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Mexico Rising: Advances in Women’s Health and Rights



International Women's Day in Mexico City
Mexico has recently become one of the top-20 national donors to UN Women, marking its commitment to women's rights. Here, participants in an International Women's Day march in Mexico City. Femicide remains a huge problem in the country. CLAYTON CONN

When the latest list of 20 top donors to UN Women appeared last year, there was only one country outside the richer nations of the world among them: Mexico. The Mexican commitment to the women’s agency reflects the strides that the country has made in promoting women’s rights in recent years, powered by government policies and its own vibrant nongovernmental organizations, often working in partnership with the United Nations. Mexico may have ranked 19th out of the Top 20, but ahead of it were only the wealthier industrial countries of North America and Europe, plus South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. (Norway is the biggest donor.)

While there have been some dire predictions in the United States about Mexico’s future, including warnings from some commentators that the country is close to slipping into failed-state status, the facts on the ground tell a different story.  Women have often been the main beneficiaries of Mexican advances. Abortion has been liberalized, family planning and health care have expanded into poor areas, and city life has been transformed by better public transportation, pedestrian districts, more green spaces and general urban restoration.

John Hendra has been deputy executive director for policy and programs at UN Women since 2011, overseeing the agency’s work in more than 70 countries. A former UN Development Program resident representative in Vietnam, Tanzania and Latvia, Hendra, a Canadian, has been observing Mexico’s progress closely. In an in an email interview for PassBlue, he described the country’s gains and the challenges remaining.

Q. Give us a sense of what Mexico has accomplished and whether it serves as a model of development.

A. Mexico’s rise as an upper-middle-income country in the last few years has resulted in significant progress both in economic terms but also regarding human-rights standards. Just last month [December], the UN honored the Mexican Supreme Court with the United Nations Prize for Human Rights for setting important standards for the country as well as for the LAC [Latin America-Caribbean] region. This is really notable as it’s the first time the Human Rights Prize has been awarded to an institution. As High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in congratulating the Court: “The work of the Supreme Court of Justice in Mexico has been crucial in fostering the development and implementation of international human rights law in Mexico. The granting of this prize to a high court is a reflection of the essential role that the judiciary plays in the protection of human rights. Judges, at every level, are guarantors of human rights.” She highlighted the crucial role of the court in implementing the landmark 2011 constitutional reform on human rights, as well as important decisions taken by the court to advance protection of human rights in relation to issues such as the scope of military jurisdiction, the best interests of the child, the rights of indigenous peoples, the prohibition of torture and freedom of expression.

Mexico’s Supreme Court has made significant efforts to promote gender equality and women’s access to justice. Notable Supreme Court rulings include, for example, one recognizing the constitutionality of the gender quota in electoral contests. In family law, the court has tackled discrimination on a range of fronts. This includes facilitating divorce caused by domestic violence; making abortion constitutional before 12 weeks; accepting marriage between persons of the same sex; and declaring discriminatory the prohibition to adopt based on gender. The court has also published a protocol for judging with a gender perspective, and will soon launch a virtual course on constitutional reform and constitutional review, together with UN Women and the Women’s Institute for Mexico [Inmujeres].

Q. Has there been considerable development in understanding gender concerns of women of all ages?

A. Yes. There have been a number of significant steps to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. This was clearly recognized by the Cedaw [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] Committee in 2012, which commended Mexico for the significant progress achieved to ensure women’s rights and in consolidating the legal, institutional, programmatic and budgetary framework to guarantee gender equality. For example, constitutional provisions to ensure gender parity in political representation have been approved in both chambers of Congress. Women’s political participation has increased in 11 of 13 state congresses that held elections in 2013, from 24 percent to 31 percent. As a result, the proportion of seats held by women in state congresses increased by 3 percent, from almost 24 percent in 2012 to 27 percent in 2013.

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That said, there remains plenty of room for improvement, and significant gaps between legal and policy frameworks and the reality of women’s lives persist. For example, 63 percent of women aged 15 and over have experienced violence during their lifetime, and 47 percent have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner; 26 percent of women reported labor discrimination during 2011. So while cultural and political change is taking place, greater efforts are needed to implement legal and policy frameworks in order to make a real difference in women’s lives.

Q. Does Mexico, a country with a lot of artistic talent, have creative media programs to foster gender issues?

A. Yes. One example from our work is that an increased number of national and state institutions, together with UN Women, have joined efforts under the framework of the UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE campaign to end violence against women. In 2013, we launched the social media campaign #orangeurworld. “Let’s paint Mexico and the world in orange” as part of the 16 days of activism campaign. This was very widely supported by federal and state ministries as well as local governments. For example, the Federal District of Mexico demonstrated their commitment to the campaign by lighting up the main avenue, Avenida de Reforma; ​the “Independence Angel” monument as well as various central government buildings in orange during the 16 days. In addition, 10 Mexican artists lent their voices to a video produced by UN Women to support the campaign to eliminate violence against women in all spheres, including schools, households, public spaces, cyberspace and in state-care and custody facilities.

Further, the Latin American chapter of the UNiTE campaign has launched a regional campaign to engage young men in the effort to end violence against women. Using the slogan “Brave Men Are Not Violent” (El Valiente No Es Violento), the campaign highlights the critical role men play in ending violence against women and girls. The first spot has been produced in Mexico.

Q. Does Mexico still have large urban-rural gaps in its ability to extend services as well as the means to communicate culturally sensitive messages in conservative traditional or indigenous communities?

A. There’s no doubt that persistent gaps exist in particular for indigenous, young and rural women and between urban and rural areas. Mexico is working to address this. For example, the Law of the National Commission for Development of Indigenous Peoples includes a gender approach as a guiding principle for designing policies, programs and actions to promote participation, respect, equality and full opportunities for indigenous women.

In terms of our own work, UN Women has been working with the Government of Mexico and indigenous women’s networks to improve indigenous women’s access to sexual and reproductive services and rights and the right to live a life free of violence. Twenty CAMIs (Casa de la Mujer Indigena, or The House of Indigenous Women) in 13 states have provided support to women in indigenous communities to access health and justice services. After three years of piloting by the CDI [National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples] and UN Women, this has now been approved as a national program in 2013. In addition, UN Women has worked to support capacity-building for indigenous women leaders. An academic program for indigenous women’s leadership training has been developed by the National Autonomous University in collaboration with the government, UN Women and the Central American and Mexican Indigenous Women’s Alliance.

Q. Does Mexico do much South-South work, as Brazilians do?

A. Yes. Mexican initiatives to promote South-South cooperation are an important pillar of the country’s foreign policy and aim to develop capacities to contribute to the social and economic development of partner countries. Their activities are focused in Latin American and Caribbean countries, particularly in Central America.

To give an example from our own experience in Mexico, UN Women is promoting South-South cooperation in the area of gender-related statistics. In 2013, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Inmujeres (the National Women’s mechanism), the Exterior Ministry and Inegi (Mexico’s National Statistics Office). The aim is to promote inter-institutional cooperation in Mexico and through its collaborationn with Latin American and Caribbean countries to produce,​ analyze and disseminate gender statistics and promote their use in public policies to achieve substantive gender equality. Upscaling of efforts in the region has been made possible by Mexico’s strong leadership.

John Hendra, UN Women
John Hendra, deputy executive director of UN Women.

Q. Are Mexicans making any progress against gender violence? And have they accepted broader definitions of abuse, such as psychological pressure, limitations on freedom?

A. Since 2006, Mexico has made significant progress to strengthen its legislative and institutional response to prevent, respond to, punish and eradicate violence against women. The General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence is pioneering legislation that recognizes different forms of violence against women. The National System to Prevent, Treat, Punish and Eradicate Violence Against Women involves the coordinated participation of different sectoral bodies and the three levels of government, indicating an important institutional change to address the problem from the different perspectives of these bodies. Also welcome are reforms to the Federal Criminal Code and the Organic Law of Federal Public Administration and the Organic Law of the Attorney General’s Office to typify and punish the crimes of femicide and discrimination, guarantee women victims and survivors of violence access to justice and combat impunity.  In June 2012, the Federal Criminal Code defined discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, gender, sex, marital status and pregnancy, among others, as a crime.

Despite this very positive progress, violence against women remains one of the country’s most significant problems, affecting nearly 7 in every 10 women, in private or in public. Further, femicide remains a very serious concern: over the past 26 years, more than 36,000 female deaths have been presumed to be murders carried out with extreme violence often preceded by rape, severe injuries and mutilation.

In 2012 the Cedaw Committee recommended that Mexico formulate and implement a comprehensive state policy to end violence against women and carefully attend to the recommendations addressed to Mexico by international and regional human-rights mechanisms, with special attention to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ statements on the right of women to a life free of violence. This policy is currently under consultation and will be launched this year.

Q. Historically, Mexico has been somewhat of a model in its dealings with religious conservatism. Is that right?

A. Yes. Secularism — with the principles, values and politics that it implies — is a constitutional characteristic of Mexico. For example, Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution states that education provided by the State “must be secular, and, as such, will be kept completely separate from any type of religious doctrine,” and that: “The criteria that shall orient this education must be based on the results of scientific progress, oppose ignorance and its effects, servitude, fanaticism, and prejudice.” Article 130 establishes the principle of the secular state in these terms: “The historical principle of the separation of church and State orient the norms contained in the present article. Churches and other religious congregations must abide by the law.”

Q. And looking ahead in Mexico?

A. The country is one of the most important emerging economies and is renewing its efforts to become a leader in the region. Under President Enrique Peña Nieto, it has agreed on an ambitious and comprehensive National Development Plan, which includes five goals related to democracy and security issues,​ social development and inclusiveness​s, ​quality education,​ economic growth and the prominent role the country plays globally. It is the first national development strategy that mainstreams gender equality and women’s empowerment. As part of its “leadership” drive, Mexico has not just been a strategic partner to UN Women on gender-equality issues, but also on the post-2015 agenda, including through its active participation in the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Mexico Rising: Advances in Women’s Health and Rights
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Nora W. Coffey
9 years ago

Thank you for the enlightening article about advances in women’s health issues in Mexico.

One of the women’s health issues that remains under reported is hysterectomy. Government statistics in the United States reveal that 1 in 3 women are hysterectomized by the age of 60. The HERS Foundation is contacted by many women in Mexico who have undergone hysterectomy. Like the US, gynecologists in Mexico do not provide women with information about the alternatives and consequences of hysterectomy. Virtually all women, all over the world who have had their female organs removed, had no idea of the serious permanent adverse effects of the surgery. Learn more about the hysterectomy at

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