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Sandra Weiss


If she wanted to buy milk at the store around the corner, she had to ask her husband for permission.

In Mexican indigenous communities, emancipation has not yet arrived. 

- But the women nonetheless find ways around it.

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For Paulina Méndez, it was a great love. A fleeting smile passes over the stern face of the now 40-year-old woman. At that time, she was just 21, a shy, inexperienced farm-girl who made clay handicrafts. He was a young man from a respected, traditional family from San Bartolo Coyotepec, the pottery capital in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. They went dancing a few times, flirted a little. Then Luis proposed to her, in a completely traditional way, as is appropriate in this indigenous place where customs and traditions are still as deeply rooted they were 200 years ago. The wedding was a magnificent celebration that lasted several days.

“I was incredibly happy and envisioned a rosy future," Mendez recalls. The wedding gifts were brought to the couple's shared accommodation, a corrugated iron hut located directly behind the mother-in-law's two-story stone house, while the guests danced and applauded. This is also common in San Bartolo. The people of the community are poor, many make a living fromtrading, agriculture, handicrafts, or recycling waste from the nearby landfill. They barely have enough to survive. Young couples usually don't have money for their own land or a proper stone house.


Two years later, Son Lenin was born, then daughter Alma. Shortly afterwards, the problems began. He started squandering the household money, often staying away for several days, forbidding her to work. If she wanted to buy milk at the store on the corner, she had to ask him for permission. If Méndez complained, he became rude. He insulted and hit her. Méndez suffered in silence. That's how her mother had lived, that's how she had been raised. One time, beaten black and blue, she couldn't take it anymore. She packed her things and just wanted to leave. Mother-in-law Isidra intercepted her: "If you cross this threshold, there is no turning back," she told her.


Women have to be submissive, belong in the kitchen, and are the property of their husbands, according to the societal consensus of the indigenous community. Women who leave their husbands disgrace their families. Women who work devalue the status of men, who are solely responsible for providing for their families. It is a strict social framework in which the genders are confined. However, San Bartolo is only a half-hour drive from the provincial capital Oaxaca. In turn, Oaxaca is a center of international tourism and a magnet for liberal artists. A different world right on their doorstep, a difficult contrast for indigenous women.


In 2003, for the first time, a woman in San Bartolo dared to demand a political position, citing the constitution. "She was viciously bullied," recalls Leticia Real from the "Mujeres al Viento" (Women in the Wind) women's collective supported by Adveniat. No one bought from her store anymore, and once, after a particularly heated debate, a lynch mob was formed. The village priest was able to prevent worse things from happening at that time. In 2011, the men in the village assembly declared that women were not fit for positions. Real and a few fellow activists from the collective mustered all their courage and stood up. They quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and threatened with a constitutional lawsuit. They managed to stop the macho initiative and at least elect a few women to the council. Despite that, the "rebellious feminists" became the laughing-stock of the village. Real's marriage broke apart because of it. "You need a thick skin and perseverance," sighs the 47-year-old. "But once you open your eyes, nothing is the same as before, and there is no way back."

Without the support of Paula Regueiro from the women's organization Grupo de Educación Popular con Mujeres (GEM), she probably would have thrown in the towel. "But every time it got particularly difficult, Paula was there for me," Real says. "It sounds unbelievable, but still many women in Mexico are unaware of their rights," says Regueiro. She hails from the capital and is an academic as well as a feminist from the early days. She believes in the synergy of academia and grassroots work, in the networking of the city and the countryside. Currently, she is working on her doctoral thesis and bringing new ideas from the capital to San Bartolo. Six years ago, she started holding workshops there at the request of the local priest Jose Rentería. He had realized how much women were suffering under machismo. "But as a man, my hands were tied," he explains. That's why he founded a women's pastoral care group. Real became one of the leaders.


Women have to be submissive, belong in the kitchen, are property of their husbands, according to the societal consensus of the indigenous community.


Places like San Bartolo, which are located at the intersections between rural and urban areas, between indigenous traditions and modern emancipation, are socially sensitive minefields. Machismo is deeply rooted in Mexico. However, Mexico's modernization and economic expansion since the 1990s exacerbated the social conflicts and contradictions. Originally, the men in San Bartolo were able to adequately provide for their families through pottery and agriculture, but that became increasingly difficult.The division of inheritance reduced land ownership, climate change led to a lack of rain, lack of modernization in agriculture made the soil less and less fertile and the harvests more meager. Those who found work in the city had a better life – but only a few were fortunate enough to have that opportunity, as most men had little more than a primary education.

The drug war starting in 2006 fueled violence, and weapons circulated. The garbage dump that emerged above San Bartolo attracted migrants from the entire region. They occupied land around the landfill and built makeshift shelters out of corrugated iron. Mafia groups fought over the garbage. The community cohesion crumbled due to discord and inequality; political scheming by the parties played a role as well. Oaxaca grewever larger and gradually swallowed the surrounding communities like San Bartolo. The gradual urbanization certainly brought infrastructure, tourism, and a little bit of money. But women benefited little from it. Men tried to drown their frustration in alcohol and became aggressive. Women were increasingly raped or even killed. The state of Oaxaca is among the five regions with the highest number of female murders.

It was the pressure from GEM and many other women's collectives that eventually forced the state to take action. Since 2021, electoral lists must be gender-balanced. In the same year, femicide was included as a separate crime in the criminal code. This carries a sentence of up to 60 years in prison. However, convictions are rare. NGOs have found that half of the reported cases of female murder go unpunished. Even less successful are reports of violent assaults or alimony claims, except in the capital city. "The judiciary is still very male-dominated," says Regueiro.

Real has therefore furthered her legal education with the help of GEM and now advises women on how they can assert their rights in court. If necessary, she accompanies them on visits to government agencies. With Yuridia Chávez, she goes to the prosecutor's office. The 37-year-old has two sons, aged 13 and 11. She separated from her violent husband after he nearly beat her to death. He took control of their jointly built business for tools and hardware by changing the door locks one night and placing bodyguards in front of it. Her husband failed to provide child support. Chávez had to improvise with two children, no money, and no business. Now she earns a little by selling cosmetics door-to-door. "That is unfair. We both invested the same amount in the business," she says.


Women's murder is now being included as a separate criminal offense in the penal code. This carries a sentence of up to 60 years imprisonment. However, convictions are rare. "The justice system is still very male-dominated," says Regueiro.


For this reason, GEM has developed its own locally adapted strategies to reach women. If a man imposes a curfew, women should say they are going to the Pastoral.

Therefore, she wants at least to have the maintenance. However, the justice demanded evidence and bank statements, which she did not have. Her husband paid two lawyers and informed the court that he was a taxi driver and penniless, and therefore could not pay the maintenance. The judge in the first instance ruled in her favor. Chávez continues to fight for three years now, but every official visit costs her almost 10 euros alone in transportation costs. "It adds up, especially when you don't have much to begin with," she says. Real nods with a serious look. She calls it "re-victimization," which describes institutions that do not protect the victim, but blame them for their difficult situation. Apparently, the system is called "patriarchal justice," at least according to a graffiti on the white wall next to the prosecutor's office. Real is not allowed to enter the courtroom for the hearing - only lawyers are allowed due to the coronavirus pandemic, as she is informed by the security guard at the entrance. After two hours, Chávez is back outside. She smiles contentedly. "At least this time the prosecutors let me speak and listened to me." An "oficio" was created, a file that the Mexican government offices love above all. The bureaucratic war is two-sided, as it bureaucratizes the processes and prolongs them.

"Re-victimization" is the term that identifies this phenomenon. It refers to institutions that do not protect the victim, but instead blame them for their unfortunate situation.

Regueiro knows that women have to be active on many fronts. Therefore, working together with the women's pastoral care and having local involvement is a big advantage for them. "If we want to advance the cause of women, we need networks across the country," she emphasizes. But there are setbacks and they encounter limitations again and again. Women who are particularly affected by violence are especially difficult to reach. Many deny the abuse or are locked in at home by their husbands. Others are single parents, who work 12 hours a day at the garbage dump, and are too tired to attend events in the evening. Nevertheless, Regueiro and Real repeatedly try to make their work known there - through visits, personal conversations, and flyers. 


They have to be creative over and over again, because many women have to ask their husbands for permission when they want to leave the house. "Naturally, they catch on and forbid their wives from doing so," says Real. Therefore, she has developed her own locally adapted strategies to reach the women. If the husband imposes a curfew, the women should say that they are going to the pastoral office. "Church work is so important in this community that hardly any man dares to oppose it," she winks.


Therefore, most workshops take place in church rooms. The male church board has the key to the assembly room of the main church, although they are "never to be found when the women have an event," as Pastor Rentería has noticed. But there is a solution through a church building financed by Adveniat in the district near the garbage dump. There is a small anteroom where the women now meet for their discussion group. Normally, between eleven and twenty women participate, with a total of over 200 women involved in women's work over the six years. In this protected space, they can pour out their hearts without fear that it will become village gossip. Regueiro listens, sometimes empathetically pinpointing problems as a moderator or stimulating thought processes with a follow-up question. At the end, the 51-year-old takes a blue ball of wool in her hand and throws it to one of the participants. It is an interactive game intended to release pent-up negative energies. One by one, the women catch the ball and share the impressions they take from the meeting. "Hope, strength, relief" are a few terms mentioned.

The workshops helped Méndez to strengthen her self-confidence and finally regain control over her life and emotions. It was not easy to get her to attend the workshops – but Real found a good strategy through her mother-in-law Isidra, who also participated in the women's pastoral work. In a confidential conversation, it turned out that Isidra was also a victim of machismo, her husband also drank, and she was also beaten. When she realized that the same pattern was beeing repeating with her daughter-in-law, both of them joined the women's collective. "In the discussion groups, I learned for the first time that I am not the only one. That was very liberating," Méndez explains. The cloak of silence and downplaying of violence against women was lifted.

Méndez also took advantage of the offer of therapy sessions with the trusted psychologist from GEM. "It took a long time, but after three years, I was able to stand in front of Luis and tell him that I wanted to work again," Méndez recounts. He was more perplexed than angry. "But then you have to contribute half of the household expenses," he replied. "I immediately agreed and felt more happy and free than I had in a long time." Since then, she has been a representative for cosmetics and cleaning products and is often on the road. Earning her own money makes her confident. She says that Luis has stopped drinking. Their 12-year-old daughter, Alma, observed the whole process of her parents and has drawn her own conclusions from it.  "I have more freedoms than my mother and my grandmother," she understands. When her brother tries to avoid doing the dishes, she sometimes reminds him that it won't hurt him to pick up a dishcloth, Méndez proudly explains. Luis, who briefly sat down on the sofa, now has to urgently leave. His youngest daughter, Yamile, who is only a month old, remains on the sofa. "Men are hopeless," Méndez sighs. "Maybe the older ones," Alma replies. "But the boys of my generation have to try a little harder."r Generation müssen sich schon ein bisschen mehr anstrengen.”

"Men are incorrigible," Méndez sighs. "Perhaps the older ones," daughter Alma replies. "But the guys of my generation have to put in a bit more effort."

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