Hiding Under the Bed Is Not the Answer

Three Years in Prison Without Trial

Virginia, a young indigenous women from Guerrero, suffered a miscarriage in 2009. Since then she has been in prison in Huamuxtitlan, Guanajuato, charged with murder. There has never been an autopsy to determine the cause of fetal death. All judicial proceedings against Virginia have been carried in out in Spanish and she was not offered a translator who could explain proceeding in her native Nahuatl. Neither did she have access to a defense lawyer who could speak her language.

In January this year, thanks to the work of the NGO Las Libres and the volunteer law students from the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE) in Mexico City, a federal judge ruled that her human rights had not been respected. In the light of the fact that there was no evidence to support the charge against her, the judge also ordered that she should be released. However, this has not happened. Instead, the local judge re-issued a warrant for her arrest on the same charges.

Verónica Cruz, director of Las Libres, told news agencies that this new warrant was a “reprisal” against Virginia for exposing the abuses committed by the judicial authorities in Huamuxtitlan. She also observed that her plight was the result of the “triple discrimination” Virginia has been subjected to in the judicial process as a poor, indigenous woman.

As I reported last week, this “triple discrimination” is sadly the norm for the Mexican justice system. However, in the case of Virginia, there is also a further difficulty. Guanajuato is one of the most conservative states in Mexico. It was one of the first states to reform its constitution in 2010 in to declare that the right to life began at conception. As I reported recently, its governor has openly opposed federal directives which oblige health service providers to grant abortions to women who have suffered sexual assault.

Guanajuato has a long track record of imprisoning women for miscarriages and still-births. As is the case with Virginia, the strategy of the judicial authorities is to charge them with murder –which can be punished with sentences as long as 25 years– rather than for procuring an abortion, which has a five-year tariff. Two years ago, Las Libres and students from the CIDE law school successfully championed the cases of six women who had been in prison for as long as eight years. Like Virginia they were convicted of murder after losing their pregnancies. None of the women jailed had actually procured an abortion; rather each one had suffered a miscarriage, which due to family circumstances, poverty and/or ignorance they had tried to conceal. Once they had been forced to seek medical attention, one of the people who attended them (doctor/social worker) had then made the accusation with the relevant authorities. All of the women were from the poorest areas of the state and lived in conditions of poverty and social marginalization. They were unable to neither defend themselves personally against such charges nor pay someone competent to do it for them.

Cruz is certain that Virginia can be absolved if only the judicial process could be concluded. The fact that she is merely charged and not formally sentenced means that there is a limit to what her defense lawyers are able to do. It is evident that the local authorities in Huamuxtitlan know this and are purposely dragging their feet to stall the case being sentenced. As a result, Virigina has now been in prison for three years.

As I wrote last week, life is extremely difficult inside prison for women such as Virginia who don’t speak Spanish and are far away from home and access to support networks. It is testament to the deep misogyny of Mexican society that its most vulnerable women are treated in this way.

An edited version of this article was published on e-feminist

Advertisements

Filed under: Human Rights in Mexico, Maternal Health, Violence Against Women, Women's Right to Choose, , , , , ,

Mexico Before CEDAW: A Catalogue of Woes

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination and Violence Against Women (or CEDAW) was established in 1982 and is composed of 23 experts on women’s issues. The objective of the committee is to watch over the situation of women in those countries that signed the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Each country periodically presents a report to the committee which is then discussed by the committee. NGOs and human rights groups can also present a review of the situation to the committee. The committee then draws up recommendations based on this discussion.

This year the countries presenting reports to the CEDAW include the Bahamas, Bulgaria, Guayana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mexico, New Zealand and Samoa. Mexico’s report was presented and discussed this week. Various national and international NGOs also submitted evaluations to CEDAW, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, World Organization Against Torture, Mexico’s Commission for Human Rights, Justice for Our Daughters and Centre for Women’s Rights in Chiapas.

The papers submitted by human rights organizations make for depressing reading. In general they highlight a series of issues which make life for women in Mexico –especially poor and/or indigenous women– extremely fraught with danger. In the coming weeks I shall look into the issues in more detail. However, this week I want to provide a general overview.

Killing of women: In November 2011 a joint report by Mexico’s government and UNIFEM concluded that at least 34, 000 women had been murdered in Mexico between 1985-2009. It also demonstrated that there had been a marked fall in the murder rate amongst men after 2007, but that the equivalent rate for women had stayed the same. Murder rates for both sexes have increased dramatically since then, partly as a result of the insecurity and violence created by the crackdown on drug gangs. In 2010 it is estimated that there were 2, 418 murders of women and 23, 285 murders of men.

Amnesty notes that murders of women however are frequently undocumented and that there is a routine failure to conduct autopsies. It also points to the fact that the manner in which murders of women are documented make it impossible to determine the rate with which women murderers are arrested and prosecuted.

Amnesty also highlights the brutality in which women are murdered and concludes that violence against them is very frequently of a misogynistic nature:

“Women are three times more likely than men to die by the cruelest means, such as hanging, strangulation, drowning, immersion and knives. Women are also three times more likely to be murdered by poisoning or burns with chemicals or fire.”

Abuse of migrant women: Tens of thousands of irregular migrants from Central America cross Mexico each year on their way to the US. They are regularly targeted by criminal gangs for kidnapping, extortion, trafficking and murder often with the full complicity of the police. In 2011, the Mexican National Commission for Human Rights found that some 11, 000 migrants had been kidnapped. Amnesty estimated that at least six of every ten migrant women are sexually assaulted during their passage through Mexico.

Imprisonment of women: Approximately 5% of Mexico’s prison population is female. However only 13 out of 455 prisons, 2.8%, are exclusively female, the rest are mixed. In a study of 92 mixed prisons it was found that in 22 women’s dormitories were inside male facilities and the inmates used shared facilities.

Women form a disproportionate number of remand prisoners. The great majority of them are between 18 and 37, usually mothers and often single parents. More than 85% are first time offenders and 65% are accused of crimes related to drugs, usually relating to the possession of small amounts of prohibited sustances.

Women are often badly treated and tortured during their arrest and imprisonment. The World Organization Against Torture highlights the case of a group of 47 women arrested for protesting in town of San Salvador Atenco in Mexico State in 2006. 26 later made formal complaints after they were raped and sexually assaulted by the police who transported them to prison. The report highlights the Mexican “state’s lack of will” to prosecute those involved.

Sexual and Reproductive Rights: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty point to the difficulty women have to obtain contraception and legal abortion. They emphasize how constitutional reforms passed in numerous Mexican states which guarantee life from conception have had the “chilling effect” of reinforcing barriers to legal abortion. Moreover, they highlight the wide-spread practice of arresting women after miscarriage and still birth on charges of foeticide or infanticide.

Maternal Mortality Amongst Indigenous Women: The risk of maternal death amongst indigenous women is considerably higher than amongst no-indigenous women. This is the result of inadequate or inaccessible health care facilities, discriminatory practices towards indigenous women by health care professionals and a lack of translators.

As might be expected, the Mexican government’s statement to CEDAW tried to paint a rather different picture of life for women in Mexico. It highlighted the advances in education amongst girls, for example raising primary school attendance from 94% to 96% and secondary school attendance from 75% to 86%. It also made much of recent constitutional reforms by which Mexico adopted the UN’s declaration of human rights. It also talked of government reforms to widen health-care provision; it mentioned family planning policies in passing but did not address the issue of abortion. Finally, it recognized the “violence against women is one of the biggest challenges faced by the actual administration”. However, it asked the Committee to take into account the context of violence in which Mexico currently lives in assessing this situation.

An edited version of this article is available on e-feminist.

Filed under: Feminism, Human Rights in Mexico, Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, Maternal Health, Violence Against Women, Women's Right to Choose, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,067 other followers