Mexico: Migrant Women and Domestic Violence: Stories of Empowerment

Sr. Raquel Hernandez CMS

A Comboni Missionary Sister from Mexico. Sr. Raquel has worked with the homeless, children, youth, and orphans in Glasgow, Scotland and Zambia, as well as with migrants and refugees in Mexico, where she promotes personal and collective resilience for migrant women. Currently, Sr. Raquel works in the “Hospitalidad y Solidaridad Shelter” in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico, as the Coordinator of the Area of Integral Accompaniment, addressing the needs of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.


In recent years, the flow of women migrants alone or with companions has increased considerably. When they share about their motivations to leave their place of origin, the causes are constantly the same:   a variety of violence suffered in their homes, from childhood to adulthood, of a physical, emotional, sexual, material, or symbolic nature, and in some cases all together. The existence of gangs that stalk them, the struggle for survival, precarious jobs, patriarchalism, natural disasters, among others, have deteriorated the community and family social fabric, forcing women and their dependents into forced and unprotected displacement. According to UNHCR statistics, at least 79.5 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes. Refugee girls and women represent approximately fifty percent of the total refugee, stateless, or internally displaced population. The most vulnerable are unaccompanied, pregnant, heads of household, disabled or older women.

Rebeca, a Central American migrant woman, recounts:

“The father of my two older children went to prison, and I was left alone with them. We went with my mother, who had a small business, and helped me, but soon after, we had to close it, and we moved to another neighborhood because we had no money to pay protection money (rent) charged by the gangs. Seeing myself in need, a friend of mine got me a loan from an acquaintance to set up a food stand, and I did very well. I am a hard worker; I strive to do well, and I have been good at business. But everything changed when the man who lent me the money said, “I like you, and you are going to be my wife.” I told him no since we hardly knew each other, and he told me: “if you don’t come live with me, I’m going to kill your mother; I know where she lives.” Under his threats, I had no choice but to agree and go with him. I discovered that he was a high leader of an extremely dangerous gang. He always spoke to me with insults, humiliated me, beat me, and forced me to have sex with other people. His mother and sister also insulted me and told me that if he was mistreating me, it was because I deserved it. I was terrified. I saw and heard hideous things. I became pregnant, and I did not want my two children and the baby on the way to live there. I tried to escape, but he found me, took me back to his house, and beat me while pregnant. A few months after the baby was born, I got up the courage, and one day when his mother and sister were distracted, I ran out with my children. Thank God a cab was passing by. I got in and went to an aunt’s house. She gave me money and told me to go far away from where he could not find me. Everything was closed because of the pandemic, I was afraid that the borders were closed, but thanks to God, I do not know how I made it here. I thank all the people from the different organizations that are helping me. I want to be in a safe place, where I can start a new life with my children whom I love”.

After detecting Rebeca and her children’s highly vulnerable situation, they obtained refugee status thanks to coordination among NGOs, international organizations, and governmental institutions. They moved to another safer city, where they continue to be accompanied by professionals.

During their international mobility, many migrant women and girls are at risk of sexual violence, kidnappings, extortion, enforced disappearance, homicide, and human rights violations by criminal gangs, organized crime, human traffickers, or other migrants. These criminal organizations use sexual violence and extortion to terrorize women and their families.

While the experience of migrating can be dangerous and complex, we have found that during the process, most migrant women cultivate personal resources to confront adversity, adapt and access a meaningful and productive life.  Besides providing security, food, personal hygiene, clothing, and medical care, the shelters and organizations that defend migrants are spaces for emotional support and building up resilience. Also, the organizations are a suitable place for exchanging information about services and rights migrants have in Mexican territory and training on the risks on the road they face during their migration journey.

Some of the identified resilience mechanisms in the migrants are creating supporting networks and forming alliances and affinities with other people. They develop strategies that help them to generate perseverance and meaning to their journey. Many of them develop, among others, their culinary and beauty knowledge, which they may use as sources of income in destination places.  For migrant women, their faith and religiosity are an essential part of their lives to give deep meaning to the often-painful situations they are going through and provide life solutions.

A phrase composed by a group of Latin American migrant women on the commemoration of International Refugee Day:

“Fear drove me to become a bird. To be free from many painful things. To fly to a place where there is no violence and create a world where we are respected and valued to make our own decisions. To have a dignified space to love, be heard, and be the bearer of peace and tranquility. to live and not survive!”