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The Making and Unmaking of Feminicidio/Femicidio Laws in Mexico and Nicaragua

By Paulina García-DelMoral, University of Guelph and
Pamela Neumann, Bucknell University 

Since 2010, eighteen Latin American countries have passed laws criminalizing femicidio (femicide) or feminicidio (feminicide). Femicidio refers to the misogynous killing of women by men. Extending this definition, feminicidio emphasizes the complicity of the state in such violence by tolerating its impunity. Feminist activists across the region have played a critical role in these efforts to hold states accountable for gendered violence, often through the mobilization of international human rights law in the supranational arenas of the UN and Inter-American systems.

Yet our article “The Making and Unmaking of Feminicidio/Femicidio Laws in Mexico and Nicaragua” shows how the domestic impact of feminists’ legal activism varies depending on states’ investment in achieving international legitimacy through a commitment to human rights. By comparing the law-making process in Mexico and Nicaragua, we argue that states’ acceptance of the legitimacy of supranational entities like the UN and the Inter-American systems evolves in response to changing domestic political conditions and the influence of feminist activists within state institutions. We thus add greater theoretical specificity to the concept of ‘legitimacy’ by showing that it is neither static nor linear, but rather the product of the dynamic interaction between civil society, states, and supranational institutions.

Our comparative analysis focuses on (1) the interaction between shifting local political conditions and supranational opportunities and (2) the position of feminist actors vis-à-vis the state and its gender regime in the making of feminicidio/feminicidio laws in Mexico and Nicaragua in the context of transnational feminist activism. Given Mexico’s investment in human rights as a measure of its international legitimacy, the criminalization of feminicidio resulted from a successful naming and shaming campaign by local feminist actors linked to litigation in various supranational arenas, and the intervention of feminist federal legislators. Nevertheless, the subsequent weak enforcement of the law constitutes its unmaking. Nicaragua’s government has both rejected the legitimacy of supranational human rights institutions and marginalized feminists within the state apparatus. The codification of femicidio resulted from the state’s selective responsiveness to feminist demands, but this legislative achievement was undone by the increased centralization of political power and a conservative religious backlash. In sum, we show that states’ decision to enact legislation on feminicidio/femicidio is contingent on their acceptance of supranational authority as legitimate, which can vary at distinct moments in time given evolving domestic political and legal conditions, including its gender regime.

By shedding light on the fragility of gender as a legal-political category, especially in conservative gender regimes, our analysis has potential implications beyond Latin America for understanding the dismantling of feminist legal gains linked to international human rights law. One particularly noteworthy example is the Trump administration’s recent move to eliminate domestic violence as grounds for asylum claims. Like recent battles over femicidio/feminicidio laws in Latin America, the U.S.’ acceptance of women’s asylum claims based on domestic violence also stemmed in part from transnational feminist human rights activism. Yet in accepting these claims, the US was able to position itself as a protector of racialized women from ‘violent’ foreign states while denying its own complicity in soaring rates of gendered violence, including domestic violence, in other parts of the world.[1]  Such violence is inextricably linked to the US’ history of military and economic intervention across the globe.   

Though historical, the U.S. rejection of the legitimacy of supranational authority has become more entrenched under Trump, as has the backlash against feminism within and outside state institutions. This dynamic arguably represents a double denial of the state’s complicity in gendered violence: first, by continuing to see such violence as the problem of other states; and second, by now refusing women’s exercise of human rights to flee this violence. Applying our framework to this policy shift, we can observe how the U.S.’ gender regime and its failure to ratify international instruments on women’s human rights narrows the political opportunities available to feminist activists, American and otherwise, to hold the US accountable for gendered violence within and outside its borders.  

[1] McKinnon, Sara L. (2017) Gendered Asylum: Race and Violence in U.S. Law and Politics. Champaign, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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