Last up in this short series of ’emergent agency’ case studies from the Interface Journal. María Jose Ventura Alfaro describes how independent feminist collectives in Mexico have created solidarity networks across the country to tackle the gravest socioeconomic consequences of the virus at the local level: shortages of food, medicine, and other essential products and an upsurge in domestic and family violence.
“Women, welcome to your revolution” read one of thousands of signs on the International Women’s Day protest in the Mexican capital. There the women’s movement, like those in Chile, Argentina, and many other Latin American countries, has been building up momentum during this past year leading up to mass demonstrations on 8th March. Tens of thousands of women went out onto the streets not only to celebrate International Women’s Day but to protest against the violence, harassment, and abuse that have become part of their reality.
Women’s collectives grew exponentially in the last year, with the capital alone hosting over 100 feminist organisations. Then just when the movement was at its strongest, the coronavirus outbreak hit. On 23rd March, only two weeks after IWD, businesses closed down, restaurants emptied out, and companies commenced home-working. As people avoided going out onto the streets, marches and protests died down. Coronavirus took precedence over social issues on the national agenda. Some would assume this translated into the breakage or dissipation of the feminist movement. But the fight continues, indoors.
Coronavirus in Mexico: A quick overview
As of mid-May 2020, Mexico has almost 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with over 5,000 deaths. [Update: as of 6th August, the figures had rocketed to 450,000 cases and 50,000 deaths]. The government response to the coronavirus pandemic has been highly criticised as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO), continued to underestimate the fast-approaching health crisis in the early days of the outbreak, dissuading people from adhering to social distancing rules suggested by health officials and, in subsequent weeks, offering slow and disparate government action.
The other growing pandemic: Feminicide and domestic violence
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, gender and domestic violence as well as feminicide rates were already on the rise in Mexico. 63% of Mexican women over the age of 15 report having experienced violence (physical, psychological, sexual or economic) during their lifetime. Official statistics show how, in the past decade, female murder rates have almost doubled, with 3,142 women and girls killed in 2019 alone. As in much of the world, lockdowns have resulted in a rise of domestic violence reports and feminicide rates.
For victims of domestic violence, lockdown translates into a lack of access to their usual support network. Domestic violence is crying out for a strong policy response and action from the government, but its response has been almost non-existent. No clear policy guidelines have yet been published on how this rise in domestic violence will be addressed by the government, with officials merely urging women to call 911 if an incident occurs.
The resilience of the feminist movement
In the face of the COVID-19 lockdown and embodying one of the most characteristic elements of the 4th feminist wave, women’s collectives and civil societies have adapted their fight to the virtual world. Online workshops, reading groups, and seminars are hosted weekly by different organisations to continue the ongoing discussions around violence, sexual harassment, job conditions, gender stereotypes, reproductive rights, and many other issues that affect women in their everyday lives. Feminist collectives, such as the hacktivist group Luchadoras, coordinate discussions and debates on how the measures implemented to control the pandemic simultaneously reflect and aggravate socio-economic, political, geographic and gender inequalities.
Notwithstanding social distancing, emotional bonds are re-created by sharing life stories, testimonies of violence, emotions, and feelings about the quarantine, building community in the shape of new collective digital memory. The collectives also use the net as an organisational tool, using social media platforms during the pandemic to help provide basic rights to vulnerable women by tackling two main aspects of the social crisis: domestic violence and economic insecurity.
Domestic violence networks
Mexican feminist collectives have focussed on holding the government accountable for its refusal to acknowledge the deepening issue of domestic and feminicide violence during quarantine. In response to the president’s assertion that domestic violence rates have not gone up during quarantine, the hashtags #nosotrastenemosotrosdatos (In Spanish, “we have other data”) went viral. The feminist collective CruzesxRosas created a video (English subtitles) to show the violence experienced by Mexican women as a result of the quarantine.
In the face of the government’s inactivity, small feminist collectives have come together through social media to create support networks for victims of domestic violence. They keep close contact with victims, often calling them on a daily basis. For example, Las del aquelarre feminista, a Mexico City-based feminist collective have opened their own emotional support phone line for victims of domestic violence. Professional therapists have volunteered to be part of this network pro bono. Many feminist collectives have put forward “secret codes” that can be used by victims of domestic violence if they are unable to contact 911 directly.
Food security networks
Much of Mexico’s informal labour force is made up of female domestic workers, home carers, and street food vendors. In a country where most people produce just enough to feed their family on a day-to-day basis, quarantine and contingency measures have disastrous socio-economic consequences. In response to growing economic insecurity, feminist collectives commenced organising soup kitchens and food and basic products supply networks for those most affected. These activities are organised via social media where feminist collectives call for donations of food, medicine and other basic products. The activists are often community members who offer their own private houses to operate and distribute these goods. Therefore, although these operations occur country wide, they are often at a local, small scale.
In Toluca, for example, as far back as the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, the feminist collective Mujeres Trans Famosas began providing meals to trans sex workers whose income and livelihoods were affected by measures such as the closure of hotels. The collective has now expanded its reach and, during the COVID-19 outbreak, supplies over 70 meals a day to those citizens who are often forgotten but most affected by the pandemic: sex workers, illegal or informal workers, homeless people, drug addicts.
Another popular activity was suggested by the feminist collective Brujas Feministas – barter-trading, or as they call it “feminist trading”, via social media platforms. Through the platform, women can exchange services and products they wish to supply. For instance, therapists can swap consultations for clothes, food or crafts. The focus of this trade is on building community and sorority, helping those most vulnerable in the face of the pandemic, as opposed to making profit. The collective is based in Mexico City but the operation is taking place country-wide.
The feminist movement in Mexico appears not only to be resilient to the Covid19 outbreak but also thrives through solidarity. The movement presents the two most iconic charcateristics of the 4th Feminist wave: it is underpinned by an inclusive, intersectional feminist epistemology and it utilises social media platforms and the web as its main organisational tool, now accentuated by the quarantine. Despite having to deal with ongoing health, economic, emotional and social adversities, the Mexican feminist collectives are continuing to expand their work. Their means have changed, but their message continues to be the same: we are stronger together.
María Jose Ventura Alfaro is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the field of Development Studies in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences, at the University of Bath.