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illustration by hanna barczykThe Globe and Mail

Women were notable in their absence from the streets, subways and offices of Mexico early this week, not because of the novel coronavirus, but because of another deadly threat. Thousands of Mexicans went on a day-long strike, “a day without women,” to protest the skyrocketing rates of violence against them, and the lack of resolve in protecting them, or punishing their attackers.

I say attackers, but in a horrifying number of cases they’re killers. Almost 4,000 women were killed in Mexico last year. Mexico’s chief prosecutor said last month that femicides – the act of women and girls being killed because of their gender – had “shot up worryingly,” some 137 per cent in five years. When the families of those victims seek justice, they’re often met with indifference from police and prosecutors. Killers literally get away with murder.

Women have been protesting these femicides for years, but two recent killings galvanized mass protests across the country: The gruesome killing and mutilation of 25-year-old Ingrid Escamilla, allegedly by her husband, and the abduction and murder of seven-year-old Fatima Aldrighett. Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopes Obrador, has shrugged off the protesters’ demands for changes to laws and policing and social attitudes, having decided that they’re just political enemies out to embarrass him.

All sorts of leaders must have political enemies, then, because women have been rising up across the world to protest the violence directed at them. In France, they gathered en masse by day to protest femicide and domestic violence, and then gather under cover of the night to paint victims’ names on walls. In Russia, they risk jail – and worse – to protest Vladimir Putin’s repeal of domestic violence laws. Across the world, young women gather in public places to rage-sing A Rapist in Your Path, the feminist anthem that went viral after it was performed by the Chilean collective Las Tesis.

The names of the victims are vital – the ones pasted on the walls of Paris and painted on the ground in Mexico City’s Zocalo square – because they add up to one public-health crisis, which is the crisis of violence against women. It is a crisis that involves not just those women, but their families and friends who are left behind and traumatized, the economies they would have contributed to, the societies they would have enriched.

Which is why it’s so disheartening to see femicides treated as unrelated incidents, flare-ups of violence that have nothing to do with each other – instead of recognizing them as systems of failure that can be fixed, with effort. As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted in a 2018 report, 50,000 women and girls are murdered every year because of their gender, but “tangible progress in both protecting and saving the lives of female victims of intimate partner/family-related homicide has not been made in recent years … Many women still find themselves alone, not only in the face of violence in their home but also by being let down by criminal justice systems that fail to respond adequately or do not have the capacity and knowledge to do so.”

So it is in Canada, too, where a woman or girl is killed violently every 2½ days, but there is no national action plan to deal with gendered violence (the Liberal government has pledged $30-million to come up with such a program, but there’s no sign of it yet).

At the same time, the government has not yet unveiled its response to the 231 calls to action contained in last year’s report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (the response is expected in June, a full year after the report came out). The MMIWG inquiry identified a genocide against the country’s Indigenous women, who continue to be hugely overrepresented as victims of violent crime in Canada.

Every news story, taken separately, seems like a tragedy; taken together, they reveal blindness and negligence on a vast and infuriating scale. So, for instance, you can look at the inquiry currently under way in Nova Scotia, into the murder by Lionel Desmond, a former member of the armed forces, of his wife, mother and 10-year-old daughter. The inquiry heard that Mr. Desmond had his guns taken away, and yet was able to buy another one on the very same day his wife was phoning a women’s shelter inquiring how to obtain a peace bond, a court order against someone who may commit a criminal offence. It was also the same day that he murdered Shanna, Brenda and Aaliyah Desmond before turning the gun on himself.

Speaking of women’s shelters, the CBC has just produced an excellent series on domestic violence in Canada, which connects many of these dots, showing the failures for what they are – systemic and chronic, rather than surprising and unsolvable. The series uncovers a series of failures, from the way that police forces stonewalled investigating femicide, to the agonizing difficulties faced by rural Canadians who are trying to flee abusive households. It’s not a problem of urban or rural, rich or poor. According to the CBC News analysis, for example, “an average of 620 women and children a day were turned away from domestic violence shelters across Canada. That’s nearly 19,000 times a month, if November was typical.” The number is almost certainly higher, since women don’t like to leave before the holiday season.

We should all be celebrating the bravery and fury of the women in Mexico, Russia and the rest of the world. We should also be turning our gaze inward, and asking how we can do better ourselves.

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