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Gender relations

Unequal opportunities

by Virginia Mercado

In depth

Role models matter: Yalitza Aparicio (right) was nomitated for, but did not win an Oscar for her role in Roma, which won the award for the best foreign language film while the jury considered Alfonso Cuaron (centre) the best director.

Role models matter: Yalitza Aparicio (right) was nomitated for, but did not win an Oscar for her role in Roma, which won the award for the best foreign language film while the jury considered Alfonso Cuaron (centre) the best director.

In regard to gender equity, Mexico has progressive laws. Nonetheless, women face multiple discrimination in daily life. The road to true gender equality remains long.

In every culture, specific mechanisms and structures cause men and women to assume different roles. Mexico is a multicultural country, but nonetheless, some aspects of women’s roles are the same throughout the nation. Specific groups add aspects of their own, but long-established behaviour patterns and traditions matter very much. In general, sensitivity, a willingness to forgive, fragility, humility, obedience and taciturnity are considered specifically female traits.

Age-old gender stereotypes permeate relationships. That is true both in urban and rural areas. Many women have to ask their husbands for permission if they want to find a job or study at a university. Typically, men are in control of money and the family’s property. Most parents decide to pass on their fortune exclusively to their sons. Moreover, they prioritise the sons’ education. These attitudes limit women’s independence and restrict their influence. The rules of patriarchy are unwritten, but they seem so self-evident that even women endorse them.

Women are expected to always look pretty and attractive. It is their job to keep alive their partner’s sexual desire. That both husband and wife are responsible for the success of a marriage is increasingly acknowledged. That is also true of both having important roles to play in raising children. Nonetheless, women typically bear the main burden of managing relationships and looking after children. They are also the ones who take care of sick or elderly relatives. Household chores are left to them as well.

When our women’s soccer team wins a game, more sexist comments are posted than congratulations on social media. The same trend was evident when Yalitza Aparicio, an indigenous actor, was nominated for an Oscar. Social-media comments stated that she neither looked good nor acted convincingly. Sexist and racist attitudes obviously still prevail in many Mexican minds.

It is becoming ever more evident that women long for encouragement, deserve to be promoted and need safe spaces to interact with one another. Women’s solidarity has begun to grow, but all too often, women take part in criticising other women without noticing that they themselves are affected – at least potentially. That is the case, when sexual abuse is discussed on social media, for example. Far too many comments focus on how the victim behaved. All too often, women are the authors.

On the upside, the #MeToo movement is making a difference. It has revealed just how normal it is for women to suffer sexualised aggression in many different contexts, from family life to the workplace, from schools to government institutions. It is generally estimated that 3 million sexually abusive incidents occurred from 2010 to 2015, ranging from molestation to rape. In the vast majority of these cases, no charges were filed, as the governmental Executive Commission for Paying Attention to Victims (Comisión Ejecutiva de Atención a Víctimas – CEAV) reports. Femicide, the murder of women, is another major issue (see box).


Fathers don’t drop out of school

Education is the key to changing established power structures. Even though the law enshrines equal access to education for people of either sex, lecturers still ask young women who study engineering, for example, why they have chosen a male curriculum. If a young woman chooses a course considered more suitably female, however, it is often joked that she is just bridging time until her wedding. If a girl or young woman gets pregnant, she drops out of school or university – not the father. At the same time, families put young women under pressure to marry and have babies. The strong influence of the Catholic Church, moreover, means that virginity and motherhood are of great symbolic importance. This context helps to understand why abortion is increasingly being criminalised in Mexico. In the past, abortions were legal in most Mexican states:

  • when a woman was a rape victim,
  • when her health was at risk, or
  • when the physical or mental health of the child was at risk.

Some conservative states, however, have recently passed more rigid legislation. For example, Nuevo León in the Northeast has ruled out abortion altogether. The state constitution was amended with the goal of protecting life, starting at the moment of conception. Abortion is now illegal there, even after rape. Prison sentences are possible.

Mexico City is the only place where it is legal to terminate a pregnancy in the first 12 weeks. Nonetheless, pro-life groups try to influence women’s decisions. It adds to the problems that women who have had an abortion are often ostracised socially.

Another serious issue is child marriage. According to Girls not Brides, an international umbrella organisation of civil-society agencies, 26 % of girls in Mexico are married before the age of 18 and four percent are even married before their 15th birthday. To protect the rights of children and youth, the Senate last year adopted reforms of civil law that rule out child marriage.

There have been embarrassing episodes in politics moreover. Obligated to meet gender quotas in municipal elections, parties listed female candidates, but later put them under pressure to step down in favour of their male deputies. Mexicans use the word “Juanitas” to describe this practice.

On the other hand, 241 women and 259 men are currently members of the national assembly, while 63 women and 65 men serve as senators. According to the national election commission (Instituto Nacional Electoral – INE), the two top-tier legislative bodies were never before this close to gender parity. However, there are still only two female governors (of 31) and only 545 female mayors (of about 2,400).

Changing the attitudes that lead to gender inequality in Mexico is a long-term task. Permanent awareness raising and teaching are necessary, and so are laws and policies that ensure that every person, whether man or woman, can claim their full rights. Women in positions of leadership can make a difference – not least because they serve as role models.


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