He’s checking your phone? He’s overly jealous? What sounds like a merely annoying behaviour in a relationship to some can actually lead to life-threatening violence or even the death of women. Especially in Mexico, where impunity is raging. It was only yesterday that a group of feminist activists found 28 mutilated female bodies in a mass grave in the state of Veracruz. And it was only today that the 175th body of a murdered woman was found in the Estado de México – the federal state, not the entire country – since the beginning of 2016.
A majority of violence commited against women actually occurs in romantic relationships. Although domestic violence is a global problem, around 47 percent of women claim to have experienced violence in their previous relationship. Most of these crimes are never persecuted. The worst example for this kind of impunity are the women murdered in Ciudad Juárez, a city directly bordering the United States. Since 1993, thousands of women were killed there under mysterious circumstances, many more remain missing. Although there was huge international attention and although the FBI supported the investigations, so far the culprits have not been found.
One of the activists fighting violence against women is the former congresswoman Xochitl T. Arzola Vargas. She is the president of the organization “Mujeres en Cadena” and has been living in Estado de México for her entire life. It is one of the most dangerous states for women, her municipality of Ecatepec de Morelos is infamous for its feminicidios.
Q: Although it is the first terrible image that comes to mind when talking about domestic violence, a bruised face is only one of many facets in which abuse especially against women ocurs. Against which different kinds of abuse do you and “Mujeres en Cadena” fight?
A: We tackle every single one of them. This is important because over the years we discovered that domestic violence is a chain. It starts with minor things we don’t even perceive as violence because they appear so normal to us. In Mexico, it is common that the boyfriend checks his girlfriend’s phone. This might appear petty, but by doing this he intrudes and violates her privacy. It starts like this and in the very worst case ends with the woman’s death. That’s why we consider every link of the chain. We consider physical violence, sexual violence, economic violence…
Q: I’ve heard of physical and sexual violence – but what is economic violence?
A: It is important to remember that we still live in a macho country. Therefore, husbands often don’t allow their wives to work. They depend entirely on their partners. They could not even buy themselves a bottle of water because they don’t have any money. These women have to ask permission to purchase the most basic things. Naturally, the amount of money would always be rationed. Such oppression can cause serious mental damages and also inhibits women severely in their social life. All these kind of violence interconnect.
Q: Domestic violence is not only a Mexican, but a global problem. When women are harmed as adults, it’s mostly by their partners. Why is there so much abuse in romantic relationships and marriages – the ideal of a space of love and mutual respect?
A: We have normalized it. And we hve normalized gender inequality. For years, women have been learning that they have to do the dishes and the laundry to be women. There are no such rules for men. We’ve grown up in a culture in which many women are the property of men. At the beginning, they belong to their fathers and brothers. Later, they belong to their romantic partner. In all stages of their lives, they depend on men. The consequence is that you hear such deplorable, toxic things like “He beats me up because he loves me”, “He monitors me because he cares for me” or “He does not allow me to ever see other men because he is so passionate”. Many women just anticipate being violated at some time and see it as normal.
Q: Are there women who are especially vulnerable to violence?
A: I think in this country every woman is vulnerable, not just those with little money. Even women who are part of more sophisticated societies are affected. In public, they might even be influential. But at home, they might experience the same violence as a woman without that prestige. We are a country of double standards. There is a saying in Mexico: “Los trapos sucios se lava en casa” (“Dirty rags are washed at home”). Domestic violence is also linked to shame. Women feel embarrassed if they are abused, even guilty.
Q: To put it simply: Who is to blame?
A: I’ve been saying this for a long time now and this does not only apply to the Estado de México, but to the whole country: The blindness of the local, federal and national governments makes them accomplices in the murders against women. They have not wanted to see the issue. Before becoming president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto was the governor of Estado de México. During his legislature, the number of murdered women was rising. And he did nothing. When he became president, many cases remained open, without a trial or anything.
Also, we don’t have a culture of denunciation in this country. There are so many women missing, some of them being victims of human trafficking. Many of these missed women will be dead by now. And the politicians do nothing.
Q: If we look at one of the most notorious series of feminicidios worldwide – the thousands of murdered women in Ciudad Juárez – would you say there is also an international responsibility to end or at least persecute those horrific crimes?
A: Ciudad Juárez was “lucky”, in a very bitter sense. Due to its proximity to the United States, US media picked up on the crimes and accomplished that the world realized what was happening in that city. The thing is that the situation in Estado de México is becoming increasingly worse right now and there is barely any coverage. We tried to make this an issue, but it did not work. Freedom of press is another problem in Mexico, too much media is controlled by the state.
Generally I think that more international participation means more pressure for the governments in Mexico. If this does not end the violence against women, it could at least diminish it.
Q: So, what should the governments do to improve the situation nationally?
A: They have to become aware of the problem. They have to believe it and treat it as an urgent problem, not only acknowledging it in interviews. Local, federal and national governments and parliaments have to work together and also take civil organizations seriously. Moreover, they have to obey the laws themselves. Since 2011, there is a law according to which there should be a fund for the victims of human trafficking. Women’s shelters should be built and maintained with that money. But the fund only exists on paper and not a single shelter has been built in the whole state. Nobody knows where the money is.
The corruption in this state is responsible for so many deaths. Let me give you an example: Last year, in my municipality Ecatepec, a young woman was abused by her husband and sought our help together with her three children. There was no shelter in Ecatepec, so we sent her to Mexico-City. But the shelters there were so crowded and underfunded that she eventually had to move back in with the husband who abused her. That was last year. A couple of months later, her partner killed her, the three children and eventually killed himself. What have we done wrong? What did we miss? There are many people who want to help violated women but without the means everything is futile.
Q: What can society do to fight violence?
A: Society has to educate its younger generations. It is the hardest but only way. The older generations are lost; you will not change their attitudes anymore. But for younger generations, there’s hope. With “Mujeres en Cadena”, we offer workshops in kindergardens. It is terrifying how quickly children reproduce harmful behaviour. There are five-year-olds telling me it would not be good if a girl played with toy cars or climbed trees. They say boys don’t cry. It is important to teach them that being male or female is a biological and physical thing, but nothing more. That it is a girl’s own decision if she wants to climb a tree. Her sex should not be an inhibition.