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Mexico's new president is a record-breaker. Claudia Sheinbaum, a Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist, is the first woman in two centuries to lead the country, and she will be amongst a very female-centric leadership when she takes office on 1 October.

The senate, Supreme Court and the National Electoral Institute are led by women and the national Cabinet is 44 per cent female. Sheinbaum received approximately 60 percent of the vote, akin to the 60 per cent approval rating of her predecessor Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Mexico is now the second biggest nation after Brazil to elect a female head of state (while other nations have had female leaders, this is not necessarily based on voter preference). Mexico has now aligned with Latin American counterparts including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, which have voted women to the highest office.

The 11-justice Supreme Court now includes four women and a female chief justice. In total, Mexico ranks fourth when it comes to female representation in parliaments throughout the world.

Still, Mexico has a long way to go in terms of equality across society. Femicide is endemic and women’s employment lags well behind men. However, last year Mexico passed laws to decriminalise abortion and Sheinbaum is creating an anti-femicide prosecutor’s office and has announced that she’ll introduce legislation to force violent offenders to leave the home (rather than women leaving).

Gender parity has been enshrined law in Mexico for over two decades.  In 1996, Mexican lawmakers recommended that women make up 30 per cent of all congressional candidates. In 2002, this recommendation became law, and by 2008, the quota was raised to 40 percent female representation. In 2014, the percentage was increased to 50 per cent. The 2019 “gender parity in everything” constitution reform expanded the 50 per cent quota to include the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

For the first time, 50 per cent of lawmakers in the lower houses of Congress were women in 2021 and there is reason to believe the legislated gender equality in their political leadership may address devastating gender-based violence in that nation, and provide an alternative story to the growing global dominance of conservative, older men reversing women’s reproductive rights.

Australia has work to do when it comes to female leadership, years after Julia Gillard faced undue media and political scrutiny and critique over her choice to not be a mother, nor married. In 2022, the ANU published a report indicating that the Australian public really cares about gender equality in parliament and that much more needs to be done to achieve this.

Los Angeles-based Australian lawyer Nita Rao was admitted in NSW after studying law in Melbourne. She worked for commercial litigation and general criminal defence firm Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington D.C. for just over three years before moving to Mexico City late in 2019 with her husband where they lived until January 2022. The duo founded podcast “Lost in Mexico”, for which she interviewed former Mexican President Vicente Fox (2000 to 2006).

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Lawyer Nita Rao

Sheinbaum’s Presidency is ‘monumental’

The legislation that supports equality in Mexico is groundbreaking, Rao says.

“I can’t speak to the global political landscape, but in the context of Mexico, [the equality legislation] is monumental because it’s a country that has a very ingrained culture of machismo, and sexism that has permeated Mexican life in so many ways,” she tells LSJ.

“That’s why you see such high rates of femicide, and why Mexico is such a dangerous country. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, and 10 women or girls are killed every day.

“This incredible representation that you see in the Supreme Court, Senate and Congress, and Claudia Sheinbaum’s election is juxtaposed to a country rife with violence against women, and protests by mothers, sisters and wives of the disappeared who are seeking justice to find out what has happened to their loved ones. It’s an interesting place insofar as you don’t expect that level of violence to be hand-in-hand with such progress being made in high levels of government. That’s what makes it such a monumental victory for Claudia Sheinbaum.”

Official figures from Mexico indicate, as Rao mentioned, 10 girls or women killed per day. Approximately 100 boys or men are also killed daily. On Mother’s Day this year, hundreds of mothers, relatives and activists marched through Mexico City chanting slogans like “Our children, where are they?” in response to perceived government inaction on investigating the over 100,000 missing people in Mexico.

As to whether Sheinbaum’s victory translates to improvements in the lives of Mexican women in general, Rao says,Yes and no.”

“In certain aspects, absolutely. For example, when Sheinbaum became Mayor of Mexico City, she instituted a range of social programs for working mothers and single mothers in Mexico City, cash programs to alleviate the burdens on these women,” she says.

“She was also trying to introduce greater and more efficient prosecutions in Mexico City for men who attack women, she emboldened the police force in the capital to go after the men committing these crimes. We did see improvements from her initiatives in Mexico City and we may well see her continue with funding and instituting social welfare programs for Mexican women in her presidency. However, we did not see real systemic change in the rates of violence against women, albeit she was only mayor of Mexico City at the time. Women were galvanising and protesting against the staggering rates of femicide on a daily basis and there was a silence from the government.”

In March 2020, Rao attended a Women’s Day march.

She recalls, “It became very violent. A lot of protesters were defacing really old government statues and symbols of government around Mexico City, because there was a view that the Mexico City government cared more about their statues than women’s bodies. They had very legitimate frustration that has trickled on from other countries in Latin America. We see protests in Chile, and the same chants, like “the rapist is you”, was also being chanted at that protest in Mexico City. The protests from the feminist movement are louder than ever, because there is a feeling that there has been an abdication of responsibility in caring for women in public spaces and also in bringing justice to women relatives of the disappeared.”

“López Obrador and Sheinbaum have been gradually instituting programs for the working poor, but many people work long, long days for extremely low pay. Women earn approximately 16 percent less, and there’s a gap in access to the work force. That culture of machismo makes it hard for women to advance in the labour force comparable to men. Discrimination, violence and not feeling safe on public transportation has been a constant problem in Mexico City.”

Sheinbaum is a climate scientist and has a leftist approach to politics that is at odds with some of the recent far right-dominated elections around the world. Beyond the domestic terrain, her ability to form relationships with the incoming US president and other Latin American leaders will be compelling.

“What’s interesting will be to watch how Sheinbaum interacts and engages with either Trump or Biden. This year’s US election is critical for the US, and also for the Mexico-US relationship. There were two female candidates for the Mexican election so the choice was always going to be between two women, but it’s hard to predict how the first Mexican woman President will fare in negotiations on free trade, the southern border, migration from central America into the US,” Rao says.

“Sheinbaum is viewed as an extension, or a protégé, of López Obrador. She’s an independent person, and she’s distinguished herself form him, even as Mayor in Mexico City. She wore a mask during the pandemic, for example, while he was less strict in complying with pandemic protocols. She’s a bit more of a technocrat than the leftist, populist López Obrador. She’s yet to take office, and the US elections are yet to happen, and the task is big. Mexico has a trade deficit, there’s a migration crisis at the southern border, and López Obrador’s ‘hugs not bullets’ approach to cartel violence is not necessarily improving rates of violence.”

Sheinbaum has not provided significant detail on her intended policies ahead of taking office in October, so it is difficult to analyse her values and intentions.

LSJ asked Rao: to address the macho culture, violence towards women, and crime in Mexico, what sort of measures would it take? She takes a deep breath.

“I feel like this is the question every politician in Mexico has wrestled with over so many decades. There’s been a scorched earth approach, followed by a lack of solution,” she says.

“The truth is that there is overall such a high level of violence in Mexico, and while there are high rates of femicide and violence towards women, there’s also a drug war that’s been going on for decades. I think social programs introduced by López Obrador have attempted to address gang recruitment, lack of education, unemployment, and poverty which lead to drug cartel recruitment and violence. Those programs take time to have results, but in the meantime, so many people are being killed. The cartels are diversifying, and they’re not purely focused on marijuana and cocaine, they’re diversifying into racketeering and time shares, so its even harder to infiltrate and crack down on the people responsible.

“I’m not a Mexican woman, I’m an expat who has been living back and forth in Mexico for a number of years, but I would hope there would be greater commitment to meaningful measures on both general violence and gendered violence. Sheinbaum has outlined a vision for a national care system including nurseries and nursing homes to help alleviate the burden of unpaid work that’s primarily undertaken by women, and I think she’ll continue down that road. I think Mexican women would want a statement from Sheinbaum around measures to address femicide, but they want to know it is going to come to fruition rather than empty rhetoric.”

In terms of an Australian comparison, Rao likens Sheinbaum to Julie Bishop in terms of both women being highly organised, competent and lacking the sort of bombastic charisma that male counterparts exhibit. Arguably, the tasks Rao needs to tackle from October onwards will require significantly more labour than charisma, but until that time arrives, we can only wait and watch.