Central America’s women at war

A delegation goes after the region’s strongmen by using the clout of Nobel women
Paula Todd

Women at war

A filthy maze of streets crammed with battered cars and sullen soldiers is at the heart of one of the world’s most dangerous cities, but the first thing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams does is make herself a target here. In a baseball cap and jeans, she jumps from a rented van and climbs quickly onto a makeshift stage in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa to grab a microphone: “Feliz Día de la Mujer! Happy Women’s Day!” she shouts in fluent Spanish, acknowledging the 57th anniversary of the day Honduran women got the right to vote. “We are here to support you, to celebrate your courage.”

Women and girls of all ages clap and sing before her, while unsmiling men with cellphones hover and a ragtag circus of hawkers, tortilla-makers and red-eyed teens clutching soda bottles of glue watch in dazed curiosity from the sidelines. It’s not every day in this ravaged country, currently ranked No. 1 in the world for murders by the United Nations, and temporarily deserted by the Peace Corps, that two dozen prominent Canadian and American lawyers, analysts, businesswomen, activists, artists and journalists—led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner—commandeer public space. And in this region, where girls dodge a barrage of physical and psychological assaults just to reach womanhood, the air snaps with both exhilaration and anxiety.

“It is very bad no matter what government. Women are always raped, beaten, killed. Always humiliated,” says Francisca Romera, 58, opening her mouth to show smashed teeth bubbling with infection. “I was beaten when I talked against the government.” Nearby, Anna Amader begs for help as her hungry little girl fingers her breast through a thin blouse. “It’s very hard here,” she says. “There is so much crime, gangs. They use guns. I just want my children to go to school.”

This fact-finding foray to Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala—the third of its kind into violence against women in high-conflict areas—is the brainchild of the Ottawa-based Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI), launched in 2006 by six female peace prize laureates to help women and human rights defenders. Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban anti-personnel land mines, is the chairwoman. Her visit is not welcomed by everyone. “Get out of here. This is my country,” an old man with a deeply wrinkled face hisses.

Security guards who accompany the delegation into the highest-risk areas are licensed to carry guns, but are prohibited by the organization, which thinks “guns attract guns” (Williams’s husband, Stephen Goose, is director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division). But Williams has shown no fear, even when, a few hours earlier, local organizers sent email warnings that President Porfirio Lobo’s officials might try to hijack the mission. (Not to block it, apparently, but piggyback on its credibility.) An escape plan was quickly devised and the delegates were whisked away.

Travelling with Williams in danger zones is a surreal experience, as officials are far more interested in having their photograph taken with her than getting in the way. “It’s taken me a very long time to get used to the power of winning the Nobel, if I even have, and I still don’t entirely understand it, but it can help open doors for women so I use it,” Williams explains.

Even so, the task is daunting. In Mexico alone, nearly 50,000 people have been killed in the drug war since President Felipe Calderón ordered the military in 2006 to confront the powerful drug cartels whose delivery routes cut a swath of violence through Guatemala, Honduras and his own country. But human rights groups say the true toll is far worse because police fail to investigate thousands of people who are assaulted and “disappeared” every year. And the women left behind to search for their husbands, fathers and children are doubly at risk in regions still shrouded in numbing sexism and religious patriarchy. A growing number of human rights groups say the escalating drug war is a bloody curtain behind which “femicide,” rape, and domestic violence is exploding.

“Women are the invisible victims,” says Alma Gomez of the Center for the Human Rights of Women in Chihuahua, Mexico. “Women are serving as the booty of war. We go out the front door and don’t know if we will come back.”

Foreign policy analyst Laura Carlsen, an American who has lived in Mexico for 25 years, agrees the country is in crisis and its leaders in denial. “Men, women and children are being caught in the crossfire. And since 98 per cent of crimes are never investigated or prosecuted in Mexico, we’ll probably never know why they were murdered or who killed them. In the case of mass graves, we don’t even know their names,” says Carlsen, director of the Americas Program for the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

What information there is about the dead or wounded is being collected by grassroots women’s and human rights groups. Williams’s delegation, which teamed with Lisa VeneKlasen, executive director of the international feminist organization Just Associates (JASS), spent a couple of weeks travelling to cities and isolated highlands in Mexico, Honduras and Mexico to meet the victims and the families of the dead. Hour upon hour, the delegates try to absorb often shocking testimony from the shattered, weeping or defiant whose entire lives have been defined by violence.

Women speak of social despair—from high maternal death rates to poverty, illiteracy and stifling sexism. They allege rape and murder at the hands of those who should be trusted— from the police and then the military, sent in when the police are deemed too corrupt, to the government officials who send them, and the partisan judges who don’t enforce the law. And they come long distances, at great personal risk, to do so.

“She cannot speak because her husband is gone and his family beats her. I am her only friend, so even though I am broken-hearted too because they took my husband, I must protect her,” says a middle-aged women whose husband, a local human rights defender, disappeared in the Mexican highlands. She is speaking of her younger friend, unable to read or speak anything but an indigenous tongue, who remains frozen throughout several hours of hearings without a single facial expression, prompting delegates to seek medical attention for her.

Even that is a rare privilege in a region where medical services are scarce and often rendered preferentially. Women speak of family members who die without basic health care, indigenous women in labour turned away from hospitals—or of their families, who have nowhere to turn after they are attacked, their young girls and boys stolen, their community leaders vanishing. Increasingly, too, the journalists and human rights defenders who dare to report corruption, slayings, decapitations and disappearances are being picked off, shot or stabbed near their offices or homes, as was the case with Mexican human rights activist Norma Andrade—shot in the chest, shoulder and hand in December, then slashed across the face in early February.

Olga Esparza, the mother of a university student who disappeared suddenly in 2009, from the “female murder capital” of Ciudad Juárez, says families must pay for investigations the police refuse to do. Missing women are often branded as “prostitutes” or drug mules, to justify inaction by state officials. And those who protest become targets themselves, according to a report in December 2010 by the UN’s human rights special rapporteur. “Women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues in the Americas appear to be most at risk of being killed or having an attempt made on their lives,” it said, especially in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, where 15 women’s rights defenders were assassinated in 2010 alone.

This is the information Williams brings back to the cities when her Nobel prize earns her entry to private meetings with Honduran President Lobo, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, and high-ranking justice officials, along with many more public forums with everyone from lawmakers to foreign ambassadors.

Williams says she appreciated that Lobo greeted her in shirtsleeves and settled in to listen. Journalists accompanying the delegation weren’t permitted to attend the highest level meetings but according to Williams, Lobo acknowledged that there was “horrible” violence, and insisted, “I am making every effort to make it different.” Williams knows such meetings are often like highly choreographed ballets, but the fact that they take place at all is progress, even when politicians don’t agree with her.

In Guatemala, for instance, when Williams detailed the pleas for justice she heard from Mayan victims of a genocide and rape campaign in the early 1980s, newly elected President Pérez Molina interrupted her, stating, “There was no genocide.” His opinion not only contradicts the victims but also the findings of the 1999 independent Historical Clarification Commission, and the position of Molina’s own attorney general, who has charged former military dictator Efraín Rios Montt with genocide. Pérez Molina, who was a military officer in the affected areas during that time, reiterated in his meeting with the Nobel delegation that his country needed a bigger military deployment because police aren’t trusted and drug traffickers are feared. But Mayan women told the delegation of the “re-militarization” of their neighbourhoods, and reported new acts of violence and intimidation.

Pérez Molina was elected on a promise to use a “firm hand” to fight organized crime, but shortly after the Nobel delegation left the country he startled the world by publicly advocating the legalization of drugs in a dramatic bid to staunch the violence—a move many, including Williams, have long advocated. As for the women left behind, VeneKlasen says they will not be abandoned. “The mission has clearly stirred up the dust. The good part is that violence against women activists is on the agenda for today.” Certainly, the politicians have been reminded that there are powerful women watching now, women who refuse to be silenced, says Williams.

Back in Ottawa and Mexico, NWI is already compiling a complete analysis of the hearings, and intends to present a comprehensive action plan to both the Canadian and American governments. Meanwhile, something else is happening in Latin America—bit by bit, the human rights defenders are growing more determined. And the women, some of whom had never before attended a meeting of only women, are beginning to talk about feminism with the enthusiasm North America last saw in the ’60s and ’70s. In that they will continue to be supported from abroad, and Williams’s message is clear. “I can assure you, you have my personal commitment to continue supporting you any way I can.”

Paula Todd is an independent journalist and lawyer who joined the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.