Coup’s Impact on Honduran Women

Ms. Magazine’s inaugural cover featured President Obama in Superman pose, ripping open his suit coat and dress shirt to reveal a T-shirt that proclaims: “This is what a feminist looks like.” Photoshop tricks aside, Honduran women need this to be true. They need the Obama administration to fully grasp the plight of Honduran women and their families and act decisively on their behalf.

Since the June 28, 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya from office, the de facto regime has tried to stanch the flow of incriminating information coming from Honduras. But human rights organizations and grassroots delegations keep working to focus the Obama administration’s gaze on the dire situation, particularly for Honduran women.

Mourning, Organizing

The Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH) began investigating abuses immediately after the coup, searching hospitals and jails. Their July 15 report documents 1155 human rights violations during the first two weeks of the coup. These include 1046 illegal detentions, 59 beatings, 27 assaults on reporters and the independent press, and four executions. Three of those killed are named: Isis Obed Murillo Mencías (19-years-old), Gabriel Fino Noriega (radio-journalist), and Caso Ramon Garcia.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued their first and most comprehensive report on the Honduran crisis on August 21. Consistent with COFADEH’s findings, the IACHR charged the coup government with “disproportionate use of public force, arbitrary detentions, and the control of information aimed at limiting political participation by a sector of the citizenry.”

A scant six weeks after that IACHR report, at the end of September, the National Front Against the Coup in Honduras (FNR) estimated more than 100 coup fatalities — an appalling escalation.

But if the violence appalls, it is not unprecedented. During the 1980s, the Battalion 3-16 death squad was responsible for forced disappearances, detentions, and torture in Honduras. COFADEH warns that members of the Battalion are returning to positions of power and influence. A particularly notorious Battalion leader, Captain Billy Joya Améndola, is now special security adviser to “Interim President” Roberto Micheletti.

And it should be noted, the notoriety of Battalion 3-16 reaches back to the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), where 19 Battalion members were trained, as were the generals who deposed President Zelaya.

Gender Violence

Women often pay a special price during military conquests, and Honduran women have paid dearly for demanding a return to democracy. The IACHR notes that, “in the context of the demonstrations and the repression and detentions carried out by police officers and members of the military, women were especially subject to acts of violence and humiliation because of their gender.”

Salvador Zuniga, of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), believes the June coup was prompted in part by a socially conservative religious reaction to feminist organizing around reproductive rights. “What I can say is that the feminist compañeras (companions or comrades) are in greater danger than any other organization,” he says.

A young mother named Irma Villanueva made her own story public in mid-August. She told Radio Progreso how she had been arrested at a recent demonstration and then raped by four policemen. One of the rapists implied they were punishing Villanueva for her political activity: “[N]ow you’re going to see what happens to you for being where you shouldn’t be.”

Villanueva is not alone. Honduran Feminists in Resistance, a group formed immediately after the coup, reported to the Latin American Herald Tribune on September 3 that they had documented 19 cases of rape committed by Honduran police. Honduran feminists believe that this number is probably conservative.

Yet despite and perhaps because of all this, Women’s Human Rights Week was vigorously observed in Honduras in August. An international fact-finding mission participated, speaking with representatives of the European Union and United Nations in Honduras, local authorities, lawyers, academics, human-rights workers, and popular organizations. The mission reports that, according to the special prosecutor for women, 51 Honduran women were murdered in the month of July; the mission calculates that “femicide has increased by at least 60 percent.”

Women Respond

The Feminists in Resistance wrote Obama a rather “tough love” open letter in July. “Mr. President, Honduras was among the countries in the world that saw with great hope your arrival to the presidency…We applauded your expressed desire to establish [a] new type [of] relations with the region.” But six months and many deaths later, their great hope is on hold. There is suspicion of U.S. actors, rogue or otherwise, having been complicit in the coup. At the very least, the Feminists in Resistance see the Obama administration’s response to the coup as weak and “leading to a situation of violence in our country that we do not deserve.”

And U.S. activists have appealed to Secretary of State Clinton as an advocate for women. Women of Steel, an organization within the United Steelworkers, wrote Clinton on August 31, asking her “to denounce this violence (against Honduran women) just as you have recently denounced such violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Clearly, the Honduran crisis is a real opportunity for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to prove their human-rights and feminist mettle. Conversely, a failure of resolve toward the illicit and abusive coup regime could do lasting harm to Obama’s and Clinton’s political credibility — and cost many more Honduran lives.

Margaret Knapke is a longtime Latin America human-rights activist and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.