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Bell tolls for justice

January 12, 2010

By debraf

There’s no getting used to murder. The women of Mexico’s Chihuahua state, though emotionally bruised by the violence that continues to take away their sisters, their daughters, their mothers, still work relentlessly to bring justice and equity to their kind, and awareness to everyone.
On November 10, a caravan of women and supporters left Mexico City and travelled 2,000 kilometres north to Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. They carried with them a large bell sculpted from the melted keys of murdered and disappeared women, a bell tolling for justice.
Juarez is now one of the most violent places on earth, with a murder rate of 2,300 in a city of just one and a half million people. Organized crime, a desperate economy and breakdown of the legal system contribute to the lawlessness. “It’s become a war zone,” says Suzanne Rumsey, PWRDF’s Latin America-Caribbean program coordinator. And with so much attention on the drug wars (two major cartels have declared war on each other), the killing of women has gotten subsumed in the bigger picture of violence.
But that atmosphere of violence “just adds to women’s vulnerability,” says Rumsey, who notes there seemed to be a pattern emerging over the years, with “young maquila workers disappearing and their bodies turning up in parts.” The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) resulted in some 2 million peasants being expelled from their land, and increased the number of factory workers coming from southern and rural Mexico to work in foreign-owned plants for extremely low wages. “You can work for a Fortune 500 company and live in a shack,” Rumsey points out.
Without family and social supports, women become more vulnerable. In addition, with a tighter border, it has become riskier and more expensive to get across the border to the U.S. “Consequently there’s an increase in human trafficking.”
PWRDF is a major funding partner for the Centre for Women’s Human Rights in Chihuahua, one of the organizers of the recent caravan. The centre does advocacy work around women’s rights in Mexico, including a lot of work to influence the justice system, which was formerly unwieldy and biased against women. Now, Rumsey reports, “women can come and testify before the judge with the accused in court” — a right we take for granted in Canada.
Centre volunteers and staff work in Ciudad Juarez with families of young women who have been murdered, provide psychological and legal counselling, and in other ways care for women. PWRDF has emphasized in its Latin America programs “that women really hold families and communities together,” Rumsey says. “When their rights are violated, it makes both their families and communities much more vulnerable.”
For Canadians and Christians, there’s an added dimension to being part of NAFTA apart from the benefit it might give our country. “If we have this economic relationship with Mexico, then we’ve got to do something about the inequities and abuse and violations. It carries responsibility with it.”
The caravan with the bell of justice arrived in Ciudad Juarez on November 26, 13 days after its departure from Mexico City. One of the participants was Alma Gomez, a founder and staff member of the Centre for Women’s Human Rights. On November 29, her 23-year-old niece, Flor Alicia Gomez Lopes, a teacher, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

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