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.

Health Care Workers Matter for Gender Based Violence

It was 10:30 pm on a Monday night.

After a long day at work, I was preparing to go to bed. I usually read before I go to sleep and I’d been trying to finish one book for ages but other things kept coming up. I hoped and prayed tonight would be the night, but the universe had other plans – as always.

My cell phone beeped: “Doctor, it’s an emergency.’’ 

I flung myself out of the bed and tried to reach the hospital as quickly as I could. The patient was a married 27-year-old woman who had sustained major injuries after accidentally burning herself while cooking.

“60 percentage burn,” I deduced, after taking the patient’s history and a physical assessment. But somewhere inside, I knew this wasn’t an accident and I felt sure there was more to the story.

I started with the patient’s family members. Unsurprisingly, upon enquiry they maintained their stance and kept trying to convince me that their daughter-in-law burned herself while preparing the meal for the family. I decided to talk in confidence with the victim, but she was hesitant to break her silence too.

One day, over the course of providing her with routine care, the woman broke down into tears and alleged that her in-laws had set her on fire for dowry.

In a country like Nepal, speaking out about gender-based violence (GBV) is exceptionally difficult because of the shame, stigma and pressure from families and communities preventing victims from reporting abuse and seeking appropriate services.

Victims are often afraid of disclosing or reporting violence because of the consequences they fear will follow.

In turn, silence can aggravate the situation for survivors, leaving them with prolonged mental and physical suffering.

Nepal has a very high incidence of gender-based violence. And while everyone – regardless of gender – can be affected, women remain the main victims. It is difficult to understand the gravity of GBV in Nepal as many of these cases go unreported due to the silence maintained by victims and perpetrators.

GBV remains one of the most rigorous challenges to women’s health and well-being. It can take many different forms, like physical, sexual, emotional or psychological. The causes of gender based violence are multi-dimensional, and include social, political, economic, cultural and religious factors.

Dealing with survivors of GBV can be a very challenging and sensitive task; starting from acknowledging and identifying the violence to asking relevant questions, without being too intrusive or judgmental at all.

Like me, a wide range of health professionals are likely to come into contact with individuals who have experienced GBV. Health workers are in a unique position to help and heal the survivors of GBV, provided they have the knowledge to recognize the signs. Most of the time, health professionals are likely to be the first point of contact for GBV victims.

But are we, as health workers, equipped with the necessary skills to deal with GBV?

While staff and facilities play a key role in health delivery systems for GBV victims, their efforts will have limited impact unless there are specific policies on the issue of GBV to guide the integration of the response to GBV into health care.

One important approach is to specify the role of health care professionals, and to provide guidance and tools. For instance, the World Health Organization has developed guidelines for in-service training of health care providers on intimate partner and sexual violence against women, specifically. The guidelines are based on systematic reviews of evidence, and cover:

• identification and clinical care for intimate partner violence
• clinical care for sexual assault
• training relating to intimate partner violence and sexual assault against women
• policy and programmatic approaches to delivering services
• mandatory reporting of intimate partner violence

The guidelines aim to raise awareness of violence against women among health-care providers and policy-makers, so that they better understand the need for an appropriate health-sector response. They provide standards that can form the basis for national guidelines, and for integrating these issues into health-care provider education.

Sensitizing staff and building their skills on how to recognize and respond to GBV is crucial. Ensuring that services follow human rights-based and gender specific approaches, and are guided at all times by the preferences, rights and dignity of the victim, is important.

Providing adequate infrastructure to ensure the patient’s privacy, safety and confidentiality is also essential. This can be done by providing a private room for consultations, requiring that consultations are held without presence of a partner, putting in place a system for keeping records confidential or giving instructions to staff on explaining legal limits of confidentiality, if any.

Not only are health workers the ones to fix a fracture or heal a burn injury, they can also play the role of advocate by speaking up against injustice in the course of providing routine care.

Health professionals can also assist victims by making them aware of the counselling and legal services available, which is often a part of the recovery process. Gaining the trust of victims is important in this scenario. Community health care workers and midwives, who are often the most trusted members of societies, can use their power to reach women and vulnerable groups to encourage them to break their silence, and to make informed decisions about their bodies and lives.

The role of health professionals goes beyond simply treating and healing a survivor of gender bases violence – we can empower them, too.

Are Victims Ever to Blame?

The answer is absolutely not.

The other day, a group of friends and I were discussing a rape situation and one of them used the phrase: “well, she is so stupid, why did she go out to dinner with him?” I sat there, completely stunned by her words.

After her statement, I started wondering why a privileged, educated, well-traveled 27-year-old female would instantly blame the victim and justify an act of rape?

I realized that maybe it is not entirely her fault. We have been raised in a culture where sexual violence is frequent and rape excused and normalized by society and media. Our society perpetrates a ‘rape culture’ within which women are taught to avoid getting raped instead of men being taught not to rape. This is outrageous and we all should be scandalized by it.

Victims are often seen as just as guilty as – or even more guilty than – abusers. I acknowledge here that men are also vulnerable to sexual abuse, but in this particular moment I am focusing on sexual violence against women.

FACT: Sexual assault is NEVER the victim’s fault.

Sexual assault is a violent attack on an individual, not a spontaneous crime of sexual passion. No one ‘asks for’ or deserves this type of attack.

Apart from the social and mental implications of victim blaming on an individual, it also makes it harder for other victims to come forward and report their assaults.

This is a huge issue, and a great deal of victim blaming comes from friends and family. I urge you to think again before you contribute to one of the biggest challenges we face as women: justice for perpetrators.

Many of the things we hear or read about rape involves a stranger or a family member assaulting their victim. But what about when your partner is the one assaulting you? Rape within relationships and marriages is extremely common and victim blaming is even more prevalent – there’s a thought that ‘she must have done something wrong for him to act like that’. Between 10 and 14% of married women will be raped at some point during their marriages. 

We are used to living in a society where a husband or boyfriend has the right to do anything. So why does society still blame victims? Maia Szalavitz explains a psychological reason: “The “just-world bias” happens because our brains crave predictability, and as such, we tend to blame victims of unfairness rather than reject the comforting worldview suggesting that good will be rewarded and evil punished.” 

Personally, I am curious as to how most research seems to prefer the word “assault” or “violence” to “rape”. This is such an important issue, and it should be called by its name. A non-consensual sexual relation is rape, and I think that switching the words only makes the problem seem less prevalent, or less valid, than it is.

How can we all help to end ‘rape culture’? 

  • Always take a rape or sexual assault accusation seriously
  • Never make assumptions
  • If someone talks to you, support them to come forward
  • Speak up when women’s bodies are objectified
  • Speak your mind when someone jokes about touching or sex without consent
  • Stop asking what the victim was wearing or whether she’d been drinking alcohol
  • Bring this conversation to the table with the women and men in your lives

We need to help eliminate the belief that these conversations are too uncomfortable. Start speaking up.

What #MeToo did in Sweden

Unless you haven’t been on social media or read the news for the past few months, you can’t have missed #MeToo. In Sweden, the campaign was taken from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and put into practice in the real world, showing that activism on social media can generate actual change in society.

It is now almost 3 months since use of the hashtag peaked on several social platforms globally. Facebook reported that the phrase was used in over 12 million posts in just 24 hours. They also found that in the U.S., almost half of all users had a friend who had used the hashtag.

In the end, the most successful feature of the campaign was that it made a problem visible. #MeToo united women globally, and they all told a version of the same story – they had been subjected to some kind of sexual harassment or abuse. This abuse was no longer surrounded by silence, but rather recognised by people of all genders as a systematic problem in all societies. There were, however, many who doubted the effectiveness of an online campaign. Could a hashtag make a real change in society?

In Sweden, #MeToo quickly took hold of the country and was eagerly reported by media. In the few days after the campaign went viral, women from several different professions organised and collected names and stories of people affected by sexual harassment within their sector. Actors, doctors, chefs and lawyers were just some of the groups that launched their own follow-up campaigns, making the scale of the problem even more apparent.

Soon, several Swedish male celebrities were accused of rape, sexual harassment or misogynistic behaviour, and many of them had to leave their jobs as a result. The culture of silence was breaking down and companies could no longer cover up such accusations. High profile individuals within politics, TV and academia were exposed and removed from their posts, one by one. Power was no longer enough to protect people from the consequences of their actions. Hopefully, this cleanse of misogynistic plutocrats can create space for a more healthy, equal and sustainable culture within all sectors in Sweden and around the world.

But how can we make this change last? Media campaigns come and go and very few make it off the screen and into everyday life. Sexist structures are deeply rooted in most societies, and merely recognising the problem won’t be enough to eliminate it. But it is a step on the way. People can no longer deny the scope of this problem, and awareness is crucial when fighting social issues. Hopefully, grassroots activists will no longer be operating in headwinds. And maybe, Sweden can lead the way in this fight.

A new law that would require explicit sexual consent has been proposed by the Swedish government. TV-personalities have been fired and companies are adopting new policies of dealing with misogynistic behaviour. People are fighting for more thorough legal consequences for perpetrators of sexual harassment. Although we are far from finished, change is happening, and we must act quickly before things go back to ‘normal’. Effective change in society requires everyone to act, and it is crucial to use the energy, anger and hopefulness that has been generated during this campaign.

We have a long way to go, but for me, the #MeToo campaign is a sign of progress and shows what can happen when women unite. After all, this is what Girls’ Globe is about – raising the voices of women and showing that our experiences and voices matter.

Everyone knows someone who has been subjected to sexual harassment. Women have spoken up, the world has listened, and now all of us must act. The internet is powerful, and so are women. The culture of silence has been broken, and so let’s not only hope it stays that way, let’s make sure that it does. Let’s include everyone on that journey – him, her, them, and #metoo.