It's Time to Talk About Feminicide
Masculine superiority, though contested today, continues to be defended by the dominant patriarchal system. It is visible in everyday life and is sometimes the source of horrendous gender-based violence. This violence knows no borders or limits. It takes on multiple forms, including feminicide.
The term “feminicide” was introduced by Jill Radford and Diana Russell to denote the gendered and endemic nature of violence against women. Femicide is defined as “the killing of females by males because they are females” but feminicide has yet another connotation. Indeed, Marcela Lagarde y de Los Rios defines as feminicide, gender-based violence characterized by the inaction of the state: “Feminicide is able to occur because the authorities who are omissive, negligent, or acting in collusion with assailants perpetrate institutional violence against women (…)” It can take different forms, including domestic violence, systemic sexual violence and feminicide based on stigmatized occupations, such as prostitution.
Often overlooked in feminist literature, feminicides are particularly endemic in Latin America, where we find more than half of the 25 countries with the highest levels of feminicides in the world. Ciudad Juárez sets itself apart because, unlike the city's demographic and economic growth, crimes against women have constantly increased more than in any other city in the country. How can we explain that this industrial border city is a theatre of systemic violence against women? While Ciudad Juárez’s socio-economic reality can serve as one explanation, the impunity of the Mexican government is also one of the main causes of the enduring feminicides.
Ciudad Juárez attracted international attention in 1993 following the discovery of the mutilated bodies of women who were raped, tortured, and murdered. Situated in the state of Chihuahua, the city is a trans-border economic hub that developed in the 1980s due to globalization and trade. The economic expansion was not controlled, leading to large migratory flows that the city proved incapable of managing. The city expanded constantly, and new neighborhoods emerged where basic services are still basically non-existent. Maquiladoras also abound. These manufacturing plants that import duty-free components from the U.S. for assembly and then export the products back, make use of low-cost labor. In 2000, 32 percent of factory workers were employed in maquiladoras. That’s 262,805 people. After the recession, the 326 maquiladoras employed 180,000 people, many of them women.
Women not only face discriminatory policies, but must also travel far and through unsafe neighborhoods to reach their place of work as public transport is lacking. Women are more prone to attacks than men. Furthermore, as women become breadwinners, their economic activity disturbs the patriarchal order, calling into question gender roles with male chauvinism still prevalent in Mexican culture. Feminicides can therefore be seen as a violent response to the empowerment of women and to their financial independence. Although we must be careful not to generalize this image, it is important to underline the link between the economic reality and endemic violence in Juarez. Feminicides are often born out of long-existing gender inequalities.
Also unique to Ciudad Juárez is the rate of feminicides, and the treatment of the victims’ bodies. In general, the number of homicides is constantly on the rise and affects mostly men. Yet, the level of violence against women per capita is significantly higher in Juarez than in any other city in the country. Between 1993 and 2011, approximately 1300 women were murdered. Feminicides have risen dramatically since 2008, with 87 feminicides in 2008 and 306 in 2010. Some observers argue that the increase is a result of the intensification of wars between the cartels and the government. For the National Citizens’ Observatory on Femicide, however, this type of discourse only perpetuates the invisibility of murdered women by minimizing the gendered character of the phenomenon. Compared to other migrant cities such as Tijuana and Matamoros, who also have many maquiladoras and have high levels of violence as a result of narco-trafficking, feminicides are a lot higher in Ciudad Juárez. Between 1995 and 1997, 136 women were murdered in Ciudad Juárez, compared to 36 in Tijuana and 12 in Matamoros. More strikingly perhaps, in Ciudad Juárez, the bodies of women are dismembered, mutilated—particularly genitals and breasts—and abandoned in vacant lots in evocative ways. The violent treatment of bodies, this attack on the physical traits of women, is part of the crime of feminicide.
Despite alarming numbers of feminicides, no legal or police entity in Mexico seriously investigates these murders or truly tries to put an end to them. The authorities and attorneys are completely absent from investigations. When feminicides started to rise in 1996, the state argued that the number of murders was acceptable while other state officials justified the absence of investigations by saying that several victims were prostitutes. In 1998, the government set up the Special Investigations Bureau for Homicides against Women in Ciudad Juárez but the person in charge of the Bureau, Suly Ponce, constantly argued that 80 percent had been solved, which completely contradicted civil society groups who had been compiling data going back to the 1990s. The absence of political will is also reflected in the treatment of the victims’ bodies. Until the arrival of Argentinian experts in 2004, the bodies were not correctly identified, and some were sent to the wrong families or buried in mass graves. There have been some improvements, but errors persist.
Impunity is also rampant in the justice system. In the State of Chihuahua, homicides are declared solved as soon as a mandate of arrest has been issued. In 2007, the Observatory estimated that 75 percent of feminicides in Ciudad Juárez remained unpunished. The Minister of Justice claimed that 313 of the 4,775 murders that took place between 1993 and 2010 had been solved yet a sentence was only pronounced in 222 of the cases. Furthermore, in Chihuahua the criminal code gives lighter sentences to men who have murdered their partners because of infidelity compared to men who have committed feminicides, leading some to claim a relationship with the victim to hide a feminicide. This contributes to the normalization of violence against women by diminishing criminal responsibility.
At the federal level, there was a complete absence of action before the creation of several programs to prevent feminicides. But impunity and indifference still prevail across the political class. Faced with this reality, civil society continues to take action themselves. Several groups have reached out to international organizations such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. While the pressure exercised by civil society has led to the creation of several programs, their actions are rather inefficient because they do not have the necessary resources and power. In 2003, President Vincente Fox set up a strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls in Ciudad Juárez, allowing for the creation of the first official investigation of feminicides. The Commission, however, did not have the necessary human and financial resources to continue its activities. Following the resignation of its president in 2006, no replacement was appointed, rendering the Commission virtually inoperative.
The government also nominated attorney Maria Lopez Urbina at the head of an investigation that found 177 public servants and state officers guilty of negligence during investigations of feminicides. But instead of suing these officials, the attorney transferred the cases to the state of Chihuahua, which decided not to follow suit. This is but one example of the complete lack of interest of the federal government. Over the years, other bureaus were set up but lack of resources, censorship of the conclusions, and the weak involvement of the state led to a lack of progress. Violence against women is not taken seriously.
The study of feminicides in the Mexican context is complex due to the impunity of the government, and conceptions of femininity and gender. All women in Ciudad Juárez, however, are victims of feminicides: those who have not been murdered live in fear of being the next victim of this scourge. They have been abandoned by the system in place. In Juarez, it is possible to kill a woman without facing consequences.
In our era of #MeToo, we must remember that while the movement is well and alive in North America and Europe, women in other countries still have a lot of ground to cover. Gender inequality and dynamics are a problem around the world but in some countries the consequences are sometimes lethal for women and girls. When long-existing inequalities, institutional machismo and patriarchy suddenly collide with socio-economic changes such as globalization, these problems can get worse. Change will be particularly slow in Latin America but women in Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Brazil are taking a stand as well. One must hope that they will be a voice for the women of Ciudad Juarez, who have long been silenced by the very institutions who should protect them. Today, 16 Latin American countries had made femicide a crime. It time for these countries to implement justice.
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