Mexico City: The femicide of earthquake and the feminism of recovery

On September 19, 2017, Mexico City was upturned by a powerful earthquake. Reports suggest that the quake killed 330 people nationwide. In Mexico City, 198 people lost their lives. Of the 198, 127 were women, 71 were men. This is the altogether predictable and planned mathematics of earthquakes, and of “natural disasters”. As with human stampedes, earthquakes have a morbid gender ratio, during the event and after.

Who are the women who died? The earthquake struck at 1:14 in the afternoon. Thirty-four buildings collapsed. Many of them were apartment buildings. According to Mexican sociologist Patricio Solis, the reason for the preponderance of women among the dead is straightforward: “the segregation of women and of gender roles.” First, many apartments were destroyed, and in the early afternoon, the residents were housewives and domestic workers. Second, a major garment sweatshop building collapsed, and its workers were almost all women. Third, a school collapsed, and its workers were predominantly women.

None of this is new. In the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, textile “factories” collapsed, and women workers perished. The factory building that collapsed this time had survived the 1985 earthquake. It was one of the few. It was well known to the authorities. It was well known that hundreds of women, many of them undocumented, worked for criminally low wages there. It was well known that the passageways and stairs were too narrow to accommodate everyone, should the need arise. One newspaper called the collapse and deaths “industrial homicide” and “state crime”. They should have included “industrial femicide” among the charges. Thus far, the government has remained silent.

None of this is new. A study published in 2007 considered “natural disasters” in 141 countries from 1981 to 2002: “We find, first, that natural disasters lower the life expectancy of women more than that of men. In other words, natural disasters (and their subsequent impact) on average kill more women than men or kill women at an earlier age than men … Second, the stronger the disaster (as approximated by the number of people killed relative to population size), the stronger this effect on the gender gap in life expectancy. That is, major calamities lead to more severe impacts on female life expectancy (relative to that of males) than do smaller disasters. Third, the higher women’s socioeconomic status, the weaker is this effect on the gender gap in life expectancy. Taken together our results show that it is the socially constructed gender-specific vulnerability of females built into everyday socioeconomic patterns that lead to the relatively higher female disaster mortality rates compared to men.”

In 2000, the Pan American Health Organization studied the increased and mass produced vulnerability of women and its toll in natural disasters and disaster relief. In 2002, the World Health Organization did as well. In 2005, Oxfam reported on the tsunami’s impact on women. And the list goes on. There is no surprise in the gender of earthquake mortality rates. We were told for over a decade, and we did nothing. We did less than nothing. We built more unsafe workspaces, and we segregated the working day ever more fiercely. We wear the dead in the filaments of our clothing.

After the buildings collapsed, women from across Mexico rushed to the streets of Mexico City and, in many parts, led the rescue efforts, searching for loved ones and strangers in the rubble. Self-described feminist brigades rushed to the factory in the Colonia Obrera. As Mar Cruz explained, “The people in this factory are women, and they are immigrant women in a country where they are very much discriminated against, in a country that doesn’t care much about them. Knowing the treatment that they face in the factories, it was up to us as feminists. We are women defending women. We have demanded our right to defend our female comrades and their human rights.” Dominique Draco added, “We are here as feminists because we are fed up with being murdered. Femicide is one way of killing us, but this is also a way of killing us: in a collapsed building that doesn’t have proper working conditions.”


(Photo Credit 1: Animal Politico/Manu Ureste) (Photo Credit 2: St. Louis Dispatch/Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.