Mexican women against violence

Submitted by Anon on 25 February, 2004 - 1:43

By Joan Trevor

On Saturday 14 February - Valentine's Day - a march was held in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez to remember more than 300 young women murdered there since 1993. The women were often raped before being killed and their mutilated bodies dumped in public places. The murderers - believed to be a gang - have evaded justice, and the authorities shown themselves at first dismissive of the crimes, then incompetent - and perhaps even reluctant - to solve them.
There is speculation that many of the murders have been done by rich gangsters with links to the law enforcement agencies, acting with impunity. Some of the murders will have been committed by 'ordinary' killers, jealous husbands, boyfriends and so on and passed off as part of the serial killings.

Ciudad Juarez, on Mexico's border with Texas, is the location for hundreds of maquilas, sweatshop factories, making products for sale in the US. The women who work in the factories are mostly poor, young, migrant workers from around Mexico.

You don't have to believe that the rich are killing these women to see a link between poverty and violence in these unsolved deaths.

The average age of the victims is 16. They are women who because they are poor will work in unsafe factories, live in squalid suburbs, getting to work in the dark along unlit streets. Since the killings started, there have been partly successful campaigns to get maquila owners to provide transport to get women workers safely to and from their shifts in the factories.

The authorities have mostly shrugged their shoulders at the deaths, and often tried to blame the young women themselves for what happens to them. A former State Public Prosecutor commented in 1999: "It's hard to go out on the street when it's raining and not get wet."

The march in Ciudad Juarez was organised jointly by Amnesty International and an organisation called V-Day, begun by Eve Ensler, the writer of the play "The Vagina Monologues". V-Day is described on its website as "a non-profit corporation, distributes funds to grassroots, national, and international organizations and programs that work to stop violence against women and girls".

We can't endorse this organisation without knowing more about it, but the website is interesting.


Sex and sport go hand in hand, it seems. At least they do when a major sporting event is in the offing.

Every lucky host city of an Olympics Games experiences increased demand for commercial sexual services. Sydney during the 2000 Summer Games did; but prostitution is legal there and regulated by the state, so there was little furore.

Salt Lake City did, for chrissake, during the 2002 Winter Games.

Who uses these services? Most of the spectators at the Olympic Games are families, so experts discount them as the punters. More likely, the many technicians and administrative staff working at the Games, and even the athletes. At other sporting events, such as a Rugby World Cup, mainly attended by groups of men, a trip to a brothel can be an established feature of the itinerary.

How will Ken Livingstone approach this issue in connection with his London Olympics bid? It would be idle to speculate. All attention focuses for now on the Athens Olympics in August 2004.

To jokes having a racist undertone about how the hotels are bound not be ready on time, you can add the disgust of some European neighbour governments with the Athens city authorities over their policy on sex working.

The following was issued to the Greek government and the International Olympic Committee in July 2003:

"Statement by the Ministers for Gender Equality of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania...

"It is with indignation and surprise that we have learned that Greece plans to increase brothel activities during the Olympics in Athens 2004. This will lead to more women being exploited and abused.

"We, the Ministers for Gender Equality in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will in this way express our abhorrence and protest your plans, which we do not feel to be compatible with the fundamental ideals behind the Olympics... to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play…

"It is therefore crucial that the opposition to all forms of commercial exploitation even includes the women and children that are made vulnerable around the sport and athletes."

What the north Europeans were objecting to was the Athens council's plan to licence 230 brothels in the run-up to the Games.

It was not at all clear that the Greek government was planning to increase brothel activities. Prostitution is legal in Greece in certain circumstances. Married women may not do it. It must take place in brothels where a maximum of three people work. Brothels must be licensed, and there were already 200 licences for Athens.

In practice, very few brothels already operating are licensed. What the Athens authorities proposed was stricter application of the law, a sort of civic tidying up of something that is going to happen anyway.

That might include measures that sex workers would support, such as free health checks, and measures that they don't: in Greece, brothels are banned from operating within 660 feet of churches, schools and youth centres and other civic institutions.

KEGE, a trade union for sexworkers in Greece, says the restriction is too hard to comply with, and has been campaigning for the cordon sanitaire to be reduced to 330 feet.

It's too easy to make nudge-nudge jokes about this topic. Perhaps I've just done that. Solidarity supports the organisation of sex workers. Does that mean we condone prostitution or at least make light of its - glaringly obvious - negative aspects? No.

The situation of prostitution in Greece today reminds us why we shouldn't.

KEGE estimates that about 700 registered prostitutes pursue their trade in 200 Athens brothels. In the greater Athens area they total up to 1,500. Around 5,000 prostitutes are registered throughout Greece. But non-governmental organisations say there are around 30,000 illegal prostitutes, mostly illegal immigrants, in Greece.

That figure is far, far larger than it was years ago. The bare facts hide stories of desperate poverty, with women coming - or being brought, willingly or unwillingly - especially from Eastern European and African countries, many of them children, many of them virtually enslaved.

Does seeing prostitution as a bad thing mean that we should disapprove of regulation, of sex workers organising to have some control over the job? Does regulation imply that prostitution "has its place" in society?

That was the tenor of the speech that Greek feminists made during the women's assembly of the European Social Forum in Paris, when Sonia Mitralias spoke about the situation in Greece in the workshop on "violence against women".

Well, no, it doesn't. But the sheer scale of the "problem", if that is the right word, dictates that we cannot set ourselves against regulation. You can't disapprove away the misery that prostitution represents for many that do it.

More on organising sex workers:

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