Gender inequalities in northern Mexico

Received: February 26, 2018

Acceptance: January 6, 2019

Los estudios de género en el norte de México a umbrales del siglo XXI

Silvia López Estrada and Cirila Quintero Ramírez (coord.), 2014 El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana, 376 pp.

This work brings together different specialists who offer an interesting overview of the social, economic and political conditions in which women in northern Mexico live from a gender perspective. The book offers the reader detailed information on research carried out with academic rigor, but with a language accessible to a non-specialized audience. The text addresses classic and constitutive themes of the field of gender studies such as the social division of labor, the family, violence, the construction of meanings, power, participation and political representation.

The introduction offers a state of the art regarding gender studies in northern Mexico based on two analytical axes; one refers to research with a strong tradition in academic production in the region, and the other to emerging and consolidating issues. These foci organize the 13 chapters that make up the book.

The first group addresses issues regarding the diversity of families, their social networks and organization mechanisms, female work and its impact on the use of time and care at home, as well as the aging of women in vulnerable conditions. Added to these issues is female partisan and union participation in the north, which has been one of the historical hallmarks of the area. In the second set, there are studies that emerged in the late 1990s and that have gradually consolidated, such as maternal and reproductive health, urban ethnic identities and the presence of women in rural areas through research on the discrimination and state control through aid derived from social policy.

These thematic axes allow a suggestive crossroads between gender inequalities and social and economic inequalities in different areas of the lives of women and men in northern Mexico. Likewise, the authors who participate in the book weave some analytical dimensions under different disciplinary perspectives, since sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists collaborate in the work. These are specialists who write about those who have achieved a certain power and autonomy, but at the same time, they foster an interesting debate regarding the construction and limits of the concept of gender for regional contexts.

In this way, classic categories such as domestic units and survival strategies that made it possible to understand family dynamics during the economic crises of past decades are now being addressed under new approaches based on gender inequalities. Also concepts related to the sexual division of labor, double shift and compatibility between the spheres of production and reproduction, are discussed today from the perspective of the conciliation of work and the co-responsibility of family life.

A question that emerges throughout the work is why study northern Mexico? According to the National Population Council (Conapo) the northern region is made up of six states: Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, which stand out for their industrial, agricultural and service importance. The north is recognized for its industriousness and high female insertion in the labor market, as illustrated by the maquila workers, for example. This image contrasts with the low living standards of these women and a high exposure to conditions of insecurity and violence. It is not only about blood and bullets, but also about emotional, economic and sexual violence, which is exerted on thousands of women for gender reasons and which places them in a situation of structural exclusion.

This exclusion is experienced as inequality, influenced by three factors present in northern Mexico, according to the coordinators of the book Silvia López and Cirila Quintero. The first refers to the economic crisis that became structural in the local labor markets; a second factor is the conservatism present in public policies on sexual and reproductive rights, and finally, the increase in violence against women in many border cities.

The hypothesis proposed by the coordinators of the book is that social and economic inequality accentuated the state of vulnerability of women. This assumption is reflected in the numerous investigations that have been carried out on northern Mexico in the last 25 years. The review of all these works by the authors resulted in the book Gender studies in northern Mexico at the threshold of the 21st century, published by El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Traditional axes in the studies of northern Mexico

Those who participate in the book subscribe to the aforementioned hypothesis. Margarita Bejarano, in her work "Inequality in the use of time: gender analysis of care work", identifies some differentiated effects between men and women. Thus, 95% of the women perform domestic work in contrast to 76% of the men, although they do more extra-domestic work and spend three times more time on this activity. But they are the ones who assume the support and care of the dependents in the homes, especially the older adult women between 40 and 70 years old. In a context of population aging and greater female economic participation, the demand for care increases, therefore the author proposes a design of public policies that affect the reduction of tensions for caregivers in the home.

What Happens When Women Get Old? For a long time it was thought that Mexico was a country of young people, but today the population has begun to age and northern Mexico is no exception. Pavel Roel Gutiérrez in his work "Adult women in Ciudad Juárez: their struggles to live a 'good aging' and survive to older ages in 2008", analyzes the services that older adults have to achieve a dignified old age, especially in the group of women aged 55 to 65 in Ciudad Juárez. The author identified the devaluation, marginalization and segregation of this age group in local society and in their own homes. The productive dynamics of northern Mexico have influenced women being valued as commodities for work, which is why they lose their value as they age. However, the conditions of aging vary according to social position, education, work experience and ability to save, but what if there were no resources to face aging?

About, Céline Jarquín analyzes the “Pioneers of the new peripheries of Mexico. Family mechanisms, solidarity and gender networks ”addressing social and gender costs in the acquisition of housing in housing complexes. Through life histories and the application of a survey in 500 households, it identifies how men assume the role of providers, which implies for them to make long commutes to their jobs from their new peripheral homes. While they are secluded in tiny houses and assume the domestic burden and raising children. However, the restriction of time and space makes it difficult for men to coexist with their environment, and they face difficulties in accessing paid work, which questions the family cost of obtaining a home.

Another aspect of vulnerability is addressed by Gabriela Zamora and Sandra Mancinas on “Divorce: feminine and masculine views”. This work allows us to observe family diversity through divorce and that a common consequence is that women assume the headship of their homes, which increases their states of vulnerability. In the study, female and male voices are recovered regarding divorce in Nuevo León, which reflect stereotypes about the role of mothers and fathers in families. Divorce not only involves legal proceedings for the custody of children, but also damages the emotional ties between parents and children and causes the deterioration of the social welfare of the family.

It also highlights the issue of female political participation as one of the main contributions to the gender perspective and citizenship processes, since female collective action is revalued outside of traditional schemes. And, of a path to achieving equal conditions, not without patriarchal and institutional obstacles. In this sense, Rosario Varela in her writing "Gender and rules of the game in the electoral process of 2009. A comparative perspective", analyzed the LXI Legislature of the Chamber of Deputies according to sex after 2009 and in the context of the reform for the achievement of gender quotas. The author identified the weight of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) in the institutional practices of access to political power, especially in the case of Coahuila and Tamaulipas, where she observed a greater capacity to obtain seats for this party but less integration of women to the legislative power. Therefore, gender quotas were more a mechanism to redistribute the political gains of men and women between the different parties and less a process of reducing gender inequality in the political arena.

In the same sense, Clementina García and Elizabeth Toscano describe the “Participation of women in public positions within the political parties in the state of Baja California”, and found that the deputies were more active in the initiatives of law or reforms, but the commissions were occupied in a 79% by men. In addition, they were segregated in feminized commissions such as tourism, gender equality, social assistance, social communication and public relations.

For Sinaloa, Azalia López carried out a historical study about women in state politics (1940-1950). The women's associations were the promoters of the right to vote and those who promoted the incorporation of laws to favor the political participation of women. This effort allowed them to exercise their vote in the municipal elections of 1938 and to recognize their political competence. In the same vein, Mercedes Zúñiga, Elizabeth Cejudo and Leyla Acedo analyze the union participation of women sewing and vegetable workers in Sonora (1915-1954). These investigations show the possibilities of women's activism in trade union organizations and political parties, but a strong work of socialization and politicization that begins at an early age is also recognized, as shown by the study by Aidé Grijalva and Martha Lilia Mancilla about memories family and life itineraries of the activist Guadalupe Sánchez de Mexicali, Baja California.

Other alternative sources of women's power are found by Lya Niño, who analyzes the redefinition of ethnic identity in the form of empowerment of Mixtec street vendors in the city of Tijuana. The author affirms that social capital is fundamental to face political processes, which she documents with the study group, demystifying the idea that power is only possible through institutional or partisan channels. The Mixtecas have developed a certain social power thanks to the support of their ethnic group and their negotiation strategies with the local authorities. Although these social, symbolic and cultural resources can be volatile, discontinuous and fragmented.

This reality contrasts with academic women, since Veronika Sieglin, María Zúñiga and María Elena Ramos identify stereotypes and forms of discrimination in public universities in Monterrey. Many teachers face exhausting processes derived from productivity demands in a context of little empowerment for them.

Emerging themes in northern Mexican studies

The second part of the book addresses issues of sexual and reproductive health, gender identities and rurality. Reproductive and maternal-child health have been extensively studied in the case of northern Mexico in research carried out both at El Colegio de Sonora and at the Northern Border College. Elizabeth Cueva takes stock of the production of maternal health in the region, delving into the areas of female agency and the conditions of access to health. It identifies how collaboration and conflict are important axes to understand how pregnant women face a context of deficient conditions of education and health services. Especially poor women from the popular neighborhoods of the city of Matamoros in Tamaulipas, frequently assume their own care under certain values and representations due to their exclusion from health services.

In the rural areas of northern Mexico, gender issues and rural development acquire notable importance, especially for Mexicali, Laguna Coahuilense and Matamoros, where the agricultural issue is still relevant. Peasant women face demands that discriminate against them in their access to social programs. Lourdes Romero and Érika Soto document this problem through land tenure and the distribution of Procampo support in the Lagunera Region (Coahuila-Durango). These programs give men a greater advantage than women, since only 25% of the program's beneficiaries are women, which gives men greater economic and decision-making power.


Gender is a set of incidents in the materiality of the social, economic and political world of women, which can be seen in a transversal way throughout the chapters of the book. But beyond identifying an academic effect of the gender perspective, the studies present in the book allow us to recognize mainly implications for women in a context of permanent exclusion, which in the short term have come to have an impact on complex gender violence .

The book as a whole represents a process of making visible social problems related to asymmetries between men and women, although the authors privilege the many female inequalities. Within this framework, there are efforts to recognize various practices and identities in different regional contexts such as northern Mexico.

The analytical possibility offered by the book occurs through the dialogue between disciplines and fields of study, which fosters a conceptual and disciplinary dialogue with related analytical referents and key historical moments. However, the tools that allow us to understand sex-generic experiences such as class, ethnicity, age and bodily capacities are taken for granted in the case studies, because the authors select an interpretive strategy that presents and describes situations individuals that perpetuate inequality.


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