'We'll disappear': Thousands of Mexican women strike to protest femicide

Day Without Women protesters aim to shine a light on government inaction as more than ten women are murdered every day

As rush-hour began on Monday morning, there were no ticket-sellers in Mexico City subway stations.

Nor were there female tellers at many of the banks. Nail salons, massage parlors, and hairdressers closed. And in cities across the country, far fewer women were on the streets than on an ordinary day.

Countless thousands of women and girls across Mexico have joined a historic strike to protest against the country’s startling rates of gender-based violence – and the government’s failure to respond to the crisis in which more than ten women are murdered every day.

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From factories along the Río Grande to businesses in the capital and offices in cities near the Guatemalan border, women and girls joined the unprecedented protest, billed as a Day Without Women.

The strike sent a clear message to Mexican society, said Sandra Reyes, 33, a biologist at the National Cancer Institute, who was one of at least 80,000 people who joined the country’s largest ever women’s march on Sunday.

“In some ways, it’s a taunt: if you do not want us out here in the streets, we’ll disappear,” she said.

Many marchers on Sunday expressed frustration with the country’s federal and state authorities: most murder cases go unsolved, and families often search for the missing on their own.

Elsa Arísta González, who founded a Facebook group to report disappearances and abuse in the city of Nezahualcóyotl, in Mexico state, said that people were fed up with the impunity.

Thousands of women march against gender-based violence in Cancun, Mexico Sunday.
Thousands of women march against gender-based violence in Cancun, Mexico Sunday. Photograph: Alonso Cupul/EPA

“We used to be able to walk home from school alone, and leave open the door to your house. Not anymore,” said Arista González, 40, a law student and coffee shop employee. “We’ve become used to living in fear.”

But many protesters have reserved particular fury for the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December 2018 on a promise of sweeping change, but has shown little interest in the issue of violence against women.

The president, popularly known as Amlo, has attributed femicides to the “neoliberal policies” of previous governments and repeatedly suggested that the women’s protests are part of a rightwing plot against him.

On Monday, he repeated the allegation, saying that women were free to protest, but claiming that some “wanted our administration to fail”.

“For a whole year, this government has responded with promises to the people’s demands. But the situation for women has not improved. Women are facing the same kinds of violence as before and the country has become even more militarized. Nothing has changed,” said Alejandra Santamaría, 28, a law professor.

Though some women continued to work in shops, cafes, and restaurants – often for fear of being docked pay – far fewer women than usual were riding the subway to work.

“The strike has given us the chance to challenge our labor conditions. The question is whether we’ll be able to keep up the social pressure,” said Nélida Reyes Guzmán, 56, a striking metro worker.

Many businesses supported the strike and told their female employees to stay at home, and some women worried that the backing of mainstream politicians and major business had diluted some of its ideological force.

But others argued that the such support merely showed the strength of the women’s cause.

“Without us, all of this collapses,” said Paula León García, 33, the director of one of the closed branches of BBVA Bancomer, Mexico’s largest bank.

Women’s strikes have been held previously in Argentina and Chile, as well as Poland and Spain. But Amneris Chaparro, a researcher at the gender studies center at the National Autonomous University, said Mexico had never before had a major women’s strike – despite its long tradition of labor and student activism.

But the spiraling death toll of women and girls targeted for their gender – and a horrific recent string of high-profile crimes – has inspired new passion in the country’s women’s movement.

“Every day we have more evidence that they are killing us specifically for being women,” said Maria de la Luz Estrada, the executive coordinator of the National Citizen Observatory on Femicide.

“If this government wants a transformation of this county, they have to face the problem.”

Maya Averbuch in Mexico City

The GuardianTramp

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