On Wednesday, July 18, six activists from Mexico and Costa Rica gathered to present at a panel organized by MADRE, JASS, the Hague Appeal for Peace and the Center for Constitutional Rights. The women spoke about the violence they had experienced personally as women and human rights defenders, and the ongoing and increasing violence against women and journalists in Mexico.
The activists came to New York to speak before the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), experts who monitor the progress in advancing women’s rights of those nations that ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The 23 members of the committee hear from both governments and their citizens on women’s living conditions and any advancements or improvements made.
In an oral declaration before the committee, Margarita Martinez of the Network of Human Rights Defenders, who later sat on our panel, said, “Mexico is first in attacks against journalists and second in attacks against women human rights defenders.” She referenced the impunity of these attacks, pointing out to the committee that the laws meant to prevent and investigate these acts of violence are largely toothless. “The Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Committed Against Journalists, an office created in 2006, has failed to bring a single case to justice.” In light of the recent death of an Associated Press intern in Mexico, and the reports of more than 70 journalists who have been killed or disappeared there since 2006, much more concrete action is needed on the part of the committee and the international community.
At the panel on July 18, one of the speakers reported that a member of the committee from Turkey asked the state representative from Mexico how well-known the “optional protocol” for CEDAW is throughout the country. Do women know they have the right to bring forth complaints before the CEDAW Committee? Do they know how? Has the information been disseminated in various Indigenous languages? The government says it has made the information widely available; activists disagree. The committee member from Croatia asked about following up on violence against women: now that Mexico and other states have laws in place to combat these problems, how and when are they going to use them? When will they apply these theories to women’s lived realities?
The panel spoke of one case in Mexico in which women were specifically targeted for sexual violence by police officers in an effort to intimidate family members who were fighting back against land grabs. Although 26 women came forward for trial, the government insisted that they did not have enough evidence to prosecute. They have said they may move forward on charges of torture but would not prosecute for the rape and sexual violence the women had suffered. The laws that do exist to protect women, human rights defenders, and journalists are not working, and people who break the law are not being held accountable.
Alda Facio, a member of the MADRE Women’s Rights Exchange, told us, “We are fighting tooth and nail to defend our democracy,” and they are fighting both with and for their lives. The women of spoke of their offices being ransacked, of the violence and assaults they had personally experienced, and of personal feelings of isolation from friends and family members who do not support their decision to put their safety at daily risk. Margarita Martinez, who spoke on the panel, released a statement a few days ago announcing that because of the government’s failure to take action on threats against her life, she and her family would have to leave their home and their state.
After the panel, Alda spoke of the disconnect between what CEDAW is mandated to do, and what it is able to do. After women and activists presented to the committee, “The next day the government presented. And lied. And lied and lied and lied. And evaded.” In one instance, she said, a representative from the government of Mexico contradicted accounts of violence that the government had actually documented and submitted to the committee, so eager was he to insist that the violence was abating and no further actions were needed.
Over and over again, we have heard from our partners, who risk their lives to expose human rights violations, that their best protection comes from activists worldwide, who extend their solidarity. By raising our voices and denouncing threats against human rights defenders, we brighten an international spotlight. We make sure that human rights violators know that they cannot operate in the shadows, with impunity.