A reknown feminist lawyer, Mireya wants to make the law a tool for social change in the hands of grassroots women's groups.
The New Idea
In the last five years, the movimiento popular (popular movement) grassroots groups in Mexico have grown substantially, especially after the earthquake. The great number of groups, albeit often at different development stages, share many common characteristics -- including a lack of legal knowledge and consequently an inability to use the law as an instrument of social change.Mireya Toto Gutierrez wants to help these groups, especially the women's groups, to understand and use the law to their benefit. She begins by providing legal literacy courses to their leaders and then helps them pass on their knowledge to their groups. Working with the group leaders, Gutierrez will typically discuss concrete cases affecting its members (e.g., rape, abortion, battered women, etc.) and go on to help design specific strategies for action.
Women have traditionally been an underprivileged segment of Latin society. Crimes against women such as rape and battering are many times treated as personal or family affairs; quite often, the victims are blamed. The feminist movement of the 1970s has changed thought, action, and sometimes the laws in Latin America. Yet a deeper change that will allow women of all classes to reach for equality and fair treatment under the law has only just started.
In 1984 Gutierrez was responsible for a change in Mexican law, lengthening the sentence for rapists and not allowing them to be freed on bail. This was a great victory for the feminists but did not ensure the application of the law. In Gutierrez's words, "most of the women still felt ashamed and unprotected and most of the rapists went free to repeat their crimes."
The emergence of the movimiento popular, led many times by women and women's groups, provided a new opportunity for Gutierrez to use the law to the benefit of women -- this time, she believes, in a more effective and broad-reaching way.
Gutierrez's early work on women's issues has made her an important resource among grassroots women's groups. Moved by the demand for her counsel and armed by her experience as an activist in France and in Mexico, Gutierrez decided to systematize the seminars and consultancies she has been giving with such great success. Gutierrez's courses consist of a series of meetings where the groups: (1) identify the most important legal problems affecting the women; (2) analyze the attitudes and social behavior underlying these problems and receive information about the law and its possible application; and, (3) develop strategies of action and work plans to deal with the problems.
Gutierrez's work will help thousands of women to better understand the law and consequently, to be able both to protect themselves and be more effective in demanding their rights. It will give the movimiento popular the use of a powerful new tool, one it had spurned in an earlier era of ideology. As a lawyer, Gutierrez points out with satisfaction that an end of the alienation of these citizens' groups from the law is almost as important for society as it is for them.
Gutierrez now wants to spread her work to a national scale. She will begin by training the leadership in her extensive network of women's groups. This network includes organizations like the National Coordination of the Popular Urban Movement (CONAMUPE), the Seamstresses' Union, and women's groups in virtually every state in Mexico.
A lawyer from Veracruz, Gutierrez was chosen in 1969 from a pool of 300 Mexican candidates to complete a doctorate of law at the University of Montpelier in France. There she studied human rights under Rene Cassan, a 1968 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and joined the French Feminists who were organizing the International Tribunal of Crimes Against Women under Simone de Beauvoir.
Returning to Mexico in 1976, Gutierrez became a professor and researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and co-founded a group called "Coalicion de Mujeres Feministas" that coordinated groups concerned with women's rights.
A member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights, Gutierrez has co-authored an "anteproyecto de ley" on voluntary maternity. She was responsible for a change in the law regarding the seriousness and extent of the penalty given to rapists.