Never touch a woman, not even with a rose petal.
“We give all the women a make-over; it helps them feel that they have become a new person.”
Who: Sin Violencia
What: Takes in women from around 40 women’s shelters all over Mexico.
Once inside the steel doors, we are signed in by a guard, then we duck under the line of newly washed children’s clothes and step inside. The ground floor smells of perfume and acetone, and in a small room four women, who are all living under the threat of death, are gathered closely around 30-year-old Laksmi, who is sitting patiently, her long fingers spread. Her hair has been curled and her nails are being extended and varnished in readiness for tomorrow, when she is going for a job interview. Laksmi is a graphic designer. “I don’t know what will happen, or if I’ll get the job, but if I don’t, I’ll have to get a job rolling enchiladas or something,” she says, and glances down.
Beauty treatments and styling are written into the treatment at Sin Violencia. The idea came from social worker Elia Cardenas.
“We had a woman here who couldn’t stop crying,” she tells us. “When I’m feeling low, I usually find it helps if I make myself look good. And I thought I’d like to try that with her. That’s how we discovered that the way a woman looks when she leaves us really matters to her.”
We look through a thick file, with page after page of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of women.
All the women are photographed when they arrive, and again when they are signed out, after a stylist has given them a make-over. We look through a thick file, with page after page of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of women.
“Nine out of ten women start crying when they see themselves in the mirror! A make-over helps them to see themselves differently, to feel that they have become a new person.”
We are given a guided tour of the house, having promised not to take any photographs of the interior which might reveal the architecture. Only a handful of organisations know how to contact Sin Violencia. The staff do not give interviews, and never make statements in public. Yet despite this, a group of armed soldiers was recently able to get in to look for a child they believed had been kidnapped. One of the shelter’s employees was attacked on her way home and left on a piece of waste land, with head injuries.
“After that happened, most of the staff left,” Almendra Robles, the manager, tells us, “so now we have more guards.”
In the whole of Mexico there are 64 women’s shelters, for 57 million women.
In the whole of Mexico there are 64 women’s shelters, for 57 million women. Sin Violencia is financed through both state funding and private donations, but in practice, the lives of all the inhabitants of Juarez are ruled by the actions of the drugs cartels.
Almendra is concerned. Their benefactors are disappearing, one by one. The butcher who used to give them food was murdered during a robbery. The kind-hearted baker has received death threats and may be forced to move away.
Psychologist Soraya Parrilla says that the women’s stories have got much worse in the last five years. The violence has escalated. The women are not just afraid of being killed, they fear torture and mutilation.
“In the short time we have, we can only give them emergency therapy,” she says. “But at least the women can strengthen their self-image, break the feeling that they are powerless, and learn about their rights.”
The days at Sin Violencia follow a strict pattern, with a schedule for household chores, law classes, therapy, homework and so on. There is also a strong emphasis on the children’s need to talk about their experiences. Most of the women stay for six months.
Of every ten women, six or seven go back to their husbands.
Of every ten women, six or seven go back to their husbands.
“When we started, we believed psychological treatment was the most important factor in enabling them to leave,” says Almendra Robles, “but now we know that it is more important to have a social network. And what is even more important, is that the women have gone through all their papers, and are in the system. That they have made plans to get a job. Opened a bank account, and been to a gynaecologist.
What they really need is to regain control of their lives, but that takes longer, several years in fact.”
Violence against women is common all over Mexico. Seven in ten women over the age of 15 have experienced violence in some form, according to several national surveys; either within the family, at their place of work, on the street or at school. Four in ten have experienced economic, emotional, physical or sexual violence in their current or most recent relationship. Emotional and economic violence are the most common forms of violence.
Few of these women seek out a women’s shelter.
“The women don’t know we exist,” says Rosa Maria Salazar Rivera, who heads the National Network of Women’s Shelters in Mexico.
“The shelters are not advertised, and in some shelters even working there is kept secret. We didn’t know very much when we started and we thought that was the way it should be. Now we need lots of advertising, but there is no political interest in my suggestions. No-one from the government is willing even to meet me.”
No-one from the government is willing even to meet me.
Rosa herself is a doctor, who, when she retired, began to understand that the women who kept coming back with diffuse minor ailments were in fact being subjected to violence. That was in 2002. A few years later there were 17 women’s shelters in Mexico, so progress is being made. The 2007 General Law on Women's Access to a Life Free of Violence was an important step.
“But the problem of violence in the home is big, difficult and cultural. The authorities work in a patriarchal way. What we need now is pressure from outside, from the international community.
Maternal deaths: 51 deaths per 100,000 births.
Number of children/woman: 2.3 (2010)
Abortion legislation: Varies greatly from state to state. In Mexico City, a woman has the right to abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy, while in the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro abortion is punishable by 30 years’ imprisonment. ****
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: Every third woman in Mexico is, or has been, subjected to violence in a close relationship.