The struggle for women’s rights in Guanajuato, Mexico

Verónica Cruz Sánchez is a feminist and social activist. She was the first Mexican to be named a Defender of Human Rights – the highest honour given by Human Rights Watch. She is founder and current director of Las Libres, an organisation dedicated to the defense, guarantee and respect of human rights for women in the state of Guanajuato and across Mexico. Verónica holds postgraduate qualifications in Gender Studies, Development Studies and Organisational Development and loves to travel.

Why I am considered to be a dangerous woman: Verónica’s story

The very name of my organization panicked everyone. Even feminist colleagues in Mexico City, the country’s ‘most progressive city’, warned me: ‘that name will scare the government, society, and the foundations won’t want to give you money because the name is just too strong’.

And I thought: ‘Okay, that’s what I want’.

The name would strike fear into them and they would know that our goal is both our liberty and the liberty of everyone else.

Being a woman who knows her rights, a citizen who exercises them, and a defender who demands them for all women is a danger in a sexist societyIt’s a danger for the male culture, for the patriarchal system, for men and women who have been socialized in inequality.

Here in Mexico, right here in the twenty-first century, we are defending the human rights of women.

We represent an attack on the political, economic and social system. All the more so because we are doing it from a feminist perspective, because it is seen as a danger to desire to upset a social order that condones discrimination, violence and the subordination of women. The simple fact of urging men and women to take responsibility for their reproduction – that men should also accept responsibility for bringing up their sons and daughters, as well as for domestic tasks, that they accept equality of treatment as a simple fact of personhood for both men and women alike – would seem to represent the greatest threat in the Universe.

Since I was a girl of around six, I realized that I wasn’t happy with the existence of poverty, injustice and inequality. I also realized that I had the power to change things; to do something to effect change in the unequal world in which I live. Since then, each day of my life has been devoted to struggling against all the forms of discrimination, violence and inequality that exist around me.

At that time, while I was at elementary school, I devoted myself to organizing my classmates to put on plays and using the money that we collected to buy food, candy and toys for ‘poor’ girls and boys. When I was a teenager and in secondary school, I used to go from house to house teaching to read and write those women who, for reasons of marginalization, poverty and sexism, had not had the chance to go to school. And since then, I have found in the world of social activism the ideal space to struggle collectively against the things that hurt us and, at the same time, for those things that make us stronger. I participated in the struggle for decent housing, then organizing rural workers to help them escape marginalization and exclusion and, eventually, in the 1990s, I discovered feminism.

This transformed me into the woman who would struggle forever against the system that oppresses women by seeing them as having less human, social, political and economic worth.

Since then I have understood what it is to be a strong woman, who struggles, who raises her voice, who expresses what she believes and feels, who dialogues, who listens, who strives to uphold truth and reason. I have understood that obstinacy, tolerance, tenacity and my ability to stay consistent would be my best weapons to assault, break, tear down, and attack the patriarchal system that governs our society, in all the spaces that exist in our daily life and in all environments, whether personal, family, community or social. But also do so with gusto, from a position of equality and as a citizen, and from profound human conviction – this places the others at a disadvantage.

I consider myself a dangerous woman because I founded Las Libres in 2000; a feminist organization located in the state of Guanajuato – one of Mexico’s most conservative and retrograde states.

The very name of my organization panicked everyone.

Even feminist colleagues in Mexico City, the country’s ‘most progressive city’, warned me that ‘that name will scare the government, society and the foundations won’t want to give you money because the name is just too strong’.

And I thought, ‘Okay; that’s what I want’.

The name would strike fear into them and they would know that our goal is both our liberty and the liberty of everyone else.

I consider myself a dangerous woman because I organize with other women. Las Libres decided to go into the rural communities of our state to donate our work to the women and girls in the most marginalized and excluded sectors. We wanted to teach them that we and they are persons, that we have rights and that we can organize together to learn to defend ourselves in our beds, homes and on the streets. Then the men in these communities said: ‘You shouldn’t come here opening the eyes of the women in our communities because then they’re going to believe that they have rights and what are we going to do with them?’

For a period of 10 years in one rural community called Las Cruces, in the municipality of Salvatierra, Guanajuato, we promoted the human rights of girls and women. We worked with them on the prevention of anti-woman violence, constructing a life project for them at 5, 10 and 15 years of age. In that community, most men had migrated to the US and the almost inevitable fate of all women was to grow up and wait for a man who would return and pick one of the women of child-bearing age to marry and have children.

There was no chance to make any other choice.

From the group of girls we worked with over the course of a decade in a process of education, through sharing knowledge of our human rights from a gender perspective and a feminist viewpoint, we had our first college graduate. Today, all the girls in that community are realizing those plans for life that we dreamed of at 5, 10 and 15. Each and every one is at university, they travel, choose whether or not they become mothers, whether they marry or opt to stay single, study and work. Today the old customs are in danger – violence against women, the mandates of gender and its stereotypes.  For this reason and no other, we are considered dangerous; demonic they told us.

Santa Teresa is another rural community where we also decided to spend a decade with young people in high school in the promotion, defense and development of their sexual and reproductive rights. And we were able to transform the lives of those young women who were abandoning a high school education due to pregnancy. They were in violent relationships, since each believed that this was the only kind of man for her. They complied with social norms on motherhood and achieving the goal of marrying and having children, even if this went against their happiness.

In just one decade, we achieved zero drop outs due to pregnancy.  The affirmation of better sex education, greater awareness and reproductive responsibility and understanding the exercise of free, pleasurable sexuality for women – it has been one of the greatest satisfactions of my life to endanger the sexist culture.

In 2010, 9 women were freed from Guanajuato prisons. They had been jailed for having spontaneous abortions, with sentences of up to 30 days. To liberate these women, tearing them from the grip of the political power that had criminalized them (as an example to other women who might decide to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy), has been one of the greatest achievements of my life. This was because I consciously decided to offer my body, life, intellect and resources in the struggle for their freedom and because it would unmask the injustice of a society that tolerates and is an accomplice to violence against women through fear, shame, blame and simple convenience.

Exposing that brutality before the whole world was a very dangerous moment in my life in terms of sheer survival.

At the same time, I became the most dangerous woman in the world for freeing those female prisoners from both prison and themselves, and for believing and desiring that no woman in any part of the world should be forced into motherhood, that invading people’s private, intimate life is the gravest violation of their human rights and the greatest assault on humanity itself.

For the last 15 years, I have devoted every day to supporting women and girls who have suffered rape to interrupt their pregnancy legally, without cost and in safety, irrespective of their beliefs, their families, in spite of the archaic institutions and aggressors, including their own parents. Day after day, I accompany victims of anti-woman violence to file complaints, often very much despite themselves and in spite of a system that pursues and enforces justice extremely slowly, with impunity and selectively. However, my strength spurred them on and so we faced up to our enemies, sure only that reason would come to our aid.

Refusing to naturalize or normalize violence against women has made us a danger for traditional society.

The greatest passion of my life is to accompany in their decision women who choose to interrupt an unwanted pregnancy, simply because it is unwanted, so that they can do so in a safe, free way, even in places with restrictive laws. To do everything necessary so that these women experience this as a human right, despite the fact that the law says it is a crime. To make sure they know that they are not going to die, that neither their health nor their freedom is at risk, to have this experience, to share with these women the assertion of the right that is most prohibited? It makes me the happiest woman in the Universe, the strongest on the planet and the most combative on earth.

Confronting the stigma associated with abortion every day, has made society start to rethink the social censure of abortion, to stop judging women and to develop social support for women who abort; the most dangerous experience for the oppressive global system.

Today, I have a state government and a country confronting their responsibility for the violent murders of women – femicides. These are murders that they could prevent and for which they are responsible – for not educating men about equality and non-violence. The entire country is asking for the declaration of a gender alert as a citizen’s measure to guarantee the women of Mexico the right to a life free of violence. The lives of women should be respected and protected, because we are members of the human race. It is dangerous to demand that the state fulfill its obligations, but it is more dangerous that a day of violence should reach us all.

I doubt very much whether there is a woman in the world more dangerous than me. I have decided to live my life to the full, to exercise my citizenship, to accompany women on their path to knowing, exercising and living their rights, come what may.  I have decided that we can build a parallel world within the traditional world; habitable, livable for the women and girls that I have had the fortune to meet. I believe that I am most dangerous because I am offering guidance to men who accompany us in our struggle for our rights.

I think that there is no more dangerous woman than I, because I am happy, because I am a point of reference for the struggle and strength of women, because I am consistent, because I fill the feminist ethic with content, because I am a human being who has discovered her humanity through loving and being loved, through struggling and being accompanied in the struggle, through seeking out difficult paths in order to make the passage easy for all women and men. Because I have chosen to forego motherhood and nevertheless love children, because I have chosen to remain single. Accompanied when I like by whom I like.

I doubt very much whether there is another woman as dangerous as I am, because I’m not looking to exchange my social power for political and economic capital.

–Verónica Cruz Sánchez