SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Deisy Magdalena Gómez Pérez says neighbors told her studying was a waste of time. Boys told her girls shouldn’t play football or basketball. And in primary school, she says, a teacher repeatedly touched her inappropriately.
She carries these painful experiences with her to Código F, an unusual project that teaches feminism to girls and teenagers.
“With feminism and Código F, your life changes because you know how to differentiate what is good or bad,” says Gómez Pérez, a respectful, reflective 16-year-old. “These situations of excluding you from some places – I saw it as normal before, because I lived it daily.”
Such changed thinking is the goal of Código F, among at least six similar initiatives launched throughout Mexico in recent years to address one of the country’s most urgent crises – bias and violence against girls and adolescents.
Código F teaches feminist theory and children’s rights, but other projects focus on a range of issues, including media stereotypes; information and communications technology; and self-defense.
Grim statistics reveal the impetus for the projects. Official figures show that murders of women and girls because of their gender more than doubled in Mexico between 2015 and 2019, from 411 to 933. Those numbers include the slayings of girls 17 or younger, which leaped from 50 to 98.
This year has seen some especially brutal murders, including that of a 25-year-old who was skinned and a 7-year-old who was kidnapped and found naked in a plastic bag.
Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico
In January, to protest this spike, demonstrators covered Mexico City’s main plaza with scores of red shoes.
Then, in March, came “A Day Without Women,” a national strike in which tens of thousands of girls and women essentially made themselves invisible, avoiding work, schools, public transportation and shops.
“The strike is intended to make us all feel the absence of the women who are taken from us, murdered on a daily basis, and through our silence make their voices heard,” congresswomen Lorena Villavicencio Ayala, Mariana Rodríguez Mier y Terán, and Martha Tagle Martínez wrote in Americas Quarterly, a publication focused on business, culture and politics in the region.
The coronavirus has added urgency to these concerns. A few weeks after the pandemic struck, the National Network of Shelters, an advocacy group that protects battered women, reported a 60% increase in domestic violence calls and inquiries.
In the last five years, Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state and home to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, had 29 killings of girls younger than 18. As of September 2020, 19 women had been killed this year, seven of them under 18.
Melel Xojobal, a Chiapas-based children’s advocacy organization, opened Código F – the F stands for “feminist” – in 2017. Magaly Domínguez López, a Melel Xojobal coordinator and facilitator at Código F, says the project aims to teach participants leadership skills and how to plan for their future.
The latter, she says, is crucial for poor and indigenous girls. Chiapas has one of the country’s largest indigenous populations and is among its poorest states. The school recruits mainly indigenous Tsotsil and Tseltal girls, who range from 8 to 18 years old.
Every Saturday morning, 12 to 15 girls gather in Melel Xojobal’s offices with food to share – tamales, pastries, potato chips, corn salad and more – and turn on music. The room fills with the aroma of bread and coffee.
The coronavirus pandemic kept the group from meeting for six months. When the girls gathered again in September, they wore protective masks.
They carry somber stories. Gómez Pérez recalls how she was walking down the street when a man grabbed her hand and tried to force her into his car.
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Dulce María Hernández Santiz, 18, says that when she rejected a boy’s advances, classmates threw stones at her and spread a rumor that she was a witch.
During two-hour sessions, students grapple with subjects such as the history of feminism, female anatomy, romantic love, sexual diversity and teenage pregnancy.
Some of these taboo subjects evoke nervous laughter. As the group tackles teenage pregnancy, for example, a guest facilitator, a warm woman in her 50s, poses uncomfortable questions: What would it be like? What could it mean for your life?
The girls sit in a circle; some are loud and eager, while others slink back, hidden. As they answer, they pass a doll between them. Some hold it tenderly. Others are quick to pass it on.
Código F girls say they share their learning with relatives and friends.
“The boyfriend of a friend of mine is too controlling, and she always does what he wants,” Itzel Longoria Hernández, 19, says. “With the training I have [from Código F], I’ve been telling her that he isn’t good for her.”
Hernández Santiz says, “With my family, it has helped me a lot. Before, my family was very distant. Now, my little brothers and sisters are more attentive and aware of what I’m feeling.”
Gómez Pérez, who studies nursing at a technical school, says Código F has given her a voice.
“You have rights, you can give your opinion – you can participate like all the people because we are equal,” she says. “I learned that I should never be silent.”
Marissa Revilla is a Global Press Journal reporter based in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico. Marissa specializes in reporting on child rights and conflict in indigenous communities throughout Chiapas.
Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.