Mexico finds it's not easy to end violence against women

Martha, 43, fled her home after police in the state of Mexico refused to stop her husband from beating her.
Martha, 43, fled her home after police in the state of Mexico refused to stop her husband from beating her. Franco Ordonez / MCT

MEXICO CITY — Martha couldn't take the beatings anymore. She visited local police three times last year to report that her husband was punching her in the stomach so hard she could barely breathe. Each time, the police told her they could do nothing unless she returned with cuts and bruises.

Discouraged and fearful, Martha, 43, who asked that her last name not be published for fear of retribution from her husband, in March packed some clothes and left. She's lived with three different relatives since.

"There were times I didn't want to wake up," she said, crying. "I wanted it to stop. I wanted to die."

Every day thousands of Mexican women suffer physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their spouses, despite a federal law passed over a year ago to protect them. Nearly one-third of the country's 31 states still haven't adopted the law, which requires Mexican law enforcement to punish acts of violence against women. Even where the law has been adopted, it's not being applied, say legislators and activists.

That's because, despite an official push to move beyond the cliche image of macho, Mexico is still very much a man's world when it comes to violence against women.

Mexico City's Commission on Human Rights recently reported that complaints by women against Mexico City law enforcement agencies for failing to respond to complaints increased more than 12 percent after the law's passage.

"We are enormously concerned about complaints that the justice system isn't working," Emilio Alvarez Icaza, the president of the commission, told Mexico City's legislators during his April 24 presentation of the report.

But progress is hard to come by in a country where just a few years ago the punishment for killing a cow in some states was greater than for killing a woman.

A rapist in Mexico can still escape punishment in 21 states by claiming he was seeking to satisfy an erotic fantasy. He can escape punishment in 19 states if he later marries the victim.

The law mandating enforcement on women's complaints of violence, passed in February 2007, was meant to show that the government was taking the problem seriously. Legislators have allocated millions for federal and state law enforcement, a special prosecutor has been appointed and some states have adopted the federal law.

But activists and government officials say they can count few real successes. Public administrators, police and sometimes even judges are ignoring the law, they said.

"One thing is having a law; it's another thing to enforce it," said Marisela Contreras Julian, president of the Commission on Fairness and Gender in Mexico's lower house of Congress.

Contreras said women who report crimes are turned away or persuaded not to file charges.

"They say, 'You're going to forgive your husband, aren't you?' " she said. "It's the culture. ...And some of these men are abusers themselves. Therefore, they look for a way to justify the actions."

Six out of 10 Mexican women have suffered some form of violence inflicted by their spouses or partners, according to government studies. In 2006, more than 80 percent of women who were murdered were killed in their own homes.

The National Institute for Women in Mexico reports that twice as many Mexican women suffer abuse than the worldwide average.

"The problem is violence against women is ingrained in our culture," said Liliana Rojero Luevano, the institute's executive secretary. "It's considered natural."

The issue gained worldwide attention after the violent deaths of more than 400 women and girls in Ciudad Juarez beginning in the early 1990s.

Rojero said the Juarez murders, while isolated, are emblematic of the problems throughout Mexico. Many of the cases remain unsolved, she said, because people don't consider violence against women a priority.

Margarita Guille Tamayo, director of the National Network, a women's shelter, answered the phone in March when Martha called asking for help.

"She was crying and hysterical," Guille said. "She kept talking about how the police would not help her. She didn't know what to do."

Martha was worried that her husband would beat her 10-year-old son if she left. She agreed to leave the house only after Guille persuaded her that she needed to save herself first, and then they could work to rescue her son.

Martha said her husband beat and raped her almost weekly. He would hit her with a broom or pull her to the ground, or to the bed, by her hair. He would tell her it was her obligation to have sex with him "no matter whether I worked all day or was tired."

She asked him for a divorce, but he refused. Insulted, he increased the intensity of the beatings, she said.

The state of Mexico, where Martha lives, shares the record with Jalisco as the Mexican state with the highest rate of violence against women.

But the state hasn't passed the federal law. Police never arrested her husband or even brought him in for questioning.

"I did what I thought I was supposed to do," Martha said. "I asked for help, but they didn't do anything."

(Ordonez reports for The Charlotte Observer.)