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Hope as a survival strategy for Defensoras in Honduras

We're living in an undeclared war, staring into the eyes of death daily. People who don’t know the kind of insecurity women human rights defenders confront every day can’t imagine how hope helps us to survive.

Oh, how difficult it is
to love you as I do!

It’s your love that makes the air,
my heart
and my headache.

García Lorca

In Honduras, leaving your house without knowing if you will return is a daily reality.  Even ordinary daily routines - like taking kids to school or going to the market - force us to stare into the eyes of death. Even though this is a new “normal”, our hearts still can’t fathom the levels of violence that Honduras is reaching.

Since the 2009 coup d’état, Honduras has earned the painful status of being the country with the highest homicide rate in the world. We’re living an undeclared war. Our lives are overflowing with weapons, endless acts of repression and violent crime, and fear of violence. Army troops, military police and their heavy weapons fill the streets and occupy shopping centers, banks, parks.

They overwhelm our lives.

Everyday more than a million firearms circulate among us within reach, but only 282,000 of them legally registered. Amazingly, the Bearing Weapons Act allows every citizen to possess up to five commercial firearms. Women are not safe anywhere, not even at home. Those that are speaking out and fighting against injustice live in fear of being killed, slandered or harmed in many ways. But most of all, they fear that violent acts aimed at silencing them will be directed at their families.

It is those who stand up against violence, injustice and abuses of power who face sanctions and repression, while perpetrators walk free in a context in which impunity rates are 94%. Described as a fragile state by some, and a failed state by others, Honduras’ fledging legal and political institutions have been rapidly dismantled and captured by elite interests since 2009. 

Woman in front of large banner image of 19th Century woman Gladys Lanza. Photo: JASS (all rights reserved)This is vividly illustrated by the recent high profile case of Gladys Lanza, a life-long women’s human rights activist for over 30 years. She was recently convicted of defamation for her defense of a woman who had been sexually harassed by her boss. The accused, Juan Carlos Reyes, is well-connected to the ruling party through his wife, who’s a member of Congress.  The courts sentenced Gladys to 1 year and 6 months in prison - using the case to both punish a woman human rights defender and undermine one of the most vocal women’s organizations defending women’s rights in the country. This case illustrates a common saying in Honduras, “justice has never seen the interior of a Honduran courtroom.”

In a country armed to the teeth but where crimes go unpunished, statistics show an even grimmer scenario for women. From 2005 to 2013, the number of women killed violently rose by 263.4%. From January to October 15, 2014, the violent death of 441 women had been registered (according to IUDPAS, University Institute for Democracy, Peace, and Security). Over the past six years, the average rate of impunity in all crimes is 93.5%. Rape is the number one cause of denouncement of crimes against persons, and the rate of reported rapes in the population increased from 4.6% in 2008 to 8.6% in 2010.  Rape crimes have many familiar characteristics. “He told me to get in the car. I tried to keep walking but the car kept coming after me. They threatened me: Either you get in the car or I shoot you.” The psychological impact of an epidemic of rapes takes its toll not just on women, but on all of society. The sentiments of one victim are echoed by many.  “I felt dirty after the rape, I felt that I lost a part of me, I did not want to live after that”.

Although most crimes go unresolved and unpunished, punishment for speaking out against injustice is almost certain. When the social fabric is unraveling and the government has so little respect for life, anyone can be punished for exposing the truth or challenging corruption. Since June, 2009, thirty two Honduran journalists—mostly in broadcast media—have been killed. Similarly, between 2002 and 2012, more than 684 cases of criminalization of women human rights defenders were recorded.

Women protest, arms raised, in front of a line of police. Women leading a protest in Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 2013. Photo: JASSIn this alarmingly violent and lawless environment the task of defending women’s human rights and promoting justice requires many innovative strategies and tactics. Above all, it demands that we build and sustain strong movements. Movements make our voices stronger and importantly, keep us safer and together - we keep hope alive in all of us. It is vital in the midst of such adverse conditions for women human rights defenders to be everywhere - bearing witness to and documenting abuses, and proposing and demanding solutions.  

People who don’t know the kind of insecurity we confront every day can’t imagine how hope or a sense of a better future helps us to survive. This violent context of undeclared war has generated some of the most inspiring acts of courage and innovative citizen organizing imaginable. Guided by our great faith in women’s know-how and their capacity for resistance, we have built women’s collectives that are connected to broad networks and alliances - indigenous, rural, black, trans, young women together with trade unionists, journalists, and feminists. We are bound together by the complex realities, and by our hope and vision for the future.

Our collectives are so embedded in communities that they cannot be killed, sold, bought, nor drowned out by the brutal repression of our government or the violence of organized crime. They act to protect and defend the lives and the work of those whose daily existence is about building a better reality with their own hands.   

I feel privileged that, through our organization JASS (Just Associates), we are able to incubate, protect, and strengthen these collectives, working from within them to make the voices of all women defenders heard. As human rights defenders, we are putting their hearts and lives on the line to ensure that these powerful stories of resistance and change are shared more widely through radio and through social media.

The women of Honduras want others to know that we are building a more peaceful and just world every day, and they can join us.

Read more articles by participants and speakers attending the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defenders, 24-26 April. Jennifer Allsopp and Marion Bowman will be reporting live from the conference for 50.50. Read previous years' coverage.

About the author

Daysi Flores is the Honduras Country Coordinator for JASS (Just Associates), a global women human rights network dedicated to strengthening grassroots women activists, community organizing and movement-building for greater impact and for protection. 


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