Smash the patriarchy to save the planet

The same forces that feed into the violence against migrant women are also undermining climate action.

by
    Maria Meza, a migrant woman from Honduras, runs away from tear gas with her five-year-old twin daughters Saira and Cheili at the US-Mexico border on November 25, 2018 [File: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon]
    Maria Meza, a migrant woman from Honduras, runs away from tear gas with her five-year-old twin daughters Saira and Cheili at the US-Mexico border on November 25, 2018 [File: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon]

    Last December, the Trump administration enacted a scheme requiring Central American asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their legal proceedings drag on indefinitely in the United States.

    The Migrant Protection Protocols policy - a handily perverse euphemism - is the approximate equivalent of calling the Exxon Valdez oil spill the Marine Life Protection Initiative. As various human rights and advocacy organisations have pointed out, the border programme has exposed tens of thousands of asylum seekers to violence; including rape, kidnapping and assault, in the unsure border regions of Mexico.

    In light of the surplus of rapes and other abuses already documented as a result of so-called "protection", the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women - marked annually on November 25 - is an ideal occasion to reflect on the violence facing migrant women in an era of mass migration.

    Pervasive violence

    As the UN Women website observes : " Rape is rooted in a complex set of patriarchal beliefs, power, and control that continue to create a social environment in which sexual violence is pervasive and normalised."

    For an idea of the extent of normalisation, just recall Patriarch-in-chief President Donald Trump's own previous advice about fondling women without their consent: "Grab 'em by the p****."

    Migrant women, of course, are particularly vulnerable to "grabbing" - and much worse - especially given that crimes against migrants are not generally reported or prosecuted. And for Central American women transiting Mexico to the US border, sexual assault is frequently par for the course.

    Lest anyone assume that this validates the Trumpian vision of Mexico as composed of rapists and criminals , however, just recall the epidemic of rape in the US's own military - not to mention rampant claims of sexual abuse of immigrant children held at US detention facilities.

    'Shot in the vagina'

    It bears emphasising, too, that many of the women who flee Central America are fleeing a system of patriarchal violence that the US itself has played no small part in sustaining.

    Following the 2009 US-abetted right-wing coup in Honduras, for example, a surge in femicides and all manner of other crimes was accompanied by a climate of impunity that has yet to subside. According to a New York Times essay , a 2018 study conducted in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula indicated that more than 96 percent of women's murders went unpunished - an arrangement presumably facilitated by reports that officials in the "agency entrusted with investigating women's deaths [were] killing women themselves".

    Murder methods have included being "shot in the vagina" and "skinned alive". 

    In addition to throwing a bunch of money at homicidal Central American security forces, the US underwrites capitalist patriarchy by pushing punitive economic policies - pardon, supporting "development" and "investment" - that favour the financial domination of the United States' local, predominantly male and obsequiously neoliberal elite acolytes.

    This ensures that, while US corporate interests in the region remain sacrosanct, the lives of the poor are expendable - and the lives of women even more so. After all, as far as capitalism is concerned, there can never be too much inequality.

    Patriarchal contexts

    Meanwhile, across the ocean, violence against women is also tied up with migration. Last year, the UN found that in Libya - a primary jumping-off point for maritime migration to Europe - the " overwhelming majority of [migrant] women and older teenage girls interviewed … reported being gang-raped by smugglers or traffickers."

    In Libya's migrant detention centres, too, rape is rife. And, thanks to an agreement between the Italian government and the Libyan coastguard, migrants intercepted at sea are often returned to these very same centres.

    Never mind that centuries of European colonialism and exploitation of the African continent have played no small role in determining present migration patterns; "fortress Europe" has appointed itself unquestionable victim of the migrant crisis, condemning the actual victims to a criminalised existence that only increases the chances of their further victimisation.

    For many migrant women, then, life becomes one continuous migration between patriarchal contexts in which sexual violence is pervasive and normalised.

    And for those who do make it to Europe, things do not necessarily improve. Amnesty International has documented how, for a great number of females in Greek refugee camps, " the insecurity and dangers they experience in Greece are a constant reminder of the violence they sought to escape".

    Among the interviewees at one camp was a Cameroonian woman who had to flee abuse twice. Leaving Cameroon on account of an abusive husband, she made it to Istanbul, where she found a job at a sweatshop. When her employer there started sexually abusing her as well, she fled again, this time to Greece.

    Violate women, violate the earth

    But physical violence and socioeconomic inequality are not the only ways in which patriarchal systems drive migration. Consider reports that climate change could generate more than 200 million refugees by 2050 - and that climate change disproportionately affects women.

    Consider also an August article at The New Republic, headlined The Misogyny of Climate Deniers, which catalogues a " growing body of research linking gender reactionaries to climate-denialism" and finds that "male reactionaries motivated by right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism increasingly overlap".

    According to a 2014 paper published by the International Journal for Masculinity Studies, the whole notion of climate change is in fact perceived as a "threat to the masculinity of industrial modernity".

    By extension, then, patriarchal capitalism imperils not only women but the planet itself.

    Now, as the migrant crisis rages on and humanity hurtles towards self-destruction , the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women should serve as a reminder that, without first smashing the patriarchy, we will never even stand a chance.

    INTERACTIVE: Violence against women

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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