Martha Lucía Micher Camarena talked with Cheryl Morris
Mexico is quite far from being a model of gender equality. It ranked a rather dismal 93rd out of 128 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report of 2007. Domestic violence is rife; in fact, over 70 per cent of all Mexican women say they have suffered some form of abuse. Some 91 per cent of all ministerial positions in government belong to men. Abortion is illegal in most parts of the country.
Fortunately, Martha Lucía Micher Camarena is fighting to change this – no easy task in a culture that perceives male and female gender roles as being quite distinct, where the Catholic Church has much authority and influence over issues such as divorce and abortion, and where a powerful oligarchy fights to maintain its position.
For over three decades, Micher has adopted a multi-faceted approach to dealing with the problems mainly poor Mexican women face. First, she worked within the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) as a candidate that would represent the needs of women. Later, she fought to decriminalize abortion when she gained the position of lawmaker in the province of Guanajuato, and worked as a federal deputy in Congress. Through her current organization, the Mexico City Women’s Institute, also known as Inmujeres, she also fought for a woman’s right to choose in the first semester of pregnancy, and eventually her work paid off: in 2007, this was finally permitted in Mexico City, although in the rest of the country, abortion is still only legal in cases of rape, severe birth defects, or if the mother’s life is put at risk (and even in these cases, the Church sometimes interferes with doctors’ decisions and bars the termination). Abortion rights in just one city may not seem like a huge step forward, but it should be noted that of all the countries in the Americas south of the US, only Cuba and Guyana permit terminations.
Micher claims that because of poverty and a lack of education, most Mexican women ‘don’t have an equal opportunity to exercise our rights. We often don’t know them. This lack of awareness prevents us from defending ourselves.’ When asked what Inmujeres is doing to change this, she states that the group has ‘introduced gender training at an inter-institutional level in 2007. We trained Mayor Ebrard and his cabinet members, and all officials within each secretariat to undergo the same gender training. We are also pushing to rework all public policies so that they take into account the inequality between men and women.’
More important still, in December 2007 Micher and Inmujeres finally pushed through a law that will allow for greater protection of abused women, and further punishment for their abusers. Perhaps controversially, one section of the new law will prevent victims and perpetrators from reconciling outside of the courts, which experts claim will avoid repeat offences.
A Western woman visiting Mexico City might be surprised to find that Mexican women suffer so much oppression and abuse. Though there is certainly a bit of Latin machismo in the culture – wolf whistles in the street and so on – the capital doesn’t feel very different from a European city. Micher agrees that ‘Mexico City is more advanced than the nation as a whole, and much more advanced than other countries in Latin America, such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, or Chile.’ But she admits: ‘We are still one of the first countries with problems of violence against women.’
The campaign to protect women’s rights in Mexico has, moreover, involved great support and solidarity from activists in other Latin American countries. ‘In 2000 when [the province of] Guanajuato’s deputies passed a law that all women who terminated their pregnancies, even those resulting from rape, had to go to jail… we called for international pressure. People from all over Latin America came. We organized demonstrations. We protested outside Congress. The Governor at the time had no choice but to reverse the decision.’
Her work aims to change what she claims is a deeply embedded sense of machismo in Mexico. Women, she says, are ‘discriminated against for being indigenous, for being illiterate. We are discriminated against for being single, for having a family but not living with our spouses, for becoming pregnant, for not being pregnant.’ In addition to this, she is also struggling against a culture of corruption endemic in Mexico. Fighting against both patriarchy and the oligarchy means that Micher has faced a great deal of opposition – sometimes to a terrifying degree. After leading a commission that investigated the sons of former President Vicente Fox on suspicion of corruption and ecological destruction, she was constantly harassed and was followed by men in cars who also staked out her home. But even gangster-like threats can’t dampen this woman’s quest for justice: ‘I still have a busy year ahead!’ she laughs.