Opinion

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

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

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. 

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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. 

The nationwide movement of women that came together to oppose the coup and protect women’s human rights had also clearly stated its position: “It is impossible to have free and fair elections in a context of violence and repression, when the perpetrators of the violence – the police and military – are mandated with running the elections.” 

Countries throughout Europe and Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS), and many international agencies said, unequivocally, that they are not willing to recognize as legitimate the elections carried out by the coup government in the current context. 

Not only is the crisis having a negative impact inside Honduras, it is already causing significant rifts in this hemisphere – and human rights violations continue to go ignored.

This has rewarded lawlessness and brutality. “We urge you to condemn the orchestrated campaign of violence against women being waged by the current de facto regime,” four members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative and 175 other women leaders wrote in a recent letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Please step forward, as you have done elsewhere, and work to stop the violence now.” 

Restoring American credibility

With its long history of backing repressive regimes throughout the hemisphere, US actions vis-à-vis Honduras could have long-term ramifications for its relations in the region. 

Instead of undercutting its credibility on support for democracy in Honduras, and by implication in other countries in Latin America, the US should demonstrate its support for the people’s calls for a return to constitutional democracy since the coup. 

The Obama administration should work diligently for Zelaya’s immediate reinstatement to finish out his term. 

Equally important, Secretary Clinton should meet with the women’s organizations working for democracy there. Clinton should also consider a major speech at the OAS on violence against women throughout the hemisphere – including Honduras. 

With violations of women’s rights on the rise in the region, tangible action on her part would re-inforce the efforts of women everywhere working for equality, justice, and democracy.

Much of the Honduran population and the international community view the November elections as illegitimate. 

The US needs to live up to the expectations the Obama administration has raised in making support for women’s rights a pillar of its foreign policy and stand with Honduran women in their fight for democracy and human rights. 

Jody Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her leadership of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and cofounded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with fellow women peace laureates in 2006. Lisa VeneKlasen is the founding executive director of Just Associates (JASS), a global women’s rights organization working in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. They codirected the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project.

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