Alicia Leal, a Mexican educator, is fostering a social consciousness about violence against women. Alicia is empowering women to demand their human rights through her organization, Alternativas Pacificas (Peaceful Alternatives), and has established a multidisciplinary model for victim treatment to be implemented by the federal government. In collaboration with the civil and public sectors, Alicia is fomenting a cultural awareness about violence and leading policy implementation towards victim treatment.
La nuova idea
When Alicia founded a cooperative shelter in 1996 for women and children victims of familial violence, no other shelter with multidisciplinary services existed in Mexico. Her aim: To form centers of refuge for women to regain stability in their lives, offer multidisciplinary services, and a safe place to live. The services provided by clinics and government hospitals for battered women were inadequate and focused on the physical aspects of abuse; none offered psychological care or vocational skills for women to learn the skills they need to remove themselves from abusive situations. Through Alternativas Pacificas (ALPAZ), Alicia has developed a model to treat victims of violence. For security reasons, Alicia left ALPAZ and is creating functioning alliances between citizen organizations (COs) and state and federal governments whose partnerships are intended to construct and implement the capacity to respond to the needs of citizens whose civil and human rights have been violated. Developing her intervention model in the northeast State of Nuevo Leon, Alicia has influenced the expansion of women’s shelters throughout the country. Each cooperative center focuses on a multidisciplinary method that involves community professionals; women work together in daily operations; and the collective recuperation of their spirits. Legal representation is a significant part of the ALPAZ model and stresses the importance of educating women about their rights. More than half the women that attended the initial center have been empowered to confront their spouses, to attend marriage counseling, or contacted the police to help them leave dangerous situations. With centers operating in nearly every state and ALPAZ supporting the installation of centers in more rural areas, attaining federal resources and support is necessary. While laws exist to protect women and government agencies have been established to deal with victims of violence and women’s issues, Alicia also trains public officials to become sensitized to the needs of victims. The current national law for the Rights of Women to Live without Violence functions only in name. There is no task force to supervise the law’s implementation and women continue to be excluded from the Justice Department—which either files criminal reports under bureaucratic paperwork or abuses their rights by demanding information about the illegal activities of women’s husbands. With international accords and conferences, media, and United Nations reports looming over federal lawmakers, Alicia is seizing the opportunity to take her years of experience in policy and join groups for significant change. Alicia has presented her model to decision-makers, such as senators and congressional delegates, state governors, and COs, so that a formal method of counseling may be implemented and monitored.
More than half of Mexican women have experienced some degree of familial violence. In a paternalistic society, male abuse of power affects women of all classes. The situation is growing dramatically worse as poverty levels increase; drug cartels are disrupted which creates disorder and increased kidnappings; and, a chauvinistic military and police force continues to use aggressive and violent tactics to solve crime. International accords and federal laws are disregarded as bureaucratic politics and the system to deal with victims of violence is inadequate. A functioning network of agencies is needed to provide refuge, physical and emotional support, and prevention for victims of violence.
Even though there have been significant strides in raising awareness about violence against women, there is still much to be done on the legislative level for concrete action. The newest Mexican law for the Rights of Women to Live without Violence, international accords, and several other legislative measures has been in effect for some time, yet the inability of the Mexican government to implement the necessary security forces and follow through with penalties is creating major setbacks for activist groups. According to statistics filed by U.N. watch groups, over 50 percent of Mexican women reported suffering family violence in 2005. Additionally, four women or young girls are murdered each day, or approximately 1,200 women per year.
On average, when women arrive at shelters they have sought five types of assistance. Government agencies have a reputation for shunning women who report violence and often send them home without social service assistance or a criminal investigation. The justice departments at the state and federal levels are slow and bureaucratic and rarely produce results. Agencies that deal with battered women are saturated with patients and grossly understaffed, unable to provide even the minimum services required by law. Within the 2008 federal budget there exists $5M pesos (roughly US$345,000) for each shelter allocated for the attention and prevention of violence against women; however, there is nothing to indicate it can be used to evaluate the care and attention offered in each sector. The allocated money runs the risk of mismanagement by desensitized administrators, not trained in victims’ needs or worse, could be relocated based on political agendas. The current system does not facilitate long-term attention or prevention.
Currently, the greatest challenge is to thoroughly train government agencies to address the needs of victims of violence. In several instances, women that have reported their abusive husbands to the justice departments are criminalized. Sensitizing government officials and law enforcement is the key to changing an antiquated paternalistic attitude towards women. A singular model must be used in all sectors to formalize the processes of receiving and treating battered women. Supervisory agencies must monitor not only legal issues, but treatment centers as well. Presently, there are no organizations with the capacity to link legislature and government agencies with shelters and treatment centers.
Alicia has spent the last thirteen years working with women and children victims of violence. In 1996, after finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Education in the State of Nuevo Leon, she opened Mexico’s first women’s shelter, Alternativas Pacificas. The center continues to operate with twenty-six family rooms and a fully trained professional staff. They received more than 54,000 women and children between 1996 and 2003. In 1999, Alicia founded Mexico’s first network of women’s shelters for victims of violence. In 2000, after helping to bring a law denouncing violence against women as a crime into the state legislature, Alicia began to oversee the model’s documentation for treatment of victims and manage the growing network of operating shelters. In 2005, Alicia began work with state and federal governments to implement policy change and is an independent consultant on legislative issues and agencies that deal with violence against women. She provides systematic training to government agencies while lobbying for the implementation of legislative policy. This new stage has taken Alicia’s work to the next level of violence prevention and victim response.
At the beginning of Alicia’s career, she researched women’s shelters in the U.S., since none existed in Mexico, and traveled to Texas where she was introduced to a formal model of victim recognition, treatment, and ongoing psychological counseling. She brought the model to Nuevo Leon and formed the first cooperative of women victims of family and sexual violence. The center, which continues to operate today, provides physical treatment, psychological care, and housing to women and their children. These services are free of charge, but while staying there, women are asked to contribute to the daily operation of the center and to participate in workshops on self-improvement and vocational skills. Bringing in professionals such as nurses, psychologists, social workers, and attorneys, specializing in violent crime, quickly formed a working network that prompted Alicia to begin documenting her method of intervention. Over the course of twelve years, fifty-six independent shelters all over the country have opened centers using the Alternativas Pacificas system as guidance, and 62 percent of the women who have come through her shelter are living lives without violence.
Initially, Alicia formed an inter-institutional network which included participation from the Governor’s Office, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Development, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the National Institute for Women, and other COs. Her focus was to move away from diagnosing the theme of violence and to create a method to diagnose the way government agencies respond to victims and handle the intervention model. Legislation is meaningless without a monitored implementation strategy, and Alicia is working to develop the model she originally formulated. The model is based on her vast work experience with victims of violence, and also adheres to government guidelines with regard to current social strategies. Alicia is in contact with the office specializing in violence against women at the level of the presidency and meets with state senators to maintain a working version, which demonstrates the viability of Alternativas’ method at the federal level. She has accomplished organizing working senate conferences and media roundtables to invite state governors to dialogue with the civil sector. This is also an opportunity for other COs working with women and children of violence to join the discussion.
Alicia’s ultimate strategy is to repeat these measures at the federal level to realize effective implementation of legislation nationwide. The National Institute for Social Development and several state congressmen and senators who are sensitive to the escalating situation have responded enthusiastically to the Alternativas model. With decision-makers on her side, this support paves the way for lobbying amendments to laws that would include indicators for agency assessment.
Alicia is trying to convince local and federal authorities that Alternativas Pacificas and all the shelters for women victims of violence are fundamental agents that can contribute with the government to the process of victim management.
In 2005 Alicia resigned as president of Alternativas Pacificas due to threats against her family. Federal officials refused to prosecute the perpetrators—cartel runners and government employees she knew were threatening her—and instead, offered bodyguards she feared may be connected with the same people of whom she was afraid. The afternoon of her public appearance to tell the media and other organizations that she would no longer be heading Alternativas Pacificas, she received an anonymous phone call complimenting her wisdom to step down. However, Alicia has remained a full-time assessor of the treatment model she developed and leads training workshops and media-attended conferences to promote high-quality care for victims of violence. She offers her services to national and international agencies, although she only charges some of the time; often receiving apologies about a lack of funding, even from the government. Alicia’s objectives and future plans involve working with legislative bodies to formalize agency procedures and creating a supervisory task force that would be responsible to oversee shelters and persist with legal cases and victim recovery.
Alicia is originally from Monterrey, Mexico, where she raised her three daughters as a single mother. After twelve years of marriage she got a divorce. It was at this time that Alicia returned to school and received a degree in education. She also studied human development, family violence, and violence against women. Upon writing her thesis on the current situation for women who have experienced violence, Alicia discovered that Mexico did not have one operating women’s shelter. She and two female classmates traveled to Texas and were introduced to formal methods of multidisciplinary therapy, which she brought to Monterrey and used to open Mexico’s first women’s shelter.
Alicia has spent the last thirteen years walking hand-in-hand with women and their children who have been physically or sexually abused. She has overseen the opening of fifty-six shelters throughout Mexico based on her extensive and inclusive model for victim intervention and counseling. Alicia worked actively on the 2000 campaign to make violence a crime against women in her home state, and again in 2007 when the law became federal. After being forced to leave Alternativas Pacificas for her family’s security, Alicia dedicated herself to policy implementation and fomenting her integral model. Alicia is an expert in the field and an assessor to legislative policy. She believes positive and lasting change will come to fruition.
The people who have most influenced Alicia’s life are the women from her center. Their courage, perseverance, and ability to maintain hope are guiding principles for Alicia and have kept her motivated after long, difficult, and at times, dangerous years. She has used their stories as examples of survival and passes these values to her daughters. Alicia strives to maintain a social responsibility, compassion, and notion of justice for all of the women and children whose lives have been altered by abuse and whose human rights have been violated.