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Shedding Light on the Invisible Problem of Gender-Based Violence in Chiapas

PAI Partner Perspective

As part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, we are highlighting the work of our partner, the Maternal Mortality Observatory (OMM) in Mexico. Hilda Argüello Avendaño shares the challenges civil society organizations (CSOs) like the OMM confront in combatting gender-based violence (GBV) and the immediate measures needed to end GBV in Chiapas.

The hidden nature of GBV in Chiapas is emblematic of the broader sexual and reproductive rights landscape that the OMM is working to change. Specifically, large segments of the population are marginalized by the very institutions meant to support and guarantee their rights—including the ability to live free from violence. Understanding the multifaceted forms of GBV that indigenous women, youth, LGBTIQ individuals and migrants face in Chiapas, as well as bringing their voices to the forefront in the development of strategies to eliminate GBV, is just as critical as building the capacity of the justice system and other state institutions to effectively respond to cases of violence. This interinstitutional approach, which creates spaces for positive citizen engagement, drives our partner’s work.

Currently, PAI supports the OMM to advance sexual and reproductive rights throughout marginalized communities in Chiapas by positioning indigenous youth alongside CSOs to lead high-impact advocacy with state and national authorities.

Tallying Gender-Based Violence in Chiapas

Chiapas is a state where measuring GBV is complex, primarily due to state authorities’ insistence on invisibilizing the problem to maintain the perception that the state is free from violence, documented by the Consortium of Organizations for Life and Liberty of Women and Youth (COVIMYN). As a result, femicide was not included in the Penal Code until 2012, hindering prosecutions, impeding access to legal recourse among survivors and continuing to obscure the extent of GBV in Chiapas.

GBV is also underreported. In the National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relationships (ENDIREH), used in Mexico to measure the prevalence of violence against women, Chiapas is reported as having the lowest prevalence of violence in both 2011 and 2016. However, the ENDIREH uses a conceptual framework to measure violence that excludes many influencing factors that impact these numbers in the case of Chiapas. For example, there is a significant number of women in Chiapas who do not speak Spanish, are illiterate and live in geographically remote areas that are not covered by the ENDIREH.

This means that women from the most vulnerable areas in Chiapas are excluded from GBV indicators, thus structurally perpetuating the violence against them.

Femicide is particularly complex in Chiapas because femicide does not only occur in the intrafamilial sphere. Rather, it is closely linked to human trafficking and the vulnerability of migrant women in the border region. In fact, migrant passage across municipalities on the Chiapanecan border with Guatemala is the deadliest for women.

The State of the State

Despite underreporting, according to the ENDIREH, the prevalence of GBV increased from 43.5 percent in 2011 to 52.4 percent in 2015. Adolescent pregnancy in Chiapas also increased from 87.67 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in 2009 to 93.25 births in 2014—far above the national level. While it is important to note that adolescent fertility has always been high in the region, its increase is linked to early marriage and the growing prevalence of sexual violence among adolescents ages 10 to 19.

The widespread increase in manifestations of GBV stems from the historic perpetuation of poverty among the Chiapanecan population. These are the same conditions [of poverty and inequality] in neighboring Central American countries where the Chiapanecan border has become the main settlement. On the one hand, as migration increases, the Chiapanecan border also sees increasing unrest and risks for women due to their vulnerability for trafficking and conditions in which they live as migrants.

On the other hand, the misappropriation of millions of dollars in the Ministry of Health has stripped public health services to a bare minimum over the past six years. Since October, health workers have been on indefinite strike due the lack of payment since 2015, further restricting access to care for women and girls who are already vulnerable.

The poor socioeconomic conditions and excessive political corruption are the breeding ground for the bleak statistics on violence—specifically, gender-based violence in Chiapas.

Vulnerable, Marginalized and Isolated

Geographically, femicide occurred in 63 of 122 municipalities in Chiapas in 2016, meaning half of the territory is affected. Municipalities with the highest reported number of femicides include Tuxtla Gutierrez (10), Tapachula (8), Suchiate (6) and Ocozocoautla (6).

Municipalities located on the Chiapanecan border [with Guatemala], including the mountain, coastal and central regions, form the “femicide corridors.” These corridors consist of neighboring municipalities marked by significant migratory flows with high vulnerability and limited protection for migrants, especially female migrants.

In addition to female migrants, women ages 18 to 29 are the most affected by GBV in Chiapas and many tend to be isolated in the domestic sphere. If we consider the limitations of the ENDIREH survey, monolingual and Spanish illiterate women are also a vulnerable group due to their exclusion.

There is limited documentation on early marriage, but historically speaking, Chiapas is one of the states with the highest number of marriages before age 18, according to the National Survey on Demographic Dynamics (ENADID). Child marriage is most pronounced in communities that have fewer than 2,000 residents who live in poverty or extreme poverty where educational and economic opportunities are limited and women tend to be monolingual in an indigenous language.

Additionally, the transsexual and transgender population in Chiapas are a vulnerable group. Premeditated homicides against this population segment are not included under the banner of femicide and there is no protection protocol for transsexual or transgender people facing violence.

The Path Forward

As documented by COVIMYN, between 2012 and 2016, only 40.2 percent of arrest warrants for these cases resulted in actual arrest. During the same period, a mere 25.4 percent of investigations resulted in guilty verdicts—two out of 10 cases.

Like underreporting of GBV in Chiapas, impunity is systemic and stems from the institutional structures, from the local to the state level, that are permeated by machista-patriarchal thinking that views women as a proprietary or patrimonial object, rather than a person recognized by the law. First and foremost, the justice system at the state level needs to be strengthened to guarantee zero impunity in cases of femicide and sexual violence—meaning guilty verdicts for these cases.

Given the high levels of early and forced marriage in Chiapas, as well as the pandemic of femicide across Mexican states, an integrated response to the complex and diverse manifestations of GBV is necessary to ensure the sexual and reproductive rights of indigenous youth and the broader population in Chiapas. Public policies and the legal system must confront and respond to the incidence of GBV in indigenous communities, early unions and forced marriage—problems, and people, that have been neglected for too long.

OMM’s Ana Maria Gomez and Aracelly Pereira also contributed to this post.

Founded in 2010, the OMM is a CSO consortium dedicated to reducing maternal mortality and improving sexual and reproductive health through policy monitoring, analysis and dissemination to state and national stakeholders.

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