Take a moment and try to picture this: You’re a 15-year-old girl, growing up in a big Mexican city, attending high school. To get there, you have to take public transportation every morning at 6 a.m.
Your family can’t afford to drive you; they don’t even own a car. At night, you get your clothes ready for the next day, prepare your lunch and before going to bed, you check everything is in your bag, including several open safety pins to poke any guys who try to rub their bodies against yours while riding to school. Some of them, may even try to expose their genitals to you.
That’s your daily routine for high school and college in Mexico, at least three years. If you’re lucky and work hard, you might be able to land yourself a job that pays well enough for you to buy a cheap car, which can help end your daily suffering. If not, you resign yourself to dealing with sexual harassment on daily basis.
I know. It sounds terrifying, distressful, and it almost seems like a scene taken from a movie. It’s not. It’s the reality for a lot of women who have no other option than to use public transportation in Mexico. In some parts, like Mexico City, sexual harassment is so prevalent metros have designated carriages only for women and children.
For a lot of us, being born and raised in a developing nation, this was our routine as teenagers attending public school. We were taught by our mothers and our male family members how to defend ourselves, to be ready for the inevitable. It was the daily “inconvenient” for myself and a lot of my girlfriends, who are now successful professional women.
It’s sad, but true. This daily harassment is so intrinsically part of our life in Mexico, that we don’t pay that much attention to it anymore. We kind of see it as “normal”, as part of being a Mexican. Now I know it’s not exclusive of Mexico, other cities in Brazil, India, and Japan, for example, have public transportation with similar practices. It’s not, of course, in any way or form a consolation prize.
For some of us, it’s not until we live in another country that we realize how badly we’ve legitimized and allowed the constant violation of our basic human rights as women. Harassment on public transportation is just one example. The truth is that Mexican laws don’t adequately protect women and girls against sexual and domestic violence.
Violence against women has been a major concern since I remember, and gender alert mechanisms have been activated in the Mexican states of Jalisco (where I was born), Michoacán, Morelos and Estado de México, according to an Amnesty International 2016-2017 report. Violence against women and girls remained endemic, the document emphasizes. “A lack of accurate, up-to-date and disaggregated data about gender-based violence constituted a major obstacle to tackling the problem,” the report says.
I must confess, I’m embarrassed to admit it. But ever since I become a journalist, I feel part of me has been in denial about how big of a problem violence against women is in my country and many other nations, including the U.S. It’s part of the self-defense mechanism women develop: we tend to focus more on positive stuff.
While living in the U.S. I was always asked how I survived growing up in a tough environment and how I was able to succeed in different ways. I never had a specific response, avoiding the answer was part of my self-defense mechanism. I also didn’t want to reply because it felt to me like an annoying, constant, stereotypical question from Americans to Latinas. It was like hearing, “we know it’s been awful for you, but now you are safe.” And I didn’t want to accept I’ve felt unsafe many times.
That reaction seems ironic to me now as I can no longer avoid thinking about violence against women in my home country, the U.S. and around the world. There are two situations that got me thinking about it, forcing me to realize that I need to embrace our reality and do something.
Recently a Mexican judge freed a wealthy young man accused of abducting and sexually assaulting a young girl in the state of Veracruz. The judge said the perpetrator didn’t enjoy himself, so he let him go and it wasn’t considered sexual assault. The case has prompted outrage among human rights activists and widespread indignation in Mexico, and we obviously talk about it all the time.
My second big concern is how under the current U.S. administration women’s rights are at risk. I worry about proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act jeopardizing women’s health and economic security, the executive order reintroducing the global “gag rule” and opposition to policies that would protect the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTI community repeatedly expressed by the government of Donald Trump.
As a dual citizen it worries me a lot. As a mom, I can’t stop thinking what world my baby girl is going to grow up in. Like with many other cultures, some Mexican women have aspired to be like the U.S. We’ve looked up our northern neighbor as a model to follow on its civil and human rights movements, including laws to protect women and children. What’s in the future for us when the most powerful country in the world can’t ensure respect for basic human rights?
This is a great concern for many of us, and among the main conversation topics I have with colleagues, girlfriends and other important women in my life. I asked some of them a word of advice on how to persist through challenging times and I humbly share it with you:
+ Always express yourself. Norma, 27, thinks American women need to continue expressing their concern and disapproval on proposed changes to laws that affect them under the current administration, especially when it comes to health insurance services. She says to find comfort and support in family first and always to move forward in any situation in life.
+ Be creative and in a great mood. Karina, 29, says when in a tough situation she tries to look for alternative solutions, stay focused, busy and exercise. And never, ever, lose your sense of humor. “If you get depressed and angry, you will be sick. It’s smarter to be patient, mediate, and look always for the bright side.” Share with friends and family your emotions and concerns.
+ Work as a team, stay together. Paola, 30, thinks women should stick together and fight, and work hard on teach men about how important women’s health issues are. “Start with your closest groups and friends, create sisterhood.”
+ Educate male family members. Adriana, 28, says we should work harder on educating our male family members so they learn to value and respect women. “So they fight for women’s rights, because the current situation we are facing now is a consequence of a very dysfunctional society.”
I feel as women, regardless of our skin color, place of birth, religion or education, we share many of the same concerns. We are all more alike that we think, and we should be more united that ever. Let’s now imagine there’s hope for a better world. After all, we’re the experts on encouraging others and lifting people hearts.
Mariana Alvarado is an award winning journalist based in Mexico City with more than 19 years’ experience as a reporter and editor of web and print. She’s currently an online instructor with the Center for Digital Journalism at Universidad de Guadalajara. She’s worked on both sides of the border covering immigration, international business and border issues. She’s collaborated with Grupo Reforma in Mexico and with the Arizona Daily Star, the Orlando Sentinel, among other publications in the U.S. She’s married and have a two-year-old girl.