Further to my posts about presidential hopeful, Enrique Peña Nieto and the debate provoked by his attempts to avoid a federal investigation into the deaths of more than 900 women in Mexico State since 2005, I am pleased to report that this week Peña Nieto announced he would be establishing a special investigative office to look into hate crimes against women, staffed –he promises– by experts who are not connected to the state’s own prosecution service (Procuraduría General del Estado de Justice del Estado de México), whose sorry record on this issue was one of the reasons that prompted women’s rights groups to demand intervention by the federal government. Obviously, it must be remembered that this is election season in Mexico State (elections for the governorship will take place later this year) and so this promise could just be part of Peña Nieto’s strategy. There are also some questions about the project; not least for the inclusion of a clause which would require the office to subject the emotional state of the victim to a forensic examination (called a psychological autopsy) via interviews with family and friends. This is an examination usually used to determine if a person was murdered or committed suicide. David Peña Rodríguez, a lawyer and representative of Asociación Nacional de Abogados Democráticos (National Association of Democratic Lawyers or ANAD) affirms that such inquiries are generally reflect the stereotypes and prejudices of the people interviewed and cannot therefore be considered an objective source of evidence. Despite all this, the announcement is worth celebrating in the sense that it marks a victory in the long campaign by women’s rights groups to make violence against women a national point of debate, in a country where this topic has generally been not been on the mainstream political agenda.
One of the results of this new media exposure has been the discussion (and derision) of the term used by women’s groups to describe the murders of these women: “feminicidio” (femicide). The most common objections that I have heard are that the term is meaningless as a legal definition (along the lines of “if femicide exists, do we also have to invent special terms for all murder victims?”); or, that it is discriminatory (ie. it focuses only on women). I have offered a brief definition of feminicidio in earlier posts, but I think that perhaps a more detailed examination is necessary to ensure clarity for future posts and arguments.
Mexican anthropologist and feminist, Marcela Lagarde y de los Ríos, invented the term femincidio in 2006 when she translated Femicide: The Politics of Women Killing (New York, 1992) a collective work edited by feminist scholars Diana Russell and Jill Radford, as Feminicidio. La política de las mujeres (Mexico City, 2006). This book uses feminist theory to show how much violence used against women all over the world and girls is a direct result of their gender, from pornography to genital mutilation, in an attempt to control them and their sexuality. In this context, femicide is not simple homicide but a “misogynist murder”; a hate crime against women. It is pervasive and generally unacknowledged, because it culture and social norms allow for it to be explained away, ignored and accepted as a normal feature of a male/female relationship. Lagarde y los Ríos explains that “[t]he translation of femicide is femicidio. However, I translated femicide as feminicidio […] [because] in Spanish femicidio is a homologue of homicide and only means the murder of women”. Lagarde y De los Ríos wanted to make sure that the term feminicidio should be taken to refer to the phenomenon of hate crime against women and thus avoid it becoming a meaningless catch-all term for the murder of women as has been implied by the criticism that I mentioned above.
In no small part due to the fact that the term feminicidio was first coined in relation to the high rates of murders among women in Ciudad Juárez in the last fifteen years, the idea that feminicidio refers exclusively to this type of crime is a common stereotype. Lagarde y De los Ríos insists that while the categorisation of the typical victim in the Juárez murders (young, living in poverty and working in a sweatshop) is valid for these murders; neither this nor the hallmarks of such crimes (kidnapping and sexual abused before dumping the body on wasteground) is true for the vast majority of the victims of feminicidio. She is keen to stress that the great majority of women victims of this type of hate crime are in fact murdered in their homes by their partners. In other words, feminicidio is a definition of violence that refers both to violent sexual assault by strangers as well as attacks suffered within the home and/or perpetrated by someone with a close relationship to the victim (which, as feminist research has amply demonstrated, the type of violence most likely to affect women in any culture or country).
The statistics which place Mexico State as the entity with most feminicidios in the Mexican Republic (922 since 2005) do so precisely because of the inclusion of women who died at the hands of their partners or other family member. It is probably fair to say that part of Peña Nieto’s refusal to accept the figures derived from his misconception of the term and his belief that the serial sexual assault and murder of women such as experienced in Chihuahua (the state in which Ciudad Juárez is situated) was not prevalent in his state. It is to be hoped that the scandal in which he found himself engulfed in January has served to educate him on this point. The stereotype of feminicidio as a crime perpetrated by strangers on young, vulnerable women is also perhaps the reason why some commentators think it is discriminatory, as figures for violent crime show that men are much more likely to be victims of violence at the hands of strangers than women.
As Lagarde y Los Ríos asserts, femicide exists in Mexico, as it does elsewhere, as a result of a misogynistic culture which routinely ignores violence against women and generally holds the victim to be responsible for the violence she suffers. The phenomenon of the Juárez murders has never been adequately investigated despite rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the subject. In most cases, the authorities avoid looking into the crimes with the well-worn arguments that they were prostitutes (in the case that the attacker was a stranger); or (in the case of domestic violence) that they had chosen to enter into a relationship with a violent man. When the murders are investigated, incompetence and the failure to follow due process often allow the murderer to escape punishment (see the cases of Nadia Alejandra here and that of Rubí Marisol Freyre Escobedo here).
Largely thanks to campaigns against femicide in Mexico institutional policies are in place to prevent on violence against women. During her period as a federal deputy, Lagarde y De los Ríos was instrumental in the passing of the 2007 federal statue Ley General de Acceso de las Mujeres a Una Vida Libre de Violencia (General Law to Provide Women With Access to a Life Free of Violence). This law defines violence against women as “misogynistic violence against women [product] of their situation […] in unequal relationships” and typifies it in four ways “physical, psychological, sexual [and] economic”. According to the law, feminicidio is “an extreme form” of misogynistic violence against women which often leads to their death. This law was invoked by campaigners against Peña Nieto in January when, as I reported, they tried unsuccessfully to oblige the Federation to declare an alerta de violencia de género (gender violence alert) in Mexico state, which according to the terms of the legislation would have obliged to look into the deaths attributed to feminicidio in a particular entity. Other measures in place to ensure that hate crimes against women are properly investigated also include the Fiscalía Especial para los Delitos de Violencia contra las Mujeres y Trata de Personas (Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Women and People Trafficking or Fevimtra) and the Fondo Nacional para la Alerta de Violencia de Género (National Fund for Alerts Against Gender Violence).
At the moment there are campaigns for feminicidio to be codified into the laws of the different states, for example, Chihuahua, home of Ciudad Juárez; although there appears to be little institutional support for this. In this context, the project proposed by Peña Nieto, for all its defects and despite the obvious electioneering behind it, is a step forward. The media discussions of feminicidio and its proper definition, even the criticisms of it, all serve to chip away at the protective wall of silence that normally surrounds the issue. Moreover, giving the violence suffered by women as a result of their gender a name is a not a meaningless exercise, in fact it works to raise consciousness about this problem, especially among women. Describing the murders of women by their partners as feminicidio leaves us in no doubt that such an act is a heinous crime that should be investigated and not ignored. Words are power, after all.