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Violence against women

“We’re here to tell it:” Mexican women break silence over femicides

03 July 2023

A woman holds a cross reading "no more missing" during a march demanding justice for the victims of gender violence and femicides in Mexico City, Mexico. © REUTERS/Raquel Cunha.

Jeysol Amaya was stabbed 37 times by her former partner and spent two months in intensive care. Amaya is still coping with emotional trauma from the 2015 attack, along with hospital and legal bills she incurred in her fight for justice.

“He is still free, and I live with fear every day,” said Amaya, a former club dancer who lives in the city of Campeche in southern Mexico. “How do I know he is not going to try to do something when I go out to the street?”

Amaya is a survivor of attempted femicide, a hate crime defined as the intentional killing of women and girls because of their gender.

In Mexico, some 10 women and girls are killed every day by intimate partners or other family members, according to government data. The crimes have sparked several waves of protests and put gender violence at the top of Mexico’s political agenda.

But those who survive gender-based violence are often left without protection or justice, said Mexican journalist Gloria Piña.

“We hear a lot of stories about killings of women in Mexico, but we don’t hear about the women who survive these extreme acts of violence,” said Piña, who won the 2023 Breach/Valdez Award for Journalism and Human Rights for her documentary “The Survivors: Forgotten by Justice.”

Rallying cry

Told through interviews with survivors, lawyers and women’s rights defenders, the documentary has galvanized calls for reform to end gender-based violence in the Latin American country and has become a rallying cry for women to break their silence and forge alliances with other survivors to rebuild their lives.

The Breach/Valdez Award was created by the UN Human Rights office in Mexico, other UN agencies in that country and several organizations to recognize the work of journalists on human rights issues in Mexico.

“I thought it was important to tell their story. When you don’t name something, it is as if it does not exist. But when you name it, we can make a change,” Piña said.

Mexican journalist Gloria Piña won the 2023 Breach/Valdez Award for Journalism and Human Rights for her documentary on Mexican women who survived gender-based violence. © OHCHR

Mexican journalist Gloria Piña won the 2023 Breach/Valdez Award for Journalism and Human Rights for her documentary on Mexican women who survived gender-based violence. © OHCHR

Negligence and legal loopholes

For her research, Piña reviewed complaints and court sentences across the country, documenting how legal loopholes, negligence, a lack of gender perspective in the legal system and harmful social norms allow a vast majority of violent attacks against women to go unpunished, leaving victims like Amaya unprotected and without reparation, and in many cases with little or no accountability for the perpetrators.

According to the documentary, Mexican prosecutors over the last eight years have opened 1.7 million criminal investigations for beatings, burns, strangulation, injuries with knives or firearms against women. Out of these, only 781 were initiated as attempted femicide. The rest were categorized as malicious injury or domestic abuse, crimes which carry lower sanctions.

Failure to prosecute such attacks as attempted femicide despite overwhelming evidence downplays the scale of the problem of violence against women and fuels a culture of impunity, Piña said. Most of the survivors in her documentary live in fear of being attacked again by the same perpetrators, who remain free or are awaiting trial.

“The message the legal system is sending is that in Mexico there is impunity and that a woman can be attacked or killed,” Piña said. “Not only are there no legal consequences for killing women, but the State will do nothing to protect or financially take care of the victims,” she said.

Piña blamed the problem on gender bias by judges and prosecutors, and on deep-rooted social and cultural patterns that discriminate against women.

“There is a responsibility of the State to protect women from being killed and to properly prosecute cases of attempted femicide, but this institutional neglect is part of a larger structural problem in Mexican culture,” she said.

Survivors of attempted femicide want justice so they can rebuild their personal and emotional lives.

Mexican journalist Gloria Piña.

Tip of the iceberg

Despite the staggering numbers shown in the documentary, the plight of survivors of gender violence is only the tip of the iceberg, Piña said.

According to government figures, 2,481 women and girls were officially reported as “missing” in 2022, though civil society groups say the real number is higher. The disappearances of women in Mexico hide other forms of violence against women, including femicide, kidnapping and human trafficking, civil society groups say.

Women hold crosses in a protest against femicide and violence against women outside the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico. © REUTERS/Edgard Garrido.

Women hold crosses in a protest against femicide and violence against women outside the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico. © REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Most cases involving violence against women remain invisible. Many victims decide not to file a complaint for fear of being stigmatized, or to avoid a costly and cumbersome legal process that can drag on for years without any punishment for the perpetrators, Piña said.

Femicide is the most extreme and brutal manifestation of violence against women, and it affects all regions and countries. In Mexico, femicide was added to the penal code in 2012, following public outcry over years of highly publicized killings of women and young girls.

UN Human Rights in Mexico is supporting government institutions and civil society groups to end gender-based violence. Initiatives are aimed at improving the prosecution of femicide cases by bolstering due diligence and training forensic doctors and court officials to incorporate a gender perspective into their work.

The Office also works with the National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women (Conavim) on gender-based violence emergency policies, and provides psychosocial support to victims.

Jesus Peña Palacios, deputy head of the UN Human Rights Office in Mexico, said that while Mexico has implemented several measures to address violence against women, more needs to be done.

“Violence against women is a top priority for the Office and we have been working with the government and civil society for years on prevention and State policies,” he said, adding that an overload of cases, poor funding and failure by law enforcement officials to properly investigate cases of gender-based violence are also to blame.

“As the documentary explains, a better gender approach is necessary to carry out proper investigations and prosecute femicide cases more efficiently,” Peña Palacios said.

Rebuilding their lives

The women who appear in the documentary have turned their haunting experiences into a struggle for justice and have formed support groups that are helping them heal from loss and emotional pain. They starkly relate the intimate details of the abuse that they have experienced, and the day-to-day struggle to reclaim their dignity.

“The entire idea of the documentary is to show how these women are rebuilding their lives,” Piña said. “It is as if by healing their wounds they become more solid and stronger after the violence they have experienced.”

Such is the story of Carolina Ramírez Suárez, who was kidnapped and brutally tortured by her estranged husband after she fell ill and needed care. The husband received a minimum sentence for attempted homicide and died in prison, while Ramírez Suárez received $ 750 in reparation from the State.

“When you are subjected to violence of this magnitude it is as if you are first broken in pieces,” said Ramírez Suárez, who now leads a support group for women survivors of gender violence.

“Then it's like putting your pieces back together, knowing that the healing has to do with your emotional part, with your energy, with your heart, with your way of connecting with the world. Survivors also tell and we live to tell.”