Why So Much Violence against Migrant Women?

By  |  7 / December / 2017

Everyone has the right to live a life free of violence.  This is a right recognized in Mexican laws, and in international laws and agreements signed by Mexico and the other states in the region.

However,  in the case of millons of women, this right is virtually impossible to exercise freely. Many in society have come to accept this, but to believe that patriarchal violence is an inherent characteristic of humanity is a grave error.  When gender violence is normalized as inevitable, we give up on the urgent task of identifying the real causes and taking responsibility as a society to eradicate it. 

There is another approach. From a perspective of feminist human security, we start from the idea that violence can indeed be eradicated, that it is not natural but is rather the result of different causes, social dynamics, and public policies that, far from eliminating violence, foment it.  November 25–International Day of the Elimination of Violence against Women–serves each year to remind us of our goal and analyze progress (and backsliding) in moving toward that goal.

This year’s report card is not good. Violence against women is on the rise in the Americas, whether measured by femicides, attacks on women human rights defenders, reports of domestic violence, or almost any other index.  It is concentrated on—but not limited to—the most vulnerable women, among them migrants.  Here we see clearly how state policies, in particular  immigration and security policies, actually encourage systematic violence against migrant women.

But before analyzing the role of these policies, we must examine the framework within which they have developed.  This violence cannot be understood without understanding the patriarchal model.  The definition of “patriarchy” in the Dictionary of Feminist Transgression is: “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women, girls, and boys in the family, a dominance that extends to society in general.  Patriarchy implies that men have power within important institutions in society and deprives women of access to the same, but it does not mean that women have no kind of power or rights or resources.”

Patriarchal violence can be seen as a “foundational violence”, in the sense that it is a pervasive form of institutionalized violence experienced from birth within the nucleus of the family, which generates other kinds of violence at all levels of society. Yet it is the form of violence that is least confronted in our societies, because it is violence exercised by those who hold power (men) over those who have far less access to power (women). Exercising patriarchal violence at once reflects and reproduces this inequality of power.

This means discrimination seen as a personal or institutional prejudice against an individual—in this case, against a woman—is really a manifestation of an entire structure.  The patriarchal structure is not an aberration; rather, it is a structure functional to power and functional to the economic system.  This fact implies we are facing something that is extremely difficult to transform.  Any attempt at eradicating violence against women must keep in mind its patriarchal origins, and from that point start to take inventory of the public policies that have been built on a base of gender inequalities. Many of these exist to consolidate that base and so by there very nature generate gender violence as a tool of implementation.

Where migration and security are concerned, state policies, far from reducing violence against women, have aggravated all forms dramatically.  Mexican immigration policy, under the tutelage of the government of the United States, defines migrants as a threat to national security and focuses on militarization, closing borders, and the criminalization of migrants.   This policy has been exacerbated with Donald Trump’s ascent to power and the key role of General John Kelly and a group of white supremacist advisors, but it has been a long time in the making.

The policy of militarized security has been the direct cause of the 140,000 murders and more than 33,000 disappeared in Mexico. It has pushed up alarming murder rates in Central America, and, therefore, has been the direct cause of forced migration.  This crisis has generated important changes in migratory patterns. In recent years, more women, more family units, and more unaccompanied girls and boys have migrated, owing to deteriorating conditions in their home countries in Central America.  Also, more Central American migrants seek refugee status in Mexico, or the United States, finding themselves in something of a box canyon, including well-founded cases of asylum where return to the country of origin could lead to death.  There are, as well, more applications for asylum for Mexicans in the U.S., and Mexico continues to be the country of origin of the greatest number of migrant families who arrive in the U.S.

Mexican authorities deny most applications for asylum, owing to their commitment to detaining migrants before they reach the U.S. border.  U.S. authorities reject them because of their racist views, and because admitting the cases of asylum would also be admitting the real consequences of their violent and failed policies.  Migrant persons are the flesh-and-blood proof of processes that states want to hide—displacement and dislodging on the part of transnational corporations and political elites, programs of social control disguised as security programs, patriarchal practices that undermine women’s autonomy, profound economic and political inequalities.  That is why the door to asylum and to the defense of rights has been closed, because of not wanting to recognize their own culpability.

Binational Migratory Policy and Violence against Women Migrants

United States policy of using Mexico as its proxy to impose its anti-immigrant policies and use Mexican territory as an extension of its own borders has created a no-man’s-land for immigrating persons who cross through, where there is no law and where predators proliferate.  The Alliance for Prosperity, the axis for U.S. policy toward Central America, and the Merida Initiative, its counterpart for Mexico, are endowed with millions of dollars for the militarization and “border control” among Central American countries and between Mexico and Guatemala, a situation that has created absolute insecurity for migrants and residents of the zone.

The Southern Border Plan began under Obama, and now in the government of Trump, with the counsel of General John Kelly, former chief of the Southern Command, has become the focus of not only the so-called policy on security but of the whole binational relation.  The priority is to detain the flow of migration to the United States, within the scheme of white superiority being built by the government of Trump, which seeks both to stop the entry of more people from the south and to expel Mexican people and others from the south who are living in the U.S., by means of an infrastructure that is being assembled for mass deportation.  We have not seen it yet; we are in the phase of arrests and inspiring fear to promote self-deportation, but this will be the next step.

This policy permits and incites violence, and violates the rights (of sanctuary, of free mobility, of physical integrity, of family unification) of migrating persons and particularly of women.  In the case of Central American women who reach Mexican territory from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador), the levels of violence are extremely high.  The women suffer at the hands of delinquents, of police, of soldiers, and of illegal guides.  Multiple studies confirm this violence: above 80% of women migrants are raped on the way to the U.S.  Sexual aggressions, assault, theft, trafficking, and exploitation are everyday occurrences; this is something that has not been not been controlled, nor even attempted to be controlled.

Passing from the risks of Central American women migrants to the present situation of women migrants living in Trump’s United States, in April of this year, we took a trip from California to Texas with the Caravan against Fear along the international border on the U.S. side, to take the pulse of migrant communities in the south.  We witnessed there an atmosphere of fear that forces women to retreat more into the shadows, with fewer defenses against violence.

Agents of Trump’s government are entering the courts, in a way that appears to be random, but is not, asking about the migratory status of Latino people and arresting them, even if they are victims.  This practice establishes a reign of terror that particularly affects women.  Many opt not to exercise their right to live a violence-free life out of fear of being deprived of their freedom, of being separated from their children and other members of their family; and they are deported.  In practice, no right should annul the exercise of another right.

This reality is reflected in the statistics.  In Houston, the number of rapes reported by Latinas has dropped 42.8%, while there is no drop in any other group, and all the violent crimes reported by Latinos in general has dropped by 13%.  In Los Angeles, there is a reduction of 10% in reported cases of domestic violence.  What does this mean?  Mexican and Central American migrant women in the United States who are undocumented (or who have family ties to undocumented persons) are afraid to report the violence and, to boot, many are withstanding situations that no human being should have to endure.

Attacks on migrant persons are not common crimes or isolated abuses by the authorities.  They are part of state strategy, both for Mexico and the U.S.  In the United States the dramatic increase in deaths in the desert along the border—despite a drop in the total number of crossings—highlights this strategy of death (or the risk of dying) as a form of discouraging migration.  To what level of barbarity have we sunk when the state promotes victimization in transit, the violation of human rights, and even death as a strategy of dissuasion so that people do not migrate?

Violence:  Two Paradigms

In Mexico, the second change in the context is precisely the level of violence of all kinds—from domestic violence to state, including that which involves organized crime—that exists along the migratory route, types of violence that mutually reinforce each other.  Before, a woman in a situation of family violence had the possibility of fleeing, of taking her children to a safe place.  With the closing of the borders, the denial of asylum, and the erosion of the justice system, she no longer has this possibility.  This implies for her to stay or to return to a high-risk situation, and implies not only putting her life in peril but, as we learn more every day, if we leave women and girls and boys in situations of violence, the violence is reproduced.  This topic appeared in the news in the United States with the recent massacre in Texas.  Devin Kelly, the multiple murderer, already had a record of several instances of domestic violence, and the detonator for that massacre was apparently a terrible plan of revenge against his ex-partner.  The experts spoke again about the problem of violence against women, about how the topic emerges only when something happens outside the home on a mass scale.  However, those comments do not change the fundamental patriarchal and criminal model.

Despite the existence of a scaffolding of laws, NGOs, prosecutors’ offices, and governmental offices specializing in the problem in Mexico, the results are almost null, and impunity prevails.  A study of the National Citizen Observatory of the Killing of Women (Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio) reveals that in two years (2012 and 2013) 3892 murders were reported; of these crimes, only 613 were investigated and 1.6% of the perpetrators were sentenced.  In 2017, there are indications that the rate of murders of women is rising.  In Ciudad Juarez, 83 have been reported thus far this year, and there is a gender alert in Veracruz for an increase in the number of this category of murder.

We are facing a great contradiction.  On the one hand, there is greater awareness and mobilization against violence, identification of violence against women as a serious social problem, and greater grassroots organizational capacity to demand action, especially among a new generation of feminists.  On the other hand, the killing of women increases, in Mexico and the Central American countries; there are systematic and selective attacks on vulnerable sectors like women migrants, female defenders, and the LGBT community; and violence against women in every sphere from the home to the streets is on the rise.

Two paradigms on how to confront violence are in dispute at this moment:  militarization and the repressive police model; and the reconstruction of the social fabric from a perspective of human security.

Women’s efforts to organize, to support one another and their communities, often without depending on governmental involvement, are framed within the latter.  There they build resistance not only against the criminals who exercise this violence, but also against the policies that supposedly are about security, but about a “national security” contrary to the interests and safety of women and their families.

We must think about how to construct a feminist movement in defense of the family.  The feminist movement has traditionally had an ambivalent relation with the family.  The concept of the family began with a valid criticism of the family as the nucleus of the patriarchy, and of the inequalities that are reproduced and proceed from families toward society.  But this criticism did not consider the need to defend the diversity of families for the deep emotional ties held therein, and because the family is the unit from which community and social fabric are built.  In advanced capitalist society, where all the violence, individualism, and consumerism constantly rend that fabric, this role is fundamental.

We face this challenge now, and one can say there have been advances.  The legalization of gay marriage, in defending the right of all, male and female, to form and formalize bonds of love, to raise children in an atmosphere recognized by society, is a great defense of the family.  However, in this context of migration, we must mount a broader defense, one that includes the right to live together, the right to family reunification.  For despite the U.S. right wing’s taking under its banner defense of the family and family values, they are destroying thousands of families, with grave consequences for future generations.  Trump’s government is in the process of discarding altogether the concept of family reunification in migration law.  Laws and practices are changing in that sense, and we women must defend these transnational families and their struggle, and the multiple forms of resistance they generate.

It is important to realize we are facing an anti-rights reaction against strong and organized women.  The very fact of speaking out is going to deepen these reactionary acts, which is why we need to be that much more united, to leave no one out, and to be organized for all the challenges to come.

Women, mostly young women have organized campaigns of “Not one less” (against femicides) and “Not one more”  (against sexual assalt) in nearly every country of the hemisphere. But we haven’t managed to break the barriers that allow violence to continue, and we frequently leave out the serious problem of violence against migrant women, as if it weren’t part of one and the same system. 

In the coming days, the Caravan of Central American Mothers will begin.  We must be there, supporting them, not only in the search for their sons and daughters, but also in the search for new policies that confront the current patriarchal policies that are oriented toward permanent violence. We must also support any woman who speaks out about violence against women. It has been interesting to watch the Harvey Weinstein case unfold in the United States. The high-profile case highlighted the pattern of sexual assaults by powerful men on women subordinates. At the same time, it mobilized dozens of women to testify on acts they had kept quiet about for years.  We don’t know yet if this represents a permanent change in social attitudes toward this crime.  That will depend largely on us.

Text version of the author’s presentation for the Forum on Gender, Migration, and Human Rights at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Nov. 2017 .

Translation by Jonathan Tittler

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