Last month, in May, most Latin American and Caribbean countries celebrated Mother's Day. Every year, social networks, our emails and WhatsApp groups are flooded with messages and phrases about motherhood. However, some of these messages begin to criticise society's romanticisation of the discourse of "maternal sacrifice" and the naturalisation of the unequal distribution of care work that falls on women.
In the midst of these reflections on care, motherhood, patriarchy and resistance, I came across "Fruto", a book written by Daniela Rea Gómez and published in early 2023 by Editorial Antílope. "Fruto" brings together a series of stories, mainly from the Mexican author's experiences of motherhood: accounts from her diary as the mother of Naira and Emilia, as well as from her journalistic work; and an extensive series of conversations with her mother, Rosario, about her experience of motherhood.
In this compendium of stories, Rea also tells other stories: those of women, young women, adolescents and girls who also care. Women who, in some way, were deprived of a full childhood and youth, and whose lives are marked by the overload of care work, early and child marriage and unions, violence and control over their bodies and autonomy. Stories that came to me through a reading that I thought was personal and that, as the pages turned, began to humanise the statistics I work with every day.
As a journalist, Daniela Rea has previously narrated violence against women, girls and adolescents. In "Fruto", as in her previous works, the voices of women and young girls are raised, and we can recognise the resilience and tenderness in their stories of violence, without romanticising these concepts. Knowing their stories in context helps us as readers to understand the multiple dimensions that affect women's lives and the negligence of society and the state in the co-responsibility of care and the right of all women to live a full life free of violence.
Jenny begins to tell us her story of her father's violence against her two older sisters and her mother. This abuse was always related to the control of their bodies and their autonomy:
I have two older sisters, one twenty-five and one twenty-two. The first one told me that her father beat her a lot because he didn't want her to have friends; the same happened to the second one. The first got married at 17 because she was afraid to stay at home, and the second left after she was beaten for getting pregnant.(Rea, pg. 67)
Like Jenny's sisters, 42% of women in Mexico reported experiencing violence during their childhood. This violence is the third most common reason why women marry or are united before the age of 18 (ENDIREH 2021).
Family violence experienced by girls and adolescents is closely linked to child, early and forced marriages and unions. According to ENDIREH 2021, half of women who were married or united before the age of 18 experienced violence in childhood, compared to 43% of those who were united after the age of 18.
Although Jenny was not a victim of physical violence by her father, she witnessed the physical, sexual and psychological abuse he inflicted on her mother. Moreover, the patterns of violence that affected her sisters continued in their lives once they were united:
My brother-in-law beats my sister, doesn't let her use her mobile phone, doesn't let her wear make-up. He says that if she wears make-up she looks like a clown, and if she wears a skirt she looks like a prostitute.... My other sister was pregnant and my dad beat her up and she had to leave home, and her boyfriend beat her up again and she lost the baby.(Rea, pg. 69)
Due to the lack of attention, information and support for women victims of gender-based violence, this cycle of abuse becomes a spiral that is difficult to break without help. Like Jenny's sisters, 47% of women who partner up before the age of 18 experience intimate partner violence, compared to 40% of those who partner up later (ENDIREH 2021).
Without a doubt, the violence experienced by women in Mexico is alarming in general, but we must take into account that girls and adolescents like Jenny and her sisters, as well as those who live in communities in precarious contexts, find it more difficult to seek help or report it:
I went to the police several times to tell them that my dad was beating my mum, but they didn't listen to me. I told my uncles and aunts, but they didn't listen to me either. They said I was a child and that I didn't know about adult things, that I should let adults solve their problems, that I shouldn't get involved because I was a nobody.(Rea, pg. 70)
Despite the adultcentrism, Jenny took on the care of her little sister as a teenager and in some ways also took care of her mother.
So I stopped studying because I didn't want to leave them alone for a moment. But then I had to go to work and I rented a little room and that's where I took them. First my sister. Then my mum believed me and decided to go with us.(Rea, pg. 74)
Jenny's story becomes one of tenderness and re-appropriation; she managed to pull her mother and sister out of the cycle of violence. However, her story also calls us to think about the absences on the part of the state and society, as Jenny, her sisters and her mother should have had more options.
Fernanda is a teenager who identifies herself as feminist and bisexual. Her story and her words remind us that it is adolescents and young people themselves who must be at the centre of proposals and solutions to achieve the full exercise of their rights.
Although Fernanda is very young, she has learned a lot about her body and sexuality. Sadly, along the way, she has had to deal with abuse and neglect. When her mother died, Fernanda was separated from her siblings and went to live with her aunt and uncle.
At the onset of puberty, Fernanda began to explore her sexuality, which was reproached by her uncle and taken as an excuse to sexually harass her. From this, her cousins also repeated the abuse and Fernanda began to hate her body and her sexuality.
It all started because my first sexual curiosity was with a boy I met at school and my uncles found out and from then on my uncle started to tell me that I was easy, a slut, a whore, an offerer. And from there my uncle tried to seduce me...after him came my cousin.(Rea, pg. 113)
Unfortunately, Fernanda's story is not far from reality. In Mexico, for example, sexual abuse in childhood affects 12.5% of women, according to the ENDIREH, and it is precisely cousins and uncles who are the main aggressors.
Fernanda's journey also tells us about the importance of networking and collective agreement. In a few paragraphs and a few years, she found support in her friends and classmates. She continues to fight for her autonomy, and resists from a collective point of view, from her studies and from feminism.
Mónica and Mariela
Monica's and Mariela's stories have something in common: they are about mothers who did not want to be mothers, but who had to care for themselves, abandoned by a system that thrives on this free labour.
Monica's mother announced to her children that she was going to commit suicide, and eventually, she kept her word. Although Monica was an adult when this happened, her mother had suffered from depression since she was a child, which led Monica to take over the caregiving duties for her brother.
I don't have children, but I took care of my younger brother. When he was in primary school they gave him a homework assignment, he had to answer the question "Who is the person you love the most? and he put my name. Why? Because she feeds me and helps me with my problems (...) I was eight years old and I made him his scrambled eggs, got him up to take a bath, while he, very young, ironed our uniforms. We had each other.(Rea, pg. 170).
Unfortunately, Monica's story is very similar to the reality of thousands of adolescents in Mexico and the region. According to the ENUT (2019), women aged 12 to 19 spend an average of 25.2 hours a week on unpaid domestic work, compared to 14.1 hours spent by their male peers, on average.
The story of Monica and her mother also invites us to reflect on the contexts of violence and lack of opportunities, and how these mark our lives: "My mother's story is a story common to many women. As a young girl she worked in the maquila (sweatshops), suffered sexual harassment, got married very young and had children early on" (pg. 172). Like her, her mother should have had choices, neither care nor motherhood should be imposed.
So begins the story of Mariela and her twin sister; their mother let them know when they were young that she didn't want to be a mother:
I hate them, she told us. I don't know if she hated us or the life she had. I think she hated that she didn't have a choice. She hated being an old woman, she hated being ugly, she hated having to take care of us without help, she hated feeling alone.(Rea, pg. 231).
Mariela's reflections are very powerful, because rather than judging her, she comes to understand her mother's context. As caregivers it is very difficult for us to see our caregivers as autonomous and free, and to understand the circumstances around them and their relationship to the decisions they make. This is reinforced by patriarchal beliefs that women are born to care and mother.
Perhaps Mariela's character arrives to this conclusion when she learns that her mother gave birth to her and her twin at the age of 16. Later, she too became pregnant at the same age and also hated being a mother:
I also hated being a mother, I was also very nagging, I was also very violent. I was also a bad mother. I just didn't want to be a mother and I did everything to avoid it. I took rue infusions and I inserted a hanger in me. But in the end I had to come to terms with the idea that, when that child was born, I would have to be a mother.(Rea, pg. 234).
Like Mariela and her mother, 21.4% of women in Mexico have children before the age of 18, and another 21% between the ages of 18 and 19 (ENDIREH 2021). And of the women who married or married before the age of 18, 65% had children between the ages of 13 and 17. In addition, most of these young women do not have access to universal, quality sexual and reproductive health services.
"Fruto" and the collective
When I finished reading "Fruto" I understood and appreciated many things about the care I was given. I also felt embraced and accompanied in my motherhood, but most of all, I felt the urge to share what I had read and for many others to come to its pages.
The stories that Daniela Rea compiles and tells us also led me to reflect on care work and what it means, while identifying how this issue intersects with other major themes, such as child, early and forced marriages and unions and the violence experienced by girls and adolescents in the country.
Care is the mainstay of society, it can be full of love and tenderness, as we see in "Fruto", but it can also be imposed, accompanied by violence, abuse or neglect, in the face of a system that does not recognise them as a right and that leaves women with all the responsibility.
"It is not true that love can solve everything. It will never be able to, and neither will we. It is dangerous to say it, because if we don't comply, it has a personal and social cost. We, women, are singled out for that, we carry that, we keep quiet about it" (Mariela in Rea, pg. 242).
It is also necessary to understand that care is everyone's responsibility and, in particular, the responsibility is shared with the state.
The voices of these four women, together with the author's reflections, help us to understand that when we talk about care we must contemplate girls and adolescents, guarantee their integral well-being and the exercise of their autonomy - from a holistic perspective that takes into account their evolving capacities and their life projects.
For years, girls and adolescents in Mexico, and in the region, have been caregivers, and their stories have remained in the shadows and without a loudspeaker to be heard. Rea invites us to listen to them, to listen to ourselves too, to amplify these voices in order to demand opportunities that allow us to choose and live fully, and to recognise that care work is everyone's role, and that it is fundamental to talk about social justice.
In the time it has taken to read this article 139 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds