Millions of women in Mexico expected to strike over femicides

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Millions of women in Mexico are expected to skip school, work and social activities on Monday in a 24-hour strike against gender-based violence and impunity for perpetrators.

“This is a call for women to disappear for one day,” Estrella Nunez, a Mexican psychologist, told Al Jazeera before Monday’s action, the first all-women labour strike in the country’s history.

“In a country that has done little to resolve the femicides that afflict us, the disappearances, and the violence that affects us every day, we want society to resent our absence,” Nunez said.

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The strike comes amid increasing outrage against the prevalence of violence against women and what feminist groups say is inaction by the government and authorities.

The number of femicides jumped more than 137 percent over the past five years, according to Mexican government statistics. An average of 10 women were killed a day in 2019. More than 40 percent of women who were victims of violence knew their perpetrator, Reuters news agency reported. 

In the first month of 2020 alone, 320 women were murdered, Mexican authorities said. Seventy-three of those killings were recorded as femicides.

Monday’s strike gained widespread support following the murder and torture of Fatima Aldriguett, a seven-year-old girl, whose body was found wrapped in a plastic bag next to a construction site last month. Days earlier, thousands protested against the murder of 25-year-old Ingrid Escamilla, whose body was mutilated and skinned by her alleged partner. Gruesome images of her corpse were displayed on the front page of some Mexican newspapers, prompting outrage.

“In Mexico, the violence keeps spreading, today there is no state in the country that is safe for a woman to live,” Nunez said.

In a country where the justice system is plagued by inefficiency and corruption, only one in 10 murders are solved.

“The violence keeps increasing because it’s possible,” said Andrea Lorena Camacho, an accountant in Mexico City.

“In Mexico, nothing happens, and as long as there are no consequences, it will continue growing,” she told Al Jazeera.

Mexico femicides

Translation: ‘Femicides: Hate crime that involves the murder of a woman because she is a woman’. [Sofia Weidner/Al Jazeera]

The strike follows a day of marches and rallies across Mexico and Latin America that marked International Women’s Day.

In Mexico City, tens of thousands of women poured into the streets on Saturday. Many wore purple, the colour of International Women’s Day. Others waved signs reading: “Alive they took them, and alive we want them” or “Fight today so we don’t die tomorrow.”

“There is not a single woman in Mexico who has not experienced some type of sexist violence,” said Sofia Weidner, an illustrator and artist in Mexico City.

 “These are secrets we keep under the table, but we have started to communicate,” Weidner told Al Jazeera. 

Mexico protests

Women march during International Women’s Day in Mexico City. [Eduardo Verdugo/AP]

‘They’ve underestimated us’

If women participate in large numbers as expected, the strike, largely leaderless, could affect the country’s economy, some economists say.

Some 22 million women are active in working spaces. They make up about 40 percent of the total workforce. According to the Confederation of National Chambers of Commerce Services and Tourism in Mexico, if they all stopped working for one day the country could see economic losses of up to 26 billion pesos ($1.3bn).

“We are exhausted,” said Arussi Unda, the spokeswoman of Brujas del Mar (Sea witches), a feminist group in the state of Veracruz that is helping to mobilise the strike.

“They’ve underestimated us, so much that they think the feminist movement is orchestrated by a man,” she added.

The potential economic effects have some second-guessing whether a strike is the right action to take.

“I believe this crisis affects everyone, the violence is not solely against women, but against kids and men,” said Maria Seli Segovia, a Mexican psychologist in Toluca.

“On top of that, not everyone has the privilege of skipping one day of work, in a country where the minimum wage is 123 pesos ($6.12 dollars), skipping one day can be really dramatic,” she told Al Jazeera by phone. “Some sectors will be [naturally] excluded, so instead of helping, they are causing them a problem.”

Mexico femicide

Women paint the names of femicide victims as part of a protest marking International Women’s Day, at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico [Gustavo Graf/Reuters] 

But others say such actions are necessary in a country where violence against women has become the norm.

“I would like the critics to imagine finding the woman they love most in their life, raped and murdered with her underwear inside her stomach,” Unda said. “Or seeing the murderer of your girlfriend walking free with total impunity and even laughing at your face, of course, when we see these things happening, we want to burn and break it all.”

‘What are his priorities as president?’

The strike and women’s demands have become a challenge to left-wing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who won the 2017 elections under the promise of tackling violence.

The murder of Escamilla and Aldriguett shocked the nation, prompting louder calls to improve protection to women.

In response, the president offered 10 vague statements that did not include any specific action.

When confronted on Escamilla’s murder he said he did not want the news conference to focus only on femicides.

“It is really clear that the issue has been manipulated … Those who don’t like us take advantage of any circumstances to generate a campaign of defamation,” he said, prompting further outrage by feminist groups.

Days later, when reporters again questioned him on the murders instead of a planned raffle to raise money for the country’s health services, he responded he did not want “femicides to overshadow the lottery”.

“I can’t even describe [my anger],” a Mexican activist who did not wish to give her name said. 

“We are talking about a national emergency … and we have two cases that really blew everything up, and then the president says, no, don’t get distracted, this is not important,” she told Al Jazeera. “So what’s important, what are his priorities as president?”

In a later conference, AMLO said he fully supported the women’s cause, adding that his employees could join the walkout.

A recent poll by Consulta Mitofsky suggested that the president’s approval rating among women fell about 3 percent from January to February to 52.7 percent. About 59.2 percent of men approved of the president in February, a drop of 0.6 points from 59.8 percent the previous month. 

Mexico will hold mid-term legislative elections next year, which could cost Lopez Obrador’s party its control of Congress if he is not able to stop the fall of support among women.

“It seems to me that the government perceives the protests as a direct attack on the public policies … and the president himself,” said Lillian Briseno, an historian and academic at the Monterrey Institute of Technology.

“I suppose that showing some empathy towards the movement can be understood as an admission of guilt … and in that sense, it’s better not to show support,” Briseno told Al Jazeera.

Unda added that the government will “have to listen”. 

“As much as they want to ignore the strike, the white elephant in the room is too big, they won’t be able to ignore us for much longer,” she said.

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