Violence, Movement-building & CEDAW

"The Mexican government’s strategy to combat organized crime, should not be at the cost of women’s lives” - On July 16th I had the great honor of sitting next to Margarita Martinez, a spirited human rights defender, mother and educator from Chiapas, Mexico as she proclaimed those words to the current members of the CEDAW Committee (Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) during its 52nd session in New York. A grassroots activist who has defended the health and educational rights of indigenous and rural women and girls for years, Margarita has been violently targeted by government and military officials as a result of her justice work. With her family threatened by violence as she boarded the plane to New York City, Margarita took the bold move of spotlighting her case on an international level and going to the mainstream press to denounce the failure of the Mexican government to ensure her safety and prosecute the perpetrators (check out the BBC Mundo article), while JASS and our allies in Mexico worked to relocate her family to safety.

Mexico and the entire Mesoamerican region has been plagued by growing violence since the beginning of the US-financed war on drugs – so much so, that the region appears to be suffering a full-out security crisis. Women have stepped up to combat all forms of repression and violence in this context, including denouncing corruption and impunity at all levels of government. Because they are standing up and speaking out about injustice, they face extreme forms of backlash from government and even in their communities and families.

Employing JASS’ approach to strategic political engagement to mobilize our alliances to persuade governments to respond to this worsening context, JASS Mesoamerica collaborated with the National WHRD Network in Mexico to lead a delegation of 6 women human rights defenders and journalists to present their case to the CEDAW Committee (July 16-20, 2012)– a topic the Committee had never explicitly addressed. Among the many important developments during the week-long session, without a doubt the most significant was Margarita’s journey.

Margarita is one of the courageous women who, in spite of the mounting risks and threats, have continued to defend the rights of their communities. Three years ago, she and her family were harassed and abused in their home by masked military men; two years ago, she was kidnapped and tortured by local military forces – all meant to silence her demands. Instead, Margarita continued to fight, pressed charges and has chosen to step into the international spotlight and became the face and voice of our 6-woman delegation to garner support for her case and that of hundreds of other women defenders who face violence as reprisal for their activism (More information on Margarita’s particular case: English Press statement). This strategic decision did not come easy. Many consultations and a risk analysis were carried out, led by Margarita herself, to ensure that this new level of visibility would not put her and her loved ones at even greater risk.

Making the case that the situation of women defenders and women journalists needed to be an integral part of the women’s rights demands that were being presented by the 20+ representatives of the women’s movement in Mexico to the Committee and the mobilization of effective support for Margarita, required extensive behind the scenes negotiation and careful alliance-building that will have lasting benefits for women’s and human rights agendas in the region. I stood in awe as women activists, a number of whom represent the leaders of the Mexican women’s movement, defending diverse rights - sexual and reproductive rights, femicide, domestic workers rights, migrants rights, LGBTI, violence in Ciudad Juarez, Guerrero, and Chihuahua, impunity in Atenco, access to justice, among others - and who have traditionally not assumed the role as women human rights defenders, came together in a matter of only a few days to present a strong united front to the CEDAW Committee, integrating the situation of WHRD and journalists as a vital issue in the women’s movement’s agenda.

Thanks to Margarita’s decision to bring visibility to her case and to the dedicated and strategic work of our Mexican allies and the JASS team, the CEDAW Committee included 3 recommendations on the situation of women human rights defenders and journalists in their Concluding Observations to Mexico (more in Spanish).

JASS’ Mesoamerica and international staff, Marusia Lopez, Alda Facio, and I, were on hand to coordinate, advise and participate in multiple informal and formal meetings with the Committee. Alda’s clout in this space was key - her immense expertise, history and relationship with the CEDAW Committee and the United Nations, allowed our delegation to strategically place the issues of women defenders and journalists on the top of the CEDAW agenda for Mexico. Marusia’s boundless knowledge and organizing skills helped negotiate tensions, build bridges and forge even the most unlikely alliances among the 113 different Mexican organizations represented, and strengthened our ability to accompany Margarita in highlighting her case.

To close, I want to thank JASS for including me in such an incredible space; to my colleagues who continue to teach me more about myself than I ever thought possible; to all our allies and friends for their continued involvement and support; and especially to Margarita who bravely shared her story, her vibrant smile and her love of life.

*The shadow report on WHRD and journalists, and the group led by JASS and the National WHRD Network in Mexico was convened by the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative.