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Despite women-only cars, Mexico City's metro still has a gender violence crisis

A woman in the window of a women-only metro car in Mexico City on October 2023.
Sara Messinger
A woman in the window of a women-only metro car in Mexico City on October 2023.

Mexico has a serious problem of gender violence. There is an average of 10 femicides, homicides committed on females and feminine people, a day and more than 40% of Mexican women have suffered a situation of violence before the age of 15, either psychologically, sexually or physically, according to official statistics.

The government has taken some measures to address the problem, but rights advocates say they have fallen short and major reform is needed to ensure women's safety.

In the public metro system of Mexico City, nine out of 10 women say they have been a victim of sexual harassment even though, in 2002, the city government implemented “Let's Travel Safely." The program allocates three of the nine subway cars for only women and children up to 12 years old.

A mother and daughter rest in the women-only section of Mexico City's metro in October 2023. Police monitor the section on the platform to make sure that no men cross the barrier.
Sara Messinger /
A mother and daughter rest in the women-only section of Mexico City's metro in October 2023. Police monitor the section on the platform to make sure that no men cross the barrier.
A young girl travels in the metro's women-only section in December 2023.
Sara Messinger /
A young girl travels in the metro's women-only section in December 2023.
A woman places her hand on the metro car sliding door in December 2023.
Sara Messinger /
A woman places her hand on the metro car sliding door in December 2023.

The program's success has been very limited: One 2021 study found harassment toward women only dropped by 2.9%. Sexual harassment continues to pose a serious threat to riders, with an average of 300 cases reported per year in the metro. But even then, the numbers are inaccurate, since 80% of metro riders do not know how to report sexual harassment in public transportation, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. The lack of knowledge about the reporting process casts a shadow on the full scope of the issue.

In the micro-universe that is the Mexico City Metro, upwards of 6 million people, 53% of whom are women, travel daily while violence echoes. At the root of the problem — impunity. Mexico is a country where an estimated 99% of crimes go unpunished.

In the last 20 years, amid the violence, the women's movement has made progress toward equality throughout the country. This June, there is hope that solving gender-based violence will be a priority for the next president, who for the first time in the country's history will be a woman.

A scene of the inside a women-only metro car in December 2023.
Sara Mesinger /
A scene of the inside a women-only metro car in December 2023.
The women-only metro car on the weekend in December 2023.
Sara Messinger /
The women-only metro car on the weekend in December 2023.
A quiet moment of a young girl’s doll in the women-only section of the metro in November 2023.
Sara Messinger /
A quiet moment of a young girl’s doll in the women-only section of the metro in November 2023.

In a race between Claudia Sheinbaum, an environmental scientist and a former mayor of Mexico City, and Xóchitl Gálvez, an Indigenous, pro-business tech entrepreneur, Sheinbaum was overwhelmingly elected Mexico's first female president. Many women are hopeful that she will add momentum to the women's rights movement.

Still, there is a prevailing fear within the feminist movement in Mexico that both candidates' proposals, like the city’s women-only metro cars, may only cover up the cancer and not truly diminish the threat against women in Mexico.

A look outside through the window of the women-only metro car in December 2023.
Sara Messinger /
A look outside through the window of the women-only metro car in December 2023.
A mother and daughter travel on the city's metro's women-only section with flowers from Mercado Jamaica for Día de los Muertos in October 2023.
Sara Messinger /
A mother and daughter travel on the city's metro's women-only section with flowers from Mercado Jamaica for Día de los Muertos in October 2023.
At rush hour, shown here in December 2023, the metro can become dangerously packed with travelers.
Sara Messinger /
At rush hour, shown here in December 2023, the metro can become dangerously packed with travelers.

Ana María Islas is a reporter based in Mexico City. Her reporting focuses on women’s rights and social movements all over the Americas.

Sara Messinger is a documentary photographer based in New York City. See more of Sara's work on her website or follow her on Instagram: @sara.messinger.

Grace Widyatmadja photo edited.

Zach Thompson and Alex Leff copy edited this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sara Messinger
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ana María Islas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]