A day without women? Mexico’s strike against femicide.

Why We Wrote This

Women’s rights are a global concern, but in Mexico the issue appears near a societal tipping point, as outrage against violence blends with questions about a culture of machismo.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
Male cashiers work in a supermarket during a women's strike in Mexico City March 9, 2020. Thousands of women across Mexico stayed home for “A Day Without Women,” after an unprecedented number of them filled the streets to protest gender violence on International Women's Day.

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On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters, mostly women, clogged the streets of Mexico City in a purple-clad march against gender-based violence, inequality, and a widespread culture of machismo.

But by Monday, the streets were eerily quiet. Women stayed home in a demonstration of what they called Un Dia Sin Nosotras (One Day Without Us). There is deep and growing concern over the femicide rate in Mexico – in which roughly 10 women are killed daily, and only 10% of those murders are solved.

But some advocates see a wider shift in thought. The nation’s news outlets are taking gender violence more seriously, for one thing.

Viviana Martínez, a travel agent who joined the one-day strike, says it was seen as completely acceptable when she was young that her father would tell her to go on a diet, or offer her brothers jobs at the family company while telling her it would be too much responsibility. “It’s micro-machismo, but it adds up,” she says. “There’s a lot of unlearning what our parents taught us.”

On Sunday, Mexico City saw one of its largest demonstrations on record. Tens of thousands of people, mostly women, marched on International Women’s Day to draw attention to gender-based violence, inequality, and a widespread culture of machismo. A sea of purple-clad protesters clogged the streets and the vast plaza around the Monument to the Revolution, blending in with the city’s iconic jacaranda trees.

By Monday, the streets were eerily quiet. Women had all but vanished.

After protesters went home Sunday night, they were encouraged to stay there. For weeks, the hashtags #UnDíaSinNosotras (One Day Without Us) and #ElNueveNoSeMueve (The Ninth Nobody Moves) had encouraged thousands of Mexican women to sit out from work and public life for a day. 

Some news outlets stopped publishing in solidarity, and many elementary and primary schools kept their classrooms locked. Women were missing from ticket booths at metro stations, where ridership fell by 40%. Many women-led businesses remained shuttered, and traffic – nearly synonymous with Mexico City – was a trickle of cars and empty buses. Women were encouraged to stay off social media and ignore emails and phone calls.

Their absence was a reminder that roughly 10 women are killed in Mexico each day. Just over 1,000 femicides were registered last year, more than double the cases in 2015. And only 10% are solved.

Two gruesome killings last month – one of a young woman by her partner, the other a child abducted outside her elementary school – shocked the nation. The government’s tepid and at times minimizing response to rising levels of anger around women’s security contributed to high levels of participation Sunday and Monday, observers say. Participants are hopeful that enthusiasm will force Mexico to take action. 

“This is a watershed moment,” says Mariana Zaragoza, coordinator of the program on migration at IBERO University in Mexico City. “The march and the strike will serve as a before and after for Mexico.”

“Women’s rights are a theme we’re seeing around the world right now,” she says. “What sets Mexico apart is that women are mobilizing for their lives. We are literally being killed.” 

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Commuters ride in a Mexico City subway car in the section dedicated to women and children under 12, on March 5, 2020.

A half-empty city

Monday morning in Mexico City felt more like a Sunday afternoon, when families tend to congregate at home.

Marta Valdez, a public high school teacher, stood on a typically crowded corner near a metro station with her teenage daughter.

“I’m participating in the strike,” Ms. Valdez insists, despite being outside purchasing a large cup of fresh-cut fruit splashed with lime and chili. Her daughter had a medical emergency, so they traveled to see her doctor. 

“We need equality, but it’s hard to argue for that when so much of women’s work is imperceptible,” she says. “Not just in the home. There’s a lack of recognition and appreciation for what women contribute at every level.”

The doctor’s visit brought this to the fore: None of the secretaries came to work, leaving the doctors to field patient phone calls, schedule last-minute visits like hers, and tidy exam rooms between appointments.

An estimated 200,000 primary and secondary schools were affected by the strike, with at least 21,000 closing entirely – a reflection of the outsize role women play in education. BBVA Mexico, one of the country’s largest banks, said 60% of its branches closed.

A few blocks away, Viviana Martínez, a travel agent, is striking. She responded to all urgent emails Sunday night so that she could unplug Monday. She sits at her kitchen table, overlooking a living room that by noon has been lovingly terrorized by two toddlers dressed in “Frozen” costumes and pajamas. Her husband plans on coming home at lunch to take the children to the park for a few hours. Ms. Martínez will stay home.

Some of women’s invisible labor – estimated at $1.5 trillion annually in the United States – is on display. With schools closed and their domestic helper given the day off to strike, Ms. Martínez is cooking lunch, keeping her children entertained, and talking to this reporter, all while in theory “disappearing” for the day. 

“I don’t know if people outside Mexico can truly understand what it’s like to live in a machista country,” Ms. Martínez says. Growing up, it was seen as completely acceptable that her father would tell her to go on a diet, or offer her brothers jobs at the family company while telling her it would be too much responsibility. Family members ask her lovingly what she plans to do when her husband decides to leave her.

“It’s micro-machismo, but it adds up,” she says. “There’s a lot of unlearning what our parents taught us.”

“Wearing purple won’t help”

But for some, striking wasn’t an option. Nancy stood behind a stall Monday in the typically bustling public market where she sells avocados, corn, purple onions, and cactus paddles wrapped in plastic. “If I don’t work, I don’t eat,” she says with a sharp laugh. Business was at about a quarter of its normal level, she estimates, but she supports the strike. “Violence is the norm,” she says. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

Azucena Peralta Reyes came to work at a small beauty salon Monday. Over the buzz of a nearby blow dryer, she explains that she agrees violence is a problem in Mexico, and she’s suffered attempted rape and abuse by partners in the past. But she doesn’t support the vandalism that has occurred during some of the recent marches.

“Wearing purple won’t help. Staying home from work won’t help. It all has to start in the family, teaching our children values and respect,” she says.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in 2018 with sweeping support from human rights activists, has alienated the women’s rights movement in recent months. He sought to slash funding for more than 40 domestic violence shelters across Mexico, before backtracking after a public outcry. At a press conference this year he blamed the high rate of femicides on “neoliberal” policies of previous administrations. He’s questioned the motives of march and strike participants, saying they are part of a conservative conspiracy to undermine his government.

The widespread participation that cut across class lines this week is evidence that Mexico is changing, says Ms. Zaragoza, pointing to how the media covered these events – focusing more on the issues of violence against women and inequality, as opposed to the defacement of public property as they did in past protests.

“If this administration doesn’t start taking demands around gender-based violence seriously, it will be the defining theme” of the president’s six years in office, Ms. Zaragoza says. The president’s previously unflappable approval ratings have started to fall in recent weeks – though they are still higher than those of prior administrations. A recent poll by leading daily Reforma found approval had fallen from 78% last March to just shy of 60% a year later.

In western Mexico City, Berenice Noya Mendiola, who works as a housekeeper, stayed home with her three children and her husband Monday. She sat the family down on Sunday to tell them the plan: She wouldn’t be lifting a finger (although she did prepare food to be reheated for breakfast and lunch). Participating in the strike was important for her: She grew up being told that her role as a woman meant obeying her husband.

“I could never raise my voice, even if I saw something unjust,” she says. “We can’t keep living that way, or with the fear that your mother or daughter will be killed. It’s too much.”

The strike was a success, she says. One of the biggest outcomes?

“My 14-year-old son cooked for the first time,” Ms. Noya says. “There’s no turning back.”

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