A Safe Place for Women: Shelter, Empowerment, and Independence

Mexico City was once considered somewhat of a sanctuary from the violence that roils much of the rest of the country. In recent years, however, the capital has lost its refuge status. Increasing violence has been particularly acute for women, with high rates not only of domestic violence, but also of extreme violence that too often horribly ends in what is referred to as feminicida or feminicide – an act where the victim’s gender is the primary motivation for murder. In fact, in Mexico today, seven women lose their lives to violence every day, and their killers have come to believe that they can act with impunity. The country’s justice system rarely holds them accountable. Espacio Mujeres Para Una Vida Digna Libre de Violencia, or a Women’s Place for a Dignified Life Free of Violence, offers a safe haven for women who have suffered from violence. (It is also one of 17 incredible organizations HIP supports in Mexico in partnership with the Oak Foundation.) Located in a southern neighborhood of Mexico City, Espacio Mujeres is a nonprofit that offers an array of holistic services, addressing not only the physical effects of violence, but also the psychological harms that manifest in low self-worth, depression, and lack of autonomy and self-determination. The organization also provides the legal support that each woman needs to reintegrate into society; in short, it gives women a path of escape to safety, to independence, and to freedom. We recently had an opportunity to speak with Gabriela Segura Cárdenas, Executive Director of Espacio Mujeres, about her organization’s important work not only in keeping women safe, but also in advocating for legislation and funding aimed at curbing violence against women.

What is the mission of Espacio Mujeres?

Here at Espacio Mujeres, we offer women – and their children – a way to confront violence. We opened our doors ten years ago and have received many women, not just from Mexico City, but from other states and countries. At Espacio Mujeres we save lives. Women reside at our shelter for up to three months or until the risk has passed. During that time, women go through a process in which they reclaim power over their lives. They do this work with the support of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals who are experts in treating violence. At Espacio Mujeres, we establish a system of integrated care for the whole family, offering therapeutic care, legal services, clothing, child care, transportation for the children to get to school safely, and more. We also offer workshops so that women can develop skills and find a job that allows them to be financially independent. On the personal level, we want to transform self-perceptions and social beliefs, so that women find new ways of seeing themselves and relationships. We support women in claiming their assertiveness, making decisions about their lives, and strengthening their leadership; and most importantly to understand that violence is not a natural part of life. Three out of five women in our country experience violence every single day. Violence touches all socioeconomic groups, but especially those impacted by discrimination and where the subordination of women is prevalent. Our work is not only to end existing violence, but to prevent new incidences.

What inspired you to work for gender equality?

Violence against women affects us all, in all aspects of our lives. Violence against women in Mexico and feminicida is growing. We need to stop the murder of women in our country! We look at our work from a human rights perspective. Women’s rights are human rights. We all have a right to live without violence.

Is there a moment that you can remember where you witnessed a real transformation in someone you were assisting?

I remember a woman who came to us from a very poor state outside of Mexico City, which happens often. She was living in poverty, undernourished and underweight. She couldn’t read or write. She was 58 years old, but seemed much older. She had 11 children, now grown. One of her daughters helped her escape the violence she was encountering in her home. We worked many days to help this woman. By the time she left us, she could read and write. She had gained weight. Throughout her life, she had either been dependent on her father or her husband. When she left us, she was completely independent, self-employed in a business selling bread. Totally transformed. Like the other women we help, she learned to place limits in her relationships, to see that violence is not normal, and that with love and respect everyone can choose their own future. We see these stories of transformation every day at Espacio Mujeres.

What message do you want others to know about your work?

All women deserve equal human rights. Living free of violence is a fundamental right. Violence is not natural. We women have a multitude of talents and our lives are full of possibilities. Sometimes we need help, and working collectively, we can achieve anything. We are not alone! We have many laws in our country that protect women, but access to justice is limited because of corruption. There are several politicians, with whom we work closely, who are brave advocates for our cause. But we need the support of the public to pressure the government to enact and enforce new laws. We need perpetrators to be held accountable, so that they don’t believe they can continue acting without consequences. We accept donations to support our shelter and the services we offer. I encourage anyone to join us, as a donor or a volunteer, and to contribute to support our work. Together, we can make a real difference.
The dedication of Espacio Mujeres has helped change in public perceptions and policy around the issue of violence towards women in Mexico City. You can support their cause by visiting their website here.