MEXICO CITY – Hundreds of women marched through the seat of government in Mexico on Monday, some carrying their children, others with torches, bats and hammers, prepared for a confrontation which it was hoped would force the country to fight endemic violence against women.
The International Women’s Day protest was fueled by anger at President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who backed a politician accused by several women of rape in a country that suffers from one of the worst rates of gender-based violence in the world. Despite a split within the ruling party on the issue, López Obrador backed the politician ahead of the June elections.
As protesters gathered around the National Palace – Mr. Lopez Obrador’s residence and the seat of government – their anger was focused on a metal fence that had been erected to prevent the building from being invaded. Women wearing black hoods shot down parts of the barricade as police fired rounds of flash-bang grenades at the crowd, prompting several small shoves.
At least 62 police officers and 19 civilians were injured Monday evening, according to Mexico City’s security directorate.
While Mr. López Obrador has described his presidency as part of a populist movement to uplift the marginalized in Mexico, activists say the president has in fact ignored the needs of half the population. The president insisted on Monday that his government was committed to equality, but critics say little was done about violence against women during his tenure.
For about two years since Mr. López Obrador’s office, the rates of violence against women have not changed significantly. Last year, an average of 10 women were killed in Mexico every day and there were around 16,000 cases of rape. An investigation by a news site, Animal Politico, found that between 2014 and 2018, only about 5% of all allegations of sexual assault, including rape, resulted in a criminal conviction.
It is this impunity that enraged Mexican feminists, leading some groups to adopt violence as a tactic to force the nation to heed their demands.
“We are fighting today so as not to die tomorrow,” chanted the women on Monday as they crossed the city to the national palace. Others said: “The fault is not mine, not because of where I was or what I was wearing.”
Over the weekend, activists spray painted the barricade around the palace with the names of women killed by their husbands, boyfriends or supposed admirers.
Ivette Granados, 49, and her daughter Maria Puente, 16, attended Monday’s protest together. They said they were angered by their daily struggle with sexual abuse which many say is the common experience of all women in Mexico. The mother and daughter took turns listing the assaults they said they had suffered over the years: getting caught on the street, on the subway or at a party, and men showing them their genitals in public.
Although Ms Granados disagrees with the use of violence as a tactic to promote the feminist movement, she lamented that it seemed to be the only thing that made the nation take note of their long-standing struggle for legality.
“I have seen it throughout history in the peaceful marches of women – they did not work,” Ms. Granados said. “I think these things make governments and people turn around. And even though I don’t agree, life has shown me that only then do they turn around to see these situations.
This year’s protests, which drew several thousand women in total, were much smaller than those of 2020, when tens of thousands emerged.
Some women pointed out that the coronavirus was the cause of the lower attendance.
Protesters took to the streets of the capital last year after several gruesome assaults on women sparked public outrage, including the murder of a 7-year-old girl who was found disemboweled in a body bag.
A day later, tens of thousands of women remained home from work in a nationwide strike to protest the violence.
Mr. López Obrador has repeatedly downplayed the protest movement or accused feminist groups of being politically motivated.
And he further angered many women in Mexico by refusing to convict a leading member of his own party who was accused of sexual assault by several women. The candidate, Félix Salgado Macedonio, is running for governor of the state of Guerrero, pending a party vote confirming his candidacy.
On the morning of Monday’s protest, the president again accused conservative groups of co-opting the feminist movement and claimed the women’s marches only started after he came to power. He named his own government as a pledge in his fight for equality, the first cabinet in Mexican history to have half the seats held by women.
Mr. López Obrador defended the wall his government erected around the National Palace. And he said that if he supported the feminist movement, he would not tolerate the violence or vandalism seen in the women’s march last year.
Ms Granados and her daughter said the wall does not appear to be up to a president who calls himself a man of the people.
“Listen, I don’t agree to destroy monuments or damage, do I?” Ms. Granados said. “But it is also clear to me that a monument is not worth more than a girl’s life.”
His daughter, Ms. Puente, whistled.
The wall, she said, “is a contradiction.”
Ana Sosa in Mexico City contributed reporting.