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‘We felt the call when we saw our river was dirty’ – Juana Zúniga on her journey for justice and equal rights in Honduras

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. 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

The Guapinol river, which provides water source for 45,000 people in Juana’s community, is severely polluted and beyond use for residents.

Three years ago, Juana and other community members were forced to start buying bottled water for cooking and cleaning. It was then that they 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.

“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, through Irish Aid funding, provided legal support through partners to the eight imprisoned human rights defenders of the Guapinol river, including José AbelinoCedillo, Juana’s partner.

After 914 days of illegal imprisonment they were finally released.

You can learn more about our work in Honduras here.

 

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