Let her be heard: The untold stories of indigenous religious minority women in Mexico (short version)
This work was undertaken by CSW and funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust. The views expressed within this report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Trust.
CSW is grateful to everyone who contributed to this report, particularly to the women who took part in the research, as well as several partners in Mexico who provided invaluable assistance.
The cases described in this report take place over a significant period of time, during which the value of the currency of Mexico, the peso (MXN), has fluctuated. We have therefore stated the peso value of any currency amounts mentioned without providing an approximate conversion to USD/GBP, as any such conversion would likely be inaccurate. It is important to note that in cases of violations of freedom of religion or belief, including those in this report, the fines applied are designed to cause hardship to the targeted individuals or families. These people are usually on a limited income, so the fines can have a devastating impact.
All images by CSW unless otherwise stated.
This research found that many types of FoRB violations appear to affect both men and women equally. These include being barred from holding or participating in religious services, from receiving visitors of the same religious group, and from sharing religious beliefs publicly; as well as forced participation in religious majority activities, and harassment when participating in religious services. Other intersecting forms of discrimination against participants that do not seem to be gender-specific include the denial of burial rights and the right to register a birth, threats to or attacks on property and land, forced displacement, and the denial of access to basic services, all of which can create barriers to paid and unpaid work.
A few types of discrimination that appear to affect religious minority women disproportionately or exclusively include barriers to benefiting from government programmes aimed at women, as well as the denial of prenatal healthcare services to pregnant women because of their religious beliefs.
While most forms of discrimination mentioned by research participants seem to have been experienced by their entire family, rather than being specific to them as women, the unspoken psychological and physical impact of FoRB violations on religious minority women in Mexico must not be overlooked.
It became clear through the course of the research that the way in which indigenous women and men are affected by some of the same FoRB and associated human rights violations appears to be gendered, i.e., shaped by their gender-based roles and responsibilities within their households and communities. This was made most apparent in how the participants reported that religiously-motivated attacks on property and denial of access to basic services affect indigenous men and women’s ability to complete income-generating and unpaid work, usually divided along gender lines.
Many participants shared how basic domestic responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes become extremely challenging when their access to water and electricity is blocked because of their family’s religious beliefs. This type of violation can also have implications for health, with women being forced to wash, cook with and consume untreated water, for example from rivers; or having to walk significant distances to and from a water source while carrying heavy objects such as jugs of water or baskets of wet laundry.
Several participants also alluded to the knock-on effect that discrimination against religious minority children has on them as mothers, with some taking on more work on top of their regular household responsibilities, to instruct their children after they were denied access to education.
Notably, several participants implied that religious minority men are disproportionately affected by certain FoRB violations, and some participants explicitly stated that indigenous men are subject to religiously-motivated violence more often than women.
In indigenous communities across Mexico, men and women are included on a community task list and expected to perform services for their community. However, the participants’ accounts suggested that religious minority men are much more likely to be assigned roles within religious majority functions, and then subjected to arbitrary detention for not participating. This is likely because, in many cases, adult men represent their family at community assembly meetings as the perceived ‘head’ of their household. Single women, including widows, may be subject to more discrimination than married or young women still living at home with their parents, but CSW was unable to draw any significant conclusions on this theory as most participants were married.
A culture of impunity surrounds the majority of FoRB and related human rights violations in Mexico, where 94.8% of reported cases go unpunished.4 The true percentage is likely to be even higher, given the number of individuals who are unable to report cases due to linguistic and educational barriers. This high level of impunity and the lack of protection granted by state officials, who often side with those of the majority religion, was a common complaint among participants. 18 participants (67%) indicated that they are unable to access justice following experiences of discrimination and/or violence. Most participants specified that the local authorities are either the perpetrators of, complicit in or dismissive of these incidents.
Some participants have accessed justice mechanisms, with varying degrees of effectiveness, following interventions by bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission, state human rights commissions and Offices of Religious Affairs at the state government level, as well as through legal cases. However, the persistent lack of intervention by the state governments to uphold FoRB is a clear indication that, in general, government officials, especially at the state level, continue to misunderstand FoRB and view FoRB violations as community issues or minor ‘problems’ rather than violations of fundamental human rights.
It is important to note that many of the experiences shared by the participants had occurred over a span of years, in some cases over generations. This is reflective of the wider issue of FoRB violations in indigenous communities, which the Mexican government has failed to address in any effective way, dating back decades.
It does not appear that growing religious diversity will be a solution. Rather, a culture has been allowed to develop where it is accepted and even expected that a majority at the local level has the right to enforce religious uniformity. This culture has been strengthened by the strategy of some state governments to ‘resolve’ cases of religious intolerance, by establishing new communities exclusive to the affected religious minority. In some cases, those who were once a religious minority now find themselves a majority and have embraced their ‘right’ to enforce religious uniformity.
For this reason, although all the women who participated in this research identify as Protestant Christians, the findings of the report have implications for those of all faiths and beliefs.
This data resulted from a thematic analysis and manual qualitative coding of the reflections and examples given by participants during their interviews. The accuracy of this data is limited by not all participants answering every interview question due to time restrictions, and sometimes due to a lack of knowledge and/or understanding. Furthermore, participants may have inadvertently or intentionally omitted or chosen not to disclose additional incidents. Therefore, it is possible that more participants were affected by the identified forms of discrimination, and potentially other human rights violations that have not been recorded.
|Form of discrimination||Number of participants|
|Pressured or forced participation in religious activities||21 (78%)|
|Threats or attacks to property and land||19 (70%)|
|Barriers to justice||18 (67%)|
|Denial of government benefit programmes||17 (63%)|
|Denial of water services*||13 (48%)|
|Prevented from receiving co-religionist visitors||13 (48%)|
|Arbitrary detention of male relative||10 (37%)|
|Discrimination and restrictions affecting children’s education||9 (33%)|
|Barriers to unpaid work||8 (30%)|
|Denial of medical treatment||8 (30%)|
|Forced displacement||8 (30%)|
|Prevented from sharing religious beliefs publicly||7 (26%)|
|Denial of sewerage services*||6 (22%)|
|Barriers to paid work||5 (19%)|
|Electricity bills withheld5||5 (19%)|
|Denial of electricity services*||3 (11%)|
|Denial of right to burial||2 (7%)|
|Denial of right to register birth||2 (7%)|
|Physical violence||2 (7%)|
|* Overall number who experience denial of basic services (electricty, sewerage or water): 13 participants, 48%|
Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández and Angelina Martínez Hernández are sisters. They live in an indigenous community in La Mesa de Limantitla, Huejutla de Reyes Municipality, Hidalgo. They speak Nahuatl.
‘We were very stressed and we were very afraid. We thought that at any minute they would take away the house that we built, at great sacrifice, and our coffee plants and the cedar saplings that we planted so that they would grow into trees, and that we would be unable to enjoy any of this. This is why we cried. We only knew that they were not going to be able to take away from us faith in our God; they could take everything else.’
Protestant families in La Mesa de Limantitla have been under pressure since 2007. Angelina Martínez Hernández explained:
‘Since 2007, they do not want to allow us to meet. They asked that we not gather together, that we not make a racket, that we should return to the Catholic Church.’
Angelina Martínez Hernández reflected on being deliberately ignored by members of the religious majority:
‘They stopped visiting and speaking to us. When we walked in the street, they would not turn to look at me, as if I were a little animal.’
The local authorities have also threatened Angelina Martínez Hernández’s family with forced displacement and confiscation of their property. Threats of expulsion and losing her home made her afraid of travelling alone to her family’s cornfields, where she sows seeds and works the land to feed her family. Not knowing when and how the people of the town were going to fulfil the threat, whether they were going to hurt her or not allow her to return home, made her feel very stressed and afraid. She explained she does not walk without her husband, because she fears being attacked if someone sees her alone.
The situation grew worse in January 2019, when many Protestant Christian families were forced to sign an agreement renouncing their religious beliefs. Eight families signed the agreement under pressure; however, Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández, Angelina Martínez Hernández and their respective husbands, Nemesio Cruz Hernández and Eligio Santiago Hernández, refused to do so.
‘They threatened us, they cut off our utilities. They threw stones and put up ropes so that the visitors did not come to my house for the bimonthly fellowship meeting.’
In response, in January 2019 the local authorities removed their access to water, sewerage services, government benefit programmes and the community mill for over one year. Women in the community rely on the mill to grind corn weekly and to make tortillas daily – one of their primary sources of food. Without this access, they are forced to purchase food and use a hand mill, which requires a great deal of strength and energy leaving them exhausted when it comes time to carry out other tasks for which they are responsible.
The removal of water services creates a burden for those who are targeted. This seems to have a disproportionate impact on women, who tend to be responsible for domestic tasks that rely on water, such as cooking and cleaning. Lack of clean water can also exacerbate and lead to serious health issues such as parasitosis, amoebiasis, malnutrition, diarrhoea and gastrointestinal disorders.
Both women underwent significant medical procedures during this time and their recovery took place without access to water services or a functioning bathroom. They were forbidden from visiting one another and from visiting their family; when the women attempted to visit their parents the townspeople would say
‘You went to bathe at your parents’ house, you are going to ask them for water.’ They were even denied support from friends as the village delegate threatened to cut off the basic services of anyone who visited them.
The townspeople prohibited them from accessing the river shore closest to their homes, forcing them to walk uphill one kilometre to bathe and to obtain drinking water for use at home. They both had to rely on their grandchildren, all under ten years of age, to assist them in carrying heavy buckets of water from the river to their homes.
Later in 2019, Angelina Martínez Hernández suffered a uterine prolapse when she attempted to carry a 20-litre jar of water from the river to her home on her own. Due to the risk of a repeat occurrence, doctors recommended surgery, and on 22 July 2019 she underwent a hysterectomy. Her daughter-in-law lived with her for a short time, acting as her carer immediately after the operation. The daughter-in-law, who was pregnant at the time, was however forced to return to her own home because she could not manage without access to water and sewerage services. The lack of visitors and support following her surgery left Angelina Martínez Hernández feeling isolated and alone. She told CSW in 2019,
‘Nobody has visited me…I feel rejected, like I am worth nothing.’
In April 2019, after a few months of carrying jugs of water from the river to her house, Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández developed an inguinal hernia and a lump under her right arm, which continued to grow. She remembers fetching water from the river at night with her grandchildren, and crying because she could not bear the coldness of the water. Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández recalled the community delegate telling her husband:
‘Your wife is dying. Renounce your religion and we will connect your water. You have to renounce [your religion]. Do you want to be without sewerage?…[You] are going to die, and we are not going to let them bury you here. Let the “brothers and sisters” bury you. Don’t you want your house? Don’t you care about your land? You want to be on the streets!’
Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández was told by doctors in Huejutla de Reyes, the municipal seat of Huejutla de Reyes Municipality, that she was at risk of dying. She underwent surgery on 16 December 2019 to remove the lump under her arm and the inguinal hernia. One week after her operations, her open wound became infected and worsened due to the unsanitary conditions of the river water where she was forced to bathe.
Less than a month after her operations, on 15 January 2020, the local authorities in La Mesa de Limantitla levied a fine of MXN 57,700 on her family, as part of an illegal agreement that would reinstate their access to basic services in return for them stopping their religious services. The local authorities held a meeting with her husband to discuss this agreement and insisted that Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández attend too, despite the fact that she was physically frail, having just undergone surgery. She recalled going to the meeting wearing a bandage and weeping due to the pain. She could not sleep that night because of the stress and the soreness of her wound. Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández reflected:
‘I ask my husband why do they do this to us? We don’t do them any harm…What they did to me still hurts me, with my injury and surrounded by people making fun of us and shouting at us..’
Maria Francisca Martínez Hernández shared that her greatest desire is for her 29-year-old son to reconcile with his family and with God. Her son abandoned his wife and two children, and people from the religious majority community mocked and blamed her for his decision to leave.6 She drew a picture of a man and a guitar to represent ‘[her] son playing during worship in the church.’
‘I made a picture with my son singing praises because my son is lost, far from God.’
Angelina Martínez Hernández’s hope for the future is that there will be peace in the community and God will allow the authorities to reconsider their decision so this can take place. Angelina Martínez Hernández requested assistance to write ‘God is love’, and drew a heart with a circle around it, to represent the world. She would like freedom to share her faith with her relatives and her community.
Juana Custodio Bernabe lives in an indigenous community in El Mesón Zapote, Ayutla de los Libres Municipality, Guerrero. She speaks Mixtec.
Juana Custodio Bernabe relayed how her family is verbally attacked by people from the religious majority community almost every week, during their two-hour walk from El Mesón Zapote to their church in Coacoyulichán, Cuautepec Municipality. They are called chinqueque. The translator explained that this is a slang term denoting someone who is prostrate on the floor, or a social parasite, in their indigenous Mixtec language.
In November 2020, the village commissioner encouraged the residents of El Mesón Zapote to put their cows on land owned by Juana Custodio Bernabe’s family, to eat and trample their crops, as punishment for converting away from the majority religion. As a result, Juana Custodio Bernabe’s family lost the four hectares of bean crop they had planted, equivalent to ten months’ worth of food and income.
In February 2021, Juana Custodio Bernabe’s neighbour, a member of the majority religion, put cows on the field where Juana Custodio Bernabe’s family cultivates corn and sugar cane. The cows ate the corn and destroyed the cane, leaving Juana Custodio Bernabe’s family with little to survive on. Whenever Juana Custodio Bernabe’s husband has complained about this to the local authorities, he is told that they will not take action to help them because his family ‘changed course’ in their religion and the cows are owned by members of the majority religion.
Juana Custodio Bernabe’s 15-year-old daughter has a disability which means that she cannot attend public school; she is entitled to financial support through the Mexican government’s Pension Programme for the Welfare of People with Disabilities. The financial support arrives at the commissariat in her daughter’s name but the commissioner, Isidoro Carpio, has refused to pass on the money. The local authorities’ interception of financial support for her daughter violates the operating rules of this government programme, which stipulate that ‘financial support will be delivered directly – without intermediaries – through the use of a bank card’ and that ‘public servants involved in the operation of [these programmes] will be encouraged to promote, respect, protect and guarantee the effective exercise of the human rights of the beneficiaries…with adherence to the criteria of equality and non-discrimination.’7
In the summer of 2020, Isidoro Carpio sent a Roman Catholic catechist to tell her family that he would sign and approve the document for Juana Custodio Bernabe’s daughter’s financial support if they returned to Roman Catholicism.
Having refused to do so, Juana Custodio Bernabe lives under constant stress and exhaustion as her daughter’s primary caregiver. This reduces her capacity to do other domestic tasks. The lack of financial support has also created a financial and emotional burden for Juana Custodio Bernabe as she is worried both about her daughter and about her ability to properly feed her family.
Juana Custodio Bernabe did not create a piece of artwork depicting her hope for the future, but she shared her desire for peace for everyone in the town. In her interview, she said that there had been several acts of retaliation against Protestant Christians within her community, particularly when walking the two hours to her church.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz lives in an indigenous community in Nueva las Tacitas, Ocosingo Municipality, Chiapas. She speaks Tzeltal. She has attended the Alpha and Omega Presbyterian church with her husband since their conversion away from the majority religion in 2016. Josefina Cruz Ruiz was one of two participants who reported religiously-motivated violence against them.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz explained that in 2015, the local authorities confiscated their instruments and imprisoned six male church members for 24 hours, after members of her Presbyterian church held a celebration with music to mark its anniversary. The men were tied up, beaten by 80 men from the community, and then forced to pay an illegal fine of MXN 25,000.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz and her husband’s conversion to Protestant Christianity angered relatives who followed the majority religion, including her brother. One day a short time later, while her husband was at work, the brother entered her home while inebriated and he attacked her with a machete. This caused her to suffer a miscarriage.
Every year on 3 May, Protestant Christian families in the community who refuse to participate in the Santa Cruz Roman Catholic Festival (referred to locally as ‘Convivio de Agua’) are forced to pay an illegal fine of MXN 300, or have their water supply cut off until they are able to pay the fine; as a result, some years they have been without access to water for five months.
On 3 May 2021, Josefina Cruz Ruiz’s family and five others, a total of 16 adults, from the Alpha and Omega Christian Church refused to participate in the festival. In response, the local authorities imposed an increased fine of MXN 500 per family, and subsequently disconnected their water supply when they could not afford to pay for it. While Josefina Cruz Ruiz’s family have a latrine in their house, they cannot use it without water access, so they were forced to relieve themselves outside in the open, in the mountains.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz and other Protestant women from the community were forced to make daily trips to a small stream 20 minutes away from their homes, to collect water for both drinking and everyday tasks like cooking and cleaning. They would fill 2.5 litre soda bottles with water and carry them home in wheelbarrows. These women also relied on the stream to wash their family’s laundry, carrying between 10 and 15kg of clothes on their heads as they journeyed to and from the stream, with their children’s assistance, several times a day.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz’s family and some others subsequently managed to gather enough money to pay the fine to have their water supply reinstated. Josefina Cruz Ruiz’s husband explained that there is currently a shortage of water in Nueva las Tacitas because the pipe supplying the water tank is damaged. Therefore, removing Protestant Christian’s access to water increases the supply available to the religious majority community.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz also stated that, three times a year during the harvest season, a member of the religious majority community steals the crops from her family’s land, which she relies on to cook meals for her family, and although the authorities know who he is, they have taken no action to stop him.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz drew a heart surrounded by flowers to signify her hope that one day her entire community will know the love of Jesus. She shared her hope that God might give her a well, so that she would no longer have problems with access to the water tank, and so that water could be provided to all Protestant Christian families who resist participating in Roman Catholic festivals, including the Santa Cruz Roman Catholic festival.
Josefina Cruz Ruiz drew a second drawing of a heart to represent the unity that she felt at the meeting, sharing that she felt very happy. She also drew a faint picture of a dove above the heart, which she said represented God’s blessing.
We believe no one should suffer discrimination, harassment or persecution because of their beliefs