[News] The Coup and Honduran Women

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 26 11:36:15 EDT 2009

August 26, 2009

Catalyzing a New Movement

The Coup and Honduran Women


On the morning of June 28, women's organizations 
throughout Honduras were preparing to promote a 
yes vote on the national survey to hold a 
Constitutional Assembly. Then the phone lines started buzzing.

In this poor Central American nation, feminists 
have been organizing for years in defense of 
women's rights, equality, and against violence. 
When the democratically elected President Manuel 
Zelaya was forcibly exiled by the armed forces, 
women from all over the country spontaneously 
organized to protect themselves and their 
families and demand a return to democracy. They 
called the new umbrella organization "Feminists in Resistance."

On August 18, Feminists in Resistance sat down 
with women from the international delegation for 
Women's Human Rights Week, which they organized 
to monitor and analyze human rights violations 
and challenges for the organization. One after 
another they told their stories in a long session 
that combined group therapy and political 
analysis­a natural mix at this critical point in 
Honduran history and the history of their movement.

Miriam Suazo relates the events of the day of the 
coup. "On the 28th, women began calling each 
other, saying 'what's happening?'" At first 
no-one really understood the full extent of the 
coup, she says, but networks mobilized quickly 
and women began to gather to share information 
and plan actions. Independent feminists and 
feminists from different organizations 
immediately identified with each other and with 
the rising resistance to the coup. They began 
going out to rescue those who had been beaten and 
to trace individuals arrested by security forces.

For some, the shock of waking up to a coup d'etat wasn't new.

"This is my third coup," relates Marielena. "I 
was a girl when the coup in 1963 happened. Then I 
lived through the coup in 1972. We lived in front 
of a school and I saw how my mother faced the 
bullets, we thought they were going to kill her 
Later in the university in the 80s I lived 
through the repression with many of the women 
 So this has revived the story of my life."

There is a saying in Honduras about the Central 
American dirty war that "While the United States 
had its eye on Nicaragua and its hands in El 
Salvador, it had its boot on Honduras." For the 
older women who remember the terror of that time 
when over 200 people were disappeared and 
hundreds tortured and assassinated, the current 
coup stirs up deep fears. Gilda Rivera, director 
of the Center for Women's Rights in Tegucigalpa, 
says, "I've had a messed-up life. I knew the 
victims of Billy Joya in the 80s 
 Now I've been 
to the border twice, I've lived with a curfew 
over my head. I wake up alone, terrified."

The older women agree that they have grown and 
their movement has grown since the 80s.

Marielena notes, "Today's not the same as the 80s 
because there's a popular movement that the coup 
leaders never imagined 
 What Zelaya has done is 
symbolize the popular discontent accumulated over 
the years." She recounts the August 5 battle for 
the university where she works and the surprising 
participation of students. Her story is echoed in 
variations by many of the women present.

Although they battle nightmares and long-buried 
trauma, these women also see a new hope for the 
resistance this time around and for their own 
fight for women's rights. The repression and fear 
has strengthened their resolve. "Sure, I'm afraid 
of dying but I'm not losing hope," Gilda says. "I 
see hope in the faces of the people at the 
marches. And the solidarity from women, from all of you, keeps me going."

For Jessica, events this year brought to mind the 
contra war of the 80s. "I never imagined that my 
daughters would have to be in a situation like 
this," she says. As a mother who has lived 
through the period before Honduras began its 
incomplete transition to democracy, and the 
period when democracy was merely a word that 
belied a much cruder reality in the country, she 
worries. "I told my daughter not to go to the 
march. She said, 'Mom, what about my autonomy?'"

"My little girl­she's 18 now, but she's still my 
little girl­ended up going with me to the march. 
It was really gratifying for me that we went 
together." These women know in their bodies and 
their hearts the costs of resistance. They also 
know that the costs of not resisting are far greater.

For the new generation of feminists, the catalyst 
came with the confrontation in front of the 
National Institute of Women on July 15. The day 
the coup-appointed head of the Institute was 
installed, Feminists in Resistance gathered to 
protest the takeover of "their" institution. 
Lesly says, "The police used their billy clubs, 
they grabbed me by the neck. I was filled with so 
much rage­I was drowning in it." Many women in 
the organization experienced a turning point in 
their lives that day. Adelai explains, "(The 
Institute) was my turf, something that belonged 
to me, and they attacked us there. That was a 
direct assault on our condition as women 
they did there really affected me personally."

Despite a lot of suffering, the women in the 
Feminists in Resistance meeting agree that the 
exhausting dynamic of constant mobilizations and 
repression has deepened their commitment. Their 
movement has also come together and developed 
closer ties to the general movement. When word 
got out that the feminists were being attacked at 
the Women's Institute, demonstrators from the 
entire demonstration of the National Front 
against the Coup immediately marched to the 
Institute to defend the women and show their solidarity.

Although the Front leadership continues to be 
mostly male, men in the movement have publicly 
recognized the contributions of the feminist 
organizations and women in the resistance. From 
recovering the wounded, to marching day after 
day, to developing analysis and strategy papers, 
women's organizations have played a critical role in opposing the coup.

At a meeting between leaders of the Front and 
Feminists in Resistance earlier in the day, 
Salvador Zuniga, a leader of the Civic Council of 
Popular and Indigenous Organzations of Honduras 
(COPINH) and the Front, recognized that women 
have been among the most active and courageous in 
the resistance movement. He pointed out that the 
feminist movement is at the center of the 
rightwing reaction that led to the coup.

"One of the things that provoked the coup d'etat 
was that the president accepted a petition from 
the feminist movement regarding the day-after 
pill. Opus Dei mobilized, the fundamentalist 
evangelical churches mobilized, along with all 
the reactionary groups," he explained.

The unprecedented role of women in the nation's 
fight for democracy opens them up as a target for 
repression. Zuniga concluded in no uncertain 
terms, "What I can say is that the feminist 
compañeras are in greater danger than any other 
organization. This has to be made public."

Besides being at the receiving end of the billy 
clubs and pistols along with the rest of the 
movement, women suffer specific forms of 
repression and violence; their bodies have become 
part of the battleground. Human rights groups 
including the Women's Human Rights Week 
international delegation have documented rapes, 
beatings, sexual harassment, and discriminatory 
insults. Army and police units routinely shout 
out "whores!" and "Go find a husband!" at the 
more and more frequent confrontations between the 
women and the coup security forces.

It's precisely that step out of the private 
sphere that makes these dangerous times so 
exciting and energizes the women of the 
organization. Many report being driven by the 
adrenaline of knowing that this time they are the 
ones defining their history. They ride a roller 
coaster of emotions, often pitching from euphoria 
to despair in a single day. But one constant is 
the satisfaction of binding in a political 
project with other women who understand the full 
scope of what they demand and share the contradictory feelings storming inside.

The budding movement has come together in the 
heat of the coup as Feminists in Resistance faces 
some major challenges, the first to defeat the 
coup that now enters Day 54 on the resistance 
calendar. As the rightwing consolidates power and 
its own perverse brand of institutionalism, they 
feel like they're looking down the barrel of a 
gun as far as their rights and safety are 
concerned. Rumors circulate that the coup will 
dismantle the Institute for Women. Congress is 
about to initiate obligatory military service, 
meaning that mothers throughout the country will 
be compelled to protect their children from 
forced induction. Their freedom of expression, 
freedom of transit, freedom of assembly have all 
been curtailed under the coup, along with 
everyone else who opposes the regime, except for 
them the physical enforcement of reduced 
liberties is accompanied by acts of sexual violence and threats.

Big questions are on the table at the meeting of 
Honduran and international feminists. How to 
fight for a necessary return to institutional 
order at a time when the vulnerability and 
insufficient nature of those institutions has 
been exposed? How to avoid relegating women's 
demands to a lower plane in a period of acute 
political crisis? How to break through a media 
black-out that's even more impenetrable if you're 
against the coup and a woman? And how to simply 
hold your work and family together while spending 
hours a day in the streets and in meetings.

Bertha Cáceres is a leader of COPINH, a leader of 
the Front, and mother of four. In her political 
work she has integrated her specific demands as a 
woman and believes that organized women must be 
front-and-center in the resistance against the coup.

"First, because (our struggle as women) means 
confronting a dictatorship based on different 
forms of domination. We've said that it's not 
just destructive capitalism, not just the racism 
that has also been strengthened by this 
dictatorship, but also patriarchy. So we think 
our resistance as women means going a step 
further, toward a more strategic vision, a more 
long-term vision in fighting for our country."

She points to a national constitutional assembly 
as a fundamental goal for women. "For the first 
time we would be able to establish a precedent 
for the emancipation of women, to begin to break 
these forms of domination. The current 
constitution never mentions women, not once, so 
to establish our human rights, our reproductive, 
sexual, political, social, and economic rights as 
women would be to really confront this system of domination."

The women of Feminists in Resistance have no 
illusions that this will be an easy task. In 
addition to the challenges above, the movement is 
in transition to a new stage of nationwide local 
organization and long-term strategizing, at the 
same time as it faces increasing repression and 
human rights violations. The question of the 
elections slated for November has created another 
deadline for definitions of September 1, when 
candidates must be registered and President 
Zelaya has sworn to return to the country. 
Feminists in Resistance has a clear position to 
boycott any coup-sponsored elections, but some 
other parts of the movement and the international 
diplomatic community have been more ambiguous.

What's certain amid these rapidly changing 
national scenarios is that Honduran women have 
built a movement that, despite little media 
attention and the barriers of a male-dominated 
society, has garnered international support from 
women around the world and respect from the 
general resistance movement. Their organization 
will continue to play a central role in what 
happens next in Honduras­a key determinant of the 
course of democracy throughout the Hemisphere.

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Policy 
Program in Mexico City. She is currently in 
Tegucigalpa as a member of the international 
delegation of Women's Human Rights Week in 
Honduras. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org).

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