Trigger Warning: themes of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
A day after feminist protests were held around the world for International Women’s Day, March 8, Mexican women took it one step further and went on strike.
An estimated 57 percent of women in the Mexican workforce did not work, which could cost the country $1.5 billion in economic losses. While International Women’s Day protests in thirteen Mexican cities were historic in numbers, the March 9 strike was the first of its kind.
Most recent data by the Secretariat shows an average of ten women are murdered in Mexico every day.
These two events mark an awakening of women in a predominantly Catholic country of approximately 130 million. And while reproductive and LGBTQ rights are still points of contention, women agree on a crucial point: Violence against them—which is at a record high—needs to stop.
The women’s movement in Mexico has been gaining strength since 2016, when ultraconservative groups joined forces and created one large organization to push back against LGBTQ and women’s reproductive rights. This, in turn, drove a rise in the number of feminist protests, and protesters, in the capital city.
A second wave of new feminists came with the MeToo movement, which injected many Mexican women with the courage to address their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse for the first time.
This year, many more were driven by news of two gruesome murders that happened weeks before. On February 10, two newspapers published leaked photos of the mutilated body of a twenty-five-year-old woman who was murdered and skinned from head to toe by her boyfriend. Five days later, the body of a seven-year-old girl who had been reported missing was found in a plastic bag. She had been kidnapped, raped, and tortured.
Reporters have repeatedly asked President Andrés Manuel López Obrador about the rising number of women’s murders in the country. Last year was the country’s most violent year on record with 34,582 murders registered, according to information by the Public Security Secretariat, and while the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male, the violence has disproportionately affected women.
Most recent data by the Secretariat shows an average of ten women are murdered in Mexico every day—also the highest number on record. While not all of them are classified as femicides, 40 percent of them are killed by their romantic partners, according to the country’s statistics agency.
“I don’t want the theme of this press conference to be femicides,” López Obrador told reporters in early February.
Femicides, he said, have been used by his political opponents to “manipulate” and “distort” facts. He added that feminists are really “covert conservatives” working to attack him, and that previous “neoliberal” governments are to blame.
His comments drew a fierce backlash.
On February 18, a feminist group called Brujas del Mar (or “Witches of the Sea”), took to Twitter and called for all Mexican women to strike the day after the International Women’s Day protests.
“The strike brought hope. But right now, as we deal with social isolation due to the pandemic, we’ve had to get more creative and find ways to keep this momentum going.”
Their hashtag #UnDíaSinNosotras (#ADayWithoutUs) quickly went viral, flooding news feeds, and, after a few celebrities announced they were joining the strike, women across Mexico began announcing they would, too. The call included no women on the street, no one shopping, using public transport, doing housework, or even going on social media.
The crowded protests of March 8 were a sharp contrast to the quiet, mostly empty streets the next day. More than half of the women in the Mexican workforce were expected to strike, according to one poll. Estimates on the economic losses for that day range from thirty to thirty-seven billion pesos (around $1.5 billion U.S. dollars).
In response to this, López Obrador insisted on his strategy to end femicides, which is to tackle the “root causes” such as poverty and a poor education level, as the problem of women’s murders, he argues, is only a part of the larger problem of violence in the country.
In Mexico, the spectrum of gender-based violence is wide. Forty-four percent of women fifteen or older have reported being victims of domestic violence. In one year, almost eleven million women reported being intimidated, harassed, or sexually abused.
Evelyn, thirty-four, was sexually molested by a male relative when she was a child. Evelyn only began identifying as a feminist this year as her interest in the movement started to grow slowly when she had her first daughter two years ago.
“I started reading and looking into posts and information people shared on social media,” she says over the phone from her home, where she is currently working from to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“This has, of course, to do with the fact that I myself suffered sexual violence and abuse when I was a child,” Evelyn says. “I don’t want this to happen to my daughter, so I have to start doing something about it.”
Evelyn attended her first feminist protest on March 8 and went on strike the following day. Not all of her friends supported her decision, she says, but feminism has provided her something that her group of friends, so far, hasn’t: the empathy from fellow survivors of sexual violence.
“We are taught to keep those emotions inside, to not express what this did to you, but when you start to see that there’s a wave coming, a movement in which women are openly sharing their experiences and the consequences they’ve suffered because of them, you realize you are not the only one.”
Brujas del Mar, the organization that lead the labor strike, is working hard to capture the imagination and interest of women like Evelyn, who are joining the feminist movement for the first time.
“There’s been a collective awakening,” says Arussi Unda, a thirty-two-year-old marketing professional and spokeswoman for the organization.
“We’ve gotten countless messages from women that say ‘I want to be a feminist,’ ‘I want to be a part of this,’ and “How can I be a part of this?’ ” she says. “The strike brought hope. But right now, as we deal with social isolation due to the pandemic, we’ve had to get more creative and find ways to keep this momentum going.”
Brujas has addressed a risk that thousands of women in Mexico face as they are forced into isolation with their abusive partners for an indefinite period of time. The group is close to launching a hotline for these women, where they will be pointed to the right shelter or non-governmental organization that can help.
They are also putting together a network of female lawyers who are trained in gender studies to offer free legal advice over WhatsApp as well as setting up a center where folks can donate food to women who work in the informal sector—they are the most affected by a shutdown of the economy.
Beyond immediate coronavirus-related relief, the group is producing content to stream over Instagram Live on a range of topics, such as the science behind abortion, self-care, legal advice for those whose nude photos are distributed without their consent, a group psychoanalysis session, and a discussion on fat shaming.
For Evelyn, this is just the beginning of her life as a feminist fighting for equality and justice.
“I don’t want my daughter to go through what I went through,” she said, her voice breaking slightly. “I want the opposite, I want her to grow up in a place she feels safe and with equal opportunities, and the time to act toward that is not later, it is now.”