“Although it has always been a constant issue, violence against women has become another pandemic. It is overwhelming at every level”. This is the conviction with which Wendy Cruz, a peasant leader with Vía Campesina, describes the current situation. The data is on her side: in the month of April alone, when the entire country was under complete lockdown as a result of COVID-19, over 10,000 women reported physical violence in Honduras, according to data from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
“Under confinement, men are taking control of households, whereas beforehand they barely spent any time at home. Now women do not even have the freedom to go to work”, explains Lilian Borjas, a member of the National Union of Rural Workers (CNTC) in El Progreso (Yoro Department). According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the restrictions on leaving the home and other measures that limited freedom of movement have contributed to the increase in gender-based violence.
Despite this increase in violence against women, the National Emergency System 911 has registered a decrease in calls. Wendy Cruz explains this paradox: “Women stopped calling in because their complaints are usually simply registered in a report and are not followed up on”. In fact, the Supreme Court of Justice receives approximately 20,000 reports of domestic violence per year, of which less than half are ever followed through with. In many instances, the victim cannot continue the process, as she is financially dependent on her partner.
A lack of measures and reliable data
Yet another issue is the lack of reliable statistical data. Cristina Alvarado, member of the national coordination of Visitación Padilla National Women’s Movement, explains that “neither the Investigative Police Department (DPI) nor the public prosecutors have any data because this is not a priority for them”. The Honduran Public Ministry currently has two femicide units: the Special Prosecutor for the Protection of Women and the Prosecutor for Crimes against Life. In spite of the growth in violence, under the current health crisis, these units are not travelling to communities to register complaints, Felicita López of the Marcala Women’s Network warns.
In reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Inter American Court of Human Rights noted the risk of an exponential rise in violence against women and girls during confinement, and urged states to “adopt all necessary measures to prevent cases of gender-based and sexual violence, implementing secure direct and indirect reporting mechanisms and strengthening attention to victims”. According to Honduran women’s organisations, the government is not adequately preventing, investigating, or punishing violence against women.
“When a femicide occurs, it is because the state has failed in its role to prevent violence. It was unable to provide the necessary conditions, and a woman lost her life as a result of that inefficiency”, Tirza Flores, magistrate at the Supreme Court of Justice, explains in reference to a country with the region’s second highest rate of femicides per 100,000 inhabitants (5.1), according to the Economic Comission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). As Wendy Cruz describes, ultimately the inequalities that have plagued women in the workplace, through excessive workloads at home, and through lack of access to healthcare and economic independence, are now adding to the effects of the mismanaged health crisis.
Women taking the initiative
In this context, and in the face of the limited access to the health system in Honduras, the incentive to find alternative approaches to violence and to re-evaluate the care labour that women undertake continues to grow. Felicita tells us that her community in Marcala is reviving ancestral knowledge and using natural medicine to treat illnesses like fever and flu. “We have discovered that we already have many medicinal herbs just growing in our back garden, and we do not pay them the attention that they deserve”.
Elsewhere, the Fraternal Black Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH) has developed a manual of ancestral garífuna medicine to combat COVID-19, in order to strengthen immune systems, and also to explore autonomous political proposals, “that understand that science must be a common good, public, and for the people”.
In light of the importance of digital media in this time of confinement, the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders’ Initiative has developed a manual for digital care during the pandemic: “Remain Calm and Defend Digital Territory” which provides key tips on establishing secure virtual communications from a feminist perspective, because defending digital space is also a component of defending women’s lives.