‘The Network Saves Lives’ How a Map is Helping to Tackle Violence Against Women in Latin America
Approximately 10 women a day are killed by men in Mexico – but a network of women’s activists are taking action to signpost support services and save lives
“The violence comes from a historic inequality and a history of violence,” says Sofía Lozano Snively, of the women’s rights organisation Alternativas Pacíficas located in Nuevo León, Mexico. “It is based on the difference of power between men and women, and how they have normalised it.”
Alternativas Pacíficas is one of many groups working with victims and survivors of male violence against women and girls in Latin America, who have all now been added to an interactive map created by the regional PADF organisation.
The brainchild of women’s rights activist Laura Aragon, the map connects women who need urgent, life-saving support, refuge or legal advice with local services, as well as fostering a community between the women’s organisations themselves.
“We are working with 40 different organisations from four different countries in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Aragon told Byline Times. “It’s a great resource both for connecting women to services but also for identifying where there are gaps in services.”
Male Violence in Mexico
Over the past few decades, thousands of women have been murdered in Mexico. In the 1990s and early 2000s, more than 400 girls were murdered in the border city of Ciudad Juarez alone. Today, around 10 women a day are killed in the country. Many of the women who lose their lives never see justice.
Growing up, Aragon saw the struggles of mothers in particular, who desperately fought for justice for their murdered daughters in Juarez and across the nation. Their determination inspired her to start her own fight for women’s rights.
She set up a not-for-profit where she worked with mothers to tell their stories to the world and to challenge a narrative from the Mexican Government that sought to blame women and girls for their own murders.
“I saw first-hand how women resisted for years and the response of the Government was to blame the victims,” Aragon says. “Ministers would deny it was even happening. When the mothers reported their daughters missing, officials would argue that she had probably gone off with her boyfriend, that she would probably come back. They said this even after bodies were found.”
Aragon herself understood the dangers of being a girl in Mexico. She was encouraged to drive everywhere to keep herself safe as walking around the city streets left her vulnerable to abduction, sexual violence, and even murder. But this opened her eyes – not only to the unfairness that deprived women of basic freedoms, but to the vulnerability of working class women who didn’t have the same option to drive.
“Hundreds and hundreds of women who have been abducted, disappeared or murdered were using public transport or walking to their jobs in the factories,” she says. “They were young, they were poor, they may have been internal migrants”.
These are women who don’t have any choice to be on the streets or in public spaces.
But, while poorer and marginalised women are most at risk, wealth and class did not prevent the fatal shooting of Abril Pérez Sagaón, who had previously been brutally beaten with a baseball bat by her husband – the Amazon executive Juan Carlos Garcia who was the prime suspect in her death. Following the assault, a judge found Carlos Garcia guilty of domestic abuse, meaning that he was freed from pre-trial detention. Pérez Sagaón had fled her home but returned to Mexico City in order to have a meeting about the custody of her children. It is believed that Carlos Garcia then hired a hitman to kill her while she was in the city pleading her case.
“The judge said he didn’t really try to kill her because a baseball bat is not a weapon,” Aragon told Byline Times. “He said if Carlos Garcia wanted to kill his wife he could have done, as she was asleep. The stereotypes kicked in – that he wouldn’t do this kind of thing because of his class, he’s an MBA Wharton graduate.”
Gendered Stereotypes Fuelling Violence
This horrific case exposes how male violence against women and girls cuts across class and privilege. Aragon argues that the violence is fuelled by gender stereotypes, but there is no such thing as a stereotypical abuser.
“We don’t believe we need to pathologise men who commit violent crimes against women,” says Claudia of the Las Sabinas organisation that works with women and girls who have survived male violence.
In the region she works in, a man was recently accused of killing more than 30 women. “We live in a society where machismo is normalised,” she says. “I believe the main problem is the focus on women. It’s a chauvinistic society that blames women and re-victimises women in the process.”
Olga Gonzales, also from Las Sabinas, agrees: “Sexual violence represents a stigma. They’ve made us believe that it is our fault. So they have normalised it. The worst part is the system re-victimises women when they report the cases.”
In many ways, Latin America led the way in laws against gender-based violence, not least with the Inter-American Convention to protect women’s and girls’ human rights. “We have the legislation, we have the policies, but to really break out of this violence, laws are not enough,” says Aragon. It requires fighting back against the causes of male violence against women and girls, which are “sexist stereotypes and the idea that women are property”.
“Men see women as part of their property and they are admired for that by other men,” Aragon adds. “Then there’s objectification of women in the media. From the time we are very, very young we are told what women need to be and what men need to be”.
Mapping the Women’s Network
Laura Aragon wanted to create a map that would help women and girls in urgent need of support to know where to go for help, “like you would pick up your phone and ask Google where is the nearest gas station or where is my nearest pharmacy”. Her vision is that “women will also have this for support services”.
Crucially, the map explains the kind of services on offer and provides contact information so women can access the help they need. But it also helps to identify what areas of the region are lacking in support for victims or survivors. Knowing where women are unsupported may help to encourage funding for more services that can save lives.
For the women working on the ground with victims and survivors of male violence, the map helps to build a network between the workers as well as the women they support.
“The networks among women save lives,” says Olga Gonzales. “I think this is true for this map because it helps create these connections and reach other communities. The problem [of sexual violence] has grown with the pandemic so these tools are key to confront these struggles we are experiencing”.
Sofía Lozano Snively agrees that the map has life-saving potential: “We say that we can prevent femicides if a woman reaches a place where she can get help in time. But the problem is that most times we don’t know where to go. Resources such as the map give us this kind of information so that we can know where to go. And that makes all the difference.”
Bringing all of the services together also helps to foster communication and sisterhood, Snively believes. “Violence against women is a problem that we cannot solve on our own and the map reminds us that we are not alone,” she says. “It helps us realise that we are many. That we are all fighting for this cause”.
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