Esther Chávez: Prominent women's rights activist

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The Independent Online

Esther Chávez was a career accountant approaching 60 and retirement when she became appalled by what became known in Mexico as los feminicidios, or femicides, the largely unsolved murders of women in her city, Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States. Concerned by an apparent lack of action or even interest by the city or state governments and police, she became a passionate and internationally known campaigner for justice for the city's victims and against the abuse of women worldwide.

In 1992, when the bodies of women, often several at a time, were found dumped in the deserts or cotton fields around Ciudad Juárez, the diminutive spinster founded the Grupo 8 de Marzo (8th of March Group), based in her home, to study the murders and why they were rarely solved or even investigated. Women, it appeared to her, were worthless and therefore "disposable" in the macho transit town, not worth investigating by the authorities or police.

The following year, using mainly press reports, she methodically began documenting the names of every murder victim, the date and nature of their deaths, who found the body (though many are still missing), the name of the person in charge of the investigation, if any, whether or how the death was reported and whether the victims' families were informed or helped. In her hundreds of libretas, or little notebooks, she also listed the names of the police officers, state prosecutors or other officials who were, or, more often than not, should have been involved in each case.

The murders of women continued – there have been more than 500 since 1993 in Juárez, a stone's throw across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. But many of the killings of the past few years are said to have been related more to the growing drug mafia wars than the misogyny, machismo or sexual abuse that triggered earlier killings. Formerly known as the "cradle of the Mexican revolution" because it was the first town taken by Pancho Villa in 1910, it is now more often described as "the most violent city in the world" whereas the adjacent El Paso is the third safest city in the US.

But the persistence of Chávez and other women who joined her has pushed the municipal, state and federal governments into creating special investigators and prosecutors for sexual violence and femicide, rather than overall "homicide" as before, and a Commission for the Prevention and Eradication of Violence, also mandated with focussing on women.

Chávez and her colleagues have also won a new Mexican domestic violence law, other women-oriented legal reforms, widespread support from activists and human rights groups abroad and the attention of the international media which has forced the authorities to move forward. Among those who marched with Chávez through Juárez in recent years in protest against the murders and widespread impunity were Hollywood stars Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Christine Lahti, as well as Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues and what she calls the "V-Day movement" to stop violence against women.

In a eulogy to Chávez on her website, Ensler wrote: "She gave her life for the women and girls of Juárez. She taught me about service and humility and kindness. She was a force in our movement, a leader and a beacon and we will miss her terribly."

Chávez believed that the particularly high death toll of women in Juárez, although abuse is common throughout macho Mexico, was because of its tradition as a city of transit, part of the twilight zone that is the 2,000-mile border with the US. More specifically, however, she attributed the rise in murders to the spread of maquiladora factories along the border, in-bond plants set up by American companies to profit from cheap Mexican labour to assemble products from American materials, with no customs duty or taxes involved. Most of the murdered women were maquiladora workers, women who would previously have been expected to stay at home, but were now earning their own money, and thereby creating a new dynamic in male-female relationships.

In 1999, Chávez founded the Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis (Friend House Crisis Centre) in Juárez for the victims of rape, violence or incest, and for the families of murder victims, where they can receive psychological, medical and legal help as well as advice on their rights and how to avoid further abuse. An American CNN TV reporter, Brian Barger, who had been profoundly moved by her meticulous files and her quest for justice, quit his job and helped finance and set up the crisis centre, which has since helped tens of thousands of women in the border city.

Diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago, Chávez donated her extensive files to the New Mexico State University in the American city of Las Cruces, 66 miles from El Paso. Last November, she was too ill to take part in a two-week march from Mexico City to Juárez organised by one of her fellow "femicide fighters", Irma Campos Madrigal, who died of cancer the day before the marchers, all women dressed in black, reached their destination.

Esther Chávez Cano was born one of eight siblings in Chihuahua city, capital of the northern Mexican state of the same name, in 1933. Since her father died when she was four, she found herself helping to look after her two brothers and five sisters from an early age. In 1951, she went to the city of Guadalajara to study accounting and remained there until 1963, working for Mobiloil's Mexican subsidiary before moving to Mexico City. In the federal capital, she worked for Kraft Foods, then the González Byass drinks company, before returning to her home state of Chihuahua, this time to Ciudad Juárez, in 1982.

Chávez remained an accountant until her retirement in 1992, when she dedicated herself to the issue of women's rights.

On 12 December 2008 she was invited to the presidential palace in Mexico City to receive the National Human Rights Award, presented by President Felipe Calderó*for "her distinguished trajectory of 16 years in the effective promotion and defence of human rights, especially those of women, with emphasis on the cases of the murdered women in Ciudad Juárez." Receiving the award, she said: "The women of Juárez are not just Juárez's dead. They are the world's dead, for they were killed simply because they were women. Let us all cry out: 'not one more woman assassinated, raped or even insulted!'"

In a recent interview, she warned that her fight still had a long way to go. "If the mentality of judges and prosecutors doesn't change, the law might be good but it won't change anything. We have a lot of corruption. You can see it in any newspaper you open up – an ex-cop kills a woman or an ex-cop was seen kidnapping a woman. There's a cop or ex-cop involved in many of the Juárez crimes. It's known that there's a pact between the police and those that sell drugs. A lot remains to be done."

Phil Davison

Esther Chávez Cano, women's rights activist: born Chihuahua, Mexico 2 June 1933; died Ciudad Juárez 25 December 2009.

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