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Activists cheer new anti-violence law
Lorraine Orlandi
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New legislation seeks to curb endemic violence against women.

Marisela Ortiz’s 17-year-old goddaughter disappeared on Valentine’s Day 2001 as she left a factory job on Mexico’s border with the US. Seven days later Lilia Alejandra García’s semi-nude body was found in an abandoned lot in Ciudad Juarez, beaten and with signs of torture, one of hundreds of unsolved women’s murders that rights activists and feminists see as evidence of endemic gender-based violence in Mexico.

Ortiz and others who have come face-to-face with such brutality welcome a new nationwide law designed to fight violence against women by integrating federal, state and local programs involving Mexican police, the courts, media, schools and other sectors.

The law took effect in February, nearly 15 years after local rights groups began documenting a wave of women’s killings in and around Ciudad Juarez on Mexico’s northern border.

Since 1993, at least 380 women have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez, in the northern state of Chihuahua, authorities say (LP, April 19, 2006). Local and international civil organizations put the number at 460 or more. Most of the killings remain unsolved. The pattern of violence and impunity exemplifies the ineptitude of police and courts in solving crimes against women and reflects a general tolerance toward growing gender-based violence across the country, women’s groups say.

The new law is designed to end such tolerance and give women “access to lives free of violence.” Its proponents say it marks a watershed for Latin America in making violence against women an issue of national priority.

Multiple measures
It calls for a national education campaign, the creation of a central databank of cases from across the country, diagnostic studies on the magnitude of the problem and more and safer women’s shelters, among other nationwide measures. It requires state and municipal governments to develop laws within six months to combat violence against women and establish sanctions for gender-based crimes.

“Most importantly … it calls for the development of an integrated program to prevent violence against women and combat impunity,” said Marcela Lagarde, a former deputy from the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which sponsored the legislation in both houses of Congress. A leading Mexican feminist, Lagarde teaches anthropology at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, UNAM.

After watching years of botched criminal investigations in Ciudad Juarez, victims’ relatives are skeptical about authorities’ willingness or ability to implement the new law, although they call it an important step toward raising awareness.

“It’s a start,” said Ortiz, a co-founder of Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, a group of family members of murdered women in Ciudad Juarez.
“But in Ciudad Juarez, many cases are not even investigated, so against whom will this law be applied? There is an enormous lack of interest,” she said.

President Felipe Calderón, who took office in December (LP, Dec. 13, 2006), unveiled the new law with some fanfare, despite fears among women’s groups that he would not ratify it. Calderón, of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, campaigned on a platform that included promoting women’s rights and equality.

“I am worried and pained by the situation of many women in our country, victims of oppression and constant violence,” Calderón said in announcing publication of the new law on Feb. 1.

Still, some activists doubt Calderon’s commitment, given his conservative political background. “We don’t expect much,” said Ortiz.
The new law identifies crimes against women including psychological abuse and introduces the concept of “feminicide violence” as “an extreme form of gender-based violence against women.”

The causes
It defines such crimes in broad terms to include rights violations resulting from social and economic factors. In Ciudad Juarez, for example, the influx of poor, younger women to work in maquiladora assembly plants, the flow of migrant traffic toward the border, police corruption and machismo all are seen as factors in the women’s murders and the failure of authorities to solve them.

“Unless the state recognizes misogyny it won’t apply the law,” said Carolina Velásquez, information coordinator for the women’s information center, CIMAC.

For years, state and local police and prosecutors failed to recognize the systematic nature of the Ciudad Juarez killings or to investigate them as crimes targeting women. They questioned parents’ reports of their daughters’ disappearances and often were slow to respond to women’s complaints of domestic violence.

Under the new law, Mexico’s Interior Ministry can declare a state of alert if faced with a wave of gender-based attacks like those in Ciudad Juarez, in order to coordinate an emergency response among police, the courts and other agencies. The law also contains measures to protect women, such as removing an aggressor from a victim’s home in the case of domestic violence. Although such protections already exist in many states, the new law is designed to create a more consistent approach.

Some legal experts argue that the law may bump up against constitutional guarantees in granting the Interior Ministry extra powers.

Proponents admit it has flaws, but they say the new law has put unprecedented attention on a serious problem of gender-based violence.
“It could use improvements in some areas, but it has helped to publicize the degree of the problem,” said Rocío García Gaytán, who was named by Calderón to head Mexico’s National Women’s Institute, or Inmujeres.
It is difficult to quantify violence against women in Mexico because it often is classified as a crime unrelated to the victim’s gender.

Inmujeres said in a March report that 78,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19 who live with a partner — or 13 percent — said they had suffered physical violence in the past year. In another indication of the size of the problem, Inmujeres said the number of calls to a national hotline to report violence against women increased 67 percent in 2006 from the previous year to more than 34,000, partly due to growing public awareness and greater willingness among women victims to report abuse.

The new law directs Inmujeres to coordinate a national education campaign about gender-based violence and women’s rights through the media and schools.

“The major problem is education, at home and at school,” said Inmujeres’ García Gaytán. “Government structures, the universities, all are controlled by men. Little by little we [women] are taking part in the decision-making. We are raising awareness.”


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