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Women’s Lives and Women’s Struggles

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Fighting against discrimination, injustice and violation of rights
by Marilyn Thomson*   8 March 2012

There is still much to fight against: discrimination against women, reinforced by machista cultural attitudes, and the fundamentalist views of the conservative church. Neoliberal economic policies go hand in hand with international ‘free’ trade agreements which have devastated markets, destroyed jobs and led to disputes over indigenous territories.

The vibrant women’s movement in Central America is organised and protesting against the injustices and violations of women’s rights and joining with other groups in the struggle for social justice. Women workers and environmentalists are fighting for community land rights and to defend their labour rights. In Guatemala indigenous women are advocating the preservation of their communities which are being threatened by industrial projects, such as mining and agro-industries. In Honduras women’s organisations have joined with campesino organisations to protest against the killing and violent eviction of smallholders from their lands in the Bajo Aguán Valley in a two year conflict with wealthy land owners.

The region has seen an alarming increase in extreme forms of violence against women and in the violation of women’s human rights while Protest against femicide in GuatemalaProtest against femicide in Guatemalagovernments typically lack the capacity or the political will to guarantee women’s rights and safety. In Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras violence against women has been linked to the growth in organised crime and drug cartels and the army and security forces have also been implicated in the escalating violence. Women are also brutally killed as a result of domestic violence.

Femicide is the term used to define these brutal killings of women. This phenomenon was first reported in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico in the 1990’s and since then more than 400 women have been killed. Femicide is being reported by women’s organisations throughout the region. In Honduras in 2011 an estimated 390 women were violently killed, many of whom had been sexually abused, and in the first two weeks of 2012 the murders of 12 women were reported to the State Prosecutor, the Fiscalia de la Mujer.

Women’s organisations have come together to share information and data and have found a common trend in the region: the State does not systematically collect data on the causes of women’s deaths, it turns a blind eye and does not investigate these crimes and, as a result, few perpetrators of violence against women have been brought to justice. The following statistics are not comprehensive but provide some insights into the scale of these murders of women.

Femicides in four countries of Central America 2001-09

Guatemala 4,674

El Salvador 3,034

Honduras 1,308

Nicaragua 587

Source: from various sources collected in Intersecting Violences by CAWN (2010)

Women’s right activists and organisations campaigning against femicide are putting their own security on the line. The highest number of threats and murders of women human rights defenders have been in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, but in El Salvador women campaigning on human rights have also been threatened.

Recently a human rights campaigner in Ciudad Juárez, Norma Andrade, whose 17 year old daughter was kidnapped and violently killed byNorma Andrade protesting over daughter's murderNorma Andrade protesting over daughter’s murder
drug traffickers, announced that she fears for her life and will have to leave the country. She has been threatened and physically attacked in the street because of her work on human rights—she is co-president of the organisation Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (our daughters return home), which brings together relatives of women who have disappeared or been assassinated.

In Honduras levels of violence have increased since the coup in 2009, leading to a generalised climate of fear and insecurity. Journalists, students and women human rights defenders are among the groups targeted: they have been harassed, tortured, and disappeared and 17 journalists have been murdered. Some women activists have been forced to flee their homes and the country because of death threats. There are also restrictions on freedom of expression. For example the closure of community radio stations which broadcast alternative views and promoted women’s issues restricts access to information in the most vulnerable and isolated communities.

Erosion of trust

UN Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya recently made an official visit to Honduras (7 to 14 of February 2012) to investigate the situation on the ground. At the end of the visit she published a statement which highlighted that the administration of justice has deteriorated due to the absence of official investigations into violence against human rights defenders; and impunity for the perpetrators of violence has eroded the trust of the Honduran people in the authorities. Her report mentions that certain human rights defenders in Honduras are most at risk: journalists, lawyers and judges, and those advocating for the rights of women and children, the LGTB community, indigenous and Afro Honduran communities and working on environmental issues and land rights.

In Honduras, the Centro de Estudios de la Mujer (CEM-H) and other women’s organisations were involved in organising a visit by women Nobel Prize winners Rigoberta Menchu (1992) and Jody Williams (1997) to support their advocacy demands for investigations into women killings. The Laureates also visited Guatemala and Mexico. In Nicaragua the Maria Elena Cuadra women’s movement (MEC) has run a national campaign for the past two years gathering support for legislation to protect women from violence, especially domestic violence and they have succeeded in their demands with the passing of a new law on violence against women (published In February 2012).

Women’s organisations in Central America are also campaigning for women’s reproductive rights and freedoms, especially as strict laws criminalising abortion have led to high maternal mortality rates in the region. In Nicaragua, for example, abortion has been banned since 2006 when a draconian law was introduced which outlaws abortions even on medical grounds, and penalises medical professionals if they carry out the procedure, even if the mother’s life is in danger, or in cases of rape. The issue of abortion was raised in the November 2011 presidential elections in Nicaragua and women’s organisations marched through the streets demanding their right to safe abortions. However, there are no indications that the Ortega government will respond.

Traditional and fundamentalist religious views are increasingly influencing government policy in some countries. For example, a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice in Honduras supported a bill passed by Congress that penalises the use, sale and distribution or dissemination of information about the emergency contraceptive (morning after) pill.

In the UK the Central American women’s rights agendas are largely invisible in policy debates and on donor agendas. British NGOs and donors are pulling out or scaling back activities in the region and the Department for International Development (DFID) has stated that Central America is not a priority for the UK aid programme. The Central America Women’s Network provides information and resources on women’s struggles in the region, details about partner organisations in the region and information about their work.

*Marilyn Thomson is Co-Director, Central America Women’s Network (CAWN)