Migrant women and girls from the Northern Triangle and their journey through Mexico: A downward spiral of hazards

By Iliana Yazmín Flores Pérez

Reviewed by Lilou Berenguier

This piece was originally published here by the Migration & Security Research Team, 2020-2021, Sciences Po

Abstract and keywords

This paper provides an overview of the context faced by women and girls in each specific Northern Triangle of Central America country (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). More specifically, it analyses the reasons behind women and girls’ decisions to leave their countries of origin and the multiple dangers they face during their migratory route through Mexico. It considers the effects of the tightening of U.S. migration policies and the prolongation of the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico,” that took place under the Trump administration. 

The paper examines the role of gender in determining the needs of migrant women and girls, but also the hazards they face. Suggesting that the principle of non-refoulement must be considered and respected in all cases in order to protect all migrants, particularly considering the petitions made by migrant women and girls, who are exposed to greater risks. And highlighting the need of special trainings with gender perspective for Mexican migration authorities and police officers, as well as a commitment to gender mainstreaming. Moreover, it considers the female migration experience as a process where women and girls –contrary to what classical views dictate– are agentic and not passive/non-agentic victims, and thus their experiences and voices should be consulted and examined when elaborating policies to better protect them.  

Keywords: Northern Triangle of Central America, feminization of migration, migrant women and girls, violence, migratory route, Mexico, MPP.


The Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), formed by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, is considered to be one of the most violent regions in the world. The severity of the situation is observed in the rates of homicides, impunity, corruption, domestic, sexual and gang violence, among others, that affect a wide part of the population, while forcing many to flee on the lookout for better living conditions. Challenges and violence usually remain along the passage towards the United States.

The migration trend from the NTCA to the U.S. increased during the 70’s and 80’s, resulting from the political-military conflicts in the region. However, the migratory phenomenon became relevant only until the 90’s due to the NTCA countries’ economic and political crisis, propelling violence, inequalities and poverty in the region. Recently, under the Trump administration, the United States has toughened its migration policies, which translated in a discourse that criminalized migrants, but also in barriers to asylum seekers. It occurred alongside the signature of an agreement with the Mexican government, which deployed the newly created Mexican National Guard in the Northern and Southern frontiers to halt irregular migration and accepted the prolongation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, also known as the “Remain in Mexico”). The aftermath is reflected in greater hazards for people on the move, who are not only exposed to dangerous scenarios in their countries of origin, but also on their migratory route. 

In recent years there has been a feminization in the migration from the NTCA northward. Reflected in the share of migrant women apprehended in Mexico – in 2012 women apprehensions constituted 13% of the adult total, by 2017 they made up 25% of the total – and in the U.S. – in 2012, female apprehensions represented 14%, while in 2017 they reached 27%, with girls under age 18 as the greater share of the apprehended child population, at 32%. Hence, special attention must be paid to female migration, as push factors are in many situations gender determined, while exposure to dangers increases and accounts for multiple layers of risks – i.e., risk of human trafficking, sexual violence, abuse, greater discrimination, etc. – Women and girls require specific protection, including gender sensitive asylum procedures.  

The Northern Triangle: main push factors for women and girls

Although the contexts of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have some common factors: high rates of assaults and sexual abuse, gender-based violence (GBV) – including several forms of domestic violence, often unheard by the police as many of the women’s abusive partners are related or part of criminal gangs – corruption, local control taken by organized criminal groups, etc., each of them presents specificities. Propelled by these particularities, the feminization of migration from the NTCA occurs more than ever before, with women and girls as agentic beings who decide to migrate and look for better conditions. Together with the rise in the tertiary sector of economic activities, as well as an expansion of export industries, where women play a major role, migrating to countries as the U.S. represents a strategy to improve their family and own economic and social conditions through work. 

Honduras’s context is defined by one of the highest rates of homicides in the world, as well as severe rates of criminality, poverty and human rights violations. Women and girls have to face widespread and systemic violence, a situation which has not improved since what was reported in the last country visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in 2015. They are often victims of GBV: in 2014, alone 85% of sexual violence cases investigated in Honduras were against girls aged 19 or younger. Despite the absence of official statistics, press media releases, as well as reports from local and international NGOs confirm that transgender women are continuously threatened. Cattrachas, a Honduran feminist lesbian network, has reported that from 2009 to March 2020, there has been an increase in the number of violent deaths of transgender people, being the majority of them transgender women. This is the result of the sexual and GVB used by local gangs, such as de Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (the 18th Street), which hold a machista culture and patriarchal structures. Hence, women and girls are forced to flee due to a lack of opportunities, poverty and a generalized sense of insecurity. 

In El Salvador, the civil war (1980-1992), followed by criminal violence and widespread poverty have struck the country. Gangs –mainly MS-13 and the two factions of the 18th Street– exert violence over 94% of the country’s municipalities, recruiting and taking advantage of marginalized Salvadorans. As Molli O’Toole notes, gangs are known for “explicitly targeting girls for sexual violence or coerce relationships”. Hence, women and girls are seen as sexual objects which relates to them becoming victims of gender-based crimes –including domestic violence. Between 2016 and 2018, the femicides and homicides of women for gender-based violence accounted 932. During the first semester of 2020, 94% of the medical consultations due to sexual violence were for women, being 8 out of 10 of them girls and female teenagers.

On the other hand, since 2006, Guatemala achieved some progress on its rates of corruption, violence, murders and homicides, possible due to the actions undertaken by the UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The government, however decided not to renew this mandate after fraud accusations to former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales. This resulted in a backlash against security and justice in the country. The situation in Guatemala stems from the civil war (1960-1996), extortion, gang-related violence and high levels of impunity. GBV is alarmingly high: in 2017 more than 100 cases were reported each day, while in the first nine months of 2018, 7,689 reports were received by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, being 90% of them committed against women and girls. Moreover, according to data from the National Institute of Forensic Science, from January 1st to November 19th, 2020, 433 violent deaths of women have been registered, while impunity in cases of GBV prevails. 

The Mexican migratory route: securitization or a path to abuses for women and girls?

Rising numbers of migrants aiming to enter the U.S. since 2011, combined with the enactment of migration policies – such as the MPP – by the U.S. that allow U.S. officers to return asylum seekers to Mexico’s territory, have made Mexico a country of destination where migrants often face dangerous conditions.

Although the Mexican State has demonstrated its commitment to the promotion of migrants’ human rights at the international level, important gaps persist at the local level regarding the legal protection and safety of migrants. The securitization of migration policies in Mexico can be traced back to the 1980s, with the imposition of stricter visa requirements for Central Americans who entered the country after fleeing civil wars in their states. Since then, measures as such have not represented security, but major risks for migrants in the Mexican migratory route.

The dangers faced by women and girls from the NTCA in their passage through Mexico has also increased with the feminization of migration from this region. It has been documented that women and girls are more exposed to risks than men on their journey through Mexico. International legal instruments are shaped by and for the male migration experience, this failing to take into account the specificities of women’s migration experience. Claims made by women tend to go unheard: “by portraying as universal that which is in fact a male paradigm […] women refugees face rejection of their claims because their experiences of persecution go unrecognized”. On top of that, local legislations vary when considering the nexus between gender and the recognition of the refugee condition. For example, in the U.S., gender refugee claims are hardly recognized, as the jurisprudence in this country does not have applicable rules on the subject, while, on the other hand, since 2011 Mexico acknowledges gender as a ground to ask for refugee protection.

Once in Mexico, migrant women are still more exposed to dangers, specifically at risk of sexual violence. According to a report from MSF, 31% of the women surveyed were sexually assaulted along their migratory journey in Mexico, which plays severe consequences on their psychological well-being. The threat of sexual violence is an integral part of women’s migration experience, so much that many of them take the contraceptive pills before their journey to prevent unwanted pregnancies resulting from rape. Sexual violence is normalized and women are subject to it in exchange for “payment” or protection and guidance. The situation has not changed much since 2008, when the Special Rapporteur in its visit to Mexico reported that:

Women and girls form the majority of cases of harassment or abuse in detention, clandestine domestic workers (sometimes “servants”), prostitutes, sexual abuse and physical and sexual assault in smuggling operations. They are also the majority of victims of trafficking (the total estimated at 16,000 to 22,000 victims annually, including children) and there are unusually high rates of homicides of women, especially in such border towns as Ciudad Juárez.

Data highlights the need for women and girls to receive special psychological attention: “during migration 59% of the women involved in the MSF study, reported symptoms of depression and 48.3% reported symptoms of anxiety”. This type of medical assistance, however, is rarely offered, along with specific care/treatment for sexual violence. Malpractices have also been reported in the migratory facilities where women and girls are detained:

There were not enough beds, so we slept on the floor. There was no blanket. I used my sweater to sleep. They didn’t give me any medical service. The guards would not listen to me […]. The women’s section […] held far more people than could fit in the dormitories; women sat with infants on their laps on thin mattresses that filled the corridors […]. Girls are routinely held with adult women in all immigration detention centers, in violation of the standard that children be separated from unrelated adults in detention.

Negligence is also persistent in the procedures of the National Migration Institute (INM), as well as those of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), with a general lack of appropriate assessments on the risks women and girls face in their migratory route, but also on the ones they would face if returned to their countries. Thus, violations to the principle of non-refoulement are committed on the one hand, by the U.S. when returning asylum-seekers to Mexico, where conditions representing a threat to their lives persist; and on the other, by Mexico and its INM, that fails to inform people about their right to seek asylum and repeatedly sends them back to their countries of origin. Ignoring that in doing so they put the life of migrants at stake and deny basic protections. The situation is especially more difficult for women and girls due to the increased risks they tend to face. 

What is next? Proposals and recommendations

The situation in the NTCA is one of extreme levels of violence, where women and girls face particular risks that force them to flee for better and safer conditions. With the enactment of stricter migration policies by the U.S., many of them are compelled to stay in Mexico while their asylum request is processed, facing even more threats as the state that used to be a country of transit cannot provide the proper conditions to welcome all the migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the U.S. To fully respect and protect the human rights of women and girls on the move, the following aspects should be considered:

  • Gender mainstreaming must be integrated at all levels of migration policies, programs and projects as a strategy to enhance gender equality and combat discrimination.   
  • Women and girls –contrary to what classical views dictate– must be considered as agentic and not as non-agentic victims. Their experiences and voices must be consulted when elaborating policies to better protect them.  
  • The principle of non-refoulement must be respected in all cases by both Mexico and the U.S., paying particular attention to the petitions made by women and girls and the fact that they are more exposed to greater hazards.
  • Migrant women and girls’ claims for protection should not go unheard. Special mechanisms should be implemented for this group, to offer them better protections and if needed transfer them to safer areas. 
  • U.S. and Mexican jurisprudences should follow the UNHCR’s interpretation of refugee law, that recognizes gender violence (including domestic violence), when assessing refugee claims. 
  • Migrants must be informed of all their rights and specifically of their right to seek asylum. Mexican migratory authorities and police officers should receive special trainings with gender perspective to offer effective protection and assistance, particularly to women and girls. Negligence committed by migration authorities and police agents must be halted and penalized.  
  • The funding and staffing of national institutions as the INM and the COMAR should increase to offer adequate services that cover the needs of all migrants.
  • Mexico should strengthen its Refugee Status Determination to ensure that all people seeking protection are recognized under the condition of refugee. 
  • Countries from the NTCA should increase their cooperation with migration authorities and institutions in Mexico and the U.S., with the main goal of protecting the rights and security of people on the move. 

About the author

Iliana was born and raised in Mexico City. Currently she is a student of the Master in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences Po. For her, migration and security implies guaranteeing the rights of people on the move without regards to the legal status in which they fall. It entails achieving safe migration – often hindered by a rhetoric of national security and sovereignty– by bridging the gaps between international legal obligations and its actual implementation through suitable public policies.


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