Tens of thousands of women, perhaps many more, disappeared in Mexico on Monday. They vanished from the streets, from cafes, from shops and factories and offices. Their absence was a manifestation of their fury, a demonstration of how impoverished the country would be without them, and a symbolic representation of the women who are for ever missing from the country, having been murdered because they are women.
The homicide rate has risen sharply in recent years: more than 10 women a day are being killed. Two particularly horrific crimes have galvanised action. The first was the murder of 25-year-old Ingrid Escamilla last month, and the publication of pictures of her mutilated body by local media. The second, days later, was the abduction, torture and murder of a seven-year-old girl, Fátima Cecilia Aldrighett Antón.
But Monday’s women’s strike, and the mammoth demonstration that preceded it on Sunday, targeted not only the perpetrators, but authorities that have failed to tackle the violence. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has shown at best indifference to the problem and at worst indignation that women are protesting against it. He has blamed femicides on the “neoliberal” policies of his predecessors, and portrayed feminist activism as part of a rightwing plot against him, suggesting that some of the campaigners want his administration to fail. Last month, when a reporter asked about femicides, he grumbled that he didn’t want the issue to overshadow his plans to raffle off the presidential plane.
The protest movement is much more than an expression of mourning for those denied their lives. It is a necessary social response to a social problem, in Mexico and around the globe (the UK too has seen a rise in female homicide victims). While the rate and patterns of violence vary immensely, nowhere is immune. “In rich and poor countries, in developed and developing regions, a total of 50,000 women per year are killed by their current and former partners, fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters and other family members because of their role and status as women,” a United Nations report found in 2018.
In Mexico and elsewhere, the problem of femicide, and the abuse of women more broadly, is not only a problem of violent men. It is also the problem of the laws and cultures that permit and reproduce them. The song A Rapist in Your Path, created by a Chilean feminist collective, has been taken up in countries from France to Kenya because when it urges “let the machistas tremble” it means not only perpetrators, but “the cops, the judges, the state, the president”. The UN report calls not only for better laws, but also better coordination between agencies. It urges countries to adopt approaches that are women-centred, rather than those that treat women as “objects of protection or sources of evidence”.
In reality, the wave of rightwing populism and authoritarianism around the world is harming women’s rights (and Amlo’s record suggests that left-leaning administrations do not always serve their interests better). In Russia, a 2017 law decriminalised domestic abuse if the incidents happened no more than once a year, and caused no lasting physical damage. Women’s rights activists said the change was followed by a sharp rise in domestic violence – often involving repeated assaults and police inaction. Yet the case of three sisters accused of murdering their abusive father has become a cause celebre and appears to have prompted something of a shift in public attitudes.
Mexico’s strike drew upon those held in Argentina, Poland, Spain and elsewhere, as well as the country’s own traditions of activism. Women are demanding that their lives be valued. Feminist campaigners face a backlash, expressed at times in physical violence as well as verbal abuse and threats. Yet we are seeing a wave of women’s protest around the world, from the #NiUnaMenos – “not one less” – movement against gender-based abuse and killings, which began in Argentina, to the #MeToo movement and onwards. The need for it is enraging. But the activism is remarkable, courageous and inspiring.