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Obama: stand up for women's rights in Honduras

It would signal to the rest of Latin America that the U.S. is serious about democracy.

By Jody Williams and Lisa VeneKlasen / December 14, 2009

Fredericksburg, Va.; and Washington

Repercussions from this summer’s coup in Honduras are far from over. 

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Continued political wrangling is bad enough for democracy there and across Latin America. What’s worse is that the international community, including the Obama administration, is ignoring the widespread abuses of human rights in the coup’s aftermath. 

The brunt of these abuses is borne by the women of Honduras. So far, Washington has failed to come to their defense even as the women’s efforts to promote peace and democracy have been met with systematic repression. 

Speaking out strongly and clearly against these abuses would improve Washington’s moral authority. It would also signal to the rest of Latin America that the administration is serious about reestablishing US credentials as a defender of people, not just of political expediency.

Political background

Democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was abducted from his home in June by military officers and escorted to Costa Rica. Riots ensued, but Honduran citizens then mobilized in an unprecedented peaceful pro-democracy movement to protest the coup and demand a return to constitutional order. 

US policymakers have been inconsistent in their reaction to the coup.  

First they claimed to support democracy there. Then, in a blow to constitutional democracy, they decided to recognize the elections held Nov. 29. That recognition was despite no resolution of the underlying conflict and the coup leaders’ refusal to reinstate Mr. Zelaya – per an agreement brokered by the United States – prior to the elections. Zelaya is now hunkered down in the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras’s capital.   

Meanwhile within Honduras, the independent presidential candidate and nearly 300 mayors and deputies withdrew their candidacies from the elections in protest.

Women leaders under fire

Women make up the majority of the vast resistance movement in Honduras, playing a critical leadership role in civil disobedience and citizen protection. 

For their tireless and courageous support of democracy, they have received death threats and been attacked with nail-studded police batons, tear gas, and bullets. Detained by police or military for hours and even days without charges or access to legal counsel, women have been deprived of medicine, food, and water. At least two cases have resulted in death.

Lawless violence against women has pervaded Honduras since the coup. As of August, women’s groups in Honduras have documented 249 cases of violations of women’s human rights, including 23 cases of beatings and sexual assault and seven gang rapes by police explicitly trying to “punish” women for their involvement in demonstrations. The number of femicides – the violent murder of women because they are women – has tripled since the coup, with 51 cases reported during the month of July alone. 

But these statistics do not tell the whole story. Since those responsible for investigating cases are often also the perpetrators, it’s not hard to understand why women are unwilling to come forward to report gender-related crimes against them.