From Ciudad Juárez to the World

Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"

Charlotte Bunch responds to Lydia Alpízar's article "Impunity and Women's Rights in Ciudad Juárez." (Use the link in the right sidebar to read "Impunity and Women's Rights in Ciudad Juárez.)

Activists’ work in response to the killings of women in Ciudad Juárez illustrates both the usefulness of applying a human rights framework to violence against women and the difficulty of actually reducing the occurrence of such violence. The “Stop Impunity” campaign has helped to raise public awareness and demonstrate the failure of the authorities to exercise due diligence by not making a serious effort to protect women from these violations as well as by not effectively pursuing the violators, and thus failing to provide justice with respect to the victims and their families. A human rights approach helps to frame this as a question of impunity and accountability, and not just ineptitude.

Bringing this case before the IACHR would help women throughout the Americas who are seeking to implement the regional Convention on Violence against Women as well as to apply other human rights instruments to such crimes against women. The impact of high-level human rights attention to this issue could be similar to the breakthroughs in human rights thinking that came with the demand for government accountability for the desaparecidos (disappeared) during the “dirty wars” in Latin America.

Mexican activists’ efforts to direct government and mainstream human rights attention to this case are being watched by women elsewhere. Lydia Alpízar’s observation that “women’s rights remain marginal on the national agenda” of human rights is unfortunately true in most places. Further, when violence against women does get addressed, it is usually in armed conflict where the violator is from the enemy forces, or where state actors can be clearly identified as the violators, such as in the case of abuse by guards in prisons. It has been more difficult to focus human rights attention on the most pervasive forms of violence against women—those committed in the family and the workplace, by partners or acquaintances, and violations against women involved in the sex trade. This case raises all of these issues, and more.

The Juárez killings reveal the inadequacy of distinguishing between a public and a private sphere for addressing such violence. Feminists have contended for years that the construction of the “private” sphere has often been used to mask the abuse of women, and these killings show how often the public/private line is blurred. The killings also illustrate the “intersection” of multiple oppressions––that is, the way in which the abuse of women is shaped not only by gender but also by class, race, age, and other factors. Because of their gender, class, and age, these marginalized women’s lives are seen by society as disposable, and therefore their deaths can remain invisible and unresolved.

How many more “Juarezes” around the globe have not yet been exposed? Certainly the complex conditions described here—globalization and porous national borders, poor labor standards, rapid movement of young women from “traditional” confines to “modern” exploitation that can bring sudden gender role changes, drug trafficking, a culture of impunity exacerbated by rapidly changing social conditions—can be found in many countries. We need only look at the rise of sexual exploitation and trafficking combined with unemployment, drugs, and crime in the former Soviet states to know that widespread murders and disappearances of women are not uncommon.

The connection of violence against women with other factors such as globalization, economic inequality, sexuality, and culture that we see in Juárez makes finding solutions difficult. The effort to end these murders requires taking a variety of approaches to the economic, political, and social factors at work that are both empowering and disempowering women, while still not allowing governments to hide behind the complexity of the problems. While such complexities and intersections are common to issues of violence against women universally, each situation must be addressed in its distinct particularity and cultural context. Thus, issues of violence against women are both common and specific––allowing for solidarity and strategy sharing while still requiring particularized actions appropriate to the context.

The attention brought to the killings of women in Juárez is important for the human rights of women globally as well as to all human rights. This case forces advocates to address complexities that are not entirely unique to Mexico and that are often avoided by human rights advocates––from issues of sexuality and nonstate actors to the intersection of economic and gender variables. The very difficulty in this case of finding ways to bring human rights accountability for violence against women illustrates one of the greatest challenges to this field. We are challenged to understand the complexity of the issues as well as to confront the depth of cultural acceptance of impunity for this violence. In addressing this issue, the human rights movement will discover that everyday impunity for violence against women feeds a culture of impunity for human rights violations in general––not only in Mexico but throughout the world. Countering this impunity can have a profoundly positive impact on the effort to build cultures of respect for human rights everywhere.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Women's Rights, Mexico

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