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Orange the world: End violence against women human rights defenders and environmentalists like Juana Zúniga now!

Thirty-seven-year-old Juana Zúniga from northern Honduras has been subjected to violence and intimidation for trying to protect her community’s only water source and her right to safe drinking water. The physical, psychological, and emotional toll for Juana has been immense. There are nights when she can’t sleep. But she refuses to be silenced.

Juana Zúniga (37) has been targeted and subjected to threats, intimidation, and sexist slurs because of her gender Photo credit: Giulia Vuillermoz Trócaire Juana Zúniga (37) has been targeted and subjected to threats, intimidation, and sexist slurs because of her gender Photo credit: Giulia Vuillermoz Trócaire

Freedom of expression is limited in Honduras and women human rights defenders like Juana Zúniga are at particular risk.

Juana, a community activist from Colon in northern Honduras and mother to three daughters, is continually subjected to police intimidation because of her involvement in opposing an iron oxide mining project which has contaminated the Guapinol river and her community’s only water source.

The Guapinol river, which provides water source for 45,000 people, is now severely polluted and beyond use for residents.

Ironically, the Carlos Escalera National Park, which is home to the Guapinol river, was named after an environmentalist from Tocoa who was murdered in 1997 for trying to stop the building of an African palm oil processing plant near the river.

The Honduran government listed the park as a protected area in 2011. But instead of preserving the park, officials awarded a mining licence to a company linked to multiple human rights and environmental violations as well as the persecution of community leaders.

Three years ago, Juana – a member of The Municipal Committee for the Defence of the Communal and Public Resources (CMDBCP) – and other residents noticed that the water looked severely polluted and had turned a chocolate brown colour. They had to stop using it and were forced to buy bottled water for cooking and cleaning. It was then that Juana and others in the community decided to take action.

“We felt the call when we saw our river was dirty. It wasn’t fit for our animals… that’s how the struggle to defend the Guapinol river started,” says Juana.

“We started visiting communities with our petition and to raise awareness about how the mining project was going to affect our water sources. 3,000 people signed a declaration saying they wanted the area free from mining, but this has simply been filed away.”

The community mobilisation was immediately met with state repression, including police violence during protests resulting in injuries and persecution of community leaders.

32 arrest warrants have been issued against members of the struggle, and eight men, including Juana’s partner, José Abelino Cedillo, are currently in prison for peacefully protesting the exploitation of their community’s natural resources.

Juana Zúniga in the Guapinol River, Honduras Photo: María Aguilar / Iolany Pérez/Global Witness  Juana Zúniga in the Guapinol River, Honduras Photo: María Aguilar / Iolany Pérez/Global Witness

Juana has been targeted and subjected to threats, intimidation, and sexist slurs because of her gender. She says attacks on women are all too common because they are easy targets.

“Attacks of this nature are common against women human rights defenders, where persistent sexism means women will often be accused of being bad mothers, bad wives or even prostitutes for their participation in community struggles.”

“People say women are not supposed to lead, they don’t have the capacity to lead community groups of 300 or 600 people.”

For Juana, her participation was something she and her partner discussed together.

‘My partner and I reached an agreement that I would attend the meetings. I was never involved in anything like this before.”

As recently as September 2021, Juana was subjected to intimidation when a police patrol passed through the community three times asking for her.

On arriving at Juana’s home, they claimed they were there for her protection, even though Juana does not benefit from any state protection measures, and they took photos of her and her house.

As a mother of three girls, Juana is conscious that the risk is not just to herself, but to her family as well.

“There are nights when I don’t sleep, thinking about everything that could happen to us. The   physical, psychological and emotional toll is tremendous.”

The imprisonment of her partner has also placed considerable pressure on Juana who not only has to worry about how to look after her daughters, but her partner’s legal expenses as well.

Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries for environmental rights defenders, according to Global Witness, with 17  killed in 2020 alone. The 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres, at her home, is the most high-profile assassination of this kind. More women human rights defenders and environmentalists like Berta and Juana are at risk every day in Honduras.

Nevertheless, it is the need to secure a safe future for her children that keeps Juana going.

“We have to keep fighting because if we remain silent, we’re accomplices of what is happening. We get stronger every day and we continue fighting for our territories and natural resources. We fight for our children’s future so they can live in a healthy environment where they have the freedom to express themselves, to go to the river, to enjoy the water with their friends. This is a story, a legend of our struggle which will remain as an example for our children.”

Trócaire has been providing legal support through partners to the eight imprisoned human rights defenders of the Guapinol river, including José Abelino Cedillo, Juana’s partner. There is no substantiated evidence against the eight men and a trial outcome is expected in the coming days.

You can give a ‘Human Rights Heroes’ gift of love this Christmas

Trócaire’s range of Gifts of Love this Christmas includes options to support human rights defenders at risk. Your Human Rights Heroes Gift will provide the vital training and legal support these heroes need should they become criminalised for their bravery.

There are 21 Trócaire gifts to choose from this year. As well as a ‘human rights hero’ gift, you can buy gifts of water, beehives and solar lamps ranging in price from €5 to €1000.

This kind gift supports amazing Human Rights Defenders when they need it most

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