Mounting Peril: COVID-19 in Mexico

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) expands throughout the United States (U.S.), its impact has rapidly reached vulnerable communities south of the border. As the 10th most populous country in the world, Mexico is beginning to experience an influx in COVID-19 cases and, especially, deaths which has exacerbated many inequalities throughout the country. This blog addresses Mexico’s relevance in the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has influenced human rights issues concerning gender-based violence, indigenous peoples, organized crime, and immigration.

As of late-August, approximately 580,000 Mexicans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 62,000 have died from the virus. Mexico’s capital of Mexico City is currently the country’s epicenter with over 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. North of the capital, Guanajuato is nearing 30,000 confirmed cases as the second-largest hotspot, while the northern border state of Nuevo León has nearly 28,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, on the Gulf side, Tabasco and Veracruz are each nearing 28,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, the southern border state of Chiapas, which has a large indigenous population, presumably has the lowest death rate (<1 death per 100,000 cases) which ignites concern about access to COVID-19 resources throughout this treacherous nation.

Gender-Based Violence

Mexico is on track to set an annual record for number of homicides since national statistics were first recorded in 1997. Femicide, which is the murder of women and girls due to their gender, has increased by over 30%. In the first half of 2020, there were 489 recorded femicides throughout Mexico. Much of this violence is attributed to the increased confinement of families since the arrival of COVID-19. For Mexican women, these atrocities are often the result of domestic abuse and drug gang activity which have both been on the rise. Regardless of how and why these acts are committed, it is plain to see that the vulnerability of women in Mexico has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO), has been notorious for downplaying the country’s proliferation of gender-based violence. Despite an 80% increase in shelter calls and 50% increase in shelter admittance by women and children since the start of the pandemic, AMLO has insisted 90% of domestic violence calls have been “false”. As part of the COVID-19 austerity response, AMLO has slashed funds for women’s shelters and audaciously reduced the budget of the National Institute of Women by 75%. This all comes after the country’s largest ever women’s strike back in March, which AMLO suggested was a right-wing plot designed to compromise his presidency. AMLO has consistently scapegoated a loss in family “values” as the reason for the country’s endless failures while he promotes fiscal austerity during a global crisis.

Indigenous Peoples of Mexico

In Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas, many indigenous peoples are skeptical about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is largely attributed to their constant mistrust of the Mexican government which views state power as an enemy of the people. As such, conspiracies have emerged such as medical personnel killing people at hospitals and anti-dengue spray spreading COVID-19, the latter inspiring some indigenous peoples to burn several vehicles and attack the home of local authorities. Nevertheless, Mexico has confirmed over 4,000 cases and 600 deaths of indigenous peoples throughout the country. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) suggests fostering better relationships with traditional practitioners can help limit the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous populations. Additionally, community surveillance efforts and communication through local language, symbols, and images will better protect Mexico’s indigenous populations.

Recently, 15 people at a COVID-19 checkpoint in the indigenous municipality of Huazantlán del Río, Oaxaca were ambushed and murdered. The victims were attacked after holding a protest over a local proposed wind farm, while the perpetrators are presumed to be members of the Gualterio Escandón crime organization, which aims to control the region to traffic undocumented immigrants and store stolen fuel. In 2012, members of the Ikoots indigenous group blocked construction of this area because they claimed it would undermine their rights to subsistence. This unprecedented event has garnered national attention from AMLO and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) as they seek to initiate a thorough investigation. As demonstrated, existing land disputes have been further complicated by the presence of COVID-19 and have thus drawn Mexico’s indigenous peoples into a corner of urgency.

Organized Crime

Over the past 50 years, more than 73,000 people have been reported missing throughout Mexico, although 71,000 of these cases have occurred since 2006. Frequently targeted groups are men ages 18-25 who likely have a connection with organized crime and women ages 12-18 who are likely forced in sex trafficking. This proliferation in missing persons is largely attributed to the uptick in organized crime and drug traffic-related violence that has plagued the country. Searches for missing persons have been stalled since the arrival of COVID-19 which counters the federal government’s accountability, namely AMLO’s campaign promise to find missing persons. AMLO insists that the government countering the drug cartels with violence, like Mexico’s past administrations, is not the answer. However, many analysts argue his intelligence-based approach has emboldened criminal groups, namely with homicides, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, with many Mexicans unable to work and put food on the table, drug cartels are stepping up to fill the void. The Sinaloa cartel, which is one of Mexico’s largest criminal groups and suppliers of Fentanyl and heroin, has been using their safe houses to assemble aid packages marked with the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s liking. Although this tactic has long been used by the drug cartels to grow local support, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity to further use impoverished Mexicans as a social shield. These acts of ‘narco-philanthropy’, which is one of the many weapons employed by the drug cartels, has enraged AMLO who has relentlessly defended his administration’s response to COVID-19. This irony reveals how growing incompetence from Mexico’s government has left its people vulnerable to not only the pandemic of a generation but more drug cartel activity.

Immigration

With the U.S. government extending its border closures into late-August, tensions mount for the migrants who seek a better life in the U.S. In addition, with a growing number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona, California, and Texas, governors from Mexico’s northern border states have demonstrated reluctance to let Americans enter the country. These reciprocal efforts have made it exceedingly difficult for migrants, namely from Haiti, to seek asylum. As a result, the Mexico-U.S. border town of Tijuana has become a stalemate for 4,000 Haitian migrants in addition to another 4,000-5,000 in the Guatemala-Mexico border town of Tapachula. This has contributed to an economic crisis where there is no work available and people face the risk of being promptly deported, effectively nullifying their treacherous journey to Mexico.

Many undocumented migrants are afraid to visit Mexico’s hospitals due to fears of being detained which would introduce harsh living conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19. Across from Brownsville, Texas, in the Matamoros tent encampment, aggressive isolation efforts were enacted after it was discovered that a deported Mexican citizen had COVID-19. To curtail to risk of COVID-19, the mostly asylum seekers are now expected to sleep only three-feet apart, head-to-toe. On the other hand, some Mexican nationals are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border into El Paso, in addition to Southern California, under the travel restrictions loophole pertaining to medical needs. This influx is largely attributed to the lack of resources, such as oxygen and physical space, seen in many Mexican hospitals. As such, COVID-19 resource limitations are endured by both asylum seekers and medical migrants.

Woman sitting in front of a poster that includes pictures of femicide victims.
DRG Photo Contest Winner. Source: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in Mexico

As shown, issues notoriously attached to Mexico, namely femicide, indigenous autonomy, organized crime, and immigration, have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Femicide has grown due to a culture of misogyny that has proliferated during the lockdown. Indigenous communities have developed more distrust for the federal government, particularly as it relates to public health and land rights. Organized crime groups have extended their reign of terror on the Mexican people by weaponizing the effects of COVID-19. Immigrants, mainly from Central America and the Caribbean, are not only running from their dreadful past but also face the challenging prospects of a world with COVID-19.

As a global influence, Mexico fosters the responsibility to uphold international standards related to women’s rights, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights. Despite each of these issues having their own unique human rights prescription, they could all be improved by a more responsive government. This has rarely been the case for AMLO who has consistently minimized the urgency, and sometimes existence, of human rights issues in Mexico. Furthermore, austerity measures provoked by COVID-19 should not come at the expense of Mexico’s most vulnerable populations because they exacerbate existing inequalities and serve as a basis for future conflict, insecurity, and violence. One of the most important ways the Mexican government can limit these inequalities is by properly addressing the war on drugs which includes closing institutional grey areas that foster crime, strengthening law enforcement, and ensuring policies carry over into future administrations. All the while, the U.S. must address its role in Mexico’s drug and arms trade. Confronting these growing concerns from both sides of border is the only way Mexico while encounter a peaceful, prosperous future.

Gender Studies – Not a “Girl Thing”

by Grace Ndanu

A girl in front of a laptop in a college classroom
“Student in class” by UGA CAES/Extension, Source: Creative Commons

I was admitted in the university to specialise in Gender Studies, others call it social studies. The propaganda now comes in when other people call it women studies. I knew it was a good course, but I never knew what it entailed. The first week on campus I went through orientation where I came to meet people from different courses and most of them didn’t know what inspired them to take the courses they were taking, and it was there that I remembered one of my high school teachers once saying that some people don’t end up becoming what they dreamed of becoming when they were small. An example being me, I wanted to be a doctor and now I am aspiring to be a Gender CEO.

I find it unique, all the programmes that are running inside the university have departments and faculties except the gender programme where the department and the faculty are all in one package that is the Institute. We call it The Institute of Gender And Development Studies. In the programme we have the units that help us be better persons where by it molds us to be of good character and to be of service to the people. Talking of functions that the institute holds, I can say it suits all individuals in the campus where by you will find majority if not all students attending the Gender awareness day, cultural week and relationship forums. This now brings to the question, “Why women’s studies if all are the beneficiaries?”

It turns out that the Institute is weakly or never represented. In terms of staff board meetings, the staff from the institute are the last ones to receive the memo and sometimes never receive it at all. In the graduation booklet other programs come first; for example, engineering, agriculture and education…then lastly Gender studies. When classes began we were 49 in total and all of a sudden we are now 44. Thirty four girls and ten boys. And a lecturer came in and said that five boys have done interfaculty; that is, they changed their course from Gender to where they thought was best for them. But why?

In the middle of the semester I came to meet with one of the boys who left the programme, we had a chat. He said that Gender studies is a girl thing. In his words, “Don’t expect me to study what my wife is supposed to be studying right now. I know you people are taught how to take care of the husband at home, I am the husband here, so which husband am I supposed to take care off?” He also assumed that the programme trains the students how to beat men. He asked me a question which left me in a deep thought and a desire to ask him for more of his time so that we can discuss this issue of beating up men. I wanted to make him understand that we women are not into a fight, we are trying to negotiate so that we can have equal opportunities to resources and benefits. I insisted that we need to have our own money and freedom that we have been denied for so long.

The males being few in my course, I decided to talk to one of them, so that I can know what inspired him to do the course and what is still inspiring him to stay grounded to the course. He continued and started by saying that he was sponsored by the government to do the course, which he knew nothing about. His parents were not comfortable with him taking the course, and so they agreed with the parents that he will do an interfaculty, which he didn’t. “When I attended the first gender class I felt I was supposed to be there because I realised what we are being taught is all about all of us, starting with who we are as individuals and how to interact with each other”. He continued and said that the course has moulded him to be a better person and he is not regretting his decision to stay in the course.

Speaking to a girl who does gender is another good thing that I think I did. We as girls we always talk of our rights, and that’s exactly what she started with. She continued and said how she feels that her being taking gender has made her know that no one can live like an Island and that we need each other for survival that is men and women, boys and girls. And she added a quote from the Bible, “All people are equal in the eyes of God.” This brought a little argument between us because its true that we are equal before his eyes but still we need equity to reach equality. A girl needs sanitary towel for her to have equal time with a boy in class, which I now call equality. And finally we came to an agreement.

I insist that gender or social studies should be recognised in all the learning institutions. Starting with my school with the help of Dean of students and the institute should increase the counselling posts around the school. Increasing of these posts will help students visit there any time without being wait for long so that they can be attended to. Apart from Gender Awareness Day the university should hold functions that will communicate to students that gender studies is not a girl thing at all.

On the other side the government should increase the number of university offering the Gender and Development as a programme. Adding on the same, it should increase the number of students during the enrolment in the university to pursue the course. Increasing the number of university offering the programme and also the students will increase the confidence of students and now there will be a fair debate because we will be many against many unlike right now it’s like fighting one against many and definitely the many will win. And I believe that apart from gender based violence reducing, we will come to a conclusion that Gender or social studies is not a girl thing, seconding the motion, ”Gender is not between the legs but between your ears. “

Why Language Matters to Women

by Pam Zuber 

United Nations Flag. Source: sanjitbakshi, Creative Commons.

Language matters. So do the rights of people. But in 2019, it looks like representatives of the U.S. government promoted the use of language that may affect, if not imperil, the rights of women. Every year, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) issues statements called agreed conclusions based on priority themes and recommendations. The CSW is part of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which itself is one of the platforms of the United Nations (UN). For the sixty-third session from March 11-22, 2019, the CSW’s agreed conclusions were “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”

During the CSW’s 2019 session, representatives of the United States requested changing the language of the commission’s agreed conclusions. They wanted to remove language that referred to “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.” Writing in the Washington Post, Ariana Eunjung Cha and Lena H. Sun said that the American representatives felt that this language would promote abortion and juvenile sexual activity. According to Cha and Sun, the representatives also wanted to eliminate the term “gender-responsivein the agreed conclusions and replace it with the term “family-centered.” But this language denies our ever-evolving concept of family. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Family isn’t just the nuclear family model of a man, a woman, and children. Actually, it never was, because don’t we all know people who were raised by single parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, or two parents of the same gender? People who lived with foster families and in group homes? People who lived with multiple generations under one roof? Denying multiple concepts of family and gender creates an inaccurate depiction of families. This depiction hurts the many, many people not included in this narrow definition.

When representatives seek to eliminate the word gender, the denial also obviously denies gender and sexual orientation. It implies that gender is binary, that the only two genders are male and female. It doesn’t acknowledge trans people, people who don’t identify with a certain gender, or people with different sexual orientations or no sexual orientation. Not acknowledging people’s existence marginalizes them, which may make it easier for people to ignore or even abuse them.

Finally, the U.S. representatives pushed to add another section to the agreed conclusions. This section stated, “women’s contribution to the home, including through unpaid care and domestic work, which is not adequately recognized, generates human and social capital.” The U.S. representatives did not get their way, but the rest of the commission did. In a document discussing the agreed conclusions, the commission stated that it wanted to “[e]nsure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.” It urged entities to 

respond to the needs of women and girls and recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work, enable the mobility of women and girls, strengthen women’s participation in public and political life, as well as their economic opportunities, in particular their full and productive employment and decent work and equal pay for equal work or work of equal value, and strengthen their resilience to shocks.

Although the efforts by the United States representatives were ultimately not successful, they still sent a chilling message that could have repercussions for women in the United States and abroad. After all, while “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights” can mean abortion, it can also mean so much more. It can mean distributing contraception and information on how to use it. It can mean providing tests and examinations that could diagnose pregnancy or health conditions and provide early and effective treatment.

Such criticism about providing access to reproductive rights sounds similar to criticism leveled at the Planned Parenthood organization. Critics charge that Planned Parenthood performs abortions, which it does, but abortions represent only 3.4 percent of the services it provided in the 2017-18 fiscal year. People are quick to condemn the organization for providing abortions while ignoring that more than 96 percent of its work is not related to abortions but instead relates to contraception, examinations, testing, and other matters relating to health care, especially preventative health care. Reproductive health and women’s rights are at risk with each slight or purposeful alteration to words used in the creation and passage of legislation, the implementation of the laws, and the subsequent treatment of persons who identify as women. Denying such rights treats women as second-class citizens not worthy of vital forms of health care. It perpetuates the belief that women are not able – and should not be able – to make decisions about their bodies and their lives. It denies cis women opportunities. It denies the very existence of trans women and people who have nonbinary identifications. Not being able to make personal decisions may impact women’s physical and mental health. This impact could produce far-reaching consequences.

Women who lack reproductive rights cannot plan their families. They may have more children or children sooner than they intended. This may be physically and mentally draining. It may lead to poor health, lost educational opportunities, financial and career stagnation, and even conditions such as addiction that may need to be treated by addiction treatment professional facilities because women are trying to make sense of their lives or escape the realities of their lives. Women may feel trapped. They may be unable to attain a decent quality of life and achieve upward mobility, all because they lack something as basic as birth control.

A woman cleaning
Source: By Fars News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67475239, Creative Commons.

Why Emphasize Domestic Work?

By emphasizing domestic work, the U.S. delegation to the United Nations’ commission is sending a strong message. Again, the U.S. representatives wanted to include language that addressed its belief that “women’s contribution to the home, including through unpaid care and domestic work, which is not adequately recognized, generates human and social capital.” On one hand, the U.S. delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women recognizes that women still perform the bulk of domestic duties in most cultures throughout the world. It acknowledges that most cultures often do not recognize females’ domestic work financially, politically, socially, or emotionally. On the other hand, why is the United States so keen to emphasize domestic work?

Women perform domestic work. But they also perform countless other kinds of work. Around 74.6 women were in the U.S. workforce in 2017, reported the U.S. Department of Labor. These totals amounted to about 47 percent of the United States workforce. Since women already account for about half of the nation’s workers, it’s impossible to ignore their numbers. It’s shortsighted and dangerous to overlook this impact and to deny or downplay women’s contributions. Speaking of contributions, does the U.S. delegates’ proposed language portray their beliefs about what woman should be doing? In this view, women should handle domestic work and men should work outside of the home. Again, this is a very traditional view that was never the case for 100 percent of U.S. families. While stay-at-home wives and mothers may have been more prevalent in the past, many women have always worked outside of the home due to necessity or desire.

Source: ArtsyBee, Creative Commons.

What Do Choices Mean for Women?

As an alternative, what about supporting language that acknowledges the many roles that today’s women actually perform? Yes, women perform domestic work and raise families. But they also work outside of the home and pursue educations. They also do many of these things at the same time. Some choose not to marry, live with partners, or have children, or they are partners with other women, or they have multiple partners or participate in other arrangements. They may identify as cis, trans, or nonbinary, or have other identities. They may not live in traditional nuclear families, but their families and their choices are not any less valid – or any more valid. They’re just living their lives. They’re happy, successful people who contribute to society. Ignoring their ideas of family and gender, and ignoring the contributions they make through their work and other efforts, ignores them as a whole. And they shouldn’t be ignored, because non-nuclear families are now more common than nuclear ones. The Pew Research Center reported that only forty-six percent of U.S. children eighteen years old or younger lived with two parents in their first marriage in 2014.

Instead of ignoring women, maybe the U.S. delegation and other representatives should consider promoting inclusive language that acknowledges choice. If women have options, they can better control their destinies. In most societies throughout history, men have had more agency in steering the course of their lives and communities. But how are women supposed to have agency if authorities do not allow them to control any aspect of their lives, including their own bodies? Providing opportunities for women to work, to pursue educations, to choose whether to have families or not, to run for office, all give women control and power. This can create additional control and power, as women will have the knowledge, skills, connections, agency, and confidence to live the lives they want to live and help others do the same. Women will be independent, not dependent. They will not have to rely on husbands, fathers, or brothers but will have the resources to thrive on their own.

Allowing women full access to reproductive care and other types of health care and encouraging them to pursue a wide range of career opportunities enables women to live the fullest lives possible. Using language to deny these opportunities harms women and future generations. When U.S. representatives use certain language and deny other types of language, they threaten freedom, self-determination, and other American ideals. They forget that what’s right for women is what’s right for the United States as a whole.

 

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.