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Southern Mexico Works to Improve Women's Rights

Domestic violence is widespread in Mexico's southernmost region of Chiapas. Indigenous women, in particular, suffer from abuse, provoked by problems of alcoholism, unemployment and lack of education. But, efforts are underway to improve the legal and economic rights of women. They take the form of a newly invigorated government family program and self-help Women's Handicraft Consortiums, which are springing up in small traditional villages.

The ear-splitting noise of the bells is at odds with the restful, gently sloping hills surrounding the traditional indigenous village of Zinacatan. Small green houses dot the rural landscape. Agriculture and flower cultivation are the principle activities here.

"This is an organized group of women that make different kind of handicrafts... the Textiles. Women Embroiderers from Zinacatan, Chiapas," says my guide, Adriana Alarcon. She introduces me to Pascuala Vazquez Hernandez, who started a handicrafts consortium with 19 other women in 1990.

"They organized in a big group to get some money from the government and to have a nice job to have another opportunity in life because by herself it is very difficult. So, they have to be organized. And, in a group, it is easier to get money," Alarcon explained.

"She was married. But, the marriage was just one year and a half. Her husband abandoned her so she has to fight for her family. She has one daughter. Her daughter is 18 years old and now they are working together. Her daughter now has a beautiful girl here," she said.

The baby, who is strapped on Hernandez' back, gets impatient as her grandmother explains the kind of future she wants for her granddaughter.

"She is 10 months… And, the future that she expects for her is that she will be sent to the school. That she has an education and a better life for her," she said.

The handicraft center is abuzz with activity. The women are plying their crafts in a sunny courtyard, with chickens, dogs and small children running around. Some are weaving carpets. Others are embroidering shawls, dresses and small purses.

A few tourists examine the beautiful, brilliantly colored goods that are on display.

I stop to talk to 20-year-old Rosa Ernestina Hernandez Vasquez who is weaving a carpet. She tells me she is unmarried and lives with her single mother and two brothers. She comes to work at this house every day.

"My life is a little hard," she said. "People do not always buy my goods. They are always bargaining and there is a lot of competition. I went to high school and I would like to continue to go to school. I also want to continue to make embroideries. I would like to travel to other places to show off my culture."

Maria Gertrudis Hernandez Hernandez is a 25-year-old indigenous woman. She heads the State Program for Families and Adoption in Tuxtla Gutierrez. She says violence against women and children, aggravated by drugs, alcoholism and "machismo" is the biggest problem in the state.

She says her agency informs women of their legal rights, tries to protect them from abuse and helps them get some marketable skills.

"When a woman has problems in her home, she can live in a house for abused women for three months. These women are taught how to sew and do other things. And, when the women leave the house, the government finds them a job or helps set them up in a small business like making tacos," she said.

The wife of the governor of Chiapas, Maria Isabella Sabenas, is president of DIF, the Department for the Infancy and Families of Chiapas.

She says women have few legal rights in Mexico. But, this is beginning to change in Chiapas. In November 2007, she says the government created a new program, which provides legal aid to abused women.

"Years ago, a husband who beat his wife only got three months imprisonment. Now, they receive seven years," she said. "The program also provides social assistance for battered women. They get psychological and medical help. They are given jobs training so they can become independent and are not forced to go back to their husbands."

Sabenas says the program has raised the public's awareness that the abuse of women is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

Statistics indicate that inter-family violence has increased. But, Sabenas argues the statistics are going up because more women are denouncing their husbands. She says women are learning to survive by themselves and are taking control of their lives.