‘We’re losing hope’: Honduras anger as first female president fails to fulfil women’s rights pledge

Xiomara Castro unable to make good on promises in country with highly restrictive abortion and contraception laws

At her inauguration earlier this year, Xiomara Castro, the first female president of Honduras, ended her speech with a message to women.

“Honduran women, I will not fail you, I will defend your rights, all your rights, count on me,” said Castro, whose resounding election victory ended a dozen years of conservative rule and generated high hopes for change in a country with one of the highest rates of femicide and most restrictive laws against reproductive rights in Latin America.

Now, 10 months into Castro’s single constitutionally permitted term, many are losing faith that this moment in history will bring the changes they were promised.

“We are in ways losing hope,” said Regina Fonseca, an activist for women’s rights in Honduras.

“I believe that at some point [Castro] will possibly fulfil some of the things, but the reality is that 20% of her term has already passed, and at least in terms of reproductive rights we do not see any substantive change in women’s lives up to now.”

The Guardian spoke with 10 activists in Honduras, nearly all of whom expressed a similar sentiment. Their main grievance was the failure to fulfil a campaign promise to legalise emergency contraceptives without restrictions.

Honduras is the only country in Latin America with absolute bans on abortion and emergency contraceptives. A recent proposal to legalise emergency contraceptives in cases of rape sparked indignation.

“We feminists are angry, we are upset, because we don’t want more of the same,” said Jinna Rosales, adding that this small measure would leave the existing ban for most women, as only a tiny percentage of rape survivors seek out medical attention.

Much of the outrage was directed at the health minister, José Matheu. He implied that the morning-after pill was an abortive, not a contraceptive. President Castro could lift the prohibition on emergency contraceptives with an executive decree, as she was expected to do within her first hundred days in office.

“All issues are priorities, but there are some commitments that are easier to carry out, and [lifting the ban] is the simplest, because it doesn’t even require a budget or generate an economic cost,” said Rosales.

More complicated is the issue of femicide, which preliminary data shows continues at a slightly reduced rate under Castro’s government compared with last year. Two bills aimed at combatting violence against women have so far stalled in Congress.

One, designed to increase the government’s capacity to prevent violence against women and improve the attention given to survivors by the justice system, was expected to meet resistance in a legislative body dominated by men and social conservatives. Another, more limited, bill that would fulfil a campaign promise to create more shelters for survivors of violence languishes as well.

Castro is not responsible for Congress, but there is disappointment she has not made greater use of her pulpit to advocate for causes of importance to women.

“I think it’s that she avoids controversy, but by avoiding controversy one also seems to have that image of a weak person, so I feel that the common person in Honduras perceives her as weak, as someone who is not leading,” said Sandy Cabrera.

That perception has been fed not only by Castro’s apparent reluctance to be in the spotlight, but also by the machismo and patriarchal bias that permeates society, and – as several feminists suggested – her own family too.

“If there’s one thing that perpetuates the patriarchy from the seat of power, it’s Mel Zelaya,” said Jessica Sánchez, referring to Castro’s husband, the former president ousted by a military coup in 2009.

During the campaign, Zelaya was largely absent from Castro’s side. But since the inauguration, he has been a senior adviser with a seat at the head of the table next to Castro at cabinet and other important meetings.

Zelaya’s presence has given fodder to the president’s opponents, leading to allegations that he is in charge, and rankling her supporters.

“Not only do women need to step up and express their voice, but men also need to step aside,” said Sánchez.

However, Honduran activists did welcome some advances under the new administration, including the creation of a minister for women, the appointment of some feminists to important positions and more focus on gender issues, none of which would have happened under the previous regime. So there remains optimism that Castro still has time to live up to her promises.

“I had a lot of hope for her, and I still have hope for her,” said Cabrera.


Jeff Ernst in Tegucigalpa

The GuardianTramp

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