More than a month after Hondurans elected their first female president, her administration done little for gender issues. The mostly male Castro cabinet now has to live up to its campaign promises to reduce femicide, decriminalize three grounds for abortion, and approve the use of emergency contraceptive pills, banned since the 2009 coup d’état.
By Vienna Herrera
Photos by Jorge Cabrera, Ezequiel Sánchez and Nahún Rodríguez
“Women of Honduras ─ I won’t let you down! I will always defend your rights,” promised Xiomara Castro as she concluded her inaugural speech on January 27. That day, the National Stadium was filled with people waving turquoise-colored flags symbolizing the “return to democracy.” But many of the women wore the green bandanas which represent the decriminalization of abortion. They anxiously watched the first woman become president of Honduras; a woman who won the election on a promise to improve conditions for women in a country with high rates of gender violence.
Castro’s plan for governing the country states that she would seek to “introduce a mindset of gender equity through equal participation in all political processes. But when she announced her cabinet a few hours before the inauguration, she fell far short of her promise. Of the 35 officials in her cabinet, only eight are women (22%). This is not very different from the preceding administration; of the 17 ministerial positions in the Hernández administration, five were occupied by women (29%).
Gilda Rivera, the executive coordinator of the Center for Women’s Rights (Centro de Derecho de Mujeres – CDM), says that more political rights for women aren’t evident in the appointing of positions in the administration, “Right now we’re mostly hearing from men, and women’s issues are still not being raised for public debate.”
Bella Carrillo, the deputy coordinator for Luchemos, a women’s political organization, says she is not surprised by Castro’s appointments, “From a woman’s perspective, the cabinet has fallen short. Just because we have a female president doesn’t mean that Honduran women will be able to fully participate in the political process.”
Deals between men that hinder gender equity
Merary Ávila, a former Libre Party candidate for Congress, lost a position in the San Pedro Sula mayor’s office when a feminist faction of her party launched a Twitter campaign supporting her.
“Ultimately, the men’s club decides who gets an appointment once the elections are over. That’s what I experienced. What happened on social media just accelerated their decision to appoint someone else,” said Ávila.
Ávila says that most of the positions in the San Pedro Sula mayor’s office are held by men. Alexa Solorzano initially planned to run for deputy mayor, but later left her job to form an alliance with Roberto Contreras, who won the mayorship as an independent candidate. Solorzano eventually became governor of the Department of Cortés, but her appointment was delayed by a month for reasons that Ávila doesn’t fully understand.
Carillo says that getting a governorship is difficult, and only 23 of the country’s 298 municipalities are led by women, “Alexa [Solorzano] collaborated closely with Omar Menjívar, who later became the deputy mayor when she decided to give up her own candidacy as a strategic political move. Even though women make these strategic sacrifices, they still suffer from a lack of support and later have to ask for appointments. This is a fact that we reject and condemn because these positions belong to us and we shouldn’t have to beg for them.”
Carillo believes that municipal mayors are key to local development, “We know that women have many local problems, so we need women who understand them, who can handle the gender equity issue. Yet they are denied these positions.”
In an interview with Contracorriente, Alexa Solorzano said President Castro’s rhetoric that Honduran women’s time has come will only be realized “by placing women in strategic positions with strategic functions. Not just because they are women, but because they are women with the right skills who can have an impact and carry out the president’s projects.”
During a presentation at a Political Observatory (Observatorio Político) event, Ligia Ramos, a PSH congressional representative, told other women in the National Congress and in municipal positions, “Don’t let yourselves be used by men ─ not in the National Congress, not in the Executive Branch, not in the Judicial Branch, not in the municipalities. What we are seeing is how backroom deals made by men have brought us women together. I think we now have the power to say enough is enough.”
Ramos was referring to the events of February 7 when 17 dissident legislators flouted the Libre Party’s agreement with the Salvation of Honduras Party (Partido Salvador de Honduras – PSH) to vote for the latter party’s candidate as president of the National Congress, triggering a 19-day crisis in the National Congress. Instead of voting for Luis Redondo, they supported Jorge Cálix, the Libre Party legislator who garnered the most votes in the November 2021 elections.
Read (in Spanish): Deals made by men in the National Congress reveal the political violence and exclusion of women in Honduras
A resolution to the crisis was announced at a press conference held by Cálix and former President Manuel Zelaya at the Presidential House (in the absence of President Castro), confirming that the dissident legislators had agreed to support Redondo. It was later explained that Zelaya held the press conference at the Presidential House because he is now an advisor to Xiomara Castro and was representing her while she was on bed-rest after testing positive for COVID-19. The reason given for the absence at the press conference of two of Castro’s vice presidents, Salvador Nasralla and Doris Gutierrez, was that this was an internal Libre Party matter.
During the press conference, Zelaya revealed that when he was meeting with Cálix to discuss the situation, the president stopped in to offer him the chief of staff position as a way of resolving the crisis.
Jessica Sánchez, an analyst of women’s issues, says that this is an example of why Castro needs to break free from the traditional domestic paradigms, “When women practice politics, it seems that they are always reverting to traditional domesticity. The man arrived and she served him a cup of coffee even though she’s the president.”
Sánchez believes that President Castro must clearly define her husband’s public and private roles, “Mel [Zelaya] is practically the First Lady, but show me a First Lady who has also been a presidential advisor? Why are men allowed to do this? Castro held up her roll when the crisis in the National Congress first erupted because she took the lead on the issue.”
Second Vice President Doris Gutiérrez says that Castro chose her advisors and others should respect her decision.
“Our president does need to take the lead in making decisions as she did at the recent Association of Honduran Municipalities conference and at other events where she played an extremely important role,” said Gutiérrez.
Acknowledging that the president has only been in office for a month and has already been repeatedly attacked, Gilda Rivera said, “We are observing that most of the important [government] positions are held by men. Not to mention former president Zelaya who should step aside and play another role as the current president’s husband.”
Violence against women continues unabated
CDM’s Women’s Rights Watch has tallied 61 violent deaths of women in Honduras this year, up to March 8, 2022; about the same rate as the previous year when 58 femicides were reported in the first two months of the year.
In an interview with Contracorriente, Doris Gutiérrez said that she is extremely concerned about the growing wave of violence against women.
“We have submitted several written requests to the security minister [on this matter] because we must prioritize the lives of women, girls, and elderly women. As a government, we must protect the victims of the violence that has become so pervasive in our country,” said Gutiérrez.
Gilda Rivera explained that the president “has expressed interest in a proposed law addressing violence against women that we have been developing since 2015. The law was drafted by various feminist organizations, not only from Tegucigalpa but by women from different groups and even from previous governments. It has been a very inclusive process.”
CDM’s Women’s Rights Watch noted that the 911 national emergency system registered 3,216 reports of domestic violence in January 2022, down from the 5,200 reports registered in January 2021. Men who have been charged in court with femicide are almost always also charged with other crimes such as illegal possession of weapons, illegal association, making threats, or aggravated robbery. Yet they are never formally charged with the crime of domestic violence. Analysts believe that unreported domestic violence is directly related to femicide.
Read: Femicide in Honduras: women dismissed by their own government
Hiring more female police officers
During her campaign, President Castro promised that she would combat femicide and put an end to patriarchal practices during her first 100 days in office. One of the most important actions taken by her administration in this regard has been the appointment of women to high-level positions in the National Police.
In an event attended by President Castro in which she praised female police officers, National Police Chief Héctor Sánchez declared, “A new focus on gender equity is being established in which the policy of including women in decision-making positions plays a transcendental role.”
Sanchez said that the National Police would function as a community police force and would seek to demilitarize society, “We will work to reduce violence against women and other vulnerable groups that represent a high percentage of the victims of violence. We must raise awareness within and train the entire police force.”
Contracorriente contacted Dr. Julissa Villanueva, vice minister of security, but she was not available for an interview. Villanueva announced on social media that she recently presented a security protocol for attending to female victims of violence that describes how cases of domestic or intra-family violence will be handled.
La Vice Ministra de Seguridad, Dra. @Villanuevasemma se presenta ante las autoridades policiales instruyendo sobre el nuevo protocolo de atención a las mujeres víctimas de violencia a través de sus diferentes manifestaciones (violencia doméstica, intrafamiliar entre otros temas) pic.twitter.com/RvxCs2Bsbp— Secretaría de Seguridad (@SSEGURIDADHN) February 18, 2022
Villanueva also announced that she is going to address cases that have been widely reported in the news media but remain unresolved, such as the case of Angie Peña, a young woman who disappeared in the Bay Islands, and the case of Keyla Martínez, a nursing student who was murdered in a police station after being detained for a curfew violation. Only one person was prosecuted in the latter case, but Martínez’s family believes that the former head of the La Esperanza (Intibucá) police department may be responsible. Now headed by a woman, this police department had been repeatedly accused of human rights violations and sexual assaults.
Read (in Spanish): Nursing student’s death in a police station looks like government-sanctioned femicide
Villanueva said that she would also reopen the investigation into the death of Sherill Hernández, an agent with the Criminal Technical Investigation Agency (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC) whose death was officially declared a suicide. Villanueva claims that she was fired from her position as chief of forensic medicine due to her allegations that Hernández was murdered by fellow ATIC agents.
Sexual and reproductive health issues
“Xiomara Castro has accomplished a few things, but regarding women’s issues, we’re still on tenterhooks. I know we’re still in the early days, but that’s when bold moves are made and I haven’t seen an agenda that’s very equity-oriented,” says Jessica Sanchez.
During her presidential campaign, Castro’s opponents in the National Party launched a smear campaign against her proposal to decriminalize three grounds for abortion. They even circulated images of Castro stabbing a pregnant woman, accusing her of “wanting to kill babies.” After it was all over, Luis Duque, the National Party’s campaign coordinator, said that hate is the emotion that produces the most intense reactions in human beings, and that “no political strategy is able to overcome that feeling.”
The Somos Muchas (We Are Many) movement filed a claim with the National Electoral Council against the National Party’s smear campaign that “exploited women and girls facing unwanted pregnancies and used their pain as a tool …These actions intensify the stigma towards women in general, and especially towards women who have terminated their pregnancies.”
The fourth point of Castro’s plan regarding gender issues includes the decriminalization of abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, when the fetus is not viable, and in cases of rape. But this plan was released before the Libre Party formed a political alliance with the conservative PSH. Representatives of the PSH have told Contracorriente reporters on several occasions that Castro’s abortion-related proposals will not be implemented.
The Ministry of Public Health is led by a PSH member; Dr. José Manuel Matheu. When he was first appointed, Matheu promised to meet with the news media on a daily basis. But Contracorriente’s attempts to interview him regarding emergency contraceptive pills have been rebuffed due to his busy schedule. The Ministry of Public Health banned emergency contraceptive pills years ago.
Bella Carillo, from Luchemos, said that her organization was part of the transition team that worked on the plan for Castro’s first 100 days in office. That plan included a lifting of the ban on emergency contraceptive pills.
“The decree has already been drafted; it just needs to be presented to the legislature for debate. The president issues orders to the Minister of Public Health, who must apply a public health approach in implementing these mandates,” Carillo said.
However, CDM’s Gilda Rivera thinks that any discussion on the topic with the Minister of Public Health will be difficult, “Dr. Matheu is quite conservative when it comes to women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and he will surely oppose emergency contraception. The president may issue an order, but it still needs the Ministry of Public Health’s approval before it is implemented.”
Rivera says that Castro is surrounded by people with various religious affiliations, such as “the president of the National Congress, another man who has attacked women. The current landscape is different than the one we had during the Hernández administration. We don’t think the gates of heaven have opened to us just like that, but we’ve never had it easy. It’s just part of our struggle and that’s how we move forward.”
Bella Carillo notes that, “Just because a woman is president doesn’t mean we’ll get everything we want. There will be pressure from many conservative sectors, including the health care sector. Women should support our organizational and grassroots efforts.”
Jessica Sanchez believes that the reason why gender issues have not yet come to the forefront in the Castro administration is that, “[Castro] is surrounded by men and male advisors. There is also a lack of technical political capacity regarding gender issues and that can only come from someone with a vision of what women need.”