On April 2nd Ana Paola was raped and murdered inside her house in Sonora, Mexico. She was a thirteen-year-old girl who, according to loved ones, had dreams of becoming a dancer. Her family was in quarantine; her relatives went grocery shopping and left Ana Paola in the house to keep her safe from COVID-19.
In a place where homicides linked to gender are frequent, the virus is our society and the way we normalize the murder of innocent women.
I was born and raised in the border city of Juarez, Mexico. My city is known for its violence, drug wars and femicides—women murdered because of their gender. I grew up seeing the death count on the morning news and the accumulation of pink crosses to signify the death of another female. I would ask my family why.
Why are all these women being murdered?
The frequent answers: She was walking alone; she was out too late at night. My grandmother raised me with the phrase date a respetar—“make others respect you.”
I wondered if other families taught men to respect women. As a young girl, I felt the responsibility of keeping myself safe and acting in a way that didn’t call the attention of others.
When I was thirteen years old, I felt the desire to go to places alone. Growing up close to the United States exposed us to American culture. I remember watching shows and seeing kids walking home from school. It was my version of the American dream. I wanted to do it, but my school was far away and my mom would never allow it. A trip to the tiendita or corner store was my kind of freedom.
My mother tells me that I would try for hours to convince her to let me go to the store alone. Finally she gave in. As I walked out of the door, she became worried and followed me without my noticing. I walked towards the end of the street, feeling free and similar to all those fictional characters that I idolized.
As I walked further away from home, a white car with two men drove past me. They immediately did a U-turn, their vehicle approaching me.
They called for my attention, asking me to come closer. Growing up at the border taught me not to trust easily. An instinct came over me and I ran back towards home, calling for my mom’s help. She saw the car and rushed to get me; we didn’t have to speak to know what we were both thinking. The vehicle passed next to us and did not stop.
I wonder what would have happened if my mother had not been there to protect me.
It is an experience that I still recall vividly, but I never thought I had the right to speak about it. I understood what impunity meant even before I knew the word existed.
I grew up thinking that fear was rational and that as a woman I was not supposed to be out alone. Many times, I heard my family telling a male friend to take care of me while we were going somewhere.
I was fearful not because of my strength as a woman, but because I knew that if something happened to me, no one would listen.
So far this year, there has been an average of ten women killed every day in Mexico. Femicides have increased 137 percent in the last five years, and 93 percent of these crimes against women were not reported or investigated.
A core issue in Mexican society is impunity. We grew up watching detailed crime reports on TV—but there was rarely any news about the perpetrators of those crimes. We heard abuse stories from other women where no one believed them.
The problem lies in systematic oppression due to a lack of access to justice by women.
According to the Mexican government’s COVID-19 website, women account for 42 percent of the population infected by the virus since the first case was confirmed. During this same time, more than 200 women living in quarantine have been murdered in Mexico. Sixteen of those femicides were girls under 14.
Acknowledgment does not equate justice.
We need a change in how we educate our children. Countless girls are told to respect themselves but never taught to speak up against injustice. We must empower young women by creating safe spaces where they recognize that their voices matter and opportunities are provided for open discussion. Most importantly, they need to develop the skills necessary to become leaders against gender inequality.
We must also stop blaming women for femicides. I will never forget the white car that passed me on that day more than 20 years ago and the thought that came to my mind. I wondered what justifications others would make if something happened to me.
Ana Paola was not out by herself or out too late. She was in quarantine inside her house. There are no justifications for her murder.
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