(In)Security and Gender in Latin America: Strategies, Practices and Culture1

Receipt: June 13, 2022

Acceptance: July 14, 2022

I was 11 years old and a guy rode by on a bicycle and squeezed one of my breasts. A lady on the street blamed me for wearing that blouse.

On a long-distance bus, I woke up to a bearded man's hand under my skirt, his fingers between my legs.

In the subway, an asshole touched me all over and masturbated. Nobody helped me even though I cried and screamed. I was 16 years old.

One day I got fed up and elbowed him, everyone looked at me and not at him.

In my 9 years on the trolleybus, I am so embarrassed that I am not able to share it publicly (Reina, 2016).

These are five of the more than one hundred thousand testimonies that accumulated in a matter of weeks after the twitter call #MiPrimerAcoso,published in March 2016, a little before March 8, that is, of the first great march against gender violence that was organized in twenty cities in Mexico. It is easy to perceive the level of violence in each of those experiences that undoubtedly marked forever the memory of those girls and young women, their geographies of fear, the routes allowed, the places and times where their female bodies seemed out of place.

This is how most of the women of this country, where in recent years femicide and forced disappearance have taken on tragic dimensions, grow up and are educated -that is, we learn to live in the city. However, street sexual harassment against women is not only a Mexican phenomenon, nor even a Latin American one. In June 2015, Cornell University and Hollaback! -an international movement against street sexual harassment- based on 16 600 interviews with women in twenty-two countries, concluded that between 80 and 90% of them have suffered sexual harassment in public spaces, 84% of them experienced it before the age of 17 (The Worker Institut, 2015). However, while this is a global phenomenon, each country, perhaps each city, has, if not its own expressions, then its own intensities and frequencies: 95% of Argentine women reported being harassed for the first time before the age of 17; 79% of Canadian women reported being pursued by a man or a group of men; 47% of Indian women reported being victimized by some exhibitionist; 80% of South African women changed the way they dressed to avoid street harassment; 66% of German women reported being touched or fondled by strangers (The Worker Institute, 2015).

The phenomenon is also far from new. Sexual harassment against women and girls in public spaces-from lewd looks and words, to touching, rape, femicides and forced disappearances (un Women, 2019)-is a phenomenon as old as it is veiled and normalized; that is why it is so difficult to talk about its trends in quantitative terms. Only recently, along with other types of violence against women, has it begun to be made visible by broad and varied feminist movements interconnected on a global scale. In several Latin American countries, the legalization of abortion as well as demonstrations and legislation for a society free of violence against women have been among the most significant achievements of contemporary social movements. Thanks to this, street harassment has become a point not only of attention, but also of tension and polarization between academia, society, media, legislators and decision makers.

In this context, feminist academies have fruitfully addressed the study of the relationship between women and the city. In the Americas, some of the main focuses of attention have centered on the experiences and psychological effects of the phenomenon on women (Massey, 1994; McDowell, 1999); the influence of architecture, urban planning and the urban environment both in the exacerbation (Lindón, 2006; Sánchez and Ravelo, 2013) and in the possible solution of the problem (Falú, 2011); women's urban mobility practices (Jirón and Zunino, 2017; Alvarado, 2021); the continuum of violence that is established in a relationship between doors outside and doors inside the home (Koonings and Kruijit, 2007); the motivations or impulses that lead men to violate women in public spaces (Segato, 2003).

Based on this knowledge, the guiding question of this dossier seeks to understand how women deal with, protect themselves and fight against urban insecurity in Latin America. It is a question we answer through six articles, all written by women who, whether from sociology, geography, communication or anthropology, mobilize qualitative techniques of observation. One of these works takes place in the peripheries of the city of La Plata, Argentina, while the other five focus on various Mexican cities: Puebla, Guadalajara, Mexico City and three municipalities in the metropolitan area: Coacalco, Tultitlán and Ecatepec. In addition to the geographic diversity of the studies, we also observed a diversity in the socioeconomic profiles of the women who collaborated in the various studies: young and adult women; middle class, upper middle class and working class women; professionals, university students, market vendors, housewives.

While we invite you to delve into each of the works and understand the contributions they make to the simple question of what and how women do to deal with, protect themselves and fight against urban insecurity, we also want to invite you to a transversal reading that allows us to establish on the discussion table the basis for an anthropology of urban (in)security with a gender perspective. This perspective should be able to analyze the extent to which such practices and strategies, which can range from submission to collective organization, transform - against the grain and plagued by contradictions, immanences and challenges - women's cultural relationship with the city.

With this in mind, we will first evoke the intellectual journey that led us to our central question, then we will briefly present the contents of the papers, to finally highlight some of the contributions and establish some of the questions that the transversal reading of the papers offers us.


The need to dedicate a special issue to the relationship between urban (in)security and gender arose within a broader research project addressing the privatization of public security in metropolitan contexts.2 We wondered how, in the context of widespread insecurity and violence in Mexican metropolises since the 1990s, public security, which was originally the responsibility of the state, began to be produced by private agencies.3 We were interested in knowing the challenges that this phenomenon represented in society, culture and urban space, focusing on the socio-spatial fragmentation, the production and management of urban space, the emergence and deepening of new otherness and the exacerbation of inequality between those who have the resources to buy a luxury service and those who have to settle for what the state offers them (Zamorano and Capron, 2013; Capron, 2019).

In addition to addressing these problems, the research revealed several aspects of the phenomenon that destabilized our own view and made it necessary to establish new questions. We understood, for example, that the privatization of security not only implies the intervention of agents who produce security services and devices for commercial purposes, but also a multiplicity of agents who carry out these activities for self-consumption (individually or in the formation of neighborhood committees and urban self-defense groups). On the other hand, we recognized that, at the same time that agents that produce security services and devices multiply, the State does not withdraw from the sector, but rather intervenes with new logics, such as the involvement of the armed forces in public security or such as co-production tactics that "actively involve communities in the comprehensive prevention of violence and crime" (Agudo, 2016: 224). Likewise, we became convinced that the increase in the perception of insecurity does not maintain a direct relationship with the increase in crime, especially because "the media and the legitimacy of the state play an important role in regulating feelings of insecurity" (Zamorano and Moctezuma, 2019: 6). We also discover that what is at stake are not only the tension and contradictions that can be generated between the public and the private, but more deeply, between the legal and the illegal, the formal and the informal, the legitimate and the illegitimate (Zamorano, 2019). Finally, destabilizing binary operations, we perceive that the category of the safe can easily mutate towards the unsafe, depending on the contexts and the social agents involved. Hence the idea of insisting on the concept of (in)security.

This body of evidence made it necessary to formulate a new, simpler but broader research question: how do the inhabitants of Latin American cities protect themselves in these contexts of insecurity and violence?4


Faced with this question, the gender issue revealed imaginaries, fears, cartographies, practices and strategies that were deeply particular and that had to be put into perspective. How can we understand the particularity introduced by the gender dimension in the debate on urban (in)security? We will first present a synthesis of the authors' contributions, and then offer some points for reflection based on a cross-cutting perspective, which point towards the construction of an anthropology of (in)security with a gender perspective.

Paula Soto is undoubtedly a pioneer in Mexico in addressing the relationship between city and gender from an intersectional perspective. In this issue, her article "Geographies of women's fear in the city. Empirical evidence in two Mexican cities" shows that the feminist perspective on urban insecurity has emphasized the unequal power relations between men and women. Analyzing the cases of Puebla and Guadalajara through surveys and focus groups with women, the author points out that the fear they have in urban public space is not only the result of poor spatial-environmental design (abandoned, dirty, poorly lit, narrow spaces...), as several authors insist. It is also a product of the power expressed by men over women through street harassment and sexual violence that objectify the female body. The feminist vision reminds us of the subjective, embodied, emotional dimension of insecurity. Paula Soto's article insists on the sensory traces left by this violence on women's bodies and minds as a traumatic experience. According to the author, spatialized fear shapes landscapes and emotional geographies with which women develop at least three strategies in relation to urban space: avoidance, self-protection and confrontation.

Miriam Bautista, in "Las chicas ya no quieren divertirse: violencia de género y autocuidado en la zona conurbada a la Ciudad de México", focuses on the experiences of violence and sexual harassment narrated by young women from popular groups in the northern part of the Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico, which is often referred to as the "trafficking corridor" due to the number of femicides and forced disappearances of women that occur there. The author shows that, although women feel vulnerable in public spaces and find their family environment safe, violence against them is unleashed outside their homes as well as inside. In spite of being victims of macho power, they naturalize violence and feel responsible for the aggressions, sometimes feminicidal, that are exercised against their bodies for going out at night, going to nightclubs, dressing provocatively, going to dark places, etc. These discourses on guilt shape their subjectivities and lead them to adapt strategies of withdrawal or avoidance. Thus, the women interviewed tend to lock themselves in their homes and limit their leisure activities, especially at night.

It is often said that public space, particularly the street, belongs to everyone, but above all to men. Lorena Umaña's article, "Habitar y transitar la ciudad de México: representaciones sociales de jóvenes universitarias", proposes to revisit that assertion to analyze the experiences and representations of female university students in Mexico City, when they take public transportation and have to move from one transportation system to another. Analyzing the meaning of being a woman on public transportation, as well as the ways of inhabiting public space, allows the author to insist on women's fears and, in particular, on the inequalities, exclusions and self-exclusions they experience in the city. Umaña observes that her interlocutors wonder how this affects their citizenship and their right to the city, to dress as they want, to be in the street at any time of the day or night, and to enjoy public space. Thus, these young women, unlike those interviewed by Miriam Bautista, question and challenge the naturalization of the violence and exclusion they suffer in public space.

The article by Gabriela García and Carmen Icazuriaga is along the same lines. In Mexico City, the authors analyze the strategies of young, middle- and upper-middle class, college-educated professional women to move around in an environment perceived as hostile and dangerous. The use of information and communication technologies -especially the applications they can access through their smartphones to indicate their location, warn when they are leaving and arriving, etc.- is a way not only to protect themselves, but also to protect their fellow women in an act of sorority. Although the interviewees confess that they do not know what they would do in the event of a problem, these practices help them feel safe during their movements, as they generate co-presence and (digital) interdependence and safety nets. They do not remain inert in the face of danger, they mobilize, develop skills and a whole set of knowledge that allows them to move within the city. As far as possible, they are actors of their own security.

These studies show a range of self-protection practices ranging from retreating into homes to the development of joint strategies to protect each other during urban displacements. The strategies and tactics deployed bring into play the places of residence and displacement destinations, occupations and resources, factors that are ultimately related to the socioeconomic status of these women. Class and these types of material resources play an important role in women's strategies for moving through and occupying public space, as the following two articles show.

Gimena Bertoni, in "Estrategias securitarias de mujeres de sectores populares en la periferia urbana platense", shows that, despite the unfavorable urban context in two popular settlements on the outskirts of the city of La Plata, Argentina, women have strategies that are not so much defensive as creative, which provide them with a certain autonomy as agents. Although they suffer intersectional inequalities because they are women and belong to impoverished social sectors that intersect with a strong withdrawal of the State and a growing fragmentation, they overcome the obstacles they encounter in the street. In particular, "the other feared" are the young people on street corners, whom they greet while keeping their distance to gain their respect. Respect, respectability, are at the heart of the relationship between "street corner societies" and women, who negotiate with the meaning of the "respectable woman". Analyzing women's securitization strategies in these contexts invites us to consider them not as victims, but as actors of their own security and to go beyond a vision that sees them as doubly affected by fear: the fear of sexual aggression that finds an echo in other fears.

Finally, Paola Flores, in "Estrategias de cuidado ante la violencia de género en la Ciudad de México", shows that the fear generated by women's experiences of sexual violence in transportation and public spaces shapes their perceptions of the city. This is the main reason why men's fear is not the same as that of women. They perceive public space as a threatening environment in a context where public policies to address the problem are deficient. For example, the subway, which is considered by many as safe transportation, is not safe for women who have experienced sexual harassment and where kidnapping attempts have been visible. Events of violence affect and limit women's daily lives more than those of men. In spite of everything, it is interesting that women not only protect each other, as we saw in the work of Gabriela García and Carmen Icazuriaga, but also organize themselves and begin to socialize information through the networks. Paola Flores delves into the analysis of feminist collectives that create self-defense workshops, where they bet on the collective and proactive dimension to face situations of violence and lose the fear of public space, from the appropriation of the body as the first territory.


As indicated, the proposal for this thematic issue arose from a project on the challenges of the privatization of public security, which resulted in two aspects. The first went beyond the tension between the public and the private in the production of security to address more broadly the imaginaries, devices and practices developed by the urban population to protect themselves in a context of criminality and insecurity. The second, echoing the work of Goldstein (2010), attempts to explore the foundations of an anthropology of urban (in)security capable of recognizing the stakes at stake with respect to these imaginaries, representations and practices in the configuration of a socio-cultural project.

In short, what lies at the heart of these different ways of protecting oneself from the violence and criminality of cities, as well as the imaginaries, aspirations and spectralities that emanate from them, is the following

the production of a new common sense, of new fears, of new dangerous populations, of a reconfiguration of othernesses and, definitely, "of a new project of society adjusted to certain values and principles" (Suárez and Arteaga, 2016) (Moctezuma and Zamorano, in press).

In these debates, the concept of gender appeared as an indispensable revealer of fine-grained processes of construction of inequality of access to the city between men and women. This inequality is rooted in experiences, imaginaries, representations, fears and aspirations that stem from diverse expressions of patriarchal power exercised over women's bodies. How is this reflected in the relationship between women and the city?

Many of the studies in Latin America that have addressed the issue point to the scarce presence of women in the public space. One of the explanations for this phenomenon is to be found in an overlap between the family division of labor and the social division of urban space, which confines women to the domestic space and their neighborhood environments, where they will generally concentrate on child and elderly care work; that is, on unpaid reproductive work (Falú, 2020). Another explanation focuses on the urban design or environment that is generated precisely by the lack of design, maintenance and care (see among others Sánchez and Ravelo, 2013; Fuentes, 2013). et al. 2011).

What the works presented here show is that the scarce presence of women in the streets is also related to urban violence, especially sexual violence exercised by men against women's bodies. We will see in the works of Paula Soto and Miriam Bautista that one of the most common strategies of women to protect themselves is avoidance, that absence of women in spaces and times considered dangerous where their own bodies seem, in the sense of Doreen Massey (1994), out of place and, precisely for that reason, susceptible, and perhaps deserving, of suffering sexual violence.

The articles that make up this thematic issue leave no doubt that men's and women's fears of the city are profoundly different. While the former are justifiably afraid of violence, robbery, kidnapping and disappearance, women, in addition to accumulating these same fears, are especially afraid of sexual violence, ranging from leering and touching to rape and femicide.

This feminine fear of the city is ancestral (Segato, 2003; Rubin, 1996), but it is reinvented, updated and naturalized every day. Today as yesterday, in the face of the rape, disappearance or murder of so many young women and girls in Latin America, we continue to hear from the media, politicians and society arguments that blame the victims: "she was wearing a miniskirt, she was probably an escort, we don't know what she was doing in that place and at that time of day".

This allows us to understand the spectral dimension of women's fear -necessarily intersubjective (Das, 2008)- and allows us to address from an original point of view a paradox that several authors support based on statistical figures: while women are more afraid of the city than men, men have higher rates of crime victimization. One explanation offered by Kessler (2011) proposes that many of the men who suffer violence in the city are involved with a criminal group. Women, on the other hand, suffer from such violence in a more random manner. Another explanation, cited by Gimena Bertoni in this issue, takes up the spectral dimension of violence against women through the metaphor of the shadow (Warr, 1985): this thesis, Bertoni indicates, implies that fear of sexual aggression has an amplifying effect on fear of other types of crime and obscures specificities about women's perception of insecurity.

These proposals undoubtedly contribute to the discussion. However, it is necessary to point out, as the articles in this issue make clear, that women fear above all sexual violence, rape, of course - which is sometimes reflected in the statistics - but also lewd looks and words, exhibitionism and abusive touching, which generally pass through the silence and solitude of the victims, as we saw in the statements in #MiPrimerAcoso and as we will see in the articles that make up this issue. When we become aware of the differences between male and female fear and of the statistical underreporting of all types of street harassment against women, it will cease to be surprising that in the statistics women are more afraid than men of the city. What we must emphasize is that this is a different kind of fear.

But the contributions in this thematic issue are not limited to revealing the dimension of fear as a factor that constructs women's relationship with the city. They also emphasize the material and sociocultural resources that women deploy in order to move about and occupy public spaces. Despite the frequency with which reference is made to self-financing in the home (especially among the least favored groups), in many cases they gain the need and desire to move about in the city, to make their public and semi-public spaces their own, not only as a tool to be able to work or study but also for recreational purposes. As Gabriela García and Carmen Icazuriaga write: women refuse to let fear continue to be the conditioning factor of their mobility.

Asking what and how women do to protect themselves in an urban environment that is doubly adverse to them - both because of common criminality and sexual violence - allows us to see not only the practices of submission to the patriarchal order, but also the ways of questioning it (Lorena Umaña); discreetly and creatively avoiding it (Gimena Bertoni) and confronting it in an organized way (Gabriela García and Carmen Icazuriaga; Paola Flores). This does not speak to us of a single sociocultural project, but of the confrontation of at least two projects that will have to be studied further, because there we find an engine of change.

Indeed, a transversal reading of these texts will reveal that, in order to understand the relationship between urban (in)security and gender, we must observe the intersections between sexual violence, urban space and fear that will act in different ways according to the experiences, ages and social, cultural and material resources available to women. Likewise, these readings will invite us to observe other feelings and emotions that emerge from insecurity (Kessler, 2011), such as anger, indignation and the desire for change. Undoubtedly, feelings that are beginning to gain importance among women, not homogeneously but at extremely diverse speeds and plagued with contradictions.

We dedicate this issue to our children and their generation: for the conquest of their city.

Mexico City, Mexico, June 13, 2022


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Claudia C. Zamorano Villarreal holds a degree in urban planning and a diploma in urban geography. In 1999 she obtained a PhD in Social Sciences with a specialization in urban studies from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) (ehess). Since 2000 she has been a research professor at the ciesas Mexico City. Urban issues are her main interest, focusing on residential practices of workers and middle classes, urban social movements and the anthropology of urban (in)security. In 2011 she was a visiting researcher at the City University of New York (cuny). In 2014 his book Minimum Workers' Housing in Post-Revolutionary Mexico: appropriations of an urban utopia. won the award for best research in Social Anthropology from the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Since 2016 she is responsible for a Conacyt Basic Science project on urban securitization practices in the Valley of Mexico.

Guénola Capron holds a degree in geography and a PhD in geography and land use planning from the University of Toulouse le Mirail. She was a researcher at the cnrs in Toulouse and joined the uam Azcapotzalco unit in 2010. She was a researcher at the Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos (cemca) and is an associate of the same institution and of the lisst-Cieu (Centre Interdisciplinaire d'Etudes Urbaines). In 2020, she was a visiting professor at the geography department of the University Toulouse Jean-Jaures. Her work is on the transformations of public space under perspectives such as commerce, urban mobility and security. More recently she has been interested in food issues. Since 2016 she is responsible for a Conacyt Basic Science project on the material and social production of sidewalks in the Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico.

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EncartesVol. 5, No. 10, September 2022-February 2023, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: encartesantropologicos@ciesas.edu.mx. Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at https://encartes.mx. Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 22, 2022.