Women, words, and violence in Mexico

By — February 14, 2012

Femicidio. Femicide. The female counterpart to homicide.

It is a concept our country has been less exposed to than, for example, Mexico, Honduras or Guatemala, where the word femicidio is seen on the front pages of newspapers much too often.

The phenomenon of gender-based murder, rape and violence is so massive in these parts of the world that the Nobel Women's Initiative, a project based in Canada and led by women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, undertook an all-women fact-finding delegation to get firsthand accounts and investigate. I was asked to join the delegation as an embedded journalist. The delegation was led in Mexico by Jody Williams, who won the Peace Prize in 1997 for her campaign against land mines.

In Mexico, the delegates spent two days listening to dozens of horrible stories about women who had been murdered, raped, tortured, disappeared or threatened. Women came from all over the country to tell their stories to 11 Canadian and American women, among them singer Sarah Harmer, human-rights expert Lisa VeneKlasen, journalist Paula Todd and activist-blogger Veronica Arreola. The fact that working women with kids would travel 15 hours to speak to us for about seven minutes each touched the delegates. Mariusa Lopez, a longtime women's human-rights activist, said: "They have knocked on so many doors, and they have been closed. You came to hear them. They will do what they can to tell their stories to the world, a world that wants to listen."

These two women told the delegation in Guerrero that both their husbands had been disappeared and killed for their work as human rights defenders. (Lauren Wolfe)

On the second day, we traveled to the state of Guerrero, one of the poorest in Mexico, where one-third of the population is indigenous. There continues to be an institutional racism toward indigenous people. In Chilpancingo, we heard stories about young and middle-aged women treated like dirt by hospitals or ambulance services, resulting in deaths and stillborn births. Another woman was kidnapped two months ago for being a human-rights activist. Left behind are her two daughters, 21 and 26 years old. "I am not afraid to die. I just want to see my mother free before that happens," said the 21-year-old, who is having to negotiate for her mother's freedom with shadowy people of the criminal underworld, along with government officials who may know her whereabouts.

The female journalists who tell these stories also have been murdered. One was beheaded, with her head thrown onto the steps of a government building in her town. Another's body was hung on the street.

There are words I have come to better understand besides femicidio. One is "impunity." It is a horrible concept that is reduced to this: You want to beat up a stranger, your wife or girlfriend, murder her, torture her, kidnap her, slice her up or sell her. You can do it, and chances are nothing will ever happen to you. Sick minds, macho minds, have free rein because the government does little to stop the violence against women. So there is another word, “simulacion,” or in English “simulation”: A government says it is doing one thing when in fact it is doing nothing. Sound familiar?

And finally there is “invisibilizar,” the verb to make something invisible. The women who speak up are dismissed, told they are locas, told that all of their daughters were part of the narcotics business or wanted to run away.

You don't say that when the numbers show your country, and therefore your government, has a human-rights crisis on its hands, this time one specifically affecting one gender. Mexico, you have un grande problema. It's time to do something about it.

© 2012 by Maria Hinojosa
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.