Women are Claiming Back the Streets of Mexico

Three months ago, I was sexually harassed on the street near my university campus. For several blocks, a man followed me as he tried to start a conversation at a very uncomfortable distance with invasive questions. After he unabashedly commented on my looks, I turned around to ask him whether he knew that what he was doing was street harassment. He told me I was overreacting as he was “only complimenting” me.

After that, things got worse. He continued following me, but he wasn’t calling me pretty anymore. Instead, he was thoroughly describing what he would do to me if we were alone. Some people stared at us. I’m sure some of them heard his words or saw my tears. But they did nothing.

When I told my story very few were surprised. In fact, many put the blame on me for walking on my own. When I asked about the possibility of checking CCTV footage from nearby stores, they called me dramatic. According to them, it wasn’t that big a deal. But it was.

Our authorities have made previous unsuccessful attempts to take a stand against the growing rate of gender-based violence in Mexico. However, in February this year the House of Representatives unanimously categorized street harassment as a felony in accordance with the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Without Violence. It’s currently waiting for the Senate’s approval to come into force.

In 2017, Mexico City – ranked sixth worst megacity for women in the world – hosted UN Women’s global forum on safe cities for women and girls. Mexico City’s government has also gradually invested more in the subway’s ‘pink cars‘ program and launched the app ‘ViveSegura’ so that women can report where they’ve been victims of sexual violence in order to map risk-areas.

And so although the authorities are taking some action, it is still not enough. It’s important to keep in mind that Mexico City has a privilege that no other Mexican city has: it’s the capital, and therefore, it’s the center of attention. It’s one of the few cities in the country, if not the only one, that has studies on both sexual harassment and street harassment.

I believe part of the problem is that sexual violence is normalized to the point that it seems like an intrinsic way of thinking among many Mexicans. The ease with which perpetrators can commit these crimes is the result of a culture of normalization that includes victim blaming and telling women to fear public space because we are not safe there.

So, what’s missing when it comes to street harassment?

“I think authorities are trying to stop street harassment. But a real change would require a major structural change, and no one is doing it,” said Ana Pandal, co-creator of Organización Genera, a Puebla-based association that seeks to raise awareness of gender-based violence in Mexico. “We must focus on letting people know what street harassment is as well to ensure that both our society and authorities fully reject it.”

With this in mind, they launched the initiative #YoNoAcosoYoDenuncioYDefiendo (#IDontHarassIReportAndSupport). “We’re trying to support victims and to claim back public spaces. They’re not alone and their voices matter. We also want to encourage privileged groups to stop normalizing street harassment and to create a society of active bystanders who won’t remain silent,” added Sara Achik, co-creator of Organización Genera.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Credit: Sara Achik

The way the campaign works is very simple. After creating a network in a city, the group can access files on Genera’s website where they will find stickers of the campaign’s logo and a girl walking confidently (designed by Mexican artist Valeria Chairez), as well as pamphlets that define and explain street harassment. The members of the group then put these stickers in places where women feel unsafe and post pictures on social media using the hashtags. The goal is to show that they’re not afraid and that public spaces are for everyone who wants to make use of them.

I walked by myself on the street where I was sexually harassed so that I could put up these stickers. I felt no fear. I stopped hearing the words of my harasser. All I could hear was a sentence in my head that repeated itself like a mantra: “the streets are ours”.

Why I Need Tori Amos

Why do I need Tori Amos right now?

Because I just can’t handle it all on my own. Roy Moore. Al Franken. The President of the United States. Hollywood. Brock Turner appealing his sexual assault conviction.

Living in a perpetually heightened state of anxiety – and having my friends share that anxiety because #MeToo inevitably brings up something for everyone. Having good men tell me they’re “shocked” that their friends, colleagues and family sexually harass and assault women – and finding out that some of the good men I know never were good men after all.

When I began working for girls’ rights I knew it would be tough. But I felt that I could do the work with my spirit intact because the emotional distress was softened in a landscape of continual progress. I was part of the good fight, and we were winning.

But what happens when it feels like progress is not only halting, but reversing? What happens when I wake up every morning to a fresh new misogynist hell? When I’m bombarded by news and blogs and conversations that reveal and excuse another case of sexual violence? When I feel like my life’s work is being trampled by cultural regression to a time when we simply accept that men assault women?

I plough forward relentlessly. I work harder, returning to my work after my kids are in bed. I put feelings on hold, muting emotion in the moment because that’s the most effective way to operate in a crisis.

And I listen to a lot of Tori Amos.

Since I was 18, Tori’s music has been just short of everything to me (hint: I’m not a natural redhead). It’s self-care. It’s a respite. Depending on the song it can be exciting or sobering, and it’s always reaffirming and recharging.

I was drawn to how she rocks out the piano and I fell in love with the feminine stream of consciousness she professes in heartbreakingly beautiful metaphors. In some songs she explores feminine archetypes and has conversations with characters like Persephone, a goddess in Greek mythology who was abducted and taken to the underworld. For someone who works with child brides, this has been a call to action, but now this metaphor is becoming more and more personal. On her new album, Native Invader, Tori imagines Persephone returning from this underworld:

“which taught you can’t escape anguish

But how to live with it

Then reports from the robins

Form in you an inner radiance

It’s as if they fused with a spirit you knew

Who’s come back again”

And boom, she just spat out a woman’s life in one song. And it’s not just about Persephone, but about me, too. And about #MeToo.

Right now Tori’s music is helping me process our culture as I struggle to continue my work with girls. She reminds me that it’s OK to feel angry and heartbroken and that we can’t always understand conflict. She also reminds me that pain does find a resolution because “one story’s end seeds another to begin.” And through her activism – her 23 years campaigning for US sexual assault helpline RAINN – I see her actively seeking out resolutions.

On her recent tour, Tori opened many of her concerts with her song, ‘Iieee’. To me, it’s always been a sultry song that evokes sex and male aggression and, like much of her music, mixes flirtation with vexation. When I saw her in concert this fall, I wasn’t sure how I would interpret the song that night and in this context, as her songs always prompt individual and quite visceral reactions.

Then there she was, opening the show with her red hair, funky glasses and dizzyingly high heels. When she wailed that “we scream in cathedrals,” I thought of #MeToo. When she then threw herself back as she cried out “why does there gotta be a sacrifice,” I thought of the tremendous loss of joy and dignity that so many of us are experiencing.

And then she tossed her red hair behind her shoulder and turned toward the audience in defiance as if to say, “we’re stronger than this.”

And we are.

For more information on navigating these potentially triggering times, read RAINN’s tips for survivors on consuming media.  

Here’s How We Combat GBV: Part 2

In Here’s How We Combat GBV: Part 1, I shared my top 5 ideas for how we can tackle and progressively eliminate gender-based violence. But a problem as persistent and extensive as this one requires an equally persistent and extensive response. There are many more than 5 things we can – and must – do.

Involve Private Sector 

We need to ensure that stringent employee protection and wellness practices are adopted throughout the private sector – particularly those promoting healthy relationships amongst colleagues and condemning any kind of harassment in the workplace. Companies needs to adopt new ethical principles on the way they advertise and commercialize their brands, especially when girls and women are their primary audience.

Media plays a huge role in creating and entrenching stereotypes, as well as in influencing lifestyles and shaping decisions. If women had a say in the kinds of advertisements shown to themselves, their spouses and their children, I believe we would have achieved sociocultural cohesion and equality to a far greater degree by now.

Increase Interaction & Information Dissemination

There needs to be an increase in information dissemination to women and men, equally. This could be achieved through annual summits aimed at bringing voices together to re-evaluate policies, programs and initiatives. Having an annual summit strictly for women and girls, another for men and boys, and another where these two groups come together to appreciate, recognize and learn from each other, could help to bridge existing gaps and bring all genders on board in tackling gender-based violence.

Improve Interventions at Universities

It must be a mandatory prerequisite for any prospective student at any educational institution to complete surveys on their understanding of gender-based violence before they’re able to enrol. New students should be required to sign a pledge committing to reporting violence taking place on campus and protecting victims. Students who report and address gender violence could be incentivized through programs that contribute towards their living expenses or tuition fees, and students should be consulted on what would work best for them.

In the USA, more than 1 in 5 young women will experience sexual assault or misconduct before they graduate, and that’s a reported statistic in a developed nation. Without exaggeration, we should quadruple that figure to try to estimate the staggering rates of sexual violence on campuses in developing nations.

End Harmful & Traditional Practices

Harmful and traditional practices, such as early and forced child marriage, need to be eradicated as a step towards eradicating gender-based violence more widely. The violence is often not only sexual in such circumstances, but also psychological and emotional. Men need to be given the responsibility to educate themselves and their peers on ending child marriage and speaking up about the rights of girls and young women. Malawi and Uganda have made great strides in ending child marriage in Africa, however, more needs to be done to create impact and change at community level.

Make Public Spaces Safer Spaces

In an effort to make public spaces safer, there needs to be an approach that can be adopted by key stakeholders throughout public, private and civil society sectors – aimed at raising awareness on safety measures in places most frequented by young people. Other measures such as installing street lights in dark public alleys and open spaces, and installing surveillance equipment around night clubs and ‘crime spots’, could potentially lead to more cases being reported (as there would be evidence), and girls and women could feel safer, irrespective of where they are and at what time they are there at.

Invest in Urban & Rural Development 

There is a need for governments to have help desks and survivor and victim rehabilitation centers offering comprehensive services – from counselling to support and care – in every district, both rural and urban. This would enable women and girls to access information about their health, in a place where confidentiality, friendliness, comfort and ease are guaranteed. Ensuring that there are adolescent health clinics providing youth-friendly health care facilities for the public is also essential. All women should be able to find easily accessible and affordable health facilities, and there should never be a need for women in rural areas to have to struggle to reach services in urban areas.

Invest in Data, Technology and Innovation

There is also a need for improved reporting mechanisms and infrastructure to assist in capturing information related to gender based violence and a great deal of resources need to go into data collection and sourcing. Living in a digitalized millennium, technology plays a pivotal role in influencing people across the globe and messages reach millions of people in different geographic locations in seconds. Innovation and technology needs to be used more effectively not only in reporting violence, but as a powerful tool that women and girls can use to protect themselves from potential threats and unforeseen violent situations.

Prioritize Women’s Economic Emancipation

Women need to be empowered economically to ensure their independence. Many women make a decision (not a choice) to stay in unhealthy relationships where they experience violence and abuse from their partners, due to not having the means to sustain themselves if they were to leave the relationship. More opportunities that will contribute to women’s economic emancipation, empowerment and employment are needed if we are to reduce the prevalence of abusive relationships.

Girls’ Globe is publishing opinions and ideas on tackling gender-based violence from our global network of bloggers and organizations during each of the 16 Days of Activism. We’re also crowdfunding to be able to continue to raise the voices of girls and young women in 2018 – voices like Zanele’s. Donate today and help us to continue building a safer, more equal world. 

Being a Woman in Mexico

It starts out when we are kids.

We’re taught that there is no way we can be friends because boys can’t hang out with girls and vice versa. For girls, boys are dumb, and for boys, girls are cry-babies. Later on, it’s not the cooties that divide us, but the ridiculous ideas around gender that society pushes us to believe religiously.

Boys must become ‘macho’. They don’t cry, and they can’t feel anything apart from anger, strength, or arousal. If men make it seem like they are capable of other emotions, like sensitivity or sadness, society immediately admonishes them because they jeopardize our understanding of masculinity.

And at some point, women become objects. Particularly, sexual objects designed for the entertainment of those around us.

According to a study carried out by El Colegio de México on street harassment in Mexico City, about 93% of women declared they had been victims of leering in a public space. The same study unveiled that over 50% of the women interviewed had been touched against their will in a similar scenario. In fact, according to UN Women, 9 out of every 10 women that use public transportation in Mexico City have been harassed during their trip.

And regarding other types of gender-based violence in the country, the numbers don’t get any better.

ADIVAC, a Mexican NGO in charge of assisting sexual-violence survivors, estimates that every 9 minutes an act of sexual violence is committed. In the same report, it is stated that in 2011 over 60% of women older than 15 years-old admitted they were abused at some point in their lives. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that the number of femicides in the country, particularly those in domestic spaces, has remained almost the same since 2007, which pinpoints an unvarying pattern of intimate partner violence.

The fact that many of these crimes go unreported is just as worrying as the rate at which they are happening. The latter is nothing but a direct consequence of our criminal system.

Our authorities and wider society both excel at victim blaming. If you get cat-called it is because you dressed provocatively. If your partner mistreats you it is because you have not been a good companion. If you get raped it is because you paved the way for it to happen. Even if you are murdered, they will find a way to put the blame on you.

Amidst the horrifying statistics, have you ever wondered, “what is it like to be a woman in Mexico?”.

Being a woman in Mexico is familiarizing yourself with the short and vulgar vocabulary of cat-callers and memorizing the routes where you’re most likely to come across them so you can avoid them. It is tweeting #NiUnaMas (not one more) and #SiMeMatan (if they kill me). Being a woman in Mexico is silently hoping you won’t become part of the statistics that tell you that at least five women are killed every day in the country you call home.

But being a woman in Mexico is also finding comfort in people who share your pain or your story. It is going to marches and feeling amazed by how many of you are there. It is constantly discovering new networks or organizations that reclaim women’s rights. It is knowing that for every misogynist comment, there’s going to be a girl who’s got your back and will make sure you don’t fall.

Being a woman in Mexico is people telling you to get used to things you shouldn’t ever get used to because, somehow, it’s always your fault. For women in Mexico, resilience becomes our best coping mechanism and sorority our weapon of choice.

Girls’ Globe is publishing opinions and ideas on tackling gender-based violence from our global network of bloggers and organizations during each of the 16 Days of Activism. We’re also crowdfunding to be able to continue to raise the voices of girls and young women in 2018 – voices like Mariana’s. Donate today and help us to continue building a safer, more equal world.