This morning during the final session of the Seminario Centros de Justicia para las Mujeres in Chihuahua, Mexico at the Governor’s Palace, the Mexican National Anthem could be heard echoing through the courtyard of the beautiful Palace. The seventy-five attendees at the seminar immediately stood out of respect and love for their country and their people. And then they began to sing. They all sang…with great affection for Mexico, their homeland. It was a moment that Gael Strack, Enrique Curiel (our SDSU Intern), and I will never forget. Enrique has dual citizenship. Gael’s Latina heritage stirs in her deeply when here in Mexico. And I have grown to love the people of Mexico. They have such a passion for their work and such love for people in need.
This week has been historic. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has initiated a $20 million peso effort to begin 12 specialized Centers across the country modeled after the San Diego Family Justice Center. It is being supported by civil society organizations, domestic violence shelters, feminist leaders, and human rights advocates. It began last year with a kick-off conference in Monterrey. This week, we came together again with government officials from across the country to celebrate the opening of the first of these Centers in Chihuahua. The effort is a powerful endorsement and embracing of the Family Justice Center model by governmental and non-governmental organizations in Mexico. As Dr. Laura Carrera Lugo, a national leader on women’s issues, said in the opening session three days ago, comprehensive service Centers with government and civil society organizations all working together is the most powerful way to provide access to justice for women.
The Mexican FJC Initiative is being supported by USAID, the U.S. Department of State, the federal government in Mexico, state governments, and local governments. The National Family Justice Center Alliance is providing planning, training, and technical assistance services to the initiative. It is a gender-approach due to the overwhelming amount of the violence that is perpetrated against women. The Centers will be called Centros de Justicia para las Mujeres – Justice Centers for Women. They will not serve men. Though controversial, this approach makes sense there. In Mexico, 90% of all women murdered are killed by intimate partners. And the truth is clear – the vast majority of the domestic violence here is being perpetrated by men against women. It dates back thousands of years and only recently have feminist advocates been successful in gaining a measure of political power to compel attention and change.
It has been sobering to be here. The evil of violent men is so powerful and there is little accountability. On the steps of the Palace just last year, Maricella Escobedo was murdered in cold blood while protesting the failure of the government to investigate and solve her daughter’s murder in 2009. Opponents of the growing human rights movement executed her as she protested. Every week, on Thursday morning, women protest on the steps of the Palace in Chihuahua and place a plaque to honor her work and memory. After they leave, the government removes the plaque. Across the street from the Palace stands a makeshift monument with pink and blue wooden crosses and a listing of all the women that have been murdered here in the State of Chihuahua in recent years. It is a long list.
And inside the Governor’s Palace this week, over 75 women (and two men) have met to learn about the Family Justice Center model and develop their own plans for their own communities. They are determined, passionate, courageous women. They are advocating for changes in the criminal justice system, Mexican law, and the allocation of resources by the federal, state, and local government. They are not focused yet on addressing slapping, punching, hitting, and kicking. They are focused on the murders of women and girls, the disappearances of women and girls, and the kidnapping and rapes of women and girls. Lucha Castro is one of the most vocal feminist advocates and lawyers in Mexico. She says the government is still failing to build alliances with civil society organizations in most of Mexico and refusing to implement many of the needed changes but the louder the advocates speak, the more relentless they are in their protests, they are beginning to see change. Access to justice is slowly increasing. The Mexican criminal justice system is slowly evolving from an inquisitorial system to an adversarial system to improve accountability for criminals and better protect the innocent.
The Family Justice Center model has become a significant approach in this effort. The government is endorsing the model. The non-governmental and civil society organizations are endorsing the model. They have realized access to justice, transparency, and accountability for the criminal and civil justice systems can all be dramatically enhanced in the Family Justice Center model. And they are committing to try to figure out how to live together, work together, and advocate for change…together. It has brought hope. You can see the hope on their faces. You can hear the hope in their voices. And as we conclude this three day session, it is inspiring to us to see hope mixed with such deep passion and love for their country and their people.
Being here has given me much perspective. At times in the United States and most recently in California, advocates and allies for justice and social change in the domestic violence and sexual assault movements end up opposing each other, attacking each other, competing with each other, criticizing each other, instead of standing together to support every effort to create social change and critical mass in social change theory. Such negative aspersions against fellow allies and unfounded allegations and insinuations against professionals from different disciplines in the domestic violence movement are almost unheard of in Mexico. They have to stand together because they need each other. We have come so far in the last thirty years in the United States. Mexico is probably at least thirty years behind in this journey. But in other ways, they are doing better work. They respect each other. They find common ground. They talk openly about disagreements and then they come back together. They are reaching out to government officials and recruiting allies inside government, one by one. They see that justice is far more accessible if police officers, prosecutors, the courts, and non-governmental organizations commit to providing services together under one roof. They are not pitting the non-governmental service providers against the government service providers. We learn much about relationships when we come to Mexico.
We have also learned about how to provide better services from the Mexican models of Family Justice Centers. Last year, in Monterrey, we saw a shelter built inside their Center. They had doctors, nurses, government health officials, police officers, counselors, prosecutors, and even a full school (operated by the Ministry of Education) inside their Center. It was impressive and as comprehensive as almost any Center in the United States. This year in Chihuahua, we saw a Center where the judge comes and holds court sessions for ex parte hearings at the Centro de Justicia para las Mujeres so that women in fear and danger do not have to go to court at all. In the United States, we are doing these hearings by video and electronic filing procedures. In the Mexican model, the judge is actually meeting personally with the victims at the Center. It is empowering. It is honoring. It is effective.
As we conclude our trip here and return to the United States, we are inspired, humbled, and encouraged. We are inspired by the courageous women of Mexico. They are determined. They refuse to accept the status quo. They are often risking their lives. We are reminded again that everyone who wants to stop violence against women must stand together, work together, and advocate together. We are humbled by how much we have learned from them even though we came here to provide training and assistance. They are teaching us. They are challenging us. And then, finally, we are encouraged in our own work in the United States. We need to keep focused on the big picture instead of getting distracted by people that cannot see beyond their own organizations and life experiences. We need to be undeterred in challenging all systems to do better work and aspire to improve their models, expand their services, and better meet the needs of victims and their children. We must continue to advocate for more resources for the effort to reduce and prevent violence. We must continue to make new friends and build new alliances. And we must be sure that our passion for justice and our love of people in need remain our greatest values and our highest priorities.