Guest post from John Ambler, right, Oxfam America’s ‘Vice President, Strategy’ (ooo, can I be one of those?) on his recent trip to Honduras
I woke up early in the morning to the sound of gunshots. Two, then three more. I expected to hear sirens, but did not. The police were taking their own sweet time. Over 80% of the murders in Honduras go unsolved. And when the trail begins to get close to the killers, as it did with the murder of the son of the president of the National University of Honduras, the drops of blood often lead to the doorsteps of the police themselves. In such cases, where the blood stops, the impunity begins.
The murder rate in Honduras is 82/100,000, one of the worst in the world. San Pedro Sula, in the north-east part of the country is the third most dangerous town in the world, after Kandahar and Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican side of the American border. Tegucigalpa, with its plethora of shotgun-armed private security company itself is not a city for walking.
Women here are particularly vulnerable to all forms of violence and afraid to go out of the house in many rural areas. In fact, many are not even allowed to go out. The houses are not sequestered behind fortress-like mud walls, as I saw in Afghanistan, but from listening to the stories of women in Santa Maria de La Paz, three hours’ drive to the north off Tegucigalpa, the isolation, mistreatment, and humiliation women in conservative households endure is strikingly similar to the stories I heard in Ghazni, Shomali, and Kunar in Afghanistan.
The murder rate with female victims has been rising, leading to a small campaign against femicide by women’s groups. Churches (Catholic and Evangelical) sometimes talk about rights, but according to the women I talked to, they never do anything concrete. Jehovah’s Witnesses were singled out as being particularly patriarchal and unfriendly to women’s rights. The women in Santa Maria de La Paz complained of the Church suppressing reproductive health information. One woman had left the Church because of it. I was really disappointed in the Catholic Church in particular. There seems to be no new equivalent generation of “Liberation Theology” pastors to champion women’s empowerment, like the leftist firebrands of the 1980s.
Talking about their feminist activism in Santa Maria de La Paz, three of the women mentioned raising their 6, 6, and 11 children, respectively, in addition to being on 4 or 5 committees—the water board, the municipal audit committee, the transparency committee, the school committee, the PTA, the health committee, a savings and micro-credit group, the municipal women’s committee, self-help security group, a blackberry jam enterprise, and others I can’t remember. There is even a club where pregnant women learn to sew. They monitor government expenditures on things like the 2% that is supposed to be set aside in the budget for women’s issues, like the “Healthy Floors, Decent Roofs” program.
Their stories were painful and powerful. The first woman, the one with 11 children, said in a loud and confident voice that growing up her house had been plagued by incest. Tears welled up in her eyes and another woman handed her a tissue. She composed herself and in an even stronger voice said that when still a young teen she married a man who treated her as a slave, as did her mother-in-law, into whose house she moved. (The scenario sounded eerily similar to the situation one finds in South Asia, where the son is the lord of the house, and his mother terrorizes the poor young bride, making her do all the grunt work, harassing her into submission, or suicide.) She told of getting only a first grade education (she later learned to read and write); of having to put up with her husband’s wasting their hard earned money on drink and women. She was often forbidden to leave the house. She said that women could get no justice, that the police only support the big companies. “They are not here for the people,” she said. “They know the law, but they know money better.” She said that someone had once come to her house with a gun, but she was not afraid.
Another woman said that she was 49 and had been married 35 years already. She, too, got only a first grade education, but she is interested in politics and is now running for mayor. She recounted how at the beginning of her engagement with politics she was told to sit in the back and shut up because what did a “dirty woman” know. But she said that at least there had been no violence in her household, and her husband did not forbid her to go and join women’s groups and committees. She talked of cleaning up the corruption in local politics. When I said that politics is dirty, she rejoined, “Only if we are dirty!” Good answer.
Everyone in the room was a member of the municipal women’s committee, except for two young women who just happened upon our meeting. They had come to make a denunciation about domestic violence. In this community of 11,590 people and 34 hamlets, the committee receives about 60 such formal denunciations a year, just the tip of the iceberg, I suspect. One woman said everyone present in the room wore different colored clothing. By that she meant that each of their stories had a different twist and turn to it, but that they all shared the basic plot structure: intimidation, humiliation, exclusion, abuse, violence, exploitation, and sorrow. Very deep sorrow. And, many women were from the indigenous Lempa community, which faces even further discrimination from the government in terms of services and expenditures.
But the sorrow is now turning to anger. The training they have gotten through Oxfam and its partners is helping them to organize and to raise their voices.
“I am nothing, but all together we are something,” one woman said.
“We were not organized to make a space for ourselves,” said a second.
“We are not the shy women that we used to be, thanks be to God,” said another.
After a rocky start, the women’s audit committee on public budgetary transparency and expenditure gradually gained the trust of the men. They saw that the women, even though their level of literacy was limited, were actually asking good questions about the budget and following the money like bloodhounds. The women were gaining real power and influence.
“In the past we were not even taken into consideration.”
“When we are honest, the men can say nothing against us.”
“We can do this! The men trust us.”
This “struggle” (the word lucha was frequently used, the same word that was used during the wars of “liberation” of the 1980s) is not only one of networks and organizational tactics, but also of personal growth and sacrifice. In Santa Maria de La Paz, accompanied by nods and the thin smiles comrades at arms reserve for each other, one woman summed it up, “I am changed.”
And here’s an animation from the femicide campaign