An Indigenous Perspective on "Rape"
- In Mexico, an Unpunished Crime
Rape Victims Face Widespread Cultural Bias in Pursuit of Justice
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 30, 2002; Page A01
REYESHOGPAN, Mexico -- These gorgeous mountain slopes in central Mexico,
blooming with black pepper plants and golden cornstalks, camouflage the
sorrow of the two silent sisters. Antonia and Isabel Francisco Melendez,
who were born deaf, are nine months pregnant, and the doctors treating
them say they were raped.
The sisters, who cannot speak, cry and crumple, and literally fold up,
when asked how they got pregnant. Their babies are due at the same time,
within a week or so. Do they know the man? Did it happen in the fields
on their way home from school? Isabel seemed to try to answer once, to
her grandmother, by pointing to a spot high on a mountainside before
tears streamed down her face and she turned away again.
Antonia is 13 years old, and Isabel 16. Perhaps if they were older, the
pregnancies would have been easier to keep secret, the way rapes and
beatings of women are usually dealt with in Mexico. But in this little
town of fewer than 500 people, a place where the church bells toll every
afternoon at 5 to call everyone to say the rosary, the reality is hard
to hide. The girls' tiny frames swell more each day. Their backs and
legs are sore -- not from playing tag with schoolmates, but because
their bodies are telling them they will soon be mothers.
"This is a crime and there should be an investigation," said Juana Maria
Diego Victor, a community leader in this village 85 miles northeast of
Puebla city. "Someone should protect these girls."
Mexico is struggling to modernize its justice system, but when it comes
to punishing sexual violence against women, surprisingly little has
changed in a century. In many parts of Mexico, the penalty for stealing
a cow is harsher than the punishment for rape.
Although the law calls for tough penalties for rape -- up to 20 years in
prison -- only rarely is there an investigation into even the most
barbaric of sexual violence. Women's groups estimate that perhaps 1
percent of rapes are ever punished. Although the two girls' medical
charts say their pregnancies were the "product of rape," no police
authority has looked into the case.
In recent decades, Mexico has made strides to improve women's rights and
opportunities. Mexican women still have much higher illiteracy rates
than men, but that is slowly changing as young girls are staying in
school longer. During the 1990s, laws that trampled women's rights were
abolished, such as those that said married women needed their husband's
permission to hold a job outside the home.
But in the country that made the term "machismo" famous, where women
were given the right to vote only in 1953, women's rights advocates said
rape and other violence against women are still not treated as serious
crimes. And they said police, prosecutors and judges often show
indifference or hostility toward women who claim rape -- such as in the
case of Yessica Yadira Diaz Cazares.
Diaz testified that three police officers raped her in 1997, when she
was 16, as she was on her way home from school in the northern city of
Durango. She then did a rare thing: She tried to punish her attackers.
When she went to the police station with her mother, she was jeered and
then jailed overnight. They forced her, as is mandatory in Mexico, to
have a physical vaginal exam by a government doctor. They made her
submit to eight separate blood tests, telling her, falsely, that the
tests would determine whether she had been raped. But no one ever told
her what the lab results were.
When the teenager did not back off, even after her family received death
threats, a prosecutor told her that to identify the officers who
attacked her, she must physically lay her hand on them. It was not good
enough to point out her attackers. She needed to touch them, she was
instructed. When she reached out and touched an officer, he taunted her
and told her she was crazy.
Finally she gave up. She told her sister she was tired of seeking
justice. Three months later, the young girl with big brown eyes and
long, wavy hair killed herself with an overdose of prescription drugs.
After her burial, the national human rights commission took up her case
and helped convict two officers of rape.
"They make the few women who dare to report rape give up," said
Yessica's mother, Maria Eugenia Cazares, who said her daughter's rape
and death shattered the family's life. After her daughter's suicide, she
moved her family to Canada where, she said, there are more enlightened
laws to protect women.
"In 90 percent of the cases of rape, the Mexican police blame the
women," she said in an interview. "In the few cases where they know the
man is guilty, they let him 'fix' it with money."
She said she believes that a "machismo culture," instilled through what
is learned in the home, school and church, has allowed many men to
"believe they are superior and dominant, and that women are an object."
She said that mind-set has contributed to making many men -- including
policemen, prosecutors, judges and others in positions of authority --
believe that sexual violence against women is no big deal.
"The thinking is 'she's a woman, so she deserved it,' or 'he's a man, so
what do you expect?' " said Cazares.
Rape in Mexico is prosecuted at the state level, and state laws vary. A
review of criminal laws in all 31 Mexican states showed that many states
require that if a 12-year-old girl wants to accuse an adult man of
statutory rape, she must first prove she is "chaste and pure." Nineteen
of the states require that statutory rape charges be dropped if the
rapist agrees to marry his victim.
"What message is this? That the crime is not serious," said Elena
Azaola, author of "The Crime of Being a Women," a book about how the
Mexican justice system discriminates against women.
In order for a woman to file a criminal complaint alleging rape, she
must submit to a medical exam by a doctor assigned by the prosecutor's
office. Patricia Duarte, president of the Mexican Association Against
Violence Against Women, said these exams, routinely conducted in the
prosecutor's office, are often carried out with little sensitivity or
privacy. The exams, she said, are an obstacle to reporting rape that
contributes to "impunity of rapists" in Mexico.
Fighting Old Customs
Whatever problems women face in the cities and towns, they are
compounded in small villages where old customs are still the only true
law. Ten million Mexicans are indigenous, as are most of the people in
these highlands of the Sierra Madre. In Mexico's march toward modernity,
there is great tension here between protecting women from violence and
honoring indigenous customs.
In many of the thousands of indigenous communities, by longstanding
custom, women are essentially servants of their fathers, brothers and
husbands. In many villages around Reyeshogpan, women are forbidden to go
out after dusk without their husband or their husband's permission.
After 7 p.m., streets in village after village are populated by men
only, many of them drunk. Alcoholism is another problem that contributes
to violence against women.
Town elders who act as judges in local criminal matters are invariably
men. In one village in Guerrero state, elders were recently asked how
they punish rape. The six men looked confused, as if they did not know
what the term meant. When it was explained to them, they all laughed and
said it sounded more like a courting ritual than a crime.
When they stopped laughing, they said a rapist would probably get a few
hours in the local jail, or he might have to pay the victim's family a
$10 or $20 fine, but that all would be forgotten if he and the victim
In the case of a cow thief, they said, the robber would be jailed. And,
unlike the rapist, a cow thief would be brought before the elders for a
lecture about the severity of the crime.
In the southern state of Oaxaca last summer, the one-year-old,
government-funded Oaxacan Women's Institute persuaded the legislature to
pass heavy criminal penalties against a practice known as "rapto." Laws
in most Mexican states define rapto as a case where a man kidnaps a
woman not for ransom, but with the intent of marrying her or to satisfy
his "erotic sexual desire." The new law championed by the women's group
established penalties of at least 10 years in prison.
But in March, the state legislature reversed itself and again made the
practice a minor infraction. A key legislator -- a man -- argued for the
reduction, calling the practice harmless and "romantic."
Human rights groups disagree. They say it is not charming for a man to
spot a woman he fancies sitting in a park, pick her up and carry her
away to have sex with her. Yet to this day, that is still how some women
meet their husbands. The attorney general's office said there have been
137 criminal complaints of rapto in the state of Puebla since January 2000.
Complete statistics are impossible to find, because most cases are
settled between the two families involved and never reported. Because
rapto implies that the girl was taken away for sex, her parents want to
avoid the shame associated with making a public complaint to police.
In some cases, the girls voluntarily go with the man as a way to elope
to avoid wedding expenses. But Gabriela Gutierrez Kleman, a lawyer with
the Oaxacan Women's Institute, said in many cases the women are taken
against their will.
Gutierrez said it is hard to ask girls to complain about rapto, to buck
a system that has changed little since their great-grandmother's time.
If they do, she said, the family or the community often "treats them as
Marriage as a Remedy
The regional maternity hospital in Zacapoaxtla caters to women and
children from scores of villages in the highlands here in the northeast
corner of Puebla state. White-coated doctors and nurses scurry about
among the crying children, past brightly painted walls decorated with
basic information about nutrition, breast-feeding and sanitation.
About 220 babies are born there each month, many of them to mothers who
are children themselves. Hospital officials said babies are born there
frequently to girls as young as 12, many of whom do not understand that
intercourse caused their pregnancy.
The pregnancy of a child that age implies a crime: In Puebla, it is
illegal to have sex with a person younger than 18. But only rarely are
rape charges filed in these cases.
Teresa Arrieta Martinez, 13, petite and hugely pregnant, cringed as a
nurse took a blood sample as part of her prenatal care. Her boyfriend,
Eliazar Hernandez Martinez, a 20-year-old grocery store manager, stood
outside in the waiting room.
About seven months ago, when Teresa was 12, Hernandez had sex with her
and she became pregnant. Because of her age, the law says that Hernandez
committed statutory rape. But it was not the police who came after him;
it was Teresa's mother, Maria Juana Martinez.
"He could go to jail. If he doesn't carry through on his promise to
marry her, I'll have to report him," she said. "I'll sue him if he fails her."
In most states marriage is a legal remedy for statutory rape. Women's
groups say if the penalties were harsher, statutory rape cases would not
be so common. As it is now, a man can agree to a wedding to avoid going
to jail, and then abandon the woman. Social workers say many unhappy,
abusive marriages begin with statutory rape.
Any day, Antonia and Isabel, the two deaf sisters, are due to deliver
their babies at the same hospital. Antonia, the 13-year-old, lives with
her mother in a small house near the main road of Reyeshogpan, a tiny
village with little more than a church, basketball court and general
store. Antonia is carrying her baby in the breach position, so her
doctors expect a difficult delivery.
Isabel, 16, lives with her 95-year-old grandfather in a small wooden
house nearby. It is at the bottom of a ravine lined with cornstalks, a
challenging 30-minute climb straight down from where her mother,
stepfather and sister live. No one seems quite sure how Isabel will be
able to make the climb up to get to the hospital once she is in labor.
Isabel passes her days sitting on a log at her front door, staring off
into the cornfields or embroidering. She wears her silky brown hair
neatly tied up, her white dress and apron are impeccably clean and she
folds her hands nervously over her huge belly.
The girls' mother, Ventura Melendez, 35, communicates with them using
rudimentary sign language and drawings. When she asked Isabel if she had
any pain, the girl put her arm against her lower back. She nodded when
asked if she is scared about being such a young mother.
Melendez said she prefers not to dwell on how they got pregnant. "What
happened to them happens to a lot of girls," she said. "We don't want
justice. We don't want trouble."
But Diego Victor, the neighbor who has known the girls since they were
born, said she is angry that what happened to the girls will never be punished.
"They deserve better," she said.
Researcher Laurie Freeman in Mexico City contributed to this report.