Maria Rosario Valdez Santiago is training a spotlight on domestic violence in Mexico. Ultimately, she intends to stop it. Although most Mexicans don't believe that there is a domestic violence problem, Valdez Santiago has evidence that the problems is widespread.
Rosario is a young psychologist who has been involved with feminist issues since her student days, when she was the only woman in the student leadership committee in her university. Her thesis on the subject of psychological approaches to rape brought the subject to academia for the first time and was directly responsible for the creation at a later date of a permanent study group on rape. Recently she has established contact with women's groups in the United States, especially Mexican-American groups, which are also working on the problem of domestic violence.
Building on what she learned as a student leader and during her research on violence against women, Rosario set out to fight domestic violence. She founded the Center for Researching and Combating Domestic Violence (CECOVID), and she and her colleagues there are launching a broad-ranging attack on domestic violence and disrespect of women's rights.The first step in Rosario's approach is to make domestic violence visible, to have it recognized for what it is. Even this initial step requires enormous cultural sensitivity.She has just started working in one of Mexico City's poor peripheral barrios. Gradually getting the women to begin to recognize and discuss -- very discreetly -- this taboo subject requires both time and the creation of safe opportunities. Creativity and persistence are critical to working with women who have been abused.In the process, Rosario is creating a detailed community case study of the extent and nature of the problem. As important, she is deepening her own understanding of its root causes, of the attitudes and customs that perpetuate it, and of its far-reaching personal and family ramifications. Since she is working in a poor urban neighborhood, what she is documenting and learning probably applies to many millions of Mexican families. To complement her local study of the problem, she is also gathering whatever general data she can find for the rest of the country.Even as this information accumulates, Rosario is putting it to good use -- both in the community where she is working and more broadly. In the community, the picture she is compiling serves as a mirror that helps the women there see their situation more clearly. On a broader stage, her ability to define the nature and extent of the problem is beginning to get others to focus. She is especially working with women's groups across the country to try to develop a coordinated plan of action. She is further spurring an awakening by generating a series of materials on domestic violence, each geared to a different level of existing awareness. She is also helping the women in the barrio where she works to establish self-analysis groups for the first time.She is also ready to help on an emergency basis. She has established and is servicing a hot line. And she is now establishing emergency care centers for battered women to help these women and their families get through an immediate crisis and also build a new economic and social base.
The problem of domestic violence cuts across national, religious, class, and ethnic barriers. However, in Mexico it is even more acute because so little attention has been paid to the question and because there are no services catering to the psychological and physical needs of battered women. Public opinion is uneducated in this respect. Rosario tells of the story of her first major radio interview to illustrate just how little thought most Mexicans have given to the issue. The show had open lines and invited the public to join in the discussion. The callers (mostly men) argued that what goes on between a couple is a private matter and should not be made public or be subject to the interference of outsiders. Indeed, some insisted that it was a husband's 'right' to beat his wife. In many areas, drinking aggravates and further excuses the problem. Moreover, traditionally women have not been organized. They have no pressure groups to correct physical and psychological abuse.
Rosario has decided to work in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Mexico City. In the first phase of her work, she is concentrating on bringing the problem to light through a localized publicity campaign and a series of events such as three all-day shows in the community, very much helped along by the presence of a number of famous singers and actors who volunteered their time. These all-day events have the objective of announcing and preparing the area's residents for the upcoming survey; in between professional presentations there will be short talks on domestic violence and skits on the subject. The next step is to carry out the survey on domestic violence, which will be used as input for further educational and support work. The survey itself is designed to stimulate the women who participate to reflect on the issue not as a problem of "personal failure", but as a "disease" affecting millions of women all over the world. After the survey, Rosario plans a series of women's films. The objective of the film series is to allow interested women to come together and talk about domestic violence without having to acknowledge that they are going to meetings on domestic violence. As well as working on this local level, Rosario is negotiating with the Mexico City government regarding the creation of her planned support centers for battered women.