Systems Thinking for Policymaking: The Case of Indigenous Women’s Rights in Mexico

On January 1, 1994, thousands of indigenous men and women in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, who identified themselves as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), declared war on the Mexican government. The Zapatistas considered themselves the product of 500 years of struggle against Spanish colonization, North American imperialism, and Mexican authoritarianism. Their motto was: “Today, we say enough.” It was no accident that the uprising took place the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, either. The Zapatistas were rebelling against the free market model enshrined in NAFTA and the national policies that promoted economic liberalization for Mexico, including the privatization of community-owned lands.[1]

Indigenous communities tend to live in the most marginalized and remote regions of Mexico. They are known for their high levels of poverty and lack of access to public services, such as health care and education. In 2012, the National Council for Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) estimated that 78.6 percent of people who speak an indigenous language live in poverty compared to 43 percent of people who do not speak an indigenous language.[2] The Zapatista struggle was a direct result of these conditions, bringing worldwide attention to the problems of Mexico’s indigenous population. Their uprising was part of a historic struggle for land rights, human rights, political autonomy, cultural recognition, and the rights to self-determination, autonomy, and self-governance.[3]

Indigenous peoples in Mexico have historically fought to preserve their own traditional forms of organization and local governance. Since the uprising of 1994, the Mexican government has made political concessions, starting with the San Andrés Accords of 1996, which granted indigenous peoples a political voice in local governments.[4] The greatest concession, however, came on August 14, 2001, when the Mexican government reformed Article 2 of the Constitution of Mexico, recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, autonomy, and self-governance. Today, indigenous communities in Mexico are entitled to apply their own legal systems and to elect their authorities in accordance with their communitarian rules, practices, and traditions.[5]

Nevertheless, not all the members of indigenous communities benefited equally from the application of communitarian laws and practices. In fact, indigenous women have been discriminated against pursuant to communitarian laws and practices of the indigenous communities. For instance, in nearly a quarter of municipalities in Oaxaca with communitarian legal systems, women were not permitted to participate in local assemblies, nor were they allowed to be elected as municipal authorities. By 2008, only three women had been elected as municipal presidents in these municipalities.[6] The Mexican government failed to understand the distinct forms of discrimination and disadvantage that can occur as a consequence of the intersections of indigenous women’s identities such as their gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and education level. The constitutional reform that recognized indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, autonomy, and self-governance had unintended consequences, including human rights violations against indigenous women, which will be examined in the following paragraphs applying Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera’s Systems Thinking theory.

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Reference list: Paulina  Maymon. 2017. Retrieved from


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