Mexico and France are hosting a United Nations forum that aims to accelerate the agenda laid out 26 years ago at the landmark Beijing women’s conference: securing equal rights and equal opportunities for half the population of the world. Beginning in Mexico City on March 29-31 and culminating in Paris in early July, the Generation Equality Forum is being held as the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened gender inequities and increased violence against women, studies have documented globally.
The forum, convened by UN Women, was postponed in 2020 because of the pandemic. It immediately follows the UN’s annual 11-day gathering, the Commission on the Status of Women, which was canceled in 2020 because of the virus. This year, it was a mostly virtual event that ended on March 26 with a struggle for a concluding document capturing women’s rights comprehensively.
As the host for the first leg of Generation Equality, organized virtually from Mexico City, the country couldn’t be a more awkward place: femicides are rising, budgets are being cut to crucial programs for women, criminalization of female protestors has been increasing and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is hostile to the feminist movement, which he views as politically motivated by adversaries.
These forums “are extremely important spaces for dialogue and advocacy, for sharing public policies,” said Maïssa Hubert, deputy director of Equis Justice for Women, a Mexico City organization that advocates for women’s access to justice. “These are strategic processes for dialogue among governments and among governments and civil society.”
Mexico “should have this same congruence in relation to the feminist movement within the country,” Hubert added. “That has not happened. On the contrary, we are facing a very polarized situation.”
The forum will culminate in Paris on July 2 after a three-day meeting there and in Mexico City this week with governments, international organizations, civil society, youth, corporations and activists from across the world to announce specific commitments to promoting a progressive women’s rights agenda. At least 5,000 people are expected to engage in the Mexico City phase. France said its version of the forum will be held physically.
“UN Women approached countries both in the Global North and South to co-host the Forum,” wrote Lopa Banerjee, who heads the civil society section at UN Women, in an email to PassBlue. “Mexico stepped up to co-host the Forum as they see gender equality as a key priority as part of their national and foreign policy agenda.”
The decision to host the forum was made by the government of López Obrador, who does not oppose gender-equality initiatives or feminism per se but who seems unwilling to accept criticisms of federal policies as anything but efforts by his adversaries to undermine him, activists say.
Half of the ministers in López Obrador’s cabinet are women. Mexico’s Congress has almost achieved parity and in 2019, the country adopted what it calls a “feminist foreign policy,” like variations in Canada, Sweden and France. Mexico also hosted the first UN World Conference on Women, two decades before Beijing’s, in 1975.
Mexico’s “feminist foreign policy seeks to allow women to express themselves, grow and move forward on a path of freedoms where they can display and exercise their potential,” said Alicia Buenrostro Massieu, Mexico’s deputy ambassador to the UN.
With Ireland, Mexico chairs the informal group of experts on women, peace and security in the UN Security Council, where, like Ireland, it became an elected member in January for two years. Mexico’s priorities at the UN and in the Council, however, are often not clear back home. Amlo, as the president is nicknamed (an acronym of his full name), insisted that last year’s nationwide demonstrations against gender violence were targeting his government.
This year, on International Women’s Day, March 8, feminists in Mexico demanded that Amlo end the “patriarchal pact” and rescind his support of the leading gubernatorial candidate in the state of Guerrero, Félix Salgado Macedonio, who is accused of rape, intimidations and threats by at least two women. The president considered the phrase an “imported expression.” Without evidence, he contended that “conservative” political adversaries promoted “the simulation of feminism” and he stood by his party’s candidate.
“The federal government discourse argues that the feminists represent a movement that goes against the government, not against certain policies,” Hubert, the advocate, said. “It does not recognize that the movement is demanding rights.”
Femicides — the intentional murder of women — have been surging in Mexico since 2006, when widespread violence related to organized crime spiked. Amlo, a leftist politician, generated expectations that he would tackle the gender violence epidemic head-on after taking office in December 2018.
Murders of women increased to 996 in 2020 from 966 in 2019, according to government figures. At the same time, funding for Inmujeres, the federal agency that coordinates gender equality policies and combats violence against women, was reduced. The budget for the National Network of Refugees and the National Network of Houses for Indigenous and Afro-American Women, which provide care to women who suffer from violence, also shrank.
Budget cuts and restrictions for women’s shelters and reproductive health services were enacted in 2020, but the resources were reinstated this year, though not at the same level, Hubert said. “These back-and-forth negotiations are exhausting and, I think, illustrate the relationship of the government with the [feminist] movement.”
The federal government’s ambivalence toward the women’s movement has reignited feminists’ public demonstrations. For International Women’s Day this year, activists painted the names of femicide victims on a metal barrier that protects the presidential palace.
The backlash to female-led protests has been ferocious.
“The authorities at various levels of government have stigmatized women’s protests, characterizing them as ‘violent’ with the aim of discrediting their activism and questioning their motives,” wrote Tania Reneaum Panszi, executive director at Amnesty International Mexico, in a March 2021 report on the previous year’s protests against gender violence.
During the arrests and transfers, the report documented, police officers referred to women by using violent, sexualized language and threatened and subjected them to physical and sexual assault. The notion that women should stay at home instead of making trouble for themselves by demonstrating was reinforced by the police in protests nationwide.
Ambassador Buenrostro at the UN said of the antifeminist rhetoric espoused by Amlo that “on a multilateral level, we have been very active, having a very clear and progressive mandate.”
She added, “In some circumstances, the multilateral elements often push [governments] to take domestic actions.”
One goal of multilateral forums like Generation Equality, Buenrostro added, is pushing countries into action: “We aim at creating general policies that can be implemented within a country after each country shares its best ideas.”
The concrete commitments, according to a forum press release, include taking “radical steps to end violence against women and girls, including accelerated introduction and implementation of laws and policies.” The release also highlighted the need for “increasing resources for feminist, youth-led and grass-roots women’s groups, including women’s funds.”
Banerjee of UN Women suggested the forum in Mexico City and in Paris could directly help Mexican women.
“Clear accountability plans and modalities are being developed now and will be announced in Paris,” she said. “That will lay out the monitoring and accountability model for the action coalition commitments post-Paris.”
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