Honduran feminist activist María Luisa Regalado, photographed by Whitney Godoy. All rights reserved.
I come from a very large and very poor, rural family. We all worked on a big farm without pay, and because of the conditions under which we were forced to live, there were times when I would rebel; I was always quite rebellious.
My dad was a very imposing figure in our lives; a real patriarch. He never hit my mum but he was violent in his words and attitudes and it made me very angry. I recall when I was young hoping that my dad would die first so that she could live her later years in peace. It was not to be.
I grew up resentful of exploitation, always ready to resist. Because I had to work I never went to school, no one in my family did. I was 22 years old when I learned to write my name
My mum died first and was closely followed by my dad. I was left behind with two sisters, aged eight and twelve and my brother who was fifteen. I had to finish bringing them up: a child raising three children.
I grew up resentful of exploitation, always ready to resist. Because I had to work I never went to school, no one in my family did. I was 22 years old when I learned to write my name. I really wanted an education so when my parents died, I joined the church. Out in the countryside it was the only option.
There was a progressive priest there named Father Factomia. He was a very committed man, very critical of militarisation and the regional impact of intervention by the right-wing paramilitary Nicaraguan contras. When I met him, he was openly denouncing the war that in El Salvador and was very supportive of the refugees. He coordinated voluntary work in the community and the refugee camps. When I wasn’t caring for my siblings, I was helping him.
Father Factomia was the first person to teach me about the social justice work. In 1982, he was forced into exile in Mexico because the military wanted him dead. The new priest only knew how to pray, so I left soon after he did.
A feminist in Honduras
If it had not always been, by now my path was set. I joined the first peasant organisation for women, The Federation of Honduran Women Peasants. They were part of a Christian worker’s federation, which was marred by deep political tensions between progressives and conservatives. The leadership thought we were making too much noise with “leftist issues” – so now it was my turn to be driven out. Along with two other women, I was expelled.
Undeterred, we formed our own peasant organisation to work closely with what was to become Honduras’ Trade Union Congress. I participated in its founding but was soon exhausted by the continuous internal struggles. A part of me wanted to go back to my village and build a life there; but I was too tied up in the fight, too wedded to the idea that justice was possible. So, I stayed in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Together with my compañeras, we founded what CODEMUH is today: a feminist, anti-establishment, anti-imperialist organisation. That was in June, 1989.
As a women’s organisation, we soon discovered that feminism was considered an even more dangerous topic than anti-imperialism.
The 1980s were the height of anti-imperialist struggle in the capital. In the villages and barrios though, people still thought it was a dangerous discussion to be having. They were afraid of being associated with us because of the military repression. So, in the early 1990s we renamed ourselves Colectiva de Mujeres Hondureñas: the Collective of Honduran Women (CODEMUH): a feminist name. Back then, we didn’t understand the pillars of feminism but we knew we knew that was our true identity.
As a women’s organisation, we soon discovered that feminism was considered an even more dangerous topic than anti-imperialism, even in the city. We were striving to work with women across society, from peasant women like me to students, trade unionists and civil servants. But we found that women weren’t very interested in speaking about gender, much less feminism. Often, women would ask us what the point was. “Let’s free the country first,” they’d say, referring to the struggle for national independence. “The other transformations will follow, only after the country belongs to the people.”
We knew this wasn’t right, that we needed to understand and confront gender violence in our communities, here and now. An independence movement which does not recognise the voices, perspectives and work of women will never bring us freedom. Likewise, the Honduran movement against economic imperialism - the struggle for true independence - would be fatally weakened by the exclusion of women, who make up half of the population.
Until 1955 women were not even citizens in Honduras, we had no right to vote, no political or human rights whatsoever. All the gains made since then had come from our own work.
Until 1955 women were not even citizens in Honduras, we had no right to vote, no political or human rights whatsoever. All the gains made since then had come from women’s own work. We know that to assert our beliefs and have our rights respected, we need to be part of the political struggle.
We also have to educate each other, because we need a women’s movement that thinks critically and sees clearly the root causes of our oppression. Without that vision, the problems facing our society look very different and so do the solutions. I am often offered money for labour rights work by corporate funders. We will sit and talk with them, but we cannot take money from the same corporations that are failing to guarantee the rights of women in the workplace, or paying us fair wages, or supporting better conditions for us.
They fear us
In the beginning, these commitments cost us dearly. Eomen left and in the end just three of us remained to build what CODEMUH is today: a women-led grassroots organisation that has survived for 20 years to fight for the empowerment and rights of women workers. It is run by feminists seeking change in society that allows women to realise our potential, free from exclusion and discrimination.
Today we have 150 members organising women in factories across the garment factory sector. Our greatest achievement has been to take women out of the world of four walls: the four walls of the kitchen and the four walls of the garment factories - so that their faces our recognised and their voices heard.
Another success has been that women take ownership of their own liberation and find courage to publicly denounce abuse at work, by the state, in the media and around the world. This includes taking legal action through the courts. We also play a vital role in raising awareness to have conditions like occupational musculoskeletal disorders, which are caused by corporate exploitation, recognized as occupational diseases. CODEMUH is an international benchmark for its expertise in labour law.
I am thankful that CODEMUH has grown strong, but time has proven our original perspective right in the worst possible way. Under the past two administrations, the cause of women’s liberation has been pushed backwards into a defensive war.
Women and their bodies have become the battlefields of the big organised crime gangs.
The coup of 2009 and the global financial crash threw us into a political crisis. The gangs, drug trafficking and organised crime escalated, all with links to the political establishment. Women and their bodies have become the battlefields of the big organised crime gangs.
CODEMUH also lost many sources of funding. We were forced to cut staff and it was a terrible time. We only survived thanks to the resilience of the women organising our outreach groups, who really stepped up and developed as leaders.
Instead of moving to protect the women of Honduras, the state sits back and justifies violence against us by saying that women are involved in the drug trafficking and crime. Women are routinely accused and stigmatised without investigation. The public money spent on security is wasted through corruption. The killers know they can murder with impunity and sleep with their doors open. 97 per cent of the time when a woman is murdered, no one is punished.
Those in power would have women return to the world of four walls. Many political campaigns that claim to represent women’s interests offer only conciliatory gifts designed to keep us at home. Several government proposals to implement tortilla microenterprises are designed to send women back into the kitchen. When women are injured in street protests, the authorities say: “it’s her fault for being on the street and not where she should be.”
But we want freedom, not four walls. We see a future without violence and impunity. Without impunity, the violence could be investigated; the murderers and abusers would be jailed. Our struggle is against the patriarchal system, which is not only against abuse by men but the system that justifies it and the state that offers no justice for women.
Now we are taking to the streets, demanding our human rights: our rights as women and workers, they fear us. We are pushing back against domestic violence, sexual harassment and killings; against those who see women as things and not as people. This is our fight, beyond the world of four walls, to dismantle the structures of the patriarchy. It is a lifetime’s struggle. But it belongs to us.
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