Motherhood is a revered status here in Mexico. Mother’s Day (10 May) tends to be officially celebrated as an unofficial national holiday, regardless of what day of the week it falls. Schools generally organise pageants and plays for their students to perform for their mothers. Extravagant and elaborate presents are bought: often paid for in instalments for months in advance. Father’s Day, on the other hand, often passes uncommented upon. Those of us privileged to have employers who subscribe to the national social security system (Instituto Mexicano de Seguridad Social) have access to free nursery places for our children.
While I must admit that I am not adverse to free nursery places and fancy presents on Mother’s Day, for many other reasons the idealisation of motherhood in Mexican culture grates. It is a product of a highly conservative Catholic culture in which, while motherhood is revered, other women and women’s issues are routinely ignored; or, in the best case scenario, official lip-service is paid to the idea of promoting and protecting women’s right, but concrete political actions are few and far between. To give one example: the current president, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, a member of the National Action Party
(Partido Acción Nacional –- or PAN, the most conservative in Mexico) has officially budgeted nearly 26 billion pesos too fund projects for vulnerable women (see link 1). As part of this policy, in 2008 he announced the creation of various new programmes, including the National Foundation for Awareness of Violence against Women (Fondo Nacional para la Alerta de Violencia de Genero). We are now in 2010 and these programmes still only exist on paper. The money budgeted for them has instead been spent on the federal child-poverty reduction programme Opportunities (Oportunidades). Similarly in 2008 and 2009, 16.6 billion pesos were destined to the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Women and People Trafficking (Fiscalía Especial para los Delitps de Violencia contra las Mujeres y Trata de Personas or Fevimtra) which forms part of the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (Procuraduría General de La República or PGR). It appears that the Special Prosecutor only budgeted for half this amount, while the rest was transferred to other destinations within the PGR (see link 1).
In my own state of Tamaulipas, the government formed the Tamaulipas Women’s Institute (El Instituto Tamaulipeca de la Mujer) in 2005 with the express aim of promoting equality and the respect of women’s rights in the state (see link 2). As part of official bureaucracy in a state in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) has complete hegemony, and dissention from the official party-line is not tolerated, this has had limited success. Furthermore, the Institute’s President, Yoliria Joch González, has a very limited understanding of what it means to defend women’s rights. A couple of months ago, her sage pronouncements on the subject of the marked increase in domestic violence against women in Tamaulipas boiled down to the observation that it was generally due to the rise in alcohol consumption amongst women, as this made them more argumentative and more likely to annoy their husbands (see link 3). Last year, most memorably of all, she advised women whose husbands or partners abused them to hide under the bed when he arrived home drunk and aggressive (see link 4). I think now you will understand why I have chosen the name “Hiding under the bed is not the answer” to title this blog.
One place in Mexico where some aspects of women’s rights have been taken more seriously is the capital, Mexico City. The Federal District (Distrito Federal or DF), in which most (but not all) of the capital is situated, is governed by left-wing mayor, Marcelo Ebrad. He belongs to the Democratic Revolution Party (Partido de la Revolución Demócratica or PRD). Perhaps the most eye-catching of the measures that he has introduced during his term (2006-2012) has been the legalisation of abortion during the first twelve weeks of gestation (2007). This law has generated much controversy in Mexico City and beyond. Shortly after the measure became law, the President’s Office, the PGR and most depressingly of all, the National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos), initiated proceedings in the Supreme Court of Justice (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, or SCJN) with the hope of having it declared unconstitutional on the grounds that (amongst other things) it was a violation of the unborn foetus’ life. In the last few weeks the SCJN has presented its verdict, rejecting all the petitions. It affirmed that life was not defined as starting at conception in the Federal Constitution and upheld the constitutional right of the DF government to legislate on such matters as abortion(see link 5).
This must be reason to celebrate, I hear you ask. But, no; this is unfortunately not the case. The most obvious consequence of the controversy has been the move by conservative groups in the rest of Mexico’s states to push for the reform of their individual constitutions to ensure that the articles which refer to the inhabitants right to life and/or the duty of the state to ensure that this right is protected, explicitly define life as beginning at conception. The objective is to ensure that laws such as that of DF impossible are clearly unconstitutional in their states. So far, 32 of Mexico’s federal entities (comprising of 31 states and DF) have approved such reforms. In many others, such as Tamaulipas, such reform is being discussed at the moment (see links 6 and 7).
One of the few positive outcomes of the whole furore of the last couple of years has been the publicity awarded to the cases where women have already been prosecuted and imprisoned for the crime of abortion. To use Tamaulipas as an example again: in December it was discovered that the State Prosecutor (Procuraduría General del Estado) was pursuing 50 enquiries against women accused of having procured an abortion; while eight women were being in prison on such charges. It also became clear that double standards were in operation. State law requires that the woman involved and anyone who aids and abets her in getting an abortion are prosecuted; in the case of at least one condemned woman, no charges were brought against her partner, who had supplied the pills to provoke the abortion (see link 8). Once this information circulated, the state governor, Eugenio Hernández Flores, ordered their release; although, tellingly, they were not exonerated. Instead, the State Congress approved a reform in the state penal code which removed the custodial sentence associated with this “crime” and substituted it with the undefined and worryingly vague “integral medical attention” (atención médica integral) (see link 9). It remains to be seen what king of “attention” these women are to receive.
At the moment, attention is focused on the state of Guanajuato, traditionally one of the most conservative in Mexico. Here, it has been revealed, six women are currently serving prison sentences after having been accused of procuring an abortion. However, they have not been sentenced for this “crime”, but rather for what the penal code determines as “murder by a relative” (homicidio por razón de parentesco) which carries much more severe penalties that that of abortion. They were sentenced to up to of 20 years imprisonment. Another 30 women are facing similar charges. More distressingly still, it also emerged that four of these women had not actually had an abortion, but rather had suffered spontaneous miscarriages, which due to family circumstances, poverty and/or lack of education had tried to conceal (see link 10). Once their condition had forced them to seek medical attention, one of the people treating them (doctor, nurse or social worker) had then made the accusation with the relevant authorities (see link 11 and 12). The women were subsequently unable to defend themselves personally against such charges nor pay someone competent to do it for them. Some of the women involved have been in prison for eight years (see links 12 and 13). All of them come from the most deprived regions of the state.
In relation to this situation, the State Congress of Guanajuato has just passed a measure which reduces the sentence facing these women and should result in their immediate release. However, just as in the case of Tamaulipas, this does not mean that the women have been declared innocent, nor has the law been modified to prevent prosecutions of this nature occurring in the future. And so, I end this post with a request to those who are as horrified as I by the treatment these women have endured. If you go to link 14 at the end of this post you will find a website organised by a group campaigning on behalf of these women, headed by Leticia Cuevas and Carlos Morales. On this site is a letter of protest addressed to the relevant authorities in Guanajuato, this calls for their immediate release as well as their complete exoneration of all charges. Please add your name to the letter in the box provided.
For those of you who don’t understand Spanish, the letter reads as follows:
“By signing this letter, we citizens, both men and women, want to express our most profound indignation about the persecution and criminalisation with which women in the State of Guanajuato are subjected to. The cases of 30 women who have been remanded, and those of the six who have been found guilty, for the interruption of their pregnancy, has brought Guanajuato to the attention not only of those who are amazed by such attacks on these women’s liberties and basic human rights, but also to the international gaze.
We roundly condemn the behaviour of those authorites involved in this injustice. We have been witness to a shameful process which has gone from denying the existence of women imprisoned for interrupting a pregnancy (STJE –State Justice Tribunal Minister- Raquel Barajas Monjarás), to forcing the women actually in prison to sign a document which prevents them from being interviewed by the press (SSP-[Federal] Secretary of Public Security). We find the behaviour of the state prosecutor, Carllos Zamarripa, shocking. He has denied that these women have been imprisoned for having an abortion, and has affirmed that they are condemned for the crime of murder by a relative. Finally, we have read the shameful statement issued by the [state] governor, Juan Manuel Oliva, who claimed that the cases were examples of “infanticide”.
We cannot credit that, in the twenty-first century, such cruel treatment should be imposed on women who live in extreme poverty and social marginalisation and, who miscarried involuntarily.
As a result, we energetically demand that
Mr. Gustavo Rodríguez Junquera [state prosecutor] make the necessary recommendation for the investigation of the violations of human rights inflicted upon these women.
Mrs. Raquel Barajas Monjarás, revise and review the sentences given.
Mr. Juan Manuel Oliva Ramírez, do all that is in his power to order the immediate release of the women.
We demand that these women, who are imprisoned by unjust means, have their innocence recognised and are set free immediately.
To decide is not a crime. To decide is a right.”