Erasing women in Mexico

Women are jailed for miscarriages, yet male spouses who've murdered walk free. Tamara Pearson reports.

A protest against violence against women in Puebla, April 2016. by Tamara Pearson

Nayeli Sosa and Dafne – young Mexican women – were both dealt horrific tragedies. But what they had in common went well beyond that.

Sosa was beaten to death by her husband with a mallet. Her mother, Argelia Romero reported that he then cut her into pieces, put those in bags, and distributed them in an empty area of Atlixco. Even though the husband, Moises Torres, confessed to the crime, he hasn't been sentenced. Local media reports that he has family in the courts and will likely avoid any punishment.

Dafne (full name omitted to protect her privacy) suffered a miscarriage while at work. She hadn't realized she was pregnant because of a thyroid problem, and the miscarriage sent her into shock and she was paralyzed and fainted. Building security sent her to hospital and the fetus was sent to a public prosecutor's office where an autopsy was carried out. Dafne was subjected to psychiatric treatment with medication, then arrested in June 2015. A few months later, a judge in Queretaro state sentenced her to 16 years prison for aggravated homicide. She hasn't been able to see her 6-year-old child since.

While women are locked up for abortions and miscarriages, the violent murderers of women are not. There are currently more than 700 women in prison in Mexico for abortions and miscarriages. And between 2013 and 2015, 6,488 women were murdered because of their gender – usually by partners. Impunity in these cases is at 80 per cent in much of the country.

A woman's life is worth less here – and in much of the world – and that devaluing often manifests itself in verbally and physically violent ways, as well as in mistreatment in schools, hospitals, and everyday life.

A protest against violence against women in Puebla, April 2016. The pink crosses represent individual women murdered.

Tamara Pearson

A 90 per cent medical malpractice rate

I talked to Patrocinia Carreon – a surgeon who monitors obstetric abuses, about the hypocrisies in the way women are treated.

'The most common issue is that they remove the uterus – the woman goes in for an abortion, or to give birth, (the doctors) don't do what they should do, and there's a hemorrhage. So in order to save her, they take out her uterus,' she said.

Carreon provided women with abortions for decades, until they became legal in Mexico City in 2007. Now, she still works 14-hour days, 6 days a week as a medicine teacher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, as a specialist in forensic medicine revising post-operation obstetric medical reports, and as a consultation doctor focused on cancer detection and supporting women as they try to get abortions. She's also a member of Global Doctors for Choice and has spoken at numerous international forums.

She told me that her work in analyzing medical reports has uncovered widespread, systematic malpractice against women. 'I would say it happens 90 per cent of the time,' she said.

Abortion is still illegal in all of the country except the capital – with some exceptions made for cases of rape, or danger to a mother's life. In some states, a woman has to prove to legal authorities that she was raped, or she has to denounce the rape before seeking the abortion, in order to qualify.

So women often travel to Mexico City, if they can afford it. However, there, 'after a woman gets an abortion, (doctors) usually refuse to give her proper attention. They oblige, or forcibly put an IUD in her. Or if she refuses, they won't help her. Putting conditions on care is a type of violence,' Carreon said.

In fact, there were so many types of medical abuses, that it took Carreon a while to run through them all. There was the fact that doctors are legally obliged to refer women to a non-objecting doctor – a doctor who isn't against abortion – but rarely do. They also frequently yell at women and use aggressive language, telling them them to reconsider the abortion. Doctors deliberately delay medical attention, to prevent an abortion, as it is only legal in Mexico City for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. 'The doctor will tell women to bring this document, and get this study done, and so on,' she explained.

Then, there are all the unnecessary cesareans, performed without the consent of the women. These are extremely common, because trainee doctors in public hospitals have to perform a certain number of cesareans in order to graduate, while in private hospitals there are even more unnecessary cesareans due to the monetary benefits involved.

'Women are being prevented from deciding over their life,' Carreon added. 'Doctors always ask, “Have you asked your husband if he wants this (abortion)” while at the same time not fulfilling the right to information, not providing the patient with the pros and cons so she can decide.'

And it just gets worse for women who are poor or indigenous. According to Carreon, staff will often give such women less information, or yell at them if they don't speak Spanish. Sometimes they refuse to treat indigenous women, and women who have access to certain medical services because they have a paid job are treated better than those who have social security through their husband.

Patrocinia Carreon

Tamara Pearson

A system that conspires against women

Carreon and I are sitting in a small Mexican eatery, managing to make the juices we ordered last a really long time. She ordered a salad too, but hasn't touched it. There is too much to talk about – and we spend a lot of time even after the interview talking about discrimination against female professionals, about the regularity with which patients, families of patients, and fellow doctors have assumed she was the nurse.

But now, we're talking about how having legalized abortion in the capital made things worse for women across the country – because there was a right-wing backlash against it, that is still going. Women are being persecuted rather than defended by politicians, doctors and attorneys.

A case, in 2015, of a young woman with a mental disability who was raped, and then didn't realize she was pregnant – was an all-too-common example of this. Carreon worked on the case. 'When she started to give birth, she didn't understand what was happening, and she told her boss at work that she had stomach pains. They took her to hospital … and while she was in the hallway in a wheelchair, she said she needed to go to the toilet. That was how she understood the feelings of the expulsion of the fetus. It was a miscarriage. The people pushing the chair accused her of killing it, and she went to prison.'

Carreon found many issues with the case. Doctors had testified that the youth pushed the toilet door so they couldn't get in, but she pointed out that photos showed that it wasn't possible for her to reach the door while on the toilet. 'The doctors, the prosecutor, they all conspired to persecute her,' she said.

Protest against violence against women in Puebla, April 2016.

Tamara Pearson

Ultimately, violence aims to get rid of people

Abusive verbal and physical violence, and the violence of denying information or denying protagonism (decision making) has one key goal: to destroy a being's humanity because they are perceived as a threat. To destroy (be it destroying the person's physical body, or destroying their mental strength or their activity in society) is to defeat. And that's why even something 'mild' like street harassment hurts.

The other day when I left home early and alone, I counted five incidents of street harassment in the time it took me to walk two blocks. Men jeered and yelled out things after I had passed them, or made noises from their cars. They grinned boldly, unashamed.

'A climate of violence' against women, is how Mariana Carbaja, a Mexican academic feminist, described it.

From murders, to prison for abortion, to non-consensual cesareans and forced use of IUDs, to street harassment, and trafficking of women for sex work, she argues that women are undervalued in Mexico, and that violence is normalized and permissible.

'Women are being murdered for disobeying the machista mandate'

While authorities often go after women who have tried to make decisions over having children, they rarely act when women are murdered, almost always by their partners, and often for being pregnant, or for refusing to get pregnant.

'I've had patients who were beaten by their husband, for example, for not wanting to have kids. Two women I knew in Xochimilco (on the edge of Mexico City) were murdered by their husbands, and both of them were pregnant,' Carreon continues.

'I had another patient who was 80 and had been beaten for the 53 years of her marriage. Another patient was 76 and she had stomach cancer. Her husband made her have sex and she said it hurt a lot. She had a hemorrhage because of the painful penetration. There's so much violence,' she says matter-of-factly.

Gizeh Castelan was murdered by her ex-boyfriend just after she ended the relationship. Castelan's own mother, Amada Barrancco bumped into the ex right as he came out of the house after stabbing Castelan in the bath. Still, the police haven't made an arrest.

The cases of unpunished, extremely violent murders of women go on and on. A list of these murders for Puebla state in 2016 illustrates that the methods used to murder are not efficient. They are intense, and show a lot of hatred for women: men often chop their female partners or acquaintances to pieces, rape them first, beat them to death, or strangle them. Another woman was run over by a car, another hit with a large rock, her face totally destroyed, another sexually abused, then her head cut off.

'Women are being murdered for disobeying the machista mandate,' journalist Carmen Aristegui wrote.

The murders, obstetric malpractice,and punished abortions are just the tip of the iceberg of the way society regards and treats women.

Tamara Pearson is a Latin American-based journalist, author of the Butterfly Prison, and can be found at Resistance Words.