The Victory of Imelda Cortez!

Content note – this post refers to sexual violence.

I hope that by now you might have heard the name Imelda Cortez. On Monday, the 20-year-old from El Salvador was found innocent and released from prison following almost 2 years in custody awaiting trial.

Imelda was repeatedly raped by her stepfather for 6 years. She became pregnant without realising, suffered an obstetric emergency but delivered a healthy baby. Despite no evidence indicating that she had attempted to end the pregnancy or harm her baby, she was charged with attempted homicide and faced up to 20 years in prison.

Yesterday, a judge dismissed all charges against Imelda and she was allowed to return to her family. 

This is an amazing victory in a country widely considered to have the most extreme abortion ban in the world. But Imelda’s story is a reminder of the misogynistic justice systems we live in.

This joyful news deserves to be celebrated. But we must also continue to fight for justice – for the dozens of women who remain in prison in El Salvador, and for all of the women around the world facing death, imprisonment and irreversible psychological damage as a result of extreme abortion laws. 

Imelda’s attorney, Ana Martínez, said: “This vulnerable young woman survived sexual violence only to be pursued for a crime she did not commit. Imelda goes home to her family today and will finally be able to meet her daughter and attempt to rebuild her life. We wish the same, and soon, for the women still jailed for obstetric emergencies. The women of El Salvador deserve better.”

And they do. There are at least 20 women currently imprisoned in El Salvador, accused of attempting an abortion. But what I want to share with all of you is that these outrageous cases are not exclusive to one country, this is happening all around the globe. 

I live in Mexico, and every day one woman is reported to the authorities for having an abortion. Every single day! In the past 10 years there have been 228 women sentenced, 83 in pre-trial detention and 53 in formal imprisonment. Mexico’s sanctions for having an abortion depend on the state penal code but vary from 15 days up to 6 years in jail and fines that go from 20 up to 300 times the national minimum wage.

Sometimes people ask me, how will one blog post make a difference? This week, Imelda Cortez’s victory answers that question.

Our voices matter, our voices have an impact on society, and our voices really can help to change the world. I invite you to join me in using yours!

On Monday, standing outside the courtroom in Usulután, Imelda’s grandmother Julia had a message for all those who helped to put pressure on the government of El Salvador: “I give thanks to everyone, every single person, who has fought for Imelda’s freedom today. When I was visiting Imelda in prison she would tell me how grateful she was for the many, many women fighting on her behalf, even though they didn’t know her personally.”

We need to keep speaking out against injustice to help every woman who has been deprived of her human rights. We won’t stop fighting for girls and women’s freedom. We are not going anywhere.

Tip of the Iceberg: Sexual Violence in Mexico

On November 4th, a young woman from Mexico named Renata Sandoval posted a disturbing story on Facebook.

She wrote about being drugged by a classmate from the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara (UAG) in a local bar. The story has gone viral and has helped other victims of sexual violence and assault to talk about their experiences. Here’s a translation of what Renata wrote:

“After a long time, I’ve finally decided to talk about a terrible experience I had. I’ve decided to speak to avoid things like this happening in the future, so we can be wary, and to remind us that nobody is exempt from experiences like this.

It was a Friday and me and some classmates decided to go to a bar and have some drinks. Just a regular casual night with my school friends.

The night started. Everything seemed normal. One of the girls (Mónica Coral Zamudio Astorga) wanted to take some pictures in the restroom mirror and asked us to go with her. No problem, we do this all the time. Aarón Fabián (potential rapist) and another male friend waited for us at our table. Aarón was one of the most benevolent guys I’d ever met. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He was the best student of our medicine class. I never felt anything but trust towards him.

The thing is that Aarón had previously talked with Mónica and plotted to distract me so he could pour a drug in my drink. Meanwhile, in the restroom, we took some pictures, chatted for a while and went back.

Mónica insisted on putting a straw in my drink to ‘avoid confusion’. She knew about the drug and didn’t want to accidentally drink from my glass. Aarón started to act very weirdly, urging me to drink and putting my glass in my face.

Within minutes I started to feel extremely hot like never before. My hair felt like fire when it touched my back. I wanted to tear my clothes off. My mind was so numb I could barely tie my hair to ease the heat. I was in despair, so I asked my guardian angel Carolina to call an Uber and escort me home.

As Carolina told the rest of the group we were leaving, Aarón immediately insisted on taking me home but Carolina told him the Uber was on its way. As soon as I stepped out of the bar I was so disoriented. I could barely stand and I wanted to puke.

When the Uber arrived, Aarón stepped into the vehicle insisting he wanted to make sure I would be ok. During the trip, Aarón tried to get close to me and asked Carolina to go to his home instead, as it was closer, but she told him that my parents would be waiting for me. And as we got to my home, he insisted on carry me upstairs to my room, but Carolina dismissed him, took my shoes off and led me to my room.

We thought it was someone working on the bar who had put something my drink, as we never thought one of our classmates would do that to any of us.

Some days later, a friend called me. He said he wanted to tell me something, and that he just found out something very important. He told me about how Aarón and Mónica had plotted to drug me so he could rape me.

I was shocked. It was impossible. Aarón – who I considered my friend – wanted to rape me. I asked my friend to call Aarón and trick him into talking about his plans again so I could hear it. He didn’t sound regretful at all. I also asked my friend to call Mónica and she confessed her part without knowing I was listening.

I was baffled. Disappointed. How on earth could my own friends would do something like that? What would have happened if I was allergic to the drug? What if he overdosed me? What would have happened if Carolina hadn’t been there to help me?

When I finally gathered strength to confront Aarón, he was so casual about it. “It was just a little push, Renata.” He made it clear that he thought there was something between us and the only thing missing was a little spark to light up “our thing”.

Fortunately, I’m safe. He couldn’t abuse me. But things like this happen everyday, and sadly not every victim is as lucky as I am. We always think a rapist is some random dude in a dark alley, not a close person, not a friend.

Lastly, think about this: Aarón will be a doctor someday. What if you take your daughter for a checkup with him? What if someday he is a powerful man? He now walks free, as if nothing happened. #MeToo”

One Twitter user, who has been following the story since the beginning, has been urging other victims to tell their stories and to demand answers. By now, several national media outlets have already covered Renata’s story and tried to contact a representative of the university, but they have remained adamantly silent about it.

All sort of stories have emerged. Teachers blackmailing their female students, systemic harassment towards openly gay students, silencing ‘progressive’ conferences and topics, constant misogynistic ‘hall chat’ with no consequences, and discrimination and silencing of non-catholic students, just to name a few.

It’s been almost a month now, and the university has not only gone completely silent regarding any of the accusations, but they have also locked their social media accounts and blocked anyone who mentions the topic on those platforms.

Students have tried asking for answers personally, but the UAG’s stance has been to protect Aarón – he is one of their most brilliant students. As time passes, up to 150 accusations from different women have been gathered.

Some people have pointed out that misogyny has been present in the UAG since its foundation. This school was founded by Antonio Leaño Alvarez del Castillo in 1935, as the result of religious and political differences within the government’s stance to make all public education socialist and non-religious.

As a renowned ultra-catholic businessman, Álvarez was a prominent figure in Mexico’s politics. It was during Vicente Fox’s presidency when Álvarez’s power and influence skyrocketed. Vicente Fox was a member of Partido Acción Nacional, a right-wing party in Mexico, and during Fox’s presidency Álvarez funded the rebirth of El Yunque (The Anvil) – an extreme right-wing  group that praises Nazi and Cristero ideologies alike.

In 2016, a new branch of El Yunque called National Front for the Family was created to lobby, rally and vote against policies like abortion, reproductive rights, same sex marriage and sexual education in public elementary schools. I believe this is extremely relevant to Renata’s story, as UAG directives share the same repressive ideology as these groups.

Take a look at these examples from the UAG Internal Conduct Code:

  • The use of provocative clothing (transparent or worn-out garments, short skirts or visible or absent underwear) is strictly forbidden, as it goes against moral and good customs and may provoke other students.
  • Male students are forbidden from wearing earrings and/or any effeminate garment, as it goes against the ideal realization of manliness (Article 14 – Appendix 1)

Renata’s story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sexual violence in Mexico.

The fact that the UAG has opted to remain silent while they wait for people to forget about this issue makes it clear that they aren’t willing to act against the aggressors.

In a country like Mexico, where more than two women are murdered daily, remaining passive against sexual violence can only mean complicity at best. Women are killed and raped because there are no consequences, and because men can get away with actions like Aarón’s – safe in the knowledge that institutions care more about their grades than their abhorrent behavior.

To learn more, you can check out this Change.org petition and #AbusoEnLaUAG.

Can we Stop Teenage Pregnancy in Mexico?

If you have ever walked the streets of Mexico, you’ve probably stumbled upon a young girl holding two children while asking for money. This is a pretty common situation, though not one exclusive to the less privileged – teenage pregnancy in Mexico knows no social class.

Mexico has the highest teen pregnancy rate of OECD countries. 32.7 million girls are currently mothers, and 6 out of 10 of those conceived around age 14 as a result of either sexual violence or a lack of access to contraceptives. So what seems to be the problem?

I believe that the problem in Mexico resides primarily in the deep-rooted conservatism that leads to inadequate sex education. Schools and families must implement initiatives so that the consequences of unprotected sex are discussed out in the open. Schools must have qualified personnel available to address these matters with young people from a healthcare perspective.

What happens, though, to those who cannot access a school that can afford to implement quality sex education? Or to girls who don’t even attend school at all, and instead sell gum on the streets?

Poor sex education combined with ambiguous abortion legislation and extreme poverty generate a devastating outcome for our teenage girls. Even though there are many initiatives designed to address teen pregnancy, clearly there is a lot more to do. Not only do we have the highest teen pregnancy rate, according to the United Nations Population Fund, Latin America is the only region in the world with an ascending trend in teenage pregnancy.

There is another side of the coin and teenage pregnancy can sometimes, of course, be planned and wanted. The Sexual and Reproductive Health Report generated by the National Council of Population (CONAPO) reveals a statistic that shocked me: in 2014, half of pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 19 claimed theirs was a planned pregnancy, even though they were under 20 years old. So is teenage pregnancy still a problem in this particular situation?

In many small towns in Mexico, there aren’t real opportunities for young girls. In some places there isn’t even a middle school, and so without the possibility of education young girls can see becoming pregnant as the next step in their lives. On top of that, in some communities, women with children are perceived as more valuable than those without.

Another important factor to take into account is Mexico’s high rate of domestic violence. I believe this can affect the choices of young girls who live within troubled households as they want to create a family of their own where they can love and be loved.

Teenage pregnancy often results in unfinished education and this leads to limited job opportunities, and a snowball effect begins for girls, their families and whole communities. Pregnancy at an early age can also have a negative physical effect on the human body.

We must demand that our government allocates more funding to sexual and reproductive education, regardless of our own economic and social situation or whether it affects us directly or not. We need to contribute to a more equal society where our status as women is not determined by motherhood. Most importantly, Mexican parents need to stop being embarrassed addressing sex and contraception with their children, as it is fundamental that sexual education starts at home.

We must take care of our girls so their childhood and teenage years are not shadowed by unplanned motherhood.

Don’t be Afraid to Say ‘I Have Anxiety’

The other day, I was having dinner with some girlfriends when one of them opened up about experiencing anxiety episodes over the past few months. She was really embarrassed, confused and crying.

As our conversation deepened, 3 of the 4 people at the table revealed they have been coping with anxiety for a long time. I was one of them. I sat there thinking: how is it possible that I have known these people for my entire life and yet we’ve never mentioned that we suffer from this condition?

Everyone can feel anxious from time to time – it’s a natural reaction of the body and the brain to certain situations or events. But an anxiety disorder is something else.

Have you ever felt as though you spend every single minute of every single day worrying over the slightest thing? Have you ever felt as though your heart is bursting out of your chest? Do you tend to catastrophize every situation in your life? Do you have irrational fears? If you said yes to at least two of those questions then…congratulations! You may have an anxiety disorder.

You must be thinking, congratulations? I’m miserable!

But I congratulate you because recognizing and admitting you are struggling with a mental health issue is the first step towards dealing with it and feeling better.

We need to start acknowledging anxiety for what it is so we can eliminate the stigma around it. 

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in Mexico, affecting 14.3% of the population. To put that into context, there are more people living with anxiety in our country than there are people living with diabetes, yet we rarely hear about those in mental distress. Having an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and crippling at the best of times – add people calling you crazy or helpless and society judging you and things can become much worse.

Since feeling anxious is common, anxiety isn’t often thought of as a mental health issue. I believe that this is where the problem originates. Anxiety is real and in Mexico it is still underestimated. Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and 14 – 20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week? If not, it’s not your fault: too often mental health is put on the back burner and seen as less important than physical health.

If you’ve experienced anxiety and wondered why it happens, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including Social Phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many others.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment. If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to seek help or counseling. You may think you are alone and that no one will understand what you’re going through, but by opening up to people close to you and receiving the treatment you deserve, we will all be one step closer to breaking the stigma around anxiety. If you sense that someone close to you might be suffering, approach them in a way that makes it feel safe for them to open up to you.

It might sound like a cliché but it really is true: you are not alone. Speak up.