Mexican Social Development Secretary’s racist soundbite scolding indigenous women for reproductive choices has a long history

Robles

Rosario Robles, the Secretary of Social Development in Mexico. (Image via)

This month, the head of Mexico’s anti-poverty program celebrated the opening of a community kitchen by telling indigenous women that they would be penalized for having children. Justifiably, these statements provoked outrage. But unfortunately, they are nothing new. Mexico has a long history of problematic population policies, often supported by the United States. And today, Mexico, much like its neighbor to the North, punishes the behavior of people while denying them reproductive freedoms and rights.

Thursday, May 1st, Rosario Robles, the Secretary of Social Development in Mexico (SEDESOL) stood before a crowd of indigenous cora people in Los Encinos, Nayarit to launch a new community kitchen created through “Opportunities,” a cash transfer government program. But Robles was quick to admonish the behavior of indigenous women:

“I also want to take the chance to tell you all that you are not going to get more funds from Opportunities for having more children. Opportunities will no longer benefit families that have many children, rather it is going to support those that have fewer children, because the small family lives better… …We’re also asking for you to go to the family planning centers, so that you have three children and no more.”

Robles’s statement was met with justifiable outrage: attacks from the right-wing (PAN) and the left-wing (PRD) political parties; a discrimination case; mocking memes, and trending on Twitter, with one Tweet saying, “Opportunities is funded with our taxes. You don’t have to scold indigenous people or give them lectures.” Robles’ agency went into damage control mode, clarifying that it was the previous Presidential administration that made the three child rule and that families wouldn’t be excluded from the program if they had more than three children, but that cash awards would only be for up to three children.

But Robles’ slip-up echoed and reflected the country’s history of racist and eugenicist population policies. And it’s no coincidence she got up on her soapbox in the town of Los Encinos; small, rural, indigenous communities like it have historically been the targets of coercive family planning and sterilization campaigns, many of which were pushed by U.S. and international agencies in the 1970s.

The Opportunities cash-transfer program which Robles was referring to doesn’t advocate sterilization. But it exercises a subtle form of social and biological control over their beneficiaries, offering family money in exchange for meeting certain requirements, like their children’s weight, height, and school attendance.

It’s not accident that Robles’ words — “Small families live better” (La familia pequeña vive mejor) — is the slogan verbatim of the 1970s family planning programs in Mexico. Though less well-known than the cases of Peru and Puerto Rico, Mexico adopted problematic population policies. During the Cold War, the United States feared that population growth would increase poverty, which would in turn increase the likelihood of revolutions and reformist government, which had been cropping up throughout Latin America (and often overthrown or destabilized by the United States). As wikileaks reveals, Marshall Green, Coordinator of Population Affairs for the State Department, stated in 1976, “The continuing population increases in Mexico have very grave implications for the United States.” The United States responded to these potential “implications” by pressuring Mexico to contain population growth beginning in the 1970s. In 1974, Mexico passed the General Population Law which set up The National Population Council of Mexico (CONAPO), and oversaw family planning services. These policies were aided by media propaganda: Televisa, the main Mexican TV station, distributed films and telenovelas with the “familia pequeña” message to increase contraceptive use and decrease population growth.

To be fair, access to contraceptives, an important aspect of reproductive health, improved during this era. But rather than support good-quality, voluntary reproductive health services for the entire population, the Mexican government disproportionately targeted indigenous and rural populations, perpetuating stereotypes of “indios” as uneducated, irresponsible, and deleterious to national culture. Contraceptives were pushed to meet national quotas, not in the best interest of women and families. Sadly, these policies remain. International funders and national elites continue to exert population control, with forced sterilizations documented as recently as 2008. And they are so blatant in their targeting of certain groups that, when, in 2006, a representative of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination spoke about the persistence of forced sterilizations, he classified them as “genocide” due to their racial character.

27 complaints of “forced contraception” were registered by The Mexican Human Rights Commission between 2000 and 2006 in twelve states. And The National Population Council of Mexico (CONAPO), set up by the General Population Law, created national quotas for participants in family planning programs, even threatening doctors and health workers with loss of payment or employment if they failed to fulfill them. State programs tend to use monetary and material offers to entice women and men to be sterilized, in violation of “informed consent.” Again, it’s important to note the international support for and pressure applied to CONAPO, which gets funding from both USAID and the U.N. Population Fund.

Me phaa indigenous men in Guerrero were victims of forced sterilization between 1998 and 2002. State Health Secretary personnel pressured men to under vasectomies by promising to build a health clinic and to give out scholarships if they had them and threatening to take away support from Opportunities if they didn’t undergo vasectomies. After the men had the procedures, they were given 50 pesos (under $4) in front of the community to aid the agencies to “find more volunteers.” The promises of scholarships and health clinics were never fulfilled. The case was settled in 2008, when Guerrero compensated fourteen of the men with 30,000 peso ($2,300) each.

Another case arose in January 2008 when doctors in Chihuahua performed a tubal ligation on a 13-year-old Tarahumara patient after she had given birth, without informed consent. Doctors said they did it because the girl, who did not speak Spanish fluently, was “unwell” mentally and tested positive for syphilis.

International actors still push population control in Mexico, through international organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. New contraception technologies are being rolled out with little over-sight and testing, leading to a recent “Call to Action on Contraceptive Safety.” U.S.-owned factories have forced women to take pregnancy tests to get or keep their jobs. Even environmental NGOs like Conservation International have gotten in on the fun, funding population programs in the Lacandon Rainforest of Chiapas.

What’s missing is actual concern for holistic health. SEDESOL and public health agencies in Mexico are failing the rural and indigenous population. A study found that 22% of indigenous women in Mexico had sought out contraceptives but were unable to acquire them. Abortion is legal only in Mexico City and in the rest of the country women who must undergo illegal abortions put their lives at risk. Several times in the past year, indigenous women were forced to give birth on the pavement outside state health clinics because they could not access health services.

As Regina Tames, director of the Mexico City-based Information Group for Reproductive Choice (GIRE) wrote in an Animal Politico opinion piece, “It is even more concerning that the official responsible for the country’s social policies ignores the real conditions that indigenous women face in our country.” If international funders and agencies want to improve Mexican women’s lives, they have to abandon programs which blame women for their reproductive decisions. Contrary to the rhetoric, it’s not the familia pequeña that lives better, but the families whose rights are respected and have the capabilities to make informed health and education decisions.

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