Amid pandemic, Mexico to cut funds for women's shelters
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Amid an austerity drive to confront the coronavirus pandemic, Mexico's government is threatening to cut funds to counselling centers for indigenous women just as lock-downs are causing domestic violence reports to spike, activists said Wednesday.
Women's rights groups say the government will save little money by cutting funds for the Houses of Indigenous Women, which counsel and advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and coordinate programs for reproductive health. Each of the 30 houses receives only $25,000 to $40,000 in government funding per year.
The government’s Indigenous Peoples Institute told the community-run centers in late April that their already-meager funding would be cut entirely. Activists have started a campaign to save the centers.
Rubicelia Cayetano, who helps run one of the centers in the southern state of Oaxaca, said they have seen an upsurge in domestic violence cases since the new coronavirus lock-down began in March.
“We are desperate and full of anguish, because this is such an important resource for saving the lives of women who face violence,” she said of the center, which serves largely Mixe indigenous women. Only a couple of weeks ago a woman who had been beaten by her husband and whose life was at risk walked into her shelter with her 5-year-old son, she said.
The centers are needed “now more than ever, because violence against women has increased in this COVID-19 health emergency, because now they are living closer with their attackers,” she said.
Figures from the government's National Security System show that emergency calls reporting domestic violence rose from 52,858 in February to 64,858 in March, while reports of violence against women rose by 20% in the same period. The number of women killed nationwide rose from 219 in February to 254 in March.
Amnesty International called those numbers — and the government cutback — “alarming,” noting that women's shelters are nearing full capacity.
The Indigenous People's Institute did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but on Wednesday President Andrés Manuel López Obrador flatly denied that violence against women had increased, and countered reports of domestic violence with an emotional defense of the Mexican family.
“There was an assumption that if families spent more time at home there could be more domestic violence. But that did not necessarily happen because the same conditions don't apply everywhere in the world. In Mexico, there is a lot of brotherhood in the family,” López Obrador said.
He didn't answer questions about the cutbacks, but almost suggested the problem was impossible in Mexican households, claiming: ”The parameters of the rest of the world do not completely apply to Mexico if we want to measure domestic violence."
“Yes, yes, yes, there is machismo, but there is also a lot of family brotherhood,” the president said. “The family in Mexico is exceptional, it is the warmest human nucleus ... it is among the good things we have.”
López Obrador won the presidency on a pledge to transform the government to serve the poor, forgotten and indigenous population. But he believes the best way to do that is to put cash in peoples' pockets through government job, scholarship and pension programs, and distrusts non-governmental initiatives.
Tania Reneaum, the director of Amnesty International in Mexico, said “it is a very bad sign” that López Obrador denied there had been an increase in violence against women, and called on the government to stop cutting programs that protect women.
The Houses of Indigenous Women are vital, activists say, because indigenous women face more poverty, oppression, powerlessness, isolation and mistreatment than almost any other group in Mexico. Mexico's 9.5 million indigenous people have a lower rate of new coronavirus infection than most Mexicans — the institute says there have been only 210 confirmed cases and 43 deaths — but their towns and villages have often closed themselves off to the outside world to avoid infection, thus isolating women further.
Because of language and cultural barriers, indigenous women are often less willing or able to file complaints about domestic violence, and less listened to when they do. The mostly bilingual staff at the houses act as advocates, translators, and liaisons for midwives, social services or shelters.
“When they (indigenous women) go to government offices, they don't pay attention to them, because they often don't understand the language they speak,” said Cayetano.