Justice Is Possible

Marianne Mollmann is Advocacy Director for the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

It's easy to get discouraged if you support women's right to decide over their bodies and choices, what with the blanket ban on abortion in Nicaragua passed last week, the imposition of demonstrably harmful "abstinence-only" sexual education in the United States and elsewhere, and the lack of access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care for women generally. But this month I am getting a much-needed injection of "it's possible."

I am not talking about the U.S. elections, though some electoral campaigns have given me hope that not all politicians have sold out to focus group research.

I am talking about Verónica Cruz.

Verónica Cruz is the co-founder and leader of the organization "Las Libres" (The Free Women) in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. She is also one of only three recipients of this year's Human Rights Watch annual award for exceptional human rights activists. Part of the prize is a three-week speaking tour of the United States and Canada, where I, as her Human Rights Watch host, get to accompany her. Our trip only started Monday, but I am already energized by her enthusiasm and inherent belief that justice is possible. Even for women. Even for poor women. Even for poor, indigenous, illiterate women.

And even though Verónica and Las Libres work in a hostile environment, their results are as up-lifting as their cause is depressing.

Las Libres is the only organization in the state of Guanajuato that provides legal aid and integral health services for victims of sexual violence. In Guanajuato, as elsewhere in Mexico, sexual violence is rampant and mostly unchecked. By the government's own conservative estimates, a woman or girl is raped every four minutes in Mexico, and more than 90 percent of rape victims don't ever report the crime committed against them to the authorities.

Many women and girls know from experience that they are likely to be aggressively questioned if they go to the police or to the public prosecutors. When I investigated this issue in Mexico last year, I found appalling cases of public officials actively mistreating or summarily dismissing rape victims, even before a claim was filed. Moreover, of the 10 percent rape cases that do get reported, few get properly investigated, and even fewer end with a conviction of the perpetrator. This impunity is a further reason for rape victims not to want to report a crime: if there is no final conviction, what is the point of exposing yourself to abusive police officers and prosecutors?

But it's even worse. Rape victims who have gotten pregnant as a result of the rape bear the brunt of the mistreatment and distrust. This is closely linked with the politically touchy issue of abortion. Abortion is generally illegal in Mexico, and some states still prosecute women for having had abortions. At the same time, all 32 state penal codes include exceptions to that general criminalization. The only exception that is valid in all of Mexico is legal abortion for rape victims. This means that rape victims in theory have a right to a safe, legal, and free abortion. However, pregnant rape victims who ask authorities for help to obtain such an abortion meet with multiple obstacles, both in the justice and health systems, ultimately impeding access.

In fact, in the state of Guanajuato, not one single rape victims has been granted access to a legal abortion by the authorities during the 30 years the penal code exception has been on the books.

Luckily, rape victims in Guanajuato now have somewhere else to go with their plight: Verónica Cruz and Las Libres. Las Libres provides the mental and physical health services the state should be providing but doesn't. Las Libres convinces women, through sustained support and consciousness-raising, that impunity is fought with the law: if rape victims agree to report the rape, Las Libres will provide them with the necessary legal aid. And if rape victims are pregnant and find they want to terminate the pregnancy, they are given the choice they are legally entitled to.

I have seen Verónica's presence in a rape victim's home change almost tangible despair to hope in a matter of minutes, just from Verónica's compassionate support and direct assistance. "Women, and in particular poor women, are used to thinking that they don't have a right to justice," Verónica told me today. "We show them it's not true. Justice is a human right. And it is possible."

Of course, victims of sexual assault still face a number of obstacles in accessing justice and health services in Guanajuato as elsewhere in Mexico. But with Verónica's and Las Libres' sustained pressure, the government can no longer ignore their obligation to improve this situation. And this is already a big step forward.

Over the next three weeks, I'll be blogging from the road with Verónica Cruz. For more information on Verónica, please click here.

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Follow Marianne Møllmann on twitter: @cluelesscamper