Among the often unacknowledged side effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the war on drugs are the economic and physical violence they inflict on women, particularly brown and black immigrant women. Driven from their homes, where U.S. policies and practices make it difficult or impossible for them to earn a living, or widowed by the disastrous militarization of the war on drugs, which has killed an estimated 120,000 people in Mexico in the last nine years, or fearing for their lives, as femicide against workers and students throughout Mexico has increased, women go north.
They may be in economic thrall for years to the “coyotes” who smuggle them over the border, but the real physical dangers cannot be overstated. One sign of such danger is the growth along the U.S.-Mexico border of small storefronts that offer women short-term contraception or pills. The women know that they have a very high probability of being raped on their journey north and want to prevent pregnancy.
If the women make it to their destination, new types of violence and exploitation await them. In research in Chicago, my colleagues and I heard heart-wrenching stories. The women we worked with described daily assaults on their emotional and physical wellbeing, ranging from being denied bathroom breaks to being hit on by supervisors to barrages of invective.
Economic violence often results in physical violence. Therefore, we have to pay attention to and care for the bodies of the women affected. Rather than seeing themselves as helpless victims, women can act on their own behalf, and many are doing so to gain control over their violent environments.
As an example, my colleagues and I have worked with immigrant women to first identify their bodily harm and then map the places in their communities where they are most vulnerable and plan strategies to change the environment. The women work in small groups to develop trust with each other, then they draw life-size silhouettes of themselves. The group facilitator asks questions about the impact of violence on their bodies, and they paint, draw, collage, and write their answers on their “bodies.”
From the personal maps of their bodies, they go to the political maps of their communities. They discuss the different uses women make of spaces in their community, their right to use space, and when and where they are afraid to walk or enter. The next step is a community audit, in which the women walk, observe, comment about, and take notes of what is safe and unsafe, what is useful or not, and what is accessible or not in their environment. During walks in Norristown, Pennsylvania and Yautepec, Morelos, Mexico, the women cited cracked sidewalks that made it difficult to pass with a baby stroller, the lack of trees for shade on a hot day, shot-out street lights, and mounds of garbage in some of the alleys that provided cover for assaults. After the community audit, participants draw a map of their community and mark the positive and negative spaces. The group decides on the issues it wants to address and develops a strategy to make changes.
In Norristown, the body maps will be used in a public exhibit to raise awareness about gender violence, and the participants are working on developing a cooperative piñata-making business that will also give them some political leverage. They are working on electing council members who can be pushed to change the map of their community. In Yautepec, the women helped one of the group members who was robbed of all her flea market merchandise. They all (very poor women) pitched in and gave what they could of old clothing, tools and kitchenware so that she could resume selling. They have also organized to work with the local government to close down a drug/party house in their neighborhood.
Although not yet widespread, this comprehensive mapping shows promise as an inclusive way for society to challenge patriarchal and consumer-driven economics that contribute to unsafe cities for women.
|Elizabeth L. Sweet is a visiting assistant professor at Temple University in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies. She researches connections between the economy, violence, and identity in Mexico, Russia, Colombia, and the United States.|
This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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