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Women human rights defenders in Honduras unite in face of oppression

To mark 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence we highlight the work of Marta, a human rights defender risking her life to defend her land and environment

Acrylic painting of woman titled “Dedication” by Eva Luna  Acrylic painting of woman titled “Dedication” by Eva Luna

Marta, who lives in the Lower Aguan Valley in Northern Honduras, knows too well the dangers of defending land, environmental and women’s rights in her community.  

In 2011, Marta was a member of a local peasant movement that negotiated peasant farmer land rights with the Honduran government. That year, there had been an illegal eviction of farming communities from their land.  

In protest, Marta and other members of the committee went to the Supreme Court to ask for justice, but they were instead met with violence. 

“They evicted us from the Court, with physical blows and tear gas. I still have after-effects from this, a hernia that did not heal, and I lost an ovary. A policewoman told me; ‘This is happening to you because you don’t want to be looking after your children at home’.” 

This was not the first time Marta’s family had experienced violence in response to their activism. On May 4, 2022, Marta’s sister was murdered.  

“My sister never liked organisations and never wanted to get involved, but she had started to organise recently. She was cut down in her tracks.” 

“I also suffered an attempt on my life. And I received death threats. A voice message was sent to me which said; ‘we are going to do twice as much to you as we did to your sister’.” 

In 2021, 358 human rights defenders were killed in 35 countries. 59 percent of them worked on defending land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights. 26 percent of them were indigenous people and 18 percent identified as women (including trans-women). 

Women like Marta in the Lower Aguan Valley face many challenges living in an area of intense conflict over natural resources and land. Poor Campesino communities seeking to protect their rivers and forests and claim their land rights face fierce repression from army-backed landlords, drug-traffickers, big agrobusinesses and mining companies. Adding to that is the oppression women face within a staunchly patriarchal culture.   

“I feel attacked on all sides.”  

“There have been cases of paralysis in some women’s faces, because of all the oppression.” 

“We suffer all kinds of violence, through gestures, words, abuse. It is so painful to have to suffer and face this violence. Those who have more power than us are arrogant. What we do is disregarded.”   

  • Women human rights defenders in lower Aguan Valley, Northern Honduras 

Trócaire and partner organisation Fundación San Alonso Rodriguez (FSAR) support women and men who are human rights defenders in the Lower Aguan Valley in Northern Honduras. With Trócaire and Irish Aid funding, FSAR has been providing psychosocial support to women human rights defenders via the National Network of Women Defenders.  

On a recent trip with Trócaire to Honduras, we spoke to several women who are part of the struggle to protect their local water source – the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers – against the pollution of a mega iron mining project that is operating with an illegal concession, in a nature reserve. In fact, the nature reserve, just a few kilometres from where we were sitting is called the Carlos Escaleras national park, named after an environmental activist who had been murdered 20 years ago and whose anniversary was the next day (19 October).  

These women had made a huge effort to meet us, as they had been involved in organising commemoration activities. One woman couldn’t make it to our session because her husband had been murdered the night before. She and some other women who were meant to join us were at the wake while we spoke. 

Eva, another human rights defender in the Lower Aguan Valley said that their society is very patriarchal.  

“The patriarchy is still strong (here). They keep a watchful eye on everything, even how your children are doing, your behaviour. If I wear a “Feminist Liberation” T-shirt, I will be questioned, I will be watched.”  

Ana, another one of the women, spoke candidly about unsupportive men in the social movements they are part of. “There are so many things they say to disregard us. When we dare denounce this psychological aggression, they say that we are crazy or lazy.” 

Another woman pointed out that it was not only certain men in their environments that are unsupportive, but certain women too. She spoke of some women taking down other women, instead of lifting each other up. 

In contrast, the sense of mutual support and solidarity among these women was palpable. 

“We are building networks of trust, to deal with this painful situation. We must know how to listen to each other without judgment, learning together; only in this way will we become stronger,” Ana said.

*The names of the women in this article have been changed to protect their identity 

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