Since it was her first time in the Big Apple, she made sure to check out Times Square, the MoMa, Central Park, and other landmarks. Her visit wasn’t for pleasure, though. Natalia Santos, of Mexico City, was invited to New York to speak about empowering women with psychosocial disabilities at various events related to the 59th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Sightseeing was just a perk.
Only 27, Natalia is the director of the women’s initiative at Colectivo Chuhcan, a peer support network run by and for people with psychological disabilities. The organization’s ultimate goal is to see people with psychological disabilities become independent and integrated in their communities.
On Thursday, March 12, Natalia met with Baroness Northover, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development. She is in charge of the U.K.’s Department for International Development in fields that include violence against women and girls. On the following day, Natalia spoke to dozens of audience members from universities in as far away as Australia, and representatives from organizations like UNICEF and Human Rights Watch. She had been invited to be a panelist at a civil society forum related to gender-based violence and women with disabilities. At both events, Natalia spoke of the forced sterilizations, abortions, and the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated against women with psychological disabilities in Mexico.
When Natalia was 18, a doctor told her she had schizophrenia. She learned that women with psychological disabilities are quickly written off. Natalia found that Mexico’s medical community proceeds as if women with such disabilities cannot speak for themselves. Before regaining her agency, Natalia signed a form allowing her mother to speak and act on her behalf. (Unlike many others, Natalia’s family is very supportive of her and her autonomy.) Things have changed greatly since those days. Like she told Baroness Northover, “Now we recognize each other as people with human rights, not just objects of charity.”
Meeting Raul Montoya, the executive director of Colectivo Chuhcan, and later Priscila Rodriguez, director of the Women’s Rights Initiative of the Americas at Disability Rights International, were turning points in Natalia’s life, she says from her hotel’s rooftop bar overlooking Manhattan. Natalia, wearing more layers than she would this time of year in Mexico City, is soft-spoken but delivers her messages with conviction. At Colectivo Chuhcan, Natalia learned the value of peer support. “We tend to isolate ourselves from society,” she says. Hearing the stories of other people with psychological disabilities erodes feelings of isolation. Disability Rights International, based in Washington, D.C., helped the collective develop through trainings in topics like technology use and understanding disabilities. As her life changed, Natalia decided she wanted to advocate for women like her, to ultimately help them understand their rights and live as integral parts of their communities—far away from the life of sometimes-forced institutionalization.
Natalia went to New York with Priscila Rodriguez, of Disability Rights International. Priscila, also 27, studied international law and later human rights. She did not expect to find herself working in the field of disability rights, which she says is “quite invisible.” Disabilities fell under the medical realm, Priscila recalls, not human rights. Now working in the field for four years, Priscila is helping to change how society understands disabilities and people with disabilities. “If they remove the barriers, make the adjustments, the person [with a disability] can function completely within society.” Both Natalia and Priscila have appeared on various international news outlets, like Al-Jazeera, England’s Channel 4, and Telemundo, to speak about their work and help change perceptions.
The two women contributed to the unprecedented report Twice Violated: Abuse and Denial of Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women with Psychosocial Disabilities in Mexico. The report’s team of investigators, including Natalia and other women with psychosocial disabilities, found that 42% of the women with psychosocial disabilities who were interviewed had been sterilized by force or coercion, and that 43% had been victims of abuse, including rape, while visiting gynecologists. As part of Colectivo Chuhcan, Natalia monitors various psychiatric institutions in Mexico. She visits centers housing women. “It has been very sad to see the conditions in which they live.”
Natalia says she has found new inspiration in the women with disabilities she met from across the globe at the U.N. events she attended. Their stories, leadership capacity, clear goals, and willingness to share good practices have given Natalia momentum. She met a woman from Canada who uses movies to sensitize and educate viewers about people with psychosocial disabilities. Natalia wants to do the same back home. Besides that, her current goals are finding funding for a permanent home for her organization, and establishing other collectives across Mexico. She knows of people outside of Mexico’s capital who want to start collectives but can’t because the resources simply aren’t there.
Natalia is not shy about discussing her disability. She knows it is only one facet of her complex identity. She is an art lover and radio personality. Until recently, Natalia hosted a radio program about people with disabilities called “Diverse Talents, Same Rights.” Guests were from across the Americas. With Colectivo Chuhcan, Natalia is changing how the medical community views people like her. “Before, doctors would look down at us, see us as patients,” she says. “Now I am a director at a civil society organization. They ask, ‘How is this possible?’”
Because of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Natalia says she knows that women like her have the right to work, opine on their treatment, decide how to spend their money, elect to get married, and choose to have children. Mexico ratified the convention in 2008. Now it’s time to get the country to apply the convention’s articles. Natalia says it’s “very sad” that Mexico has yet to ensure the convention’s application. The Australian delegation gave her some ideas for passing laws to support people with psychological disabilities, like making forced sterilizations illegal. She is ready to share those ideas with her collective’s members so that, through education and activism, the group can get Mexico on the right path.
Women with disabilities are doubly vulnerable, so the change won’t come easy. But Natalia is up to the task. “Before they saw us as patients, sick people,” she says. “Not anymore.”
“Women with psychological disabilities have been marginalized and silenced,” says Priscila Rodriguez. “It’s very important that those people reclaim their voices.” After a week and a half of speaking to global leaders about empowering women with psychosocial disabilities, it is clear that Natalia has reclaimed her voice.