Award-winning Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho speaks softly but firmly.
She has spent years working to expose criminal cases of violence against women and children and is under constant threat by the heads of Mexican criminal organisations. However, she has none of the affected toughness or defensiveness you may expect from someone in her situation.
We talked recently when she was in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney.
Cacho’s book The Demons of Eden, published in 2005, uncovered child abuse and pornography rings which involved prominent politicians and businessmen in Cancun, Mexico.
Her latest book Slavery Inc.: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking published in English this year, describes the worldwide, underground economy of sex trafficking and its links to corrupt politicians and police as well as the booming global tourism industry.
1. How did you develop an interest in reporting on cases of abuse of women and children? Was there a particular case or situation that made you want to focus your work in these areas?
It has to do with the way I grew up in Mexico. My mother was a feminist who as a psychologist did a lot of work in small communities around Mexico City, and she used to take me and my siblings with her when she went to work. So I was aware of inequalities from a very early age.
Growing up in Mexico, a country where there is so much sexism, means you have two options, either you subject yourself to that sexism or you fight it. I chose the latter.
When I started working as a journalist at the age of 23, I went to the South East of Mexico to talk to Mayan women about the impact of poverty and tourism in their indigenous communities, but these women wanted to talk about how they were discriminated against by men, about sexual abuse of their children, poor access to schools, lack of drinking water and electricity. Talking to them led my investigations in that direction.
2. Many Australians may think that human trafficking is something that doesn’t really affect Australian society. What is your opinion on this?
No country is free from the problem of human trafficking. According to data from the United Nations we have 30 million people in the world under slavery conditions. This means slavery is today even bigger than African slavery when it was legal.
Australia is a wealthy country with a good standard of living. It is easy for Australians to forget that not far from here, in South East Asia there is a big problem of sexual trafficking and forced labour. The Australian government needs to acknowledge that this kind of crime is the result of a world financial crisis as well a world crisis of gender inequality and it needs to get involved in tackling slave labour and the exploitation of women.
3. Prostitution is legal in Australia. There are voices that state that this makes it less dangerous for women who practice this occupation as it reduces criminal activity around it. There is also the claim that women who prostitute themselves choose to do so. Are these valid points?
I think these arguments are perverse. Of course there are women and men around the world who practice prostitution in a safe environment, especially in higher class environments, but the majority of prostitutes are in a fragile financial and health position.
The industry of sex trafficking generates 150 billion dollars every year. This activity festers in a context of brutal inequality and shocking poverty. Most women who live where prostitution is legal work as prostitutes in a context of slavery, abuse and gender violence. A prostitute may not be in the hands of a trafficker but under the control of a partner who forces her into prostitution and who benefits from her work.
People want to believe prostitution is a choice but when you analyse the situation at depth a great percentage of prostitutes are victims of their circumstances.
4. Is the early sexualisation of young girls linked to the idea that prostitution is not so bad?
It is becoming more and more normal to sexualise young girls.
The closest example to Australia is South East Asia. In Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines tourists from USA, Australia, and Europe look for young boys and girls for sex. It has become more common than it used to be. We’re talking about men having sex with 13, 14 and 15 year olds. So a 15 year old girl can be considered sexually experienced.
There is also a spreading phenomenon in Australia and UK of very young people accessing pornography via the internet. This contributes to normalising, not sexuality, which is healthy, but forced sex, recorded sex. Parents don’t seem to understand the whole extent of this.
There is a global tendency in pornography to use younger and younger women, in Australia, Spain USA and UK. Trying to get them to be part of the sex industry, as if it was a normal business like any other.
5. Do TV, cinema, even music and literature play a role in this normalisation of violence against women or are we being prudish by implying so?
There’s a history of associating morals with religion. Being a moralist is considered by many as being old-fashioned and conservative. However, morality is linked to ethics, to individual and collective freedoms. We need to reclaim the word moral and separate it from its religious nuance.
In relation to commercial sex, we’re not talking about sex and eroticism. We are dealing with the fact that human beings are being treated as things, bought, coerced, etcetera, in order to be exploited. We need to talk about economics and about gender inequality.
6. On the subject of words and how we interpret them, the word feminism seems to be misinterpreted a lot, particularly in social media. There is even the use of the term ‘feminazi’ to insult women who identify with feminist ideas.
Some people are very afraid of feminism because they don’t understand what it is, even though it is a recognised philosophical school of thought.
It is hard because we live in a patriarchal society and in countries like Mexico the conservative government is going backwards in relation to women’s rights. These governments want to colonise the bodies, the wills, and the dignity of women. Conservative politicians tend to be the ones who promote laws to keep commercial sex in existence. They don’t want women to have any control over their reproduction and at the same time they want women to be sexual objects for sale. We have a duty to point out who these first-line politicians are.
For example, the book Las Muertas del Estado (The Dead Women of the State) by Humberto Padgett, provides data on the rates of women murdered in the State of Mexico from 1990 to 2011. During the time that current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto was governor of the state of Mexico, that state registered the highest rate of killings of women in the whole country. Peña Nieto’s negative attitudes towards women influence his national policies.
7. Have you ever considered going into politics?
No. I’m not interested at all.
8. There has recently been controversy in Australia regarding a couple who hired a surrogate mother in Thailand to have their baby. What is your opinion on surrogacy in the context of seeing humans as objects that can be part of a transaction?
In poorer countries like Mexico, we have seen how some of these surrogacy businesses operate by approaching women who are in very vulnerable situations where they are not making their decision to be surrogates with total freedom. This can be considered human trafficking. I’m not against surrogacy but the context in which it happens is important and it is also important to have this kind of ethical discussion about it.
9. TV series Breaking Bad, although set in the USA, dealt with the drug-related violence of Mexican cartels. Do you think it glamourised the problem of drugs and violence in Mexico?
I don’t think so. I think it reflected well the truth of that world. Perhaps it portrayed Mexican dealers as too stupid when in reality they are also bankers and politicians, like in the USA.
Breaking Bad was a good show because it touched on issues that are often ignored in the USA. If we compared it with a house, the USA would be one full of rats and cockroaches where the owners spend their time looking out of their windows.
10. You work as a journalist, write books, speak at conferences… Where do you get all the necessary energy?
I enjoy it tremendously. I find the work of the organisations I’m involved with inspirational. I like to interview people and it makes me happy to see the impact that my books have, especially in my country. All this energises me.
11. There are lots of articles and books about the search for happiness. Is your search for social justice a way to try to achieve that happiness?
As a woman and citizen of the world, when I defend other people’s rights I’m defending my right to a dignified life. If we defined happiness as the result of social and personal wellbeing, including health, equality and safety, then I think it is incredibly important to try to achieve this.
However, happiness outside a political context seems empty to me. I think long-lasting happiness is that by which we connect to others and help to improve our surroundings. My advocacy work has to do with public happiness.
(The Lydia Cacho Foundation, based in Madrid, offers financial and legal assistance to protect persons and organisations that are endangered for exposing corruption and impunity.)
*Elena Terol Sabino is a bilingual Spanish-English writer of prose and theatre, living in Australia. She blogs at othersidesun.blogspot.com.au.
You can follow her on Twitter: @eterolsabino