There are ongoing conflicts around the world, which we tend to forget because they are not traditional forms of warfare. One of these forgotten and little reported conflicts is the fate of many young women in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Since the early 90’s thousands of young women have suffered unexplained violent deaths. The estimated number of female deaths is currently thought to be more than 4000 , yet it is impossible to determine the actual numbers due to the reluctance of the Mexican government to investigate these instances further.
These acts of violence against women living in Ciudad Juarez have been described as characteristic incidents of ‘femicide’ - as opposed to general accounts of homicide. The reason being is that the violence is disproportionately directed towards women, and it appears to be their gender which makes them a greater target in Mexico.
An explanation for the widespread complacency among the Mexican authorities is attributed to The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. This agreement has enabled many US companies to establish factories on the Mexican side of the border and exploit cheap labour. Typically, it is women from impoverished backgrounds within southern Mexico that take up employment in these factories. The women, often viewed as cheap and disposable labour, are regarded as having little value and thus their deaths can be easily swept under the carpet with little provocation. As such, thorough investigations and subsequent punishments against the perpetuators are still in want.
Other explanations also attribute the high death rates in Ciudad Juarez to the wider war on drugs in Mexico, particularly due to central location of this town within the drug cartel territory. However, a far more convincing account is that these deaths have a specific gender dimension, which cannot simply be explained by drug-trafficking. While men have also been victims of violence, what is important to recognise is that many of the women who have been murdered have been raped beforehand.
Sexual violence of this kind illuminates an embedded machismo culture that is prevalent in this region, demonstrating an even greater struggle of overturning persistent cultural attitudes that depict women as inferior to men. This view is further supported by recent UN findings, where in the state of Chihuahua, 66 per cent of murdered women have been killed by their husbands, boyfriends or other family members. In addition, 40 percent of Mexican women had suffered violence by an intimate partner in the past 12 months in a survey conducted by UN Women in 2006.
Sadly, such opinions and actions held towards women are not unique to Mexico. Similar disturbing trends can also be found in other parts of Latin America where masculine roles are held in high esteem and contrasted with diverging accounts of femininity, as defined by the term “marianismo”. The latter term referring to the purity of the Virgin Mary, where the ideal woman is both sexually pure, submissive and the bearer of future life.
After some temporary international interest, the sad matter of fact is that this interest has died down, while the killings have not. Mothers of the victims have mobilised and tried to raise awareness and put pressure on the Mexican authorities over the past years without much success.
Thus the responsibility lies also with the international community to put pressure on the Mexican government to confront the ongoing violence against women and to demand that these murders are justly investigated. In turn the Mexican government must readdress its responsibilities to its female citizens, ensuring that these women are adequately protected and free to live without fear of violence.
Unfortunately as we have learnt from history, these kinds of patterns of violence and discrimination are deeply rooted and can only be resolved by changing attitudes. Ultimately the only way to change attitudes in Mexico would mean changes in education and outreach work, depicting violence against women as wholly unacceptable.
Written by Alma-Maria Roberts and published on 21-April-2013