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Social change

Mexico is slowly inching towards gender justice

Mexico is inching towards gender justice, but progress remains too slow. Policymakers’ statements are strong, but many are not driven by deep convictions, so too few reforms are actually implemented. What really causes change is the pressure exerted by international organisations and the women’s rights movement.
Delfina Gómez, the first female governor of Edomex, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. picture-alliance/AP Photo/Marco Ugarte Delfina Gómez, the first female governor of Edomex, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The numbers look good. The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is proud of promoting women who are serving in its ranks in roles of leadership as well as in Congress and various public agencies. Indeed, the female share among top officials and policymakers has increased.

State elections were held this year in Mexico’s most populous state, the Estado de Mexico, which is often called Edomex to avoid confusion with the eponymous capital city and, indeed, the nation itself, which has the official name Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States). For the first time, both leading candidates were female. The winner was Delfina Gómez, who belongs to Morena, the centre-left party of President López Obrador. She will be the first woman to serve as governor of Edomex.

Of 32 Mexican states, 10 are now run by women. Moreover, women head eight of 19 federal secretariats (ministries). On the other hand, only 525 women currently serve as mayors, whereas men are in charge of 1486 municipal governments.

Machismo is omnipresent

These numbers can – and should – be read as progress. Nonetheless, the nation is only inching towards gender justice slowly and still has a long way to go. Policymakers are paying attention to women’s rights, but they mostly do so under the pressure of international institutions and women’s rights groups. Only few politicians are personally committed to the matter, while most have only adopted feminist rhetoric because it is useful. Women vote after all.

In spite of all the talk, machoism and blatantly gynophobic attitudes remain widespread. Again and again, we read reports of high-ranking officials who support gender mainstreaming in public, but then refuse to grant maternity leave or ignore complaints about underlings sexually molesting women. Even worse, they sometimes are sexually abusive themselves. It is common for politicians and civil servants to pay lip service to gender equity because that is expected of them. The same persons, however, often belittle women’s achievements and dignity, for example on social media. There is also a pattern of members of the security forces making headlines by perpetrating violence within their own families.

The plain truth is that a culture of machismo marks Mexico and probably all of Latin America. This toxic understanding of masculinity is at the root of various forms of gender-based violence. Since it is deeply rooted in traditions and norms over centuries, many people do not really notice it. Internationally, however, Mexico has a reputation of femicide due to the large number of murdered women.

Femicide is all too common

On the occasion of international women’s day on 8 March 2023, López Obrador declared that his presidency, which he likes to call “the fourth transformation”, is feminist. Whether that is so, remains to be seen. In view of the angry demands made by rallying women, he may yet declare feminists to be his adversaries. It is quite possible that the president will try to divert attention from the fact that his government is ignoring legitimate demands of women by blaming them of undermining his government.

In spite of his grand words, femicide is still all too common. Impunity is common too, as neither prosecutors nor the police show much eagerness or efficiency in tackling the problem.

International pressure

As a matter of fact, much of the progress made regarding women’s rights results from international institutions and agreements. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights is important, for example, and so are UN Women, UNICEF, ECLAC (the Economic Commission for Latin America) as well as civil-society organisations like Save the Children. International agencies regularly publish reports on things like child abuse, child marriage, human trafficking, labour exploitation and various forms of violence. Experience shows that demands raised in the international arena do indeed have impacts at the grassroots level.

An important step this year was the reform of alimony law. Parents who do not contribute to their children’s sustenance will henceforth be registered. The idea is to protect minors, but the law also helps single mothers who often bear the costs of their children’s upkeep and education alone.

Women’s demands

Women’s rights groups now regularly rally on 8 March, and their demands far exceed the issue of gender-based violence. They want other topics to figure in public debate as well. State agencies are responding.

This year, for instance, Inmujeres (Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres – National Women’s Institute) announced it would do more to promote science and technology education for girls. The UN had earlier emphasised the relevance of ensuring that women and girls get “full, equal and meaningful” involvement in science, technology and innovation. In education and employment, gender disparities remain large in Mexico.

In the past decade, women’s organisations have also focused increasingly on reproductive rights. One result is governmental efforts to reduce the high rate of teenage pregnancies.

In 2021, Mexico’s Supreme Court decided that the general prohibition of abortion was unconstitutional. Abortion is now allowed when rape is the reason of the pregnancy, when the mother’s life is at risk or when the child is genetically disabled. Five states even permit abortion for any other personal reason in the first 12 weeks.

Facing many difficulties, feminist groups in Mexico and various public institutions are committed to gender equality, the 5th UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5). At various levels of governance, efforts are being made to achieve it – or at least to appear to be doing so.

Virginia Mercado is a researcher at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México and an instructor in peace and development studies.