CIVICUS speaks with Wendy Figueroa, director of the Red Nacional de Refugios (National Network of Shelters), a Mexican civil society organisation (CSO) that has been active for more than 20 years. The National Network brings together 69 centres dedicated to the prevention, care and protection of victims of family and gender-based violence throughout Mexico. It carries out comprehensive, multidisciplinary and intersectoral work from a gender, human rights and multicultural perspective. It focuses on public policy advocacy, enhancing the visibility of the problem of family and gender-based violence through campaigns and a media presence, and providing free and specialised comprehensive care for women and their children who experience family and gender-based violence.
How has gender-based violence in Mexico been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic?
In Mexico, violence against women is a historic pandemic. It did not just emerge with COVID-19; what the pandemic has done is make the situation more apparent and profound during lockdown. The ‘stay home’ measures to mitigate COVID-19 mean that hundreds of women are in a situation of greater risk and vulnerability. Gender-based violence is magnified under the pandemic precisely because within lockdown, women are overloaded with care tasks, domestic work and the responsibility to optimise the resources available in their home: all of this, of course, while under pressure from the aggressor who lives with them.
How has the National Network responded?
We have reinforced the activities and interventions that we have been conducting for many years. What characterises the work of the National Network is that, although our work has been constant, our experience in approaches to prevent, attend to and eliminate violence against women, boys and girls has adapted and been enriched with time. These approaches are updated according to the needs of women, boys and girls – and so our responses in this period of lockdown have also been enriched and strengthened in several ways.
First, the Network has a telephone helpline operating 24 hours a day throughout the year, and we also provide assistance through social media. We have strengthened these, increasing the number of professionals who provide care through these two communication spaces. We also implemented a WhatsApp number as we have seen that when more time is spent in lockdown, women in situations of abuse have fewer possibilities to make external contact. So, text or social media messages have become an extremely important vehicle for women to send us a message whenever they get the chance.
In several cases, these messages have resulted in rescue operations. During confinement, women have had to leave at the first opportunity when their aggressor is not at home, and as a result rescues have increased exponentially. In just two months we have carried out 19 rescues, compared with just around one per month during the equivalent months in 2019. To achieve this, we have had to be creative and have established alliances with some private companies such as Avon and Uber to arrange logistics and transportation.
Second, our information, awareness and prevention campaigns have focused on three moments that women who experience abuse go through, in order to share strategies of what to do before, during and after a violent event. We also share strategies to reduce risk situations with children at home and to establish safety plans. We have carried out an inclusive and multicultural campaign, with messages in sign language for deaf women, and messages for Indigenous women in three languages: Mayan, Náhuatl and Zapotec.
Given that COVID-19 makes pre-existing forms of discrimination and inequalities deeper and more visible, and that women are to a greater degree in this situation of vulnerability, we have also created material aimed at society at large. We promote among the public the establishment of solidarity support networks to make gender-based violence and violence against children more visible, so that people can denounce situations of violence and participate in the construction of a zero-tolerance culture.
Third, we have carried out the ‘isolation without violence’ campaign, aimed at the government, underscoring the urgency and necessity of creating cross-sectional, resourced public policies that address the consequences and impact of COVID-19 for women from gender, human rights and multicultural perspectives. As the quarantine is lifted, these polices must guarantee access to justice, health services and financial compensation, among other rights.
Fourth, we have carried out specific actions within the shelters, emergency centres, transition houses and external centres that make up the Network, implementing protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection. We have used our creativity to provide assistance through various digital platforms to keep accompanying all the women who take part in our comprehensive programmes. Attention hours within these spaces have been staggered and quarantine rooms established so that we can continue to take in the women and children who require support without any obstacle or discrimination due to COVID-19, as for us it is extremely important to put human rights at the core of our actions.
We are seeking international and private sector funding to strengthen our network of emergency and transition houses. Emergency houses are the step prior to entering a shelter and we are currently using them to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection in shelters: instead of the usual three days, stays have been extended to last the 14 days of quarantine. As for transition houses, they are extremely important because they are the spaces available for women leaving shelters who lack a home or solid support networks. In these transitional spaces they put into practice the plans that they developed during their stay in the shelters and start moving towards independence. But as a result of the economic impacts of COVID-19, the employment agreements that we had for these women have been cancelled. In this context, transitional houses allow women to continue with their process and avoid frustration and re-victimisation.
Have you faced additional restrictions on the freedoms to organise, speak up and mobilise during the pandemic?
Generally speaking, of course there have been limitations on mobility as a result of the ‘stay home’ campaign. In response, we have channelled much of our assistance through social media and over the phone. But we have not neglected face-to-face care: there are some cities where we operate in which there is no alternative available to the external attention centre of the local CSO that belongs to the National Network, and in those cases we have continued to provide face-to-face assistance, while taking all necessary precautions to reduce the risk of contagion. We also continue operating and providing in-person care, where necessary, in all our protection spaces: emergency houses, shelters and transition houses. And we continue to mobilise when necessary.
The freedom of assembly is limited, but it is not forbidden for us to take action in the face of femicides and other rights violations. We continue operating according to our model and on the basis of our guiding principles, namely human rights and women’s lives. We have reorganised to follow social distancing when possible but, above all, focusing on the needs of the families we assist.
How has the feminist movement adapted when transitioning from mass protests to social isolation?
We have transformed our ways of protesting, our ways of raising our voices, of joining together in sisterhood to seek justice, substantive equality and respect of all the rights of women and children. We have used digital platforms and technology to keep communicating, networking and proposing actions. Feminist movements did not go silent as COVID-19 arrived: through all these digital media and platforms we have held talks, webinars, solidarity meetings, encounters to express our feelings and exercise solidarity. We have held feminist exchanges to support our sisters’ economy and offer our professional services as psychologists, doctors and lawyers over social media.
We have also continued making statements. We recently produced, along with 42 other feminist groups, a video that accompanies a letter that gathered over 6,000 signatures to demand that the Mexican federal government and the 32 state governments implement urgent and priority actions to guarantee the life and safety of all women, girls and boys in our country. In the face of the minimisation of violence against women, we launched the We Have Other Data campaign, which has had quite an impact. And we have also echoed the voices of the women who are victims of violence and have sought our help. So we are definitely and fully present and we will continue to be.
What needs to change after the pandemic, and how can we work together to bring about that change?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted all of our country’s underlying problems: those of an extremely unequal access to health, education, information, justice and rights restitution. From my perspective, the post-pandemic era can be a great opportunity to reengineer our systems of care, protection and security to ensure that everyone has both legal guarantees and actual opportunities to lead a life free of violence – and particularly those groups in a situation of greater vulnerability, including women, girls and boys, older people, migrants and people with disabilities.
We need state policies that guarantee equal access to all rights for all people. These state policies need to have a designated budget. And they must be state-level policies rather than government policies because this is not a problem of the current administration – it is a historical problem. Government policies are typically dismantled every time the government changes, even in the case of affirmative action policies that are producing good results. This is why it is essential to move towards intersectoral state policy with a guaranteed budget. These must include gender, human rights and multicultural perspectives so that no one is left out. These policies must be the responsibility not just of the federal government, but also of our 32 states and of society itself, and of course of CSOs as well, so we can advance towards a society where sexist violence is not justified and normalised, as is unfortunately currently the case.
All people in all sectors have to work to achieve cultural change, starting with ourselves to identify our own discriminatory acts and violent actions, as well as how we reproduce social mandates and naturalise violence. This is why I believe that change needs to take place at all levels before it is really possible to speak of a true transformation.
What support does the National Network need from the international community?
We need the international community to know the human rights regression that our country is going through. It is important for information to reach international organisations because the state of Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention of Belém do Pará (the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action, and it is in breach of all these conventions. Mexico has already received many international recommendations in this regard but is not addressing them with real actions.
On the contrary, the government is often complicit in the violence. When they ignore and even deny that women experience violence in their homes and that this problem has increased during lockdown, the authorities do nothing but re-victimise the victims. Likewise, austerity policies are affecting programmes and communities. Since 2019 shelters have been in a regrettable, constant struggle to defend their budget, showing the benefits and impact they have on Mexican families. So we also need support in the form of donations to strengthen our national network and establish more emergency houses and transition houses, which play an extremely important role in closing the cycle of violence and delivering true citizenship and protection of human rights.