The missing half: The reality of Mexico’s femicide crisis

Ana Sophia Garcia-Cubas Assemat

Ana Sophia Garcia-Cubas Assemat

Content warning: This Op-ed discusses topics of domestic violence, murder, sexual assault, and gender-based violence. 

On Mar. 9 of last year, millions of women carried out one of the largest protests in Mexican history. We did not leave our homes—we did not go to school, we did not go to work, we did not cook, we did not clean, we did not answer any messages or calls, and we did not post on social media. 

This was not a protest of presence, like workers striking in front of their company or protestors rallying in front of government buildings; it was a protest of absence, a refusal to participate in a society that doesn’t value us. Every day, 10 women are killed in Mexico, women who were sisters, mothers and daughters, but who were also humans with the right to live. On this day, Mexican women disappeared to honor those of us who have disappeared forever.

In the midst of the pre-lockdown confusion, Mexico was reeling from the aftermath of the femicides of Ingrid Escamilla and Fatima Aldriguetti. Their murders were brutal and highly publicized, and for many women, they were the match that lit the fuse. As the name “femicide” entails, Escamilla and Aldriguetti were two individuals that were murdered because they had the misfortune of being female in a society that deems them as inferior. Their murders were the tipping point that sparked a feminist movement, from protests, to riots, and nation-wide strikes.

They were not the first, nor would they be the last, victims of such a crime—but they were the ones that broke through the numbness and acceptance of violence that had seeped into Mexican society. After months of protests failed to achieve any sort of change, Mexican feminists organized a strike called “A Day Without Us.” The purpose of the strike was to show men how women are an important part of society and to make them reflect on what they would feel if a woman they knew fell victim to gender-based violence. There was hope that, if enough women participated in the strike, the government might finally take steps to end gender-based violence. 

The Mexican news outlet Milenio estimates that around 22 million women participated in the strike—17.4 percent of Mexico’s entire population. They also estimate that the economy lost 37 billion pesos ($1.83 billion) in one day because of the lack of women in the labor force. 

Although the strike had a large impact on the country’s economy, the government brushed it off and did nothing to combat femicide. The Mexican government hasn’t done anything to reform the judicial system since the strike. No preventive measures have been put in place, so femicide keeps happening. Systemic issues haven’t been addressed, so perpetrators keep getting away with these violent acts.

According AltoNivel, a Mexican news outlet, “Nine out of ten aggressions towards women remain unpunished because of the preconceived notion that the treatment of women is a matter of familial relations and not a topic for public policy.” 

Although femicide is considered a crime under the Mexican penal code, in practice there are many systemic and cultural barriers that allow it to go unpunished. Local governmental institutions usually turn away any report of femicide because there is no system that would punish them for doing so, and if they turn away reports of femicide, they can proudly say that femicide rates are lower in their city. Often, if someone is allowed to report a missing woman, they’re told to put up posters, and the police will not help find the victim. Even more often, they accuse the victims of running away with their boyfriends or insinuate that she somehow brought it upon herself for running in the wrong circles. On many occasions, the perpetrators are caught and then declared innocent because it is difficult to play the “he-said, she-said” game when one of the parties is dead.

Prior to the strike, feminist protests had become increasingly violent due to a feeling of hopelesness surrounding violence against women. Protestors had been occupying government buildings, burning and painting over national monuments and public property, and leading public demonstrations to demand change. 

Part of the reason why the protests have become so large-scale is because of social media. Sharing someone’s missing person poster has become an act of protest that is nearly impossible to ignore, making people painfully aware of the extent of the problem.

Whenever I scroll through Facebook, I see at least four or five posts of people desperately trying to find their daughters and sisters, and at least once a day, I read a news article about someone’s body being found. It’s hard to not feel fear, anger, and impotence when you scroll past the faces of victims every day, wondering if you’ll be next. Even with a lockdown in place in the middle of a pandemic that has killed thousands of Mexicans, violence against women is on the rise. 

On Mar. 10, we came back to school, back to work, back to society, hoping to see some sort of reaction. One of the largest protests in Mexican history had to have had some sort of impact. Maybe people would finally realize that tolerating domestic abuse often escalates to murder. Maybe people would stop blaming women for being raped and abused. Maybe men would reflect on the role that women play in their life and stop calling feminists hysterical.

It’s been almost one year since the protest. Since then, the femicide rates keep rising. Ingrid Escamilla’s murderer was sent to rehab instead of prison. Fatima Aldriguetti’s body was found inside of a trash bag a week after her disappearance. The only true change in one year is that women are now being murdered in their own homes rather than on the street.

Although Mexico’s fight against femicide seems never-ending, we cannot underestimate the power of the people. Mexican feminists are fighting tooth and nail, and they have had many victories, too: instituting a sex offender registry, criminalizing revenge porn with Olimpia’s Law, and protecting the dignity of victims of femicide after death with Ingrid’s Law. Slowly but steadily, we see Latin American countries moving to protect women’s rights, with countries like Argentina moving forward to legalize abortion. Even if these large-scale protests haven’t had the major impact in Mexico we hoped they would have, the movement has set a precedent. Legislations like Ingrid’s Law and Olimpia’s Law may be small victories, but any step forward is a reason to celebrate. 

One day, I hope girls will be born without targets on their backs—but there is still a long fight ahead of us. If women want equality and humane treatment in Mexico, there must be a continued and increasing effort on our part. The government can only ignore the cries from half of its population for so long.