Pain and Protest on the Day of the Butterflies: Violence Persists Against Women in Mexico

By  |  2 / December / 2008

A 1995 novel by writer Julia Alvarez retold the story of the three Mirabal sisters brutally assassinated by the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960. Decades later, the date of the murders, Nov. 25, was declared the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women by the United Nations.

In Mexico, more than 200 women’s and human rights activists kicked off a cross-country caravan in Ciudad Juarez to protest femicide and ongoing violence in all its forms against women.

Initiating their action at the monument to murdered women situated at the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge on the Mexico-U.S. border, the women’s activists embarked on a week-long journey to the state of Chiapas on Mexico’s southern border. Along the route, caravan participants plan to meet with the widows of the Pasta de Concho miners killed in 2006, as well as survivors of violent government crackdowns in San Salvador Atenco and Oaxaca the same year. A meeting was also scheduled with Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza.

For many, beginning the caravan in Ciudad Juarez, the site of more than 600 women’s murders since 1993, held both symbolic and urgent meaning. Dr. Julia Monarrez Fragoso, a researcher with Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Ciudad Juarez, said the rape-murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez has become one element of a violent social storm that is now claiming the lives of large numbers of men. Spawned by organized crime and weak government, massive violence has rendered civil society "scared, terrorized, and in need of truth and justice," said the women’s rights advocate.

"The number (of victims) is alarming and we shouldn’t say it’s just a war between narcos," Monarrez said, "because in the final analysis, they are human beings and there should be a State that rules a city and takes care of the safety of its inhabitants. That’s why there are laws."

On Nov. 25, nearly 20 people, mostly men, were reported murdered in Ciudad Juarez. The incidents included the apparent firing-squad style execution of seven men whose bodies were found outside a high school, and the slaying of a man and his son in front of hundreds of middle school students. Local press accounts report the murders of more than 1,400 people in Ciudad Juarez so far this year.

Even as activists prepared to launch the Chihuahua-Chiapas caravan, the number of female homicide victims kept mounting in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of the state of Chihuahua. For instance, in a period of less than 24 hours Nov. 20-21, five women were killed in Ciudad Juarez in gangland-style slayings.

Two other victims of violent death were recently discovered outside Chihuahua City and near the north-central city of Cuauhtemoc, respectively. In the first incident, an unidentified woman was found dead on a highway where the bodies of previous femicide victims have been recovered, and in the second case, 14-year-old Gabriela Ivonne Valdiviezo Majalca was found naked with her throat slashed on Nov. 23. Valdiviezo had last been seen alive at a dance party attended by her parents and others.

In Ciudad Juarez, approximately 700 women have been murdered since 1993, the first year large-scale killings of women came to public light. Dozens of other women and young girls remain disappeared. Two adolescents, 14-year-old Iveth Rocio Hernandez Cuellar and 17-year-old Hortensia Areli Rojas Romo, are the latest publicly-known cases. Both teenagers were reported missing from the same Ciudad Juarez neighborhood on Nov.18.

Meanwhile, a new report by a Mexican network of non-governmental activists dedicated to monitoring official responses to violence against women, documented the killings of 1,014 women in 13 Mexican states from January 2007 to July 2008. With 206 slain women, Chihuahua was ranked second in the overall number of women slain, behind the much more populous state of Mexico. According to the study by the OCNF network, 8,100 women were murdered in Mexico from the end of 2000 to the mid-summer of 2008.

On the broader issue of gender and domestic violence, the official Chihuahua Women’s Institute reported attending 3,353 people who sought professional help to escape violent situations between the months of January and August of this year. Among the solicitants were 103 men.

In a statement prepared for the Nov. 25 commemoration, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan credited the UN Security Council as well as national governments for according increased recognition to the problem of violence against women since the international human rights group launched a global campaign around the issue in 2003-2004. The Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City femicides were an early part of Amnesty’s campaign.

Still, gender violence in Mexico and many other parts of the globe is "endemic," Khan contended, with issues of war, economics, and social development all mixed into the package.

Khan wrote that, "Recent research in Afghanistan, Armenia, Canada, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jamaica, Haiti, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Venezuela, and the USA has shown that this violence is not only a human rights violation but also a key factor in obstructing the realization of women’s and girl’s rights to security, adequate housing, health, food, education, and participation. Millions of women find themselves locked in cycles of poverty and violence, cycles which fuel and perpetuate one another."

In a Nov. 25 communiqué, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay condemned the systematic violence against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but noted "violence continues being a huge problem suffered by thousands of women in the whole world." The UN official urged governments to put into practice international resolutions on gender equality that were adopted at the 1995 Beijing Conference and by the 1979 Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

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