by Juliana Birnbaum Fox
Addressing a crowd that filled the San Francisco Women’s Building on the evening of March 28, Lydia Cacho-Riveiro spoke passionately about her internationally recognized work as a leading defender of women and children in Mexico.
An investigative journalist and a specialist on gender-based violence, Cacho faces daily threats and danger in order to shelter women from abuse and challenge powerful government and business leaders who profit from child prostitution and pornography.
In recognition of her efforts, Amnesty International has chosen her for the 2007 Ginetta Sagan Human Rights Award, a $10,000 grant honoring a woman who protects the dignity, liberties and lives of women and children in crisis.
“Human rights work, especially when it challenges powerful individuals and institutions, remains extremely dangerous,” said Julianne Cartwright Traylor, co-chair of the award committee.
The Ginetta Sagan Award aims to recognize, honor and assist women who, often at great personal risk, commit themselves to protect and advance the rights of others.
The San Francisco speech was part of a nationwide speaking tour that Cacho has begun to publicize issues of child trafficking and sexual exploitation in Mexico. The U.S. Department of State cites Mexico as a source, transit, and destination country for trafficked persons for sexual exploitation and labor. A number of these victims are children who, exploited by organized crime, are forced into sex tourism and pornography. The Mexican government estimate of child victims is as high as 20,000, part of 1.2 million children trafficked worldwide.
Cacho founded and directs the Centro Integral de Atención a las Mujeres (CIAM) in Cancún, a crisis center and shelter for victims of sex crimes, gender-based violence, and trafficking. CIAM provides free services to anyone seeking assistance and protection. Since many women and girls who seek shelter are fleeing from violent criminals, protecting them endangers Cacho’s own life.
In 1999, she was raped at a bus station in an attempt to intimidate her and stop her work.
“When a man rapes a woman, he does it to invade her body and her soul,” Cacho said at the San Francisco event, recounting the advice her mother gave her that changed her life. “He may have invaded your body, but don’t let him invade your soul.” Instead of allowing the crime to silence her, Cacho became even more motivated in her efforts to protect women and children from violence.
Cacho’s 2004 book, Los Demonios del Eden: el poder detras de la pornografia infantile (The Demons of Eden: the power behind child pornography) prompted repeated threats against her life from powerful interests involved in the industry.
On December 16, 2005, she was arrested, repeatedly threatened, and denied access to her lawyer and medicine. She spent the night in prison and was then released on bail of US $9,900.
In response, Cacho filed a successful countersuit for corruption and for violation of her human rights, becoming the first woman in Mexico who has ever filed a federal suit against a Governor, a District Attorney, and a judge for corruption and attempted rape in prison. Furthermore, in May 2007, she will be the first woman in Mexican history to take a woman’s rights case to the Mexican Supreme Court.
“To expose the criminals who destroy the lives of women and children is not enough; it is imperative to challenge the powers that be in order to stop impunity and corruption in Mexico. We do not ask for revenge, but rather for accountability for the criminals and the politicians that manipulate the justice system for money, thus sacrificing human rights and human lives,” according to Cacho.
In addition to advocacy work and direct service for victims, Cacho believes that education is vital to healing and building a more peaceful society. She was part of the establishment of an innovative project called Escuelas para la Paz (Schools for Peace), a series of schools throughout Mexico dedicated to promoting non-violent conflict resolution methods to help stop the cycle of violence in society.
“Ginetta Sagan’s spirit is walking on my side with this award,” Cacho stated, referring to the woman whose lifetime of work freeing political prisoners inspired the Amnesty International prize. “Her presence strengthens me to stay near the victims and to keep telling them, ‘your life matters to us; recovering your safety and your happiness matters to us.’”