MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's "decent women" have picked a bleached-blond prostitute as a standard-bearer.
As leader of Mexico City's 15,000 prostitutes, miniskirted Claudia Colimoro can raise issues too hot for "the decent ladies": abortion, explicit sex education, AIDS prevention, rape and assault.
Ms. Colimoro was among about 30 female candidates endorsed in March by the non-partisan National Convention of Women for Democracy, whose conferees included prominent female authors, scientists and intellectuals of all political persuasions.
And while her candidacy has produced leering masculine smiles, the plight of Mexican women -- 63 percent of the voters -- is anything but funny.
Indeed, the convention represents a tiny, emerging consensus among Mexican women of all classes and political parties that their lot has got to improve through the ballot box.
"A woman's body is her own," said Ms. Colimoro, 35, a candidate for the capital's token City Council. "But this concept is only gradually being accepted in Mexico. I will not rest until it is."
In the land of macho, where some men treat women as personal property, women are raped, beaten and killed with alarming regularity, said Norma Vasquez, a member of the Network Against Violence Toward Women.
Thousands of women are beaten by husbands or lovers every year, with almost no legal recourse for the victim or safe houses where they can flee, she said.
According to Ms. Vasquez, about 10 sex crimes are reported to the authorities each day in Mexico City. This number is believed to represent only 10 percent to 20 percent of the actual cases, she said.
The Center for Rape Victim Support estimates that 80,000 women are raped each year in Mexico. The actual figure could be 10 times higher.
An opposition proposal to stiffen Mexico's sex crime law was languishing in the National Congress last year, when reports that 19 women had been raped by Federal Judicial Police galvanized the female members.
Once the butt of male legislators' jokes, the reform suddenly took a life of its own.
"It was a historic moment," recalled Guadalupe Gomez Maganda, a member of the Chamber of Deputies from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI. "The women, regardless of party, rammed it through."
The feat was considered all the more remarkable because, under the Mexican system, Congress almost never initiates legislation, deferring to the executive branch.
While rape and sexual harassment are now more harshly dealt with, the abortion issue remains a ticking bomb, with the ruling party hoping it will go away.
Dr. Juan Luis Alvarez of the Mexican Institute of Sexology said that the number of annual abortion deaths might be as high as 100,000, based on hospital data on deaths attributed to damaged reproductive organs. "The numbers are inexact because abortion is never listed as a cause of death," Dr. Alvarez said.
Except for limited exceptions -- rape, danger to the mother's health or a defective fetus -- abortion is illegal in Mexico's 31 states and the capital district.
"This situation is tragic and stupid because there is a double standard, one for the rich and one for the poor," said Ms. Colimoro. "A rich woman can get a safe abortion in Mexico City for about $1,000. The poor woman pays about $350 and sometimes loses her life."
Though officially a secular state, Mexico is still dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, whose hierarchy last year pressured the legislature in Chiapas state to hold in abeyance a more liberal abortion law it had passed.
But behind the PRI-dominated legislature's reversal was also the ambivalence of the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The Salinas administration has made modest efforts to heal the historic rift between the church and the state, while ignoring the abortion issue.
(President Salinas has never taken a public position on abortion, said a spokesman.)
Yet the Chiapas case was surprising because it underscored the mounting pressure to ease the local abortion law -- by members of the president's party acting on their own.
Deputy Gomez Maganda, who heads the PRI's women's section, says the ruling party is formulating its position on abortion. In the current campaigns for the August elections, PRI candidates are to query voters on their preference. "We will then decide what our position should be," she said.
As for the major opposition parties, the center-right National Action Party (PAN) opposes abortion, while the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has taken no position, though many members favor abortion on demand.
Among the most interesting abortion-rights supporters is Irma "The Tigress" Serrano, a minor party candidate for the national Senate from Chiapas and a mistress of President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz in the mid-1960s.
"I have nothing against men," said Ms. Serrano, who said she had made millions being a mistress to some of Mexico's most influential men. "But when you see what these botched abortions have done to women, especially in a rural state like Chiapas, you need to make changes."
According to her biography, "Knotted Underwear," Ms. Serrano had an abortion in her teens after an earlier affair with a distant relative of another Mexican president.
Neither Ms. Serrano, the ex-mistress, nor Ms. Colimoro, the prostitute, is given much chance of winning her election, given that both come from minor leftist parties.
"But I do not think the major parties can ignore their positions," said Ana Lilia Cepeda, a PRD congressional candidate and president of Women in the Fight for Democracy. "Their notoriety will underscore issues that are of supreme importance to millions of women who have hitherto been silent and ignored."