Beware the front of a woman and the back of a horse.
“What we see is a state which does not take responsibility for its people.”
Who: Mesa de Mujeres (Women’s Table)
What: Network of researchers and activists who investigate feminicides.
They came together in 2001, after the bodies of eight women were found one November morning in a field which had earlier been used to grow cotton. The unsolved mystery came to be known as “the cotton field case”, and was the final straw.
“We decided that it wasn’t enough to debate sometimes in our own circles and sometimes against each other. We had no alternative but to join forces, because together we could make a in-depth picture of the situation,” says Veronica Corchado, a cultural professional.
At that time, almost ten years had passed since the first cases were recorded. In the 1980s, one murder victim in ten in Ciudad Juarez was a woman; in the 1990s that figure rose to six in ten. Countless theories and analyses of the phenomenon were circulating.
- The murdered girls were generally young workers at one of the many so-called maquiladoras in Juarez, the large foreign-owned assembly factories. Were they murdered because they were easy victims, or for other reasons?
- They had not only been sexually abused, they had also been tortured.
- They were often found in the same place, which suggests some sort of organisation was in place to get rid of the bodies, but on whose authority?
- No killer was ever found, and the police work was surprisingly ineffective. Was that because it was not considered important, or because the police and the army were involved?
The main concern of the activists in the Women’s Table is to keep count of the number of women who disappear and are killed. They cut out reports in the papers, collect descriptions of missing persons, record all the information and gather it in a database where the details are matched with those that have been released by the police and the courts.
No killer was ever found, and the police work was surprisingly ineffective. Was that because it was not considered important, or because the police and the army were involved?
They have bombarded the rest of the world with reports. To date their research work has resulted in the state of Mexico being summoned to an international court (the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) in 2009 and being found guilty on several counts regarding its inability to protect women and to solve the murders of women in Juarez.
“That was a step forwards in the campaign for justice for all the mothers who have been brave enough to protest when the killers walk free,” says Julia Monarrez, a sociologist.
She is still conducting research into feminicides but is now facing - like all activists – a major challenge, namely: how should the crimes be defined these days?
The word feminicide has been imported from sociological research in the US and is defined as “the murder of a woman committed by men driven by hatred of women”.
In the past, it was relatively easy for Julia to divide feminicides into two groups, the first of which was the “organised feminicides”, where the victim had been abducted, raped and often mutilated. No perpetrator is ever found.
She has called the second group “non-organised feminicides”, since the perpetrator was a husband, boyfriend or ex-husband and for the most part was caught fairly quickly.
In the 1990s and 2000s there were around 30 cases of feminicide each year. And then suddenly, in 2008, there were 96 cases; in 2009, 163 cases; in 2010, 306 cases.
Now she does not know how she should reason, for in the last few years the killing has escalated. In the 1990s and 2000s there were around 30 cases of feminicide each year. And then suddenly, in 2008, there were 96 cases; in 2009, 163 cases; in 2010, 306 cases.
“But which of the 306 cases are feminicides? It is an ethical and moral dilemma which I am still thinking about,” says Julia. “In Juarez, both women and men who are poor are murdered. I have been looking for a gender aspect, and there may be one in the drugs-related murders, but I have not carried out a field study.”
The rise in the murder figures coincided with President Calderon sending 9,000 soldiers to Juarez to fight the drug trade. The response from the drugs cartels has been increasingly brutal violence.
But what is the link? Is it members of the military who rape and kill women, as in all wars? Are more women killed because they themselves are at war, because the drugs and the spiral of violence have made the city a more dangerous place generally?
Because they are in the wrong place, with the wrong man?
Or because killing a woman carries no risk for the drug dealer, who knows full well that the police will not make any effort to investigate the crime?
“What we are seeing is a state that does not take responsibility for its citizens,” says Julia. “The authorities don’t even have a plan, even though they have the money. There are so many things the government could do: run campaigns, encourage everyone to report their missing daughters and sisters. We need a new moral compass in Mexico, one where we don’t make a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victims.
And I would really like to make it clear that the murders in Juarez are not happening in isolation, they are connected to the international organised crime. The girls who have been mutilated and put on public display are part of a workforce which can be used, abused, sold and disposed of like rubbish.”
Without political will, nothing will change.
The Women’s Table activists believe the situation can only be improved if the state accepts its responsibility. Without political will, nothing will change.
“Where are the men?” sighs Veronica Corchado, “That’s what we ask ourselves. It is almost only women who protest, demonstrate, search the mortuaries for missing girls. Maybe it is the gender roles that are stopping the men; we women can protest because we are allowed to be emotional.
And we women in Juarez are strong. Since the 1950s, women have been working in the factories and had jobs more often than the men. We have grown up defending ourselves against macho men, our employers. It made us strong, hardworking and strident. The women in Juarez will not accept their fate!”
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.