Women human rights defenders at risk

How cynical is it, that an activist who led protests against the unsolved killings of hundreds of women, gets murdered herself? Susana Chávez was recently found dead in Ciudad Juarez, a border city in the north of Mexico. She is the second women's rights activist killed in less than a month. Semillas, a Mexican women's fund supported by Mama Cash, decided to prioritise and provide training in how to face the violence to women human rights defenders.

Violence against women is nothing new to Ciudad Juarez, nor is it to Mexico. In fact, it is  exactly what Susana Chávez, and many other women's rights activists, were fighting to draw attention to.
Since 1993 over 600 women have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez. These women have been raped and strangled, sometimes even dismembered and burned alive, in most cases their bodies have been unceremoniously dumped in the desert. Chávez helped popularise the slogan Not One More Death aimed at highlighting the plight of the Juarez women.

For years the mutilations, as horrific as they are, had people convinced they had to be the work of one or more deranged serial killers. The violent acts were considered isolated incidents by local and national authorities, and treated accordingly. However, the statistics of violence against women for Mexico as a whole, show that the exorbitantly high number of violent acts against women have to be attributed to other factors, such as complex social structures.

While in 2002 one in five women reported domestic violence, now over forty percent of Mexican women say they regularly encounter intimate partner violence. Between December 2006 and October 2009, 3,726 women were murdered in Mexico. A minority of the murders (7%) were somehow related to organized crime. By and far the largest number of these women fell victim to domestic violence.
The murders in Ciudad Juarez seem to be nothing more than the visible excesses of an all too common daily reality for millions of Mexican women.

The fact that there is a war raging in Mexico - the war on drugs - is crucial in understanding the Mexican women´s rights catastrophy. The War on Drugs causes enormous amounts of weapons to flow into the country and creates an environment of violence. Blanca Rico, director of the women's fund Semillas explains: "In conflict zones, militarization is the order of the day, and patriarchal attitudes and behaviours are taken to  extremes. This makes women easy targets; for rape, domestic violence, and a multitude of other violent crimes." It is no coincidence that, women's organizations have reported such a marked increase in sexual violence against women in all of the militarized areas of Mexico where the War on Drugs is fought. Blanca Rico adds: "Sexual violence is one of the recurrent features in the crimes against women who have been regarded as war booty."

Add to this considerable institutional weakening and rampant corruption at all levels and in all departments of the Mexican State, and it is easy to see how Mexican women hardly have access to a justice system; and how the perpetrators can act with impunity. There is no denying women in current day Mexico are vulnerable to violence.

Particularly at risk, are women human rights defenders. Blanca Rico: "These women are often doubly exposed to sexual violence and harassment. Women human rights defenders supported by Semillas all agree that their work is becoming exceedingly dangerous." Death threats and harassment are now a reality for many of the groups supported by the Mexican women's fund. Semillas has therefore decided that one of their priorities will be to train their grantees in dealing with the violence they will encounter as human rights defenders.

In order to bring about structural transformations in Mexican society, Semillas supports local groups in creating awareness about violence against women and in training authorities and public officials. Blanca Rico states: "Some promote knowledge about general and state laws through workshops and information materials. Others organise and mobilise victims, and seek to generate a legislative reconciliation process that fully recognizes all human rights in general and women´s rights in particular."

Violence against women is a key issue for Mama Cash. We are very proud to support Semillas and the great work they and their many partners are doing in order to assure access to justice and a life free of violence for all women.

Liz van Omme - Mama Cash


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