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“We were seeking justice. We wanted to prevent disappearance, for it to end. Unfortunately, I still see girls disappearing. I don’t want to be negative, but I don’t know when this will stop,” said Paula Flores of Juárez, Mexico, on July 3, 2016, 18 years after the disappearance and murder of her daughter, María Sagrario González Flores.
Women like Flores, especially mothers of victims of violence, are constantly at the forefront of human-rights activism on issues like forced disappearance, femicide, and abuses by the military. Where state institutions or elected officials fail to take action against such violence, these women have filled a vacuum, challenging traditional gender roles in the process.
Demanding justice in Mexico, a country where 98% of crimes fail to result in convictions, is no easy task. The country’s activist mothers and grandmothers follow in the Latin American tradition of predecessors like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who in 1977 began to march in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to protest the mass disappearance of children under the military dictatorship. They marched weekly for years, forcing public discussion of human rights abuses under the dictatorship.
The Plaza de Mayo mothers inspired similar groups from Africa to Serbia to Los Angeles, and brought them together in the mid-1990s as the International Gathering of Mothers and Women in Struggle. As Professor Marguerite Bouvard of Brandeis University documented in her 1996 book Women Reshaping Human Rights, women’s groups more generally have played a critical role in the human-rights movement, pursuing economic, social, and cultural justice and emphasizing the importance of human dignity and mutual respect among citizens and between citizens and the state.
Even among women’s groups, however, mothers have a special place. They operate in countries that typically refuse to recognize the agency of women beyond the role of mothers, wives, and daughters. They use their given role as a badge of moral authority, taking their voices and their truth out of the home and into the streets to fight not for abstract concepts of justice, but for sons and daughters with names and histories.
When renowned Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was murdered on March 3, 2016, it was her mother, Austra Bertha Flores Lopez, a midwife and social activist, who took the lead in holding the Honduran state responsible for her death. In the United States, mothers have been active in protesting police brutality in the Black Lives Matter movement. In India, they have marched to raise awareness of widespread sexual assault. And in Colombia, they have been active in the peace process, ensuring that the proposed agreement to end the FARC insurgency focuses on the lives of women.
Flores and her fellow activists have committed themselves to a long road. In 2007, Mexico’s government adopted the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence, which defined and codified the term femicide in Mexico. But it had to be ratified by each of Mexico’s 31 states, and only the more liberal states did so. In 2009, mothers and activists brought the case of the “Cotton Field” femicides – eight girls and women whose bodies were discovered in Juárez in 2001 – before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Court charged the government with failing to investigate the murders properly, and required the government to construct a monument to the victims and compensate families for their loss.
For many mothers like Paula, change is measured in decades. But their work continues. In 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College were on buses heading to Mexico City to join protesters on the anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre (in which up to 300 students were killed ten days before the opening of the Olympic Games). Local police stopped them near an army checkpoint. They were “disappeared” in what appears to have been a coordinated state action to silence young activists. It was mothers who immediately organized and took action to demand justice.
During the 2016 clashes in the Mexican state of Oaxaca between the military and teachers protesting educational reforms, the military killed ten people, including 19-year-old Jesús Cadena Sánchez. “I went to look for my son where I heard shots fired. I was so desperate to find my son that I did not care about myself,” recounted Sánchez’s mother.
August 30 was the International Day of the Victims of Forced Disappearance. Around Mexico, mothers of victims of disappearance and femicide organized protests. In Juárez, mothers marched to demand that governor-elect Javier Corral adopt policies to prevent forced disappearance.
These mothers refuse to allow their children to be forgotten. Paula Flores founded a kindergarten in her neighborhood, Lomas de Poleo, named after the Carmelite martyr María Sagrario. She recently worked with a local artist to design a mural of Sagrario in front of her house. She and her daughter Guillermina have for years organized groups of mothers to paint crosses around the city at sites where girls and women have disappeared, a visual reminder of a problem that the city has failed to address for two decades. When the crosses fade, the mothers repaint them. Other mothers’ groups march wearing shirts or holding posters with the faces of their missing children.
The writ of habeas corpus is one of the first and oldest protections in Western legal systems, requiring jailers – those who “have the body” – to provide a reason for the prisoner’s detention. If a citizen disappears due to another citizen’s actions, the kidnapper or murderer must be brought to account. Mothers bring a direct, emotional, and personal component to this age-old struggle, insisting on their children’s existence as citizens and human beings whose rights must be upheld.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department (2009-2011), is President and CEO of the think tank New America, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.
Alice Driver is an independent journalist.