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Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves as he arrives to the Senate in Mexico City, Mexico October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

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By Stefanie Eschenbacher

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday urged Mexican lawmakers to improve women's rights, delivering a sharp rebuke to a key trading partner that has struggled to curb years of femicide, drug violence and rights abuses.

In a visit to the Mexican capital amid tense talks in the United States to save the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trudeau met human rights organizations that briefed him on the violence and challenges faced by many of the country's women.

In an address at the Mexican Senate, Trudeau told lawmakers that the stories he had heard from the rights groups about the treatment of women were "unacceptable," and pressed for gender imbalances to be addressed in an updated NAFTA.

"I challenge you to use your position and power to strongly push for the rights of women and girls in Mexico," Trudeau said. "We must move the needle forward on gender inequality."

Trudeau's comments serve as a reprimand of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's failure to tackle years of drug crime. Violence against women in Mexico has risen dramatically since the previous administration declared war on organised drug trafficking about a decade ago.

"Mexico and Canada share values, and that certainly includes gender equality and enhancing women's rights," Pena Nieto's office said in a statement after a request for comment on Trudeau's remarks.

The National Citizen Observatory of Femicide (OCNF), which uses government statistics, reported that 2,735 women were murdered in Mexico last year, up sharply from 2,383 the year before.

UN Women, a branch of the United Nations, says on its website that Mexico has taken steps in recent years to improve gender equality, but has struggled to fully implement and enforce its own regulations.

Trudeau and his wife arrived in Mexico City on Thursday and attended roundtable discussions with non-governmental organizations to discuss violence against women, human rights, free speech as well as the risks faced by journalists and activists.

Although Trudeau did not give details on how an updated NAFTA could protect women's rights, he said that Canada supports broader inclusion of women in the world economy.

"We know that the success of any society depends on the full participation of women across social, economic and political life," he added.

(Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; editing by Gabriel Stargardter and G Crosse)

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