Mexico's first female president offers little on women's rights

Claudia Sheinbaum, presidential candidate of the ruling MORENA party, waves after winning the election, in Mexico City, Mexico June 3, 2024. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

Claudia Sheinbaum, presidential candidate of the ruling MORENA party, waves after winning the election, in Mexico City, Mexico June 3, 2024. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

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Claudia Sheinbaum win is a milestone, but feminists see little hope for change after race dominated by 'issues that matter to men'

  • Election victory is symbolic for feminist movement
  • Sheinbaum lacks agenda on gender issues, experts say
  • Abortion access, gender violence seen as top challenges

MEXICO CITY- Claudia Sheinbaum has made history as the first woman to be elected president of Mexico, but activists fear her win could be largely symbolic after a campaign short on promises to tackle high rates of domestic violence and unequal abortion access.

"Being a woman does not necessarily embody progressiveness in the women's rights' agenda," said Friné Salguero, director at the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute, a feminist civil society group based in Mexico City.

Sheinbaum, a climate scientist and former Mexico City mayor who ran for the ruling Morena party, triumphed over another female candidate - Xóchitl Gálvez, underscoring women's high levels of participation in Mexican politics.

Women hold half of the seats in the country's Congress, according to a list compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an independent organisation promoting democracy. Only three countries in the world - Rwanda, Cuba and Nicaragua - have a bigger share.

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But researchers say there is little evidence in Mexico to show that women in leadership do more to advance women's rights than men in the country of 126 million people, where patriarchal attitudes remain strong, especially in rural areas.   

Of the more than 24,000 pieces of legislation introduced in local congresses around the country between 2014 and 2019, only 4,000 included plans to improve women's lives, according to research by political scientist Flavia Freidenberg.

"Even if you put women in congresses or presidencies, this does not mean a progressive or substantive equality agenda will be defended," said Freidenberg, researcher for the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

'Issues that matter to men'

Still, the outcome of Sunday's election shows the successes of the feminist movement since Mexican women were first allowed to vote in 1955, women's rights experts said.

But they said neither Sheinbaum nor Gálvez had addressed gender in their policy agenda, for example, as part of their plans to tackle cartel-related violence and the impact of climate change.

"Neither candidate had a position on trans women's rights. Neither spoke about lesbian women, Indigenous women, or disabled women," said Ericka López Sánchez, professor on gender and democracy for the Guanajuato University.

"Their agendas focused on the issues that matter to men," she said, noting that they had also dodged the sensitive issue of abortion access.

A girl releases colored smoke during a protest in support of safe and legal abortion access to mark International Safe Abortion Day, in Mexico City, Mexico September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

A girl releases colored smoke during a protest in support of safe and legal abortion access to mark International Safe Abortion Day, in Mexico City, Mexico September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

A girl releases colored smoke during a protest in support of safe and legal abortion access to mark International Safe Abortion Day, in Mexico City, Mexico September 28, 2023. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

Mexico's Supreme Court declared local criminal penalties for abortion unconstitutional in 2021, and two years later ruled that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to criminalise abortion.

Thirteen states have repealed their penal codes, but abortion is yet to be made legal in 19 penal codes or added as a right in the constitution, as organisations around the country are pushing for.

Neither Sheinbaum nor Gálvez spoke outright about their stance on abortion – with Sheinbaum mentioning that the matter had already been resolved by the Supreme Court and it was time to focus on other women's rights.

Only the third candidate and sole man in the race, Jorge Álvarez Máynez, said publicly that he supported women's right to choose.

"Speaking about abortion was betraying the conservative vote. That was not going to be popular because Mexican society is still largely conservative," said López Sánchez.

Decriminalisation has allowed women in the United States to travel to Mexico for abortion pills.

But many Mexicans – particularly young women, those living in remote communities or with limited access to healthcare - still struggle to obtain abortion pills and contraception.

"We are still behind in making sure that the law becomes a guarantee for rights," said Salguero.

For women's rights advocates including Salguero, the president-elect should make sex education part of the national curriculum from preschool, and listen to young people eager to have a say in the agenda of sexual and reproductive rights.

Women hold a protest ahead of the Day of the Dead against gender violence and femicide in Mexico City, Mexico. October 30, 2022. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

Women hold a protest ahead of the Day of the Dead against gender violence and femicide in Mexico City, Mexico. October 30, 2022. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

Women hold a protest ahead of the Day of the Dead against gender violence and femicide in Mexico City, Mexico. October 30, 2022. REUTERS/Raquel Cunha

Gender-based violence

Combating an epidemic of violence driven by drug cartels will be a top priority for the new president. Gender-based violence, specifically the murder of girls and women, dominated headlines under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Sheinbaum's political patron.

Last year, Mexico recorded 831 feminicides. So far this year, there have been 246 feminicides, according to the latest government statistics.

"Gender violence prevention policies in Mexico have been a failure because all the responsibility falls on the women, not the state," said Maïssa Hubert, subdirector at gender justice centre EQUIS.

As Sheinbaum continues López Obrador's plan to give more power to the military, from giving them full control of big infrastructure projects to a bigger role in public security, Hubert worries this will have negative consequences on women.

"Statistics show that 300,000 women have identified a soldier as their aggressor in terms of community violence. Their presence (of the military) on the community has a large impact on women," Hubert said.

A widespread criticism from feminist groups has also been the decrease of budget support for feminist groups that work for women's rights – particularly the disappearance of resources for shelters for domestic violence victims.

As Mexico City mayor, Sheinbaum had a tense relationship with feminist groups. Her mentor López Obrador labelled them as part of the "opposition" whenever they spoke out about his government's actions.

"We hope there is a new dialogue and openness between civil society organisations and the government, where they recognise that we have carried out interesting projects together," Salguero said.

(Reporting by Diana Baptista in Mexico City and additional reporting by Anastasia Moloney in Bogota; Editing by Helen Popper.)


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