Military Coup Reverses Honduran Women's Gains in Human Rights

The military coup d’état in Honduras on June 28 has seriously eroded democratic institutions and hard-fought gains in women’s human rights and human rights in general. That was the finding of Feminist Transgressional Watch, a group of 22 journalists, human rights legal experts and activists from North and Central America and Spain. The group visited Honduras in mid-August during Women’s Human Rights Week to assess reported violations of human rights and observe feminist strategies to resist the military coup.

In one gathering, the delegation met with 18 women who were fired recently from the National Institute for Women (INAM) because they are feminists and opposed the coup. According to Gilda Rivera, director of CEM-H (Women’s Studies Center of Honduras), the coup resulted in the devastation and militarization of such democratic institutions as INAM, which was established in 1998 based on international agreements coming out of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.

Feminists and other women have been front and center in all of the massive peaceful daily marches opposing the regime of Roberto Michelleti, and military and police have responded with ever more violent repression, including increased sexual aggression and torture of women, according to Honduran feminists and activists. "Women are playing a different role in society, breaking the traditional order," noted Daysi Flores, a young member of Feminists in Resistance of Honduras. "Since the coup we’re in the streets, we’re more visible, we call ourselves feminists, we occupy spaces and carry out political actions," a "serious breach" of traditional social norms. Xiomara Castro Zelaya, wife of ousted President Manuel Zelaya, said she was surprised that more women than men are participating in many marches, and that "it’s hard to see people in the demonstrations repressed so brutally." The first lady was addressing an August 17 forum of the Coalition of Resistance in Teguciagalpa, Honduras.

One blatant violation of women’s human rights occurred on July 15, when several members of the Feminists in Resistance group staged a peaceful protest at INAM. They were speaking out against the loss of progress for women after decades of struggle—under a coup regime supported by the ultra right wing, including Opus Dei, a very conservative Catholic group that opposes many rights for women. The defacto Minister of Women María Marta Díaz called in security forces who chased the women protesters, hitting them with batons on their backs and buttocks, screaming verbally aggressive comments such as, "Whores! Go back to your homes!" Gilda Rivera of CEM-H noted that she had never heard of police hitting male protestors on the buttocks with their batons. Leaders of indigenous and Afro-Caribbean organizations who were staging their own peaceful march against the coup came to support the feminists in the attack.

According to Kanya Irias, who was a technical director in INAM, Minister Diaz is a close associate of a military advisor to the new coup regime who was notorious for past brutality.

Feminist and human rights groups report that femicide and violence against women overall has greatly increased since the coup. Alda Facio, an international human rights lawyer from Costa Rica, calls it an undeclared war against women, something that often occurs in armed conflicts. During the month of July following the coup, 51 femicides were reported in the two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedru Sula, a 60 percent increase over a typical month in the year before. Yet women have filed few complaints of street violence or domestic violence during this time. According to Sara Rosales, a human rights lawyer with CEM-H, women believe it to be both dangerous and futile to report such violence to the police, who are in part responsible for the brutal repression.

According to a report at the Forum of the Coalition of Resistance in Tegucigalpa, a young woman denounced her gang rape and torture by police in a radio broadcast. Irma Villanueva told the radio audience that the police grabbed her during a protest march in Choloma, forced her to lie face down in a pickup truck, took her to a remote location, raped her and shoved a police baton into her vagina before leaving her lying on the ground. Referring to the street demonstration, the police shouted at her that she would learn not to be in places where she doesn’t belong.

Rivera noted that feminists overall are strongly opposed to the accelerated militarization of Honduras, which is a reversal of the demilitarization process that began in the mid-1990s. The defacto regime has announced it may implement an executive order for "voluntary" military service offering incentives, which, says Rivera, would basically amount to a forced draft in what is the most impoverished country in Latin America. Such a plan could set the stage for the current mass struggle against the coup to evolve into an armed conflict. Feminists also worry that female recruits would face the risks of sexual assault and harassment that confront women soldiers worldwide. They advocate abolition of the military as a way to work toward peace.

In the meantime, women including Feminists in Resistance will continue to be front and center in the marches. "No more coups (golpes), and no more golpes (beatings) of women!" shout the women as they take to the streets. "Quien somos? Somos Feministas en Resistencia!"

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