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Mexico, where indigenous women “navigate” to have a better life

Ciudad Juárez is a striking example of both the good and the bad that the economic opportunities inherent to urbanization can bring. This city of nearly 1.5 million inhabitants is situated on the Mexico side of the border with the United States, directly opposite its sister-city, El Paso, Texas.

Only the parched Rio Grande, contained by concrete channels, divides these two urban centres. It is this strategic location, nestled within a valley surrounded by harsh desert and mountainous terrain, which has allowed Ciudad Juárez to develop rapidly as an epicentre of commerce through the installation of a booming manufacturing industry, known locally as ‘maquiladoras’.

Image credit World Bank Document

Since its foundation, originally under the name of Paso del Norte, by the Spanish Fray Garcia de San Francisco in 1659, the city’s population has been largely made up of Spanish-speaking ethnic mestizos who predominantly practise Roman Catholicism. Today, the majority language, the ethnic and religious makeup of the city’s residents remains the same.

However, the growth of the maquiladoras over the past three decades, as well as displacement from the land and a decrease in livelihood opportunities in rural areas, has helped drive migration among indigenous communities to the city. This has driven rapid urban growth and led to a diversity of minority groups, with different ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds, living and accessing the formal and informal labour markets that have emerged in Ciudad Juárez.

Yet, as noted, the economic advances that took off in the 1990s in Ciudad Juárez did not lead to improvements only. As the city grew, so too did a large number of slums and along with the higher rates of poverty as well as crime. Additionally, the strategic position of Ciudad Juárez not only attracted manufacturing enterprises but also drug cartels and organized crime syndicates. The explosion of the drug trade within the city and across the border, fostered by widespread police and political corruption, meant that by 2009 Ciudad Juárez had become the ‘murder capital of the world’.

In that year, the homicide rate reached 130 for every 100,000 inhabitants and in 2010 the city reached a disturbing record with the highest number of murders – 3,622 – in its history. As a result, the more socially and economically mobile residents left, many seeking refuge across the border in El Paso. The city’s indigenous population, however, was largely left behind. Additionally, during this period of unprecedented violence, women were targeted specifically based on their gender, which became widely identified as femicide.

Among the list of demands were to establish a national holiday and award to honor Mexico’s indigenous women. Image credit EFE

But while the official homicide rate has since declined dramatically, various human rights and women’s rights groups have argued that official statistics fail to capture the true number of women still murdered and disappeared in Ciudad Juárez. Police investigations into such cases remain inadequate, resulting in impunity for the perpetrators and an unrealistic understanding of the scope of the issue.

Furthermore, while the violence that enveloped Ciudad Juárez in the past resulted in higher murder rates among men, these groups state that, despite lower overall homicide levels, women continue to endure high levels of violence, including disappearances, rapes, kidnappings, torture and murder. This particular kind of violence against women, coupled with alleged police indifference and impunity for perpetrators, further substantiates claims of femicide.

For women in general, but also indigenous women in particular who moved to the city in search of economic advancement, it is the job opportunities provided in Ciudad Juárez that are one source of danger. Women and girls make up more than half of maquiladora workers and their commutes to work, often on foot and by public transport, have become infamous sites of brutal violence. According to human rights activists, young indigenous women from different communities throughout Mexico are largely represented but under-reported among those who have been murdered or disappeared en route to work in the maquiladoras since the early 1990s.

Yet not all indigenous peoples nor indigenous women have experienced violence in Ciudad Juárez to the same degree. For the Raramuri people, originally from the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains in Chihuahua, the same state as Ciudad Juárez, the incidence of murders and disappearances, particularly as a result of the drug trade, has been much smaller. The number living within the city has increased steadily since the 1990s and spiked between 2010 and early 2015 with officials estimating a 30 per cent increase in the population, driven in part by poverty and environmental disasters. In 2014 and into the beginning of 2015, for example, an influx of Raramuris into Ciudad Juárez was seen due to the ongoing drought and exceptionally cold winter.

Discrimination based on gender, ethnicity and economic status often goes unpunished. Image credit notimex

Activists living and working among the Raramuri community in the city further substantiate that, even during the years of exceptionally high rates of violent crime, Raramuri were not significantly involved either as perpetrators or victims – though the ongoing violence was undoubtedly a constant source of fear. One reason for this was the close-knit nature of the community and its emphasis on good social control mechanisms. For Raramuri women, working predominantly outside the maquiladoras was another factor in the reduced rates of violence perpetrated against them.

Overwhelmingly, they work making and selling handicrafts in the streets or at local markets, or begging for ‘korima’, or alms, in the city centre. While they face instances of discrimination and influences that disrupt their way of life, they have also found means by which to preserve their linguistic and cultural traditions. Overall, the Raramuri people have proven to be extremely adept at navigating life in a major urban centre with a recent and ongoing violent history.

Nevertheless, challenges remain. According to Rosalinda Guadalajara Reyes, governor of the Tarahumara community, educational attainment continues to be a major hurdle which impedes Raramuri employment opportunities later in life. Finally, the experiences of the Raramuris are seemingly the exception and much more is required to address and stop the violence perpetrated against women, including indigenous women.

This means action by police and state officials to bring perpetrators to justice; ending complicity by management at maquiladoras who do not report cases of missing employees; and ensuring that local rights groups have the safe space to influence behaviour and work towards changing attitudes among men, and society more broadly, so that this violence is not tolerated.

Source: Minority Rights Group International


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