The problem we have here with gender violence is absolutely because of our sexist culture. It is something we learn from when we are very young, how boys act and treat women. Something that drives me crazy is the indifference of the government to the situation and their reaction to the protest. They use tear gas and other physical means to try and stop protests and then lecture us that violence is not the way to solve problems. The government portrays us women, and the victims, as the bad guys for causing violence and civil unrest. For these reasons the issue is not taken seriously by society or the authorities. Maria, 30, Baja California
As a women, what actions or precautions do you take when going about your daily life? How do you keep yourself safe?
To be honest I don’t only look at men as a potential threat because sometimes women can be part of these groups that want to do you harm or steal from you. Usually I try to go quickly to where I am going, not distracted by phones or things like this. I keep vigilant and try to keep my eyes up and make eye contact with people as I’m walking. Before there were ‘good’ parts and ‘bad’ parts of the city but nowadays these things can happen anywhere. Unfortunately, you can’t trust the police as they are often corrupt and could rob you too. People trust their neighbours more than they trust the police here. Marlene, 30, Puebla
Here in Mexico City, it is not as bad as other places but I avoid public transport and use my car to go places. If I have to take transport, I try to wear very casual clothes so as not to draw attention to myself. I don’t wear dresses, skirts etc. I wear runners so I can run if I have to. I keep my friends updated with my location, when I arrive. I never take a taxi unless it’s something like Uber as it’s more secure. When I go out at night I also have a plan to get home. It’s dangerous, especially for women, to be drunk on the street and to take a taxi or Uber. Many women disappear because of this. It might be hard for foreigners to understand but here as a woman, we learn to live with this fear. A kind of sixth sense. It’s sad but in many ways normal. Avi, 29, Ciudad de Mexico
Whenever I go somewhere by myself, on foot, in a taxi etc, I always send my location to three or four different people. If I’m going on a date with someone who I haven’t met before, I ask my friend to call me so I can confirm that everything is ok. I don’t react to things people say to me in the street. I just ignore them. With clothes, If I’m by myself I avoid wearing dresses, skirts etc. I keep my social media profiles very private. Sometimes people will steal your photos and post them in other websites, especially photos from the beach etc. Maria, 30, Baja California
Do men understand the problem women face in Mexican society? Do they listen? Do they want change?
It’s difficult to answer this. Sometimes I think a part of the responsibility is the woman’s, not the man. There was a incidence where a women got very drunk at a party, took a Cabify home and was later found murdered. The driver was convicted of her murder and the app was suspended. While of course this was the right thing, sometimes I think women need to be more responsible, especially with alcohol. This is of course not a justification for what happened but with the way society is these days, people need to be more responsible. To change some men’s attitude to women is not easy. We need to look at how young boys are being raised, what they are being taught with respect to women to make sure they don’t grow up thinking this is an acceptable way to treat women. I think women hold this power as they are the ones who raise children, teach them values, and have the ability to effect change in how young boys view women. Men can listen and empathise with us but we need to change their values when they are young through education. Marlene, 30, Puebla
I think so. My generation fortunately, the majority of men realise that this problem exists. There is a change and men are angrier about what is happening. It often depends on their socio-economic background. They recognise the problem and they want change. Even my father admits it and for his generation it was a very normal way of life. It’s a small change but it’s a start. Women have some responsibility too. It’s not easy but not with social media etc, we can make ourselves heard and draw more attention to this problem in society. Avi, 29, Ciudad de Mexico
In general I don’t think men really understand the issue. Some do of course but in general no. They say it’s for a reason like being drunk, the clothes you are wearing, the time you are out. Often the violence happens in relationships and guys don’t really empathise with it. Simple things like what clothes you can’t wear. They don’t see how if a girl is drunk, you shouldn’t take advantage of her.
Something that has happened to me is a guy insisting on dating me even though I told him I wasn’t interested. He continued asking me, putting me under pressure and I felt I was losing control of the situation. People don’t see this as abuse because it is not violent etc but for me it was. If they can’t see the issues, I don’t know how they can want change. Some men say that men are murdered too but with women there is always some type of sexual abuse before the murder. This is what is different. The sexual violence. Maria, 30, Baja California
How do you think the problem can be resolved? What would you like to see change?
I think education is everything. Everything starts with education and if we can teach young boys the correct values, classes that address these issues directly. It can’t always be left to parents to teach these values and it won’t change how things are. If we try and change things when they are young it is much easier than changing things when they are adults. Part of the responsibility is with the government. There are laws to protect people from violence and abuse but often crimes are not investigated and this needs to change. If this doesn’t change then nothing ever will if people do not fear repercussions for their actions. Marlene, 30, Puebla
For me it’s education. Teaching our generation that men and women are equal. We need to change this because it’s awful to live with this fear, this sixth sense. I lived in Ireland for 2 years and I never experienced these feelings. I could wear a dress without thinking something bad might happen to me. I think this is why some women leave Mexico. To look for this quality of life. I want this for Mexico. Avi, 29, Ciudad de Mexico
There is no magic solution. It’s a question of culture and we need to change the mentality and way people think about women. First we have to accept that it is a problem. If we do this we can begin to educate the new generations in how to treat women better. For me a part of what causes the problems of sexism is some men’s inability to express themselves and this type of toxic masculinity and fear of appearing soft. We need to teach people how to identify these feelings, how to express them and teach young boys and girls how to treat each other better. This change won’t happen in the next year or two. It’s a question of generations. Hopefully one day we can begin to make this change. The government also has a responsibility because if they do nothing, then people will do nothing. There have to be real punishments for people who do these terrible things. Maria, 30, Baja California