What a female president could mean for Mexico

Two women are leading the presidential race in Mexico. But, in a country with a history of gender violence and inequality, feminists aren’t reading too much into the milestone. The World’s Tibisay Zea reports from Mexico City.

The World

Mexico is almost certain to elect its first female president this weekend. Two women, Claudia Sheinbaum and Xóchitl Gálvez, are pulling over 90% of the vote — an undeniable milestone for the Latin American country.

The year 2019 marked a key turning point for Mexican women in politics. The country’s legislature approved a constitutional reform mandating gender balance in all elected and government-appointed positions.

This combination of two file photos shows Xochitl Galvez, left, arriving to register her name as a presidential candidate on July 4, 2023, in Mexico City, and Claudia Sheinbaum, right, at an event that presented her as her party’s presidential nominee on Sept. 6, 2023, in Mexico City. The two women, considered the frontrunners in Mexico’s presidential election, discussed social spending and climate change in the race’s second debate Sunday, April 28, 2024, which also included Jorge Álvarez Máynez. Fernando Llano/AP/File

“This opened the door for a lot of female politicians that were looked after by political parties to fill multiple slots,” said Patricia Olamendy, a lawyer and member of Mexico’s feminist movement. “Let’s not forget that it was the feminists who pushed hard for this legislation,” she added.

While gender-equal representation is important, said Olamendy, “it is not enough to solve the existential issues faced by Mexican women.” Though they now enjoy growing success in politics and business, gender-based violence remains a major issue.

The walls outside a courthouse are filled with messages against femicide and in favor of freedom Roxana Ruiz, 22, during her hearing where she is charged with killing her attacker in Chimalhuacan, State of Mexico, Mexico, Monday, Abril 4, 2022. Ruiz said she killed a man who attacked, raped and threatened to kill her in 2021. She faces a charge of homicide with an excess of legitimate self-defense. Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Mexico has one of the highest rates of femicides in the world. At least 10 women and girls are killed every day. The number is likely to be higher, as many such crimes go unreported or misclassified as regular homicides.

The drivers of crimes against women are varied; including a deeply rooted sexist culture that has historically existed in Mexico, connections between criminal groups, state-sponsored violence and domestic abuse, as well as high levels of impunity. Only about 4% of violent crimes in Mexico are prosecuted, according to the independent research organization Mexico Evalúa.

Olamendy, who represents victims of femicides, said the most urgent tasks to be addressed by the next administration are the creation of a prosecutor’s office specialized in homicides of women, programs to support for survivors of gender violence and prevention campaigns.

When using Mexico City’s subway system, passenger Patricia Ponce de León prefers to ride dedicated cars for women only. That’s after a man recently touched himself inappropriately in front of her in one of the mixed-gender cars.Tibisay Zea/The World

Policies to help working mothers are also lacking, Olamendy added. Mexico is Latin America’s second-biggest economy, but many people rely on informal jobs to make a living. More than half of working-age women in Mexico participate in the informal sector, which is associated with low wages, lack of access to health coverage and greater vulnerability to workplace violence.

While a female president will be in a unique position to support feminist policies, many remain skeptical.

Becky Bios, a survivor of domestic violence and a feminist activist in Mexico City.Tibisay Zea/The World

Becky Bios, a survivor of domestic violence, is disappointed with the current administration’s handling of women’s issues and fears the new president will be more of the same.

“Behind these women, there are political parties run by men,” she said. 

A victim of domestic violence, Bios was hospitalized in critical condition for several days after her former husband physically assaulted her for trying to end the relationship. Even though she made a formal complaint nine years ago, the case was never prosecuted. Her aggressor remains free.

Mexican presidential hopeful Claudia Sheinbaum greets supporters upon arriving at a campaign rally in Mexico City, Thursday, May 16, 2024. General elections are scheduled for June 2. Marco Ugarte/AP

Bios had hoped that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador would deliver his promised progressive agenda, but he has instead dismissed feminist movements, often labeling them as political opponents.

“The government tried to erase us, and declared feminists enemies,” said Bios.

Bios fears a continuation of López Obrador’s policies now that his protégé, Claudia Sheinbaum, enjoys a two-digit lead over Gálvez as the frontrunner for president.

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, right, and Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, greet supporters at a rally in Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, July 1, 2019. Obrador led a fight against energy reforms that were aimed at drawing private investment to the massive state-run oil company, Pemex, and in 2024, the frontrunner in the race to replace him, Sheinbaum, chose the anniversary of Mexico’s oil expropriation to announce her energy proposals. Fernando Llano/AP/File

Sheinbaum was the mayor of Mexico City for five years, but her tenure left a lot to be desired for feminist groups, according to Lila Abed, director of the Mexican Institute at The Wilson Center. “There were high levels of impunity when dealing with femicide cases in Mexico City and clashes between feminist protestors and security forces, so she doesn’t have the best record.”

Sheinbaum has promised to tackle the root causes of violence and gender inequality without offering many details on how that will be achieved. 

Representing a coalition of opposition parties, candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, an Indigenous politician and a successful tech entrepreneur, holds second place in the presidential race.

Opposition presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez waves during her opening campaign rally in Irapuato, Mexico, March 1, 2024. Gálvez pledges to double the number of National Guard officers but also restore training and equipment funding to local police forces. Fernando Llano/AP/File

In a televised debate, Gálvez promised to be an ally of Mexican women and defend their interests. But the political parties she has embraced are all deeply discredited for being corrupt and ineffective at solving Mexico’s most pressing problems, including women’s safety.

Presidential candidate Xóchitl Galvez greets supporters during a campaign rally in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, Thursday, May 23, 2024.Fernando Llano/AP

Both candidates agree on many gender-related topics, but neither has made women’s issues a fundamental pillar of their political careers. 

“Both women came to power in the shadows of prominent and male politicians,” Abed said. “Their ability to really be able to govern as the country’s first female president is going to be mired by the same political parties and figures that prompted their political careers.”

Despite the skepticism, Abed said a female president is ultimately a positive outcome for Mexico, and it represents an opportunity to finally put women’s rights at the forefront of public policy. 

“If a female president doesn’t do that, then who will?”

The feminist movement has a strong presence in Mexico and will closely watch the elections this Sunday, June 2nd.

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