Girls, Sexual Violence, and Border Politics

Immigration is definitely the theme of my week, and so I thought I would continue the theme with a blog post about a subject that isn’t really written about enough: sexual violence and girls crossing the US/Mexico border. Since this issue is so close to home for those of us who reside in Arizona, it is imperative that we are aware of what’s going on, literally, in our “own backyard.”

Recently, there has been a lot of scholarly work done on sexual violence and woman migrants crossing the US/Mexican border, and there also has been work done on the alarming number of female homicides in Cuidad Juarez. There is a dearth of scholarly research on girls who have crossed the US/Mexican border and have experienced sexual violence. This blog is going to first briefly discuss the militarization of the border and, as a consequence, the increasing sexual violence toward women (and girls), then I will share Yolanda Mendez Torres’ story (one of sexual violence at the borderlands), and I will conclude with talking about the implications of the overwhelming silence surrounding sexual abuse and undocumented girls.

Gendered Violence: Sexual Violence at the Border 

The increasing militarization of the border has exacerbated structural violence (poverty, racism, nativism, misogyny) that is endemic to the region between Arizona and Mexico. This has led to a zone of lawlessness, or a state of exception, at the border, and this has put millions of individuals in vulnerable situations. This vulnerability at the border has contributed to increased sexual violence against women and children that are trying to make the trek across the desert from Mexico to the US, specifically Arizona. According to some estimates, 80-90% of migrant women have suffered sexual violence while crossing Mexico’s northern border (Marrujo 2009). Further, rape has become so prevalent that, in the words of one of regional director of the UN development fund, some women consider it “the price you pay for crossing the border” (Marrujo 2009).

There is a growing number of women crossing the border, I’ve read various estimations, and it appears that almost 30% of all migrants are women. Thus there needs to be more awareness of sexual violence perpetuated at the border because the number of those who are at risk for victimization is only going to increase. Further, a number of factors, including underreporting, fear, and little to no accountability on behalf of law enforcement on either side of the border, will prevent us from ever having an accurate number of those who have been victimized. Also, since large percentages of migrants are likely to cross the border multiple times throughout their lives, the risk for exploitation for any given woman or girl migrant is likely quite high.

Why Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is defined as being physical and psychological in nature. Olivia Ruiz Marrujo has outlined 3 specific characteristics of sexual violence in regards to migrant women and girls:

1. Sexual violence refers to a physical and/or symbolic offense, which a migrant women or girl identifies as an offense to her sexuality, and by implication, her physical, psychological, and emotional constitution as a woman

2. It refers to abuses aimed at the body of a female migrant

3. Sexual violence is an aggression that transgresses norms

The literature on sexual violence offers a number of explanations for aggressive behavior toward migrant women, but I am going to go over a few of the most common explanations (We have to remember that there is not one explanation. All of these vectors intersect, interconnect, mutually reinforce and constitute each other). For ease of reading and understanding, I have mapped the explanations out:

  • Structural
    • Culture/legacy of domination and colonization that produced extreme poverty and political disenfranchisement.
      •  Domination also renders undocumented migrant women vulnerable by further “othering” them. This is due to their undocumented status, their gender, their poverty, and their national origins.
    • The militarization of the border brings with it hyper-masculinity, colonialism, and patriarchy through which women’s bodies are targeted for sexual assault and other attacks.
  • Culture/practice of violence
    • Legacy and history at the border of the generalized use of violence as a tool of domination and colonial hegemony.
  • Systematic
    • Coyotes, or migrant traffickers, have almost exclusive control over the people who have paid them, and thus they gain access to the bodies of women migrants by default.
    • INS or border patrol officers detain migrant women and commit abuses. 
      • Systematic crimes—because they are emblematic of a larger system of gendered and structural violence

Yolanda’s Story 

In the summer of 1998, 11 year old Yolanda Méndez Torres was raped for the very first time. She lived with her abuser (a 38 year old cousin on her mother’s side) and his wife in a rural coastal town in Southern Mexico. Yolanda was subject to sexual abuse daily, and rumors began circulating about her involvement with her Juan, her abuser (and mother’s cousin). In early June 2000, Yolanda’s maternal grandmother questioned Yolanda about the rumors. Eventually Yolanda’s grandmother decided to file a judicial complaint with “the Agencia del Ministerio Público in Pochutla, A 30-minute bus ride away […] So authorities can open an investigation, get a doctor to examine Yolanda for signs of rape, and interview Juan. Yolanda will be safe and can move into Juana Alonzo’s home down the road, the grandmother thinks” (Chavez et al. 2006).Within days of the complaint being filed, Juan decided to move the whole family to the city of Oaxaca. Soon after moving, Juan decided to make plans to take Yolanda to the United States.

“Within days, the trip is arranged. In addition to Yolanda and Juan, the traveling group includes a man named Emerson, a young teenager named Amber and his older brother Manuel. They are going to America to work, send money home, maybe help their mother build a new house. Nobody knows about Juan’s relationship with Yolanda. He tells Abel she is his niece. Juan promises to pay the coyote the cost for both of them when they reach the United States and he can get help from relatives”  (Chavez et al. 2006).

Once Yolanda and Juan reached Phoenix, they moved into a halfway house for recent immigrants. Juan was in thousands of dollars of debt, and they were forced into indentured servitude until it was all paid off to the coyotes. Yolanda continued to be sexually abused after her journey to the United States, and she was eventually impregnated by her abuser.

After Yolanda’s harrowing escape from her abuser (I will provide the link so you can read the full story), she went to the Mexican Consulate in Dallas, TX (where she was living at the time) for help. Fortunately the consulate provided Yolanda with the resources to press charges against her abuser, but she still remained an “undocumented immigrant, an exile in a land she never chose” (Chavez et al. 2006).  Yolanda eventually moved in with a woman from the Mexican Consulate that helped her case through the system, and the woman legally adopted her, granting her US citizenship.

Because Yolanda was granted citizenship, she had access to resources that would help her deal with the poly-victimization she experienced over the years (each abuse having a cumulative effect on her physical and mental health). She could now access resources for her mental health, and she did not have to live in a constant state of fear (of being deported). Yolanda experienced many benefits once she was granted citizenship, but her story is exceptional. Watch Yolanda recount her story (5 years later) here! That’s a picture of Yolanda and her daughter, Aidelin.

What about those girls who have experienced abuse that are not as lucky as Yolanda? Those girls who are undocumented do not have the same access to services, and many are forced to live in silence and continue to endure their abuse. The idea that many girls (and women) do not have access to resources (and justice) because of their undocumented status is extremely disturbing. It also begs the question, whose lives matter? Does citizenship status take precedence over an abuse free life? Shouldn’t this issue be about human rights?

There is one organization that is doing their part to help undocumented women and girls who are victims of sexual violence.

“The Southern Arizona Battered Immigrant Women Project (BIWP) helps to identify and develop resources and provide outreach and training to organizations that interact with immigrant women who may be victims of domestic violence or sexual violence. The project has established six task forces in Arizona’s seven southern counties: Graham, Greenlee, Cochise, Pinal, Pima, Santa Cruz and Yuma.

Undocumented immigrant women who are survivors of domestic violence face challenges beyond those experienced by other women in the US such as isolation in a foreign country, constant fear of deportation, and believing they are at the mercy of their spouse to gain legal status. In rural areas, limited programs and resources exacerbate these challenges.

The goal of the BIWP is to improve the access to culturally appropriate services for battered immigrant women, thereby ensuring their rights under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and its mission of safety and empowerment for immigrant women and children victims of sexual and domestic violence” (Center for Rural Health). You can check out more information about the organization here.

One more thing: As I was researching sexual violence on the border, I saw that this issue was being examined through the lens of an anti-immigration and “secure our borders” discourse. I believe that that is grossly misrepresenting the problem. The militarization and hyper-securing of the border is CONTRIBUTING to the increase in sexual violence. Don’t be fooled! Here is a video that is an example of what I am talking about.


Battered Immigrant Women Project. University of Arizona, 2012. 1 April 2012.

Chavez, Stella and Paul Meyer. “Yolanda’s Crossing.” Dallas News, 2006. 1 April 2012.

Marrujo, Olivia T. Ruiz. “Women, Migration, and Sexual Violence.” Human Rights Along the U.S.-Mexican Border: Gendered Violence and Insecurity. Ed. Kathleen A. Staudt, Tony Payan, Z. Anthony Kruszewski. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2009: 31-47.


One thought on “Girls, Sexual Violence, and Border Politics

  1. This is an extremely disturbing issue, that brings together so many topics that we’ve covered in class already. Young women are disproportionately affected by issues of globalization because they don’t have a voice, or a guarantee that intolerable conditions will desist as they get older in a society that still doesn’t value women as deserving equal human rights. It’s easy to see how sexual violence could be so easily overlooked (whether consciously or not) in the face of so many overarching problems facing migrants entering the U.S. Yolanda’s story is inspirational, though it’s difficult not to think of the countless others who aren’t granted the chance to be guided through the system–clearly Yolanda recognizes that and her choice to share her story is a brave and important move.

    It also reminds us of the importance of policy that creates paths to citizenship not merely in name only, because the benefits are tangible, and it clearly can mean the difference between life and death for undocumented women. However because that can take time–and becomes a manipulated political tool in election times–the importance of organizations like BIWP is undeniable. Thank you for sharing all of this!!

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