Leonila de la Cruz was raped and murdered in 2020 in the Wixárika Indigenous settlement of La Cofradía in the state of Nayarit, on the Mexican west coast. Her murderer inflicted 26 stab wounds, mainly to the stomach. Her death left her one-year-old infant an orphan. However, her case caused no media uproar—she was an Indigenous Woman.
‘The femicide of Indigenous Women is mostly invisible and forgotten. In Leonila’s case, there was no social pressure or mobilisation on social networks to catch the killer. There is much more mobilisation and social pressure in femicide cases amongst non-Indigenous Women,’ states Laura Hernández Pérez, a Nahua social worker and member of the National Coordination of Indigenous Women (CONAMI) and member of the general coordination of the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas (ECMIA).
During the six-year term of former president Felipe Calderón (2006-2021), activist women organised and managed to get the government to establish Gender-based Violence Alerts for the first time: a set of emergency government actions to investigate and resolve femicides in the country which, until that time, were not included in the Mexican criminal code. The National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) calculated the femicide rate in Mexico for the first time in 2012.
Indigenous Women had been part of the movement that managed to get the crime penalised, although they felt that they were not really included even in counting the femicide rate. In November of that same year, Indigenous Women decided to set up the Community Emergency Gender Initiative at a gender workshop with CIDHAL A. C.
Opened with a march in the city of Cuernavaca, 80 km south of the Mexican capital, on 25th November 2013, the initiative initially held self-defence and care workshops, provided informative material and collected any information on the femicide of Indigenous Women on its Facebook page.
Eight years later, they continue to be self-managed. A group of Indigenous Women of all ages identify and classify information on violence against women, childhood and violence that infringes the rights of Indigenous Peoples, such as militarisation, forced displacement, megaprojects and even social programmes run by the state. ‘The individual and the collective are inseparable,’ explains Hernández.
They currently have a database of over 427 indexed articles. Three out of every ten refer to femicide; 12% to sexual violence; 8% to enforced disappearances and 7% to gender-based violence in the home. No government database covers this.
For Hernández, the lack of statistics is due to the ongoing lack of understanding that the popular consciousness of Indigenous Women has a reciprocal link to their community. Violence tears the community apart, breaks up the Indigenous movement and is reflected in specific events, in the same vein as an individual problem hurts community ties.
Another emblematic instance of violence towards Indigenous Women involved the Nahua elder Ernestina Ascencio, who was raped by soldiers when her community was militarised in the War against Drug Trafficking instigated by President Calderón. For Hernández, it is a further example of how the Mexican state exercises collective violence and perpetuates specific violence by failing to support those Indigenous Women who decide to speak out, with no translation provided into indigenous languages at public ministries near settlements.
‘All federal governments merely think about roll-out and solution. They impose a solution on us and, what happens? Well, just upheaval,’ she adds. Both at the Community Emergency Gender Initiative and at other participating organisations, Hernández has seen how the current Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) programme displaces native seeds to grow food that is not local to the region, or constructs greenhouses that industrialise agriculture.
She also states that when she would go to the state of Querétaro, many women would confess that their husbands would beat them until they handed over the financial support they received from the government.
‘Social programmes are imposed, just like megaprojects such as the Maya train, the Huexca thermal power station and the Interoceanic Corridor. They are inexcusable programmes in terms of the environment, community and society. In my opinion, the damage is irreparable: violence against women, the environment and all life represents irremediable damage,’ she states.
Indigenous Women are agents of change
Based on her work with other women, Laura Hernández has seen how the Mexican state belittles, stigmatises or ignores the organisational methods and contexts of Indigenous Women. She also notes how society and the media lack intercultural approaches, not only in framing violence but also with regard to local organisational methods that transform the reality of people’s lives.
‘They think that women are viciously violated in communities. For example, they mention childhood marriage or unions at a young age and fail to contextualise them. Each community has different customs: there are those where the practice does not exist, where dowries are not even a thing. Then there are some communities that do have these practices, but they are not universal—Indigenous Women are changing things,’ she stresses.
She acknowledges that male domination (machismo) is alive in communities, as well as how difficult and complex it can be to give it a name, point it out and monitor it from a community approach. However, she doggedly states that Indigenous Women have never passively accepted violence and how these spaces of international debate are useful for empowerment and changing how the rest of society sees these women.
‘Having international and national spaces or the local organisations of sisters in the community speaks to the ability of women, girls and youth to build collective wellbeing in our communities. Discussing territory, autonomy, healing or femicide means providing our contributions as Indigenous Women and speaking for ourselves,’ she underscores.
Laura is a living testimony to this. On 12th August she was the regional representative for ECMIA at the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women: a milestone in articulating human rights. Over 500 Indigenous Women from around the globe took part in the event, discussing proposals and challenges regarding gender and their communities via an online platform managed by the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI).
During the session, Laura insisted that despite organisation and how important it is to reject violence within communities, repairing harm comes from access to justice: ‘Whilst the State discriminates against us and systematically violates our rights, it will be really difficult to achieve complete healing.’
In light of this, she sees the Second World Conference as a ‘wonderful benchmark’ for her and for the young child in her arms—part of the future generation that will inherit the benchmarks being collectively constructed by women today.