Human Rights, United Kingdom, Visual Arts

Portraits: Abduction, rape and murder in Ciudad Juarez

An ambitious and ongoing artistic work is seeking to highlight the brutal murders and rapes of more than 400 women over a decade in the US border town of Ciudad Juarez in the region of Chihuahua in Mexico.

The “400 Women” project has teamed up with Amnesty International to showcase its first public exhibition. Led by Tamsyn Challenger, this project involves 200 internationally renowned artists including the likes of Tracy Emin, Paula Rego, Swoon, Maggi Hambling and Humphrey Ocean. Each artist has painted one of the murdered, abused or missing women. The portraits of these women ensure that the atrocities committed and the suffering that ensued will not be forgotten but forever committed to history.

Although the exhibition is focused on the women from Ciudad Juarez it also endeavours to raise awareness of gender-based violence occurring all over the world. Amnesty International illustrates the seriousness of this issue by pointing to the fact that one woman in every three will be raped, beaten, sexually coerced, trafficked or otherwise abused in her lifetime.

Wander through the exhibition and behind every painted face is a foreboding tale that ends with death or disappearance. The story of the abduction, rape and murder of Ciudad Juarez’s women was first documented more than 17 years ago, yet it is still an ongoing phenomenon with local human rights groups reporting 300 murders of women between the months of January and October alone.

Certain patterns have emerged and the victims are usually workers from the maquiladoras (assembly plants) set up by multi-national companies that control the economy of the city, as well as waitresses, students and workers in the informal economy. In essence they are young vulnerable women from poor backgrounds who frequently have to travel alone on long bus journeys from the poor suburban areas to their place of work or study. These trends signify that the victims are being targeted as they have little power or status in an already very male dominated Chihuahua society.

The perpetuation of such violence is revealing of the authorities attitude towards the issue. They have not recognised the crimes as a holistic problem that they need to tackle, but treated them as individual incidents. Consequently both the state and federal authorities have failed to devise effective policies to ensure that the crimes are prevented, investigated and punished. The justice system is failing the women of Chihuahua and they are being left as vulnerable and unprotected as ever.

400 Women has been open since the 12th of November and it runs until Sunday the 28th of November. The exhibition is being held at Shoreditch Town Hall Basement, 380 Old Street London and admission is free. For further information visit their website at

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