Mexico: From Women’s Uprising To COVID-19 Crisis

Will Lopez Obrador’s progressive government do a better job of addressing the extra burdens women will carry during a time of social distancing?

Laura Carlsen Apr 13, 2020

MEXICO CITY — A crowd of 100,000 people, nearly all women, marched in Mexico’s capital on International Women’s Day. Thousands who had never demonstrated before, high school students and their mothers, housewives, feminist activists, punks, journalists, sex workers and factory workers, and the mothers of women disappeared and assassinated protested in the streets. 

“We are the voice of those who have no voice,” their signs read. “My body is mine, I decide.” And simply, urgently, “End femicide.” 

The following day, Mexican women staged an unprecedented stay-at-home strike demanding an end to violence and recognition of women’s contributions to society.

As in the rest of the world, the explosion of women’s activism had been building up long before March 8. Thousands of women participated in purple wave of marches against violence, Mexico’s #MeToo movement and protests for the right to choose abortion. Each time, their actions brought grief and grievance to the surface and paved the way for more women to seek out collective action. From these mobilizations, a powerful new generation of feminists has emerged over the past few years. 

The left-wing government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador came to power in the midst of this feminist uprising. AMLO, as he’s known, immediately delivered on a central promise — equal representation of women in government. His cabinet is made up of 50 percent women, and half of Mexico’s Congressional members are women, thanks to the overwhelming victory of his left-wing party, MORENA. Women in positions of power include the Mayor of Mexico City and half of the cabinet. After AMLO’s inauguration in December of 2018, expectations for change ran high among many Mexican feminists.

Many women pointed out that one can’t simply decree a non-sexist government, and women’s political representation and a ruler’s left-wing origins are no guarantee.

Those expectations, unfulfilled, have now fueled the indignation that rose to the surface of national politics in March. Femicides have increased 137 percent over five years ago. A killing is considered a femicide when the victim is a woman or girl who has suffered degrading bodily injuries, sexual violence or is the victim of an intimate partner. As gender violence rises, the government of the people — despite its declarations and women’s representation in power — doesn’t seem to get the message that hundreds of thousands of Mexican women are sending.

AMLO’s Woman Problem

Mexico traditionally commemorates International Women’s Day on March 8. This year saw an additional action when a small feminist collective called for a women’s strike on March 9 and it snowballed into a national movement. For one day, the Women’s Strike transformed the face of daily life. The normally crowded subways ran half empty, restaurants and bars were desolate and many businesses could barely function. The business sector estimated the cost at $1.25 billion. But more than the economic or even symbolic impact, the strike revealed a crucial political reality: Mexico’s new left-wing government has a serious woman problem. 

The “woman problem” has historically referred to how to fairly include women in society, a challenge that despite advances in rhetoric has still not been resolved. 

For progressive governments, women’s inequality cannot be one issue among many, or a task to put on a to-do list, or an aspect of “superstructure” that will dissolve in a hypothetical post-capitalist society. What’s at stake is granting full citizenship to half the population that has been denied it under patriarchal laws and institutions. What’s at stake is guaranteeing a life free of violence and fear to those who have major responsibility for reproducing and sustaining life, inculcating values and holding family and community together. A government can aspire to a society where these tasks are more equally shared between men and women, but first it must recognize the work women do.

From the beginning, President Lopez Obrador viewed the women’s strike as an attack on his government. In his daily press conferences, he belittled the feminist initiative as an unnecessary protest, described the potential economic cost an act of sabotage, and cited support from right-wing opposition forces as proof of its partisan motives. 

AMLO alleged that conservative forces were behind it, as if women had no cause of their own, and called for women to “not allow themselves to be manipulated.” He warned that the right “sometimes promotes these movements against progressive governments” and cited the pot-banging caracolazos of upper-class Chilean women as a prelude to the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende — a historical comparison that galled many Mexican feminists and demonstrated the self-referential framework that has limited his understanding of the movement.

Just as women planned a strong statement of ‘no business as usual without us’ to protest violence against them, the president insisted on business as usual. The next day, he defiantly announced there would be no change in his criminal justice strategy, ignoring women’s demands for immediate gender-focused actions such as the appointment of a special prosecutor for femicides, demilitarization of the war on drugs and greater access to justice for crimes of gender violence.

The president’s response to women’s demands during the period around the March mobilizations may have permanently distanced his government from a natural base of support, although AMLO’s woman problem reached crisis proportions even before the March demonstrations. 

In the early part of the year, several grisly murders of women sparked feminist protests where activists doused politicians in pink glitter to call them out and spray-painted statues and monuments. President Lopez Obrador decried the vandalism, leading to accusations that he valued symbols of the state over women’s lives. 

Criticism in social media exploded when he responded to the rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl saying that gender violence is the result of the loss of values under neoliberalism. In a country that registers ten femicides a day, feminists were enraged at the idea that the violence could be solely attributed to his predecessors’ economic model and that the “Fourth Transformation,” as AMLO calls his government’s reform program, would automatically resolve the problem by changing values. 

With the pandemic, millions of women are struggling with the loss of income and the increase of unpaid care work at home.

The differences got worse with a rash of declarations from a president who seemed to be tone-deaf to women’s issues. On March 6, AMLO stated that he is not a “feminist,” but rather a “humanist,’ reinforcing the myth that feminism does not address everyone’s wellbeing and ignoring it aim: to correct a fundamental imbalance of power in society. He regularly insisted that parity in political representation is an endpoint rather than a condition of equality, and stated that in his government “we are not machos, we come from a movement of the left.”

Many women pointed out that, as with racism, one can’t simply decree a nonsexist government and women’s political representation and a ruler’s left-wing origins are no guarantee. Lopez Obrador also affirmed his belief that gender violence is essentially general violence committed against the weaker sex, and that what women need is protection and what men need is correction, reflecting zero analysis of the role of gender violence in maintaining male privilege or oppressing an entire group of people.

A Gendered Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

Missteps and an underestimation of women’s discontent and their civic power led to a fissure between the progressive government and growing women’s movements, despite the widespread support MORENA received from women in the elections. 

Mexican women are profoundly angry at being forced to attend classes with their aggressors, to walk their own streets in fear, to console friends who have been raped or weep for others abducted or murdered — to bury pain that finds no societal acknowledgement. Mexico’s women’s uprising is not driven by opposition forces, even if they do occasionally jump on the bandwagon, but by a reaction to a lived experience that women are no longer willing to accept as normal.

Their rage has reached a breaking point. This should not be viewed as a threat to a left-wing government. It should be seen as a potent force for transformation. But instead Mexico’s president reacted defensively. Mexico has yet to see focused, urgent measures to stop the targeted violence against women.

In all fairness, Lopez Obrador is not alone among progressive leaders in his myopic view of feminism and its radical and necessary power for social change. His woman problem can offer lessons on what’s missing in other left-wing platforms. What does an acceptable response to AMLO’s tone-deafness look like? There is no blueprint and Mexico’s diverse movements have reacted in many ways. However, the coronavirus crisis offers a critical and timely test case for how to answer that question, or not.

When the virus hit Mexico, the Lopez Obrador government sought to strike a balance between public health and economic survival. 

COVID-19 is a serious challenge for a country where 52 million people live in poverty and millions more teeter on the edge. The government, following the lead of its counterparts around the world, has now recommended isolating in the home. 

“The family in Mexico is the most important institution of social security,” AMLO noted. “We live in communion and we practice solidarity, fraternity in our families. This has always protected us. It’s a great institution that will now be put to the test.” 

His statement, meant to be encouraging, reflects a willful denial of the contradictions and power relations within the family and how they affect women and children. All data shows that the home is actually the most dangerous place for women, with most aggressions originating there. The Mexican extended family is famous for its close bonds, but also for domestic violence.

The government has explicitly recognized the likelihood of an increase in domestic violence for women cooped up with aggressors during the COVID-19 crisis. But all they’ve offered are publicity campaigns against violence, advice to call 911 and other emergency numbers. These are weak measures that add nothing to existing services. 

At the same time, the AMLO government is defunding women-run shelters for battered women and children and independent childcare centers. A feminist response would minimally include phone lines with specially trained staff, expanded battered women’s shelters, alternatives for isolation and rapid identification of and attention to at-risk women. 

The economic implications of the coronavirus in Mexico also have a sex-differentiated impact and call for gender-specific responses that the government has not proposed. 

During the critical early phase of the virus, the AMLO administration announced additional pensions for the elderly. Support for care work and programs for single mothers were not included in the economic measures, even though the president was fully aware that women would be required to take on the added workload.

 “It’s a well-known fact that especially daughters take care of parents, us men aren’t so involved, but daughters are always concerned for their mothers and fathers,” Lopez Obrador said proudly at a press conference March 24. “That’s why we have millions of nurses.” 

What happens to women who care for their elderly parents, deal with children out of school for weeks and see their sources of income shut down? His government has so far provided no answers. 

Even with a progressive government that has declared gender equality a goal, women continue to be exploited without laws or regulations. Instead of recognizing and offering compensation for caregiving work at a time of crisis, the government called for more equal distribution of care work in the family — a call that unfortunately has gone unheeded for decades. With the pandemic, millions of women are struggling with the loss of income and the increase of unpaid care work at home. Women’s care work in the paid economies of childcare, elder care, sex work and domestic work receives the fewest protections and the lowest wages. 

Instead of offering relief to caregivers, the AMLO administration announced delivery of 4.5 billion pesos ($190 million) in additional funds to the armed forces to confront the virus. The military is an imminently patriarchal institution. Hundreds of complaints of human rights violations, including rape and sexual violence, have been filed against the armed forces. 

It may be difficult to roll back the expanded role in civilian society the military has been given when the pandemic is over. This is a danger for women. Health workers, including nursing staff comprised of 79 percent women, are protesting in the streets over a lack of funding, protective equipment and basic supplies for treating the onslaught of patients.

The lines are not yet drawn in this battle. 

On March 8 there were few calls for a change in government; most were calls demanding action. After first calling feminist protests a “provocation,” Mexico City’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, opened up a dialogue with feminist groups and hired a special prosecutor for femicides. There is hope the federal government will follow that lead and begin to listen more and shield itself less. 

The lesson of Bolivia, where some feminist groups supported a coup and ended up with a right-wing, fundamentalist regime, is not lost. But the fact remains that Mexico’s first democratically-elected, progressive government has to radically reorient itself to respond to women’s demands. And the women’s protests — larger, louder and more militant than ever — will not go away until it does.

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