In the words of US historian Lesley Byrd Simpson, there are many Mexicos. Which Mexico you live in depends –as it does elsewhere– on the circumstances in which you were (un)lucky enough to be born.
According to the most recent government census (INEGHI 2011) Mexico has a population of just over 113 million inhabitants, making it the second biggest country in North America after the United States. Over 19 million people live in its capital, Mexico City and its environs, making it the largest urban agglomeration in the Western Hemisphere after São Paolo. Although Mexico was predominately rural society until the second half of the twentieth-century, now more than 50% of its population now lives in large towns and it is estimated that more than 70% live in an urban setting. As is the case in many countries, urbanization has followed industrialization, and in Mexico, both phenomena are more pronounced in the centre and north of the country.
What is now Mexico was colonised by the Spanish in the sixteenth-century. Colonisation meant the arrival of both Europeans and Africans, and as a result, the majority of modern Mexicans have mixed racial characteristics. Nearly a third of the population is indigenous and a scant 1% is entirely White European in origin. As a general rule, indigenous populations are concentred in the centre and south of the country in predominantly rural areas.
Looked at from a national level, there has never been a better time to be a woman in Mexico. Rising urbanisation, better access to education and health services mean that female life expectancy is growing. Women make up 52% of the population. The average woman has only two children, compared to the six or seven she would have had in the 1970s. Women have also entered the workforce in considerable numbers in the last decades: according to government statistics 17% of women worked outside the home in 1970; by 2004 this had doubled to 38% and in 2012 the percentage of working women was estimated to be around 45%. In last few presidential elections, there have been women candidates –most recently, Patricia Mercado in 2006 and Josefina Vázquez Mota this year– although, in general there is only 20-25% female representation in state and national legislatures.
However, despite these advances it is clear that women still face huge problems in their daily lives, especially if they have the misfortune to be poor, rural and/or indigenous. In rural areas with large indigenous communities, health services are often hours away, meaning, among other things, that maternal mortality continues to be very high. The south-western state of Guerrero, for example, has a maternal mortality rate of 74.21 deaths per 10 000 births (as part of the Millennium Goals the UN target for maternal mortality is 22 per 10, 000). Women who do access health services during pregnancy routinely suffer discrimination or ill-treatment: it is common, for example, to hear complaints from post-partum women that they have been fitted with the contraceptive coil –without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge. In some cases this action, which is dangerous as it can interfere with the recovery of the post-partum uterus, has directly contributed to the death of the mother.
Moreover, in Mexico abortion is strictly regulated not readily accessible; thus, women who miscarry or have problems with pregnancy are often scared to visit the hospital as there is always the risk that medical staff will decide they have provoked an abortion and denounce them to the authorities. As recent publicity has shown, this charge can lead to prison sentences of twenty years. Equally, it is also common to hear that women and girls who have the legal right to an abortion (usually after a sexual assault) have been denied the procedure. This leads to heartbreaking cases, such as the one reported here from 2010, in which a 10 year old girl from a rural community in Yucatán was forced to give birth after being raped by her step-father.
Finally, despite all the advances women have made in the public sphere over the last thirty years, Mexico remains an extremely sexist society. A survey in 2010 suggested that six out of ten women needed to ask their husband’s permission in order to work. A further four out of ten also required this permission to use contraception or choose their child’s school. In general, women earn between 15 and 30% less than their male counterparts and do the overwhelming majority of housework and childcare. On average a women will work 49 hours a week in the home, while an average man does 9. If Mexico is to become a more women friendly place, these attitudes have to change.
This article was originally published at http://e-feminist.com/home/2012/5/27/the-challenges-of-being-a-woman-in-mexico.html