This is not a linear story with a simple path. This is a region with strong social movements relative to the rest of the world. Thus, it is a perfect illustration of the fact that Rising Up, Building Up, Standing Up, Shaking Up is not a perfect sequence. There are times when Rising Up becomes a vehicle for Building Up, and Standing Up as a way to Build Up and Shaking Up helps to Rise Up.
Early in the story, a coup d’état changes everything. Many unexpected obstacles arise that demand changing in organization and tactics, and occasional retreats from action. Some strategies reach dead ends, while others open up new horizons for people-led change as unexpected political opportunities emerge. Throughout the story, Honduran women leaders from all walks of life become a vital political force in the construction of their futures and the defense of dignity in the midst of uncertainty and violence.
Situating this story
Honduras is among the most violent countries in the world. The nation has a long history of militarism, stemming from the United States’ (U.S.) use of Honduras as a regional base of operations, and its deeply unequal society, shaped by class, gender and ethnicity. In the seventies and eighties, U.S. military presence and aid programs supported a series of authoritarian governments to fight revolutionary movements in the region and put down domestic opposition.+ Read More
State torture, assassination, disappearance, corruption and arbitrary detention in different periods led to widespread fear and distrust in the government. The first decade of the 2000s brought a period of relative openness and reform during which many citizen-led organizations worked to build democratic institutions and laws to protect rights and ensure access to justice.
The imperfect democratic opening came to an abrupt halt with a coup d’état in 2009. Since then, corruption and violence have multiplied through the lethal combination of a corrupt and repressive state, expanding organized crime and drug trafficking, aggressive and often-illegal transnational private-sector projects, and a corrupt justice system. More than 90% of crimes go unpunished and one-third of Honduran territory has been granted in concessions to private companies for mining, hydroelectric plants, tourism and other megaprojects — without consultation or against the will of the indigenous and rural communities where they would be located. Violence against women in public and in private has reached alarming levels; from 2005 to 2013, violent deaths of women rose 263.4%. Despite the promise of economic development, Honduras ranks among the poorest in Latin America and the world.
In the midst of a crisis of human rights abuse and violence, Hondurans from all walks of life are organizing and building movements to defend democracy and human rights, and demand justice. Women activists and feminists are at the center of these historic growing movements, defending their own rights while defending others.
I believe that in the midst of all this despair, we need to nurture hope in ourselves as women, to believe that we are capable, that it’s possible to do something on behalf of our people. ~ Berta Cáceres, 2014
Reimagining and Reviving Women’s Organizing in Times of Crisis
In the 2000s in Honduras, as in the other Central American countries, women and their organizations confront rapid economic changes and uncertainty with the introduction of privatization, austerity and free trade measures and rollbacks in labor rights. The changes hit women especially hard and deepen economic inequality. Displacement and forced migration often leave women homeless and without support and a new wave of land grabs threaten communities and spark violent conflicts throughout the country. Meanwhile, rollbacks in rights (women’s, labor, land, indigenous rights, etc.) have stripped women of important tools to fight back.+ Read More
Efforts to build women’s movement building and support feminist leadership in other movements suffer as activists tend to work on separate issues and mostly lack a unifying analysis. The long years of armed conflict and a gradual loss of hope in democratic processes following disappointing and incomplete peace processes contribute to apathy and inaction.
JASS formally begins working in Honduras in 2006, building on the strong alliances and decades of experience in the region by many of our founding members. There and in the Mexico and Central America region, we have a profound sense that we are missing the mark strategically, and that dominance of deep policy advocacy and campaign is failing given the changing nature of power. Decades of struggle and repression have left women’s movements fragmented, demobilized and without visibility and voice. We see a need to rethink our approach if we want strong women’s organizations and feminist perspectives to shape the course of the future.
Sparking Political Dialogue among Women Activists
JASS organizes its first political dialogue, Movement Builders Institute, in Panama, convening women activists to discuss what is happening across Mesoamerica, and explore how to revitalize women’s organizing in response to these challenges. We invite a diverse group of women activists from seven countries and a range of social movements: urban and rural leaders, feminists, indigenous and campesino leaders, human rights activists, trade unionists and teachers. To get beyond fragmentation and division, participants agree to set aside their organizational hats, and put their heads and hearts together to analyze the context of crisis, build new relationships and visions, and identify shared strategies. We ask ourselves a central question: What will it take to envision and build the women’s movements of the future?+ Read More
The gathering enables us to collectively map the impact of the political and economic challenges we face drawing on our personal and direct experiences as women activists. We discover that the region shares many core problems: new extreme and often violent discrimination against women, repression, inequality, conflict, militarism and high levels of outside intervention that interferes with the development of independent agendas.
This groundbreaking experience re-energizes a sense of possibility and a recommitment to a, “back-to-basics” movement work of power analysis, community organizing, and building agendas from the ground up.
Reweaving Regional Women’s Movements for Action
The energy of the Panama meeting gives birth to a new shared identity and informal regional alliance, Las Petateras, named for the weavers of the traditional palm mats from the region, petates. The name symbolizes the coming together of many diverse elements to form a flexible, yet unbreakable, bond—based on feminist solidarity, inclusion, reciprocity and care—to rebuild and reorder a new social fabric torn by economic and political destruction.” Confluence,” as we describe ourselves, includes several Honduran women as founders and provides a space for fresh thinking about our movements, and importantly, a new collaborative platform for strategy and direct action.+ Read More
Designed to be agile, Petateras, functions as a rapid response network to bring feminist perspectives and women’s leadership to the forefront of key political moments in the region. To make visible our resistance and daily forms of civil disobedience, we call our strategy Observatorios de la Transgresión Feminista or Feminist Resistance Watch. This action inspired the slogan adopted by women around the world: Women Crossing the Line. Sustained by an active virtual network, we galvanize direct action mobilizations, solidarity and strategic communications to amplify women’s voices on local, regional and global issues.
We launch the Feminist Resistance Watches, activated by women and feminist groups at country level, to mobilize in-person and virtual solidarity to strengthen, publicize and protect their actions. Through the Watches, we’re able to mobilize financial and human resources at crucial moments in the region and creative forms of direct action. This includes presidential summits in El Salvador where thousands of red-stained dolls where dropped from a bridge into morning traffic to spotlight the neglected issues of violence against women, the Costa Rican free trade referendum where we mobilized women to vote “No”, the Americas Social Forum, and later the Honduran coup.
The communications strategy is anchored by the International Feminist Radio and other social media strategies, using the international spotlight at these moments to draw attention to the otherwise invisible issues of women’s rights and women’s leadership. The key messages of the Watches denounce and spotlight gender inequality, the missing perspectives of women, and the differentiated impact of public policies on women, emphasizing the interconnectedness of issues in women’s lives. This helps pull “women’s issues” out of the cubbyholes usually assigned them, and on to broader political agendas.
The Observatories were a strategy to express and demonstrate regional solidarity with women and their movements at strategic moments, either at times of repression or violence, or when important matters were being decided for a country, for women, or for women’s rights; it also was important to make visible what women were contributing. ~ Marusia López Cruz, JASS
Building Deeper Support for Movement Building
Through the expanding collaboration of feminists and women across various movements in Mesoamerica, we become increasingly aware of the organizing efforts of indigenous and rural women, and the threats they face. These women are at the forefront of communities defending land rights and the natural resources on which they depend. Their focus on protecting nature, rebuilding community and the rejection of extractive projects is vital to our feminist vision of the future.+ Read More
As they courageously challenge the corrupt deals that lead to land grabs, mining, large tourism developments, and hydroelectric megaprojects that displace and destroy their communities, indigenous and rural women face intensifying threats and risk. These actions are taken without free, prior, and informed consent required by law. Large companies, backed up by armed private security, police and soldiers and often with the behind the scenes support of government elites, attack grassroots organizations, intimidate women and their families, and torture, imprison and assassinate activists. The media for its part, either fails to report these attacks or portrays the defenders as the aggressors.
In what looks to be an ever-more hostile political environment in 2008, especially for indigenous and rural women, JASS and its allies make a strategic decision to commit resources to more proactive movement building with these vital leaders and activists, often on the margins of human rights efforts. As JASS, we decide to commit resources to more proactive movement building processes to deepen knowledge, build women’s capacity with new concepts of leadership and power, and strengthen collective action in preparation for what looks to be an ever-more hostile organizing environment. We choose to develop rural and indigenous women’s leadership because of their strategic role and increased vulnerability and, also because they often lack resources and opportunities. We begin by supporting their access to and use of communications tools to make their voices louder.
Training for Indigenous and Rural Women – Media Citizenship
Building on the long-time relationship of key JASS women with indigenous people’s organizations, we begin by supporting indigenous and rural women’s access to and use of media or their “media citizenship.” The women’s stories are largely missing in the media or distorted by the narrative of corporate interests which labels indigenous protesters as “backward”, anti- “progress” or even “terrorists”. Compounding the problem, the women do not have the skills and access to share their perspectives in self-generated communications including radio, social media and Skype.
+ Read More
Together with Guatemalan partner Sinergia No’j, we gather 35 indigenous and rural women from six countries for three intensely creative days of using communication tools for change. A communicator with Radio La Voz Lenca of the Honduran Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH), co-led by Berta Cáceres, forms part of the original group.
The workshop, “Women Democratizing the Media” encourages a critical analysis of stigmatizing media images and language, and highlights the importance of understanding communication as a right and a form of citizen expression. These trainings highlight strategies of particular use to indigenous and rural women including the use of community radio and blogs. Due to the success of the workshop and demand for media skills, the communications for movement-building trainings continue for years, and form the basis of the curriculum called “Women Crossing the Tech Line” used around the world.
Amplifying Indigenous and Rural Women’s Voices
In the workshops and through accompaniment between 2008-2010, women learn to exercise and defend their right to communicate. The experiential training involves discussions and site visits with women's media projects and hands-on sessions on media production and other topics. Group members develop their own communications strategy to promote a feminist, indigenous agenda. They write press releases, scripts and produce a website and video, Soy Mujer!, record a radio spot, and create an on-going blog. The training is specifically geared towards communications as a tool to enable women to organize virtually and reach out to a global audience.+ Read More
Later in workshops on community radio to mobilize against violence, participants work with Feminist International Radio and Canal TV Maya (a multicultural Guatemalan TV station), to record and produce radio and video pieces. The women experience the tremendous power of radio—both as a communications tool and also as a bridge—enabling diverse women to speak and listen to one another’s stories and perspectives. As each woman communicator acquires new skills and experiences, she becomes more effective and able to broaden communications work. The skills multiply as women return home to train other women and young people at home.
As a result of the workshops, JASS gains more insight into the challenges facing indigenous and rural women and relationships with and among the women leaders and their organizations deepen. We continue to develop joint work with partner organizations, such as COPINH, as they develop community radio and independent communications networks as a vital form of education and mobilization.
We did a contextual analysis and saw that the impact of imperialism, the ongoing impunity, corruption, violence, and everything, had a greater impact on women. But, why focus on indigenous women? Because we figured out that they were at the heart of the building resistance that was already underway. ~ Malena De Montis, JASS Mesoamerica Advisor
The 2009 Coup d état in Honduras
In the midst of building JASS work in Honduras, a shocking turn of events suddenly changes everything. In a military coup d’état in the early hours of June 28, 2009, the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, is abducted and flown out of the country. Within hours, thousands of Hondurans, including many feminist activists, pour into the streets in shock and anger to condemn the coup and call for a return to democracy.
The protest continues and builds in the days and weeks following the coup. Remarkably, and for the first time in Honduras’ political history, feminists— many who are Petateras—visibly co-lead a movement for democracy, demanding a return to the constitutional order. They forge strategic alliances with a broad range of Honduran organizations and emerge as trusted leaders within the broad-base resistance movement.+ Read More
Feminists in Resistance, a name adopted by the core group of women and groups leading protests, rapidly becomes a force to be reckoned with, monitoring human rights violations and fighting, to ensure that the feminist agenda remains central to the broader resistance.
In the weeks that follow, members of Feminists in Resistance stand out in the street actions with green banners, green T-shirts and green hats—a visible and growing green splash in the ocean of protestors. Women of practically every age participate, combining demands for women’s rights with demands to end the coup: “No violence to the state and no violence to women” (No golpe de estado, no golpe a las mujeres).
The coup begins a process of re-organization of the state by corrupt elites, an occupation of Honduras by organized crime and gangs, and precipitates a crisis of human rights in Honduras that exists to this day. For women, especially those who voice their opposition to the de facto regime, the violence and civil unrest lead to a marked increase in verbal, physical and sexual assaults.
Mobilizing Support for Unprecedented Feminist-Led Resistance
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Feminist activists are in full mobilization in Honduras. JASS and allies shift gears to prioritize solidarity and support to Feminists in Resistance as part of a global action to end the coup. Through daily contact with women in Honduras, we mobilize and channel resources and strategic support to frontline activists as they organize an unconventional and agile resistance strategy with day to day shifts in plans and tactics.+ Read More
JASS and Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE) intensifies social media to draw global attention to what is happening in Honduras, to help spotlight women’s roles and demands in the resistance, and to denounce the human rights abuse and acts of repression they are facing. Advocacy and protests in collaboration with groups in Washington DC targets the U.S. Congress and State Department to reverse its position and suspend support of the coup government, and the International Human Rights Commission to hold the line in not recognizing the regime. Women in Honduras with allies and networks of support from Latin America and around the world create a common front with many different human rights and social movements to demand a return to democracy and clear condemnation of the military coup.
To intensify global pressure further, in August 2009, JASS, FIRE, and others organize a Feminist Resistance Watch and fact-finding mission of journalists and women leaders to Honduras. The group works closely with Feminists in Resistance to document assassinations, rapes, beatings and arbitrary detentions committed during the weeks that had elapsed since the coup d’état. The delegation documents a strong, bold and inspiring feminist movement and takes back a message of solidarity and the need for global support. JASS follows up by building international alliances, advocacy, and providing information on women’s role in the resistance.
Organized and Courageous - Allied Feminists Confront the Crisis of Democracy
The Feminist Resistance Watch virtually engages supporters from around the world and launches a media campaign spotlighting women on the frontline of the resistance, as well as organizes broadcasts on local radio stations. This solidarity work brings the support of women from around the world to the women of Honduras, complementing their extraordinary struggle for a return to democracy and an end to violence.For seven months, Feminists in Resistance marches in the streets against the coup, facing tear gas, batons and bullets. Their sustained ability to bring people out into the streets day after day comes from their commitment, their vision, the strength of the relationships and alliances forged in the heat of the movement and the international solidarity.+ Read More
Based on their proven ability to mobilize and their frontline role in the resistance, feminists gain newfound respect in national politics at a critical moment. As part of the leadership of the National Popular Resistance Front, a mostly male-led body representing unions and various other community organizations, Feminists in Resistance works to ensure that their demands are incorporated into the agenda and public message of the national resistance movement—not without constant pressure and occasional setbacks. The rest of the world takes note.
Although the coup regime remains in power, the message endures that feminist demands for equality, equity and emancipation belong in democratic movements. The movement proves that women can stand up alongside men to fight tyranny without dropping their gender agenda. The feminist leadership and international alliances forged in this period carry over as the movement looks ahead. This experience also shapes JASS’ own political priorities to focus increasingly on building cross-movement, cross-sectoral alliances where feminists and feminist agendas are central to a larger political and economic democracy agenda.
During the whole time, we as feminists gathered after every demonstration and we’d assess because things changed from one day to another. It was 7 months, but it felt like 7 years because everything was so different and every single day was kind of a year of decisions and assessing and strategizing and every single day the strategy changed. ~ Daysi Flores, JASS Honduras
Sustaining Mobilization Faced with Escalating Violence
The coup precipitates a human rights crisis in Honduras. The military moves into the streets to crackdown on citizen resistance with intimidation and attacks including rape, illegal detention and assassination. As the attacks on activists and their organizations escalate, we see that women face some of the most vicious and sexualized forms of violence. Reports show an increase of at least 60 percent in the already-high rate of femicides (targeted killing of women) since the coup. These attacks, are afforded almost total impunity.
+ Read More
At the same time the presidential elections in November 2009, under the guise of returning the nation to civilian rule, eliminate the possibility of restoring constitutional order, and diminish international pressure to return to democracy. With democratic institutions shattered, a corrupt police state emerges. As the rule of law seems to crumble and Honduras’ fragility creates an easy opportunity for drug cartels, violence and threats to women increase dramatically. Daily demonstrations wane and fractures appear within the resistance movement as members grapple with demoralization, fear, economic survival and safety.
Grassroots organizations defending land and natural resources like COPINH, OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras of the Garifuna people), Via Campesina and others come under repeated attack from the post-coup government as it moves quickly to concession and initiate mega-projects, mining and logging in key parts of the country. Farmers in the Bajo Aguan are targeted and many are killed by private security and police. Berta Cáceres leads COPINH’s fight against the Agua Zarca dam, Miriam Miranda of OFRANEH leads her people against militarization, drug trafficking and tourism development on the Atlantic coast. Police and soldiers, organized crime and private security thugs working for transnational companies involved in mining, hydroelectric, palm oil and other megaprojects join forces against these and other people’s movements.
Building Collective Awareness and Networks for Mutual Protection
Despite this sharp spike in violence against women activists in Honduras, the media is silent on the subject. Even human rights organizations don’t seem to grasp the specific threats to women activists.
To make these threats real and recognized, we decide that we must gather our own evidence and provide an analysis of what is happening. JASS and its partners decide to work with regional women activists to conduct a study of violence against women activists in Mesoamerica.The results confirm that, as we write in the first publication, “Violence has risen in every country in the region.+ Read More
The prevailing impunity and corruption, coupled with the region’s strongly macho (aggressive masculinity) culture, have favored the consolidation and entrenchment of a culture of violence against women.” It finds that Honduran activists in the pro-democracy movement are at great risk, due to political repression. And that LBT and women activists participating in and leading the fight against “megaprojects” (dams, mines, land and water grabs for mono-cropping, etc.), are particularly targeted, attacked, killed and imprisoned. In conflicts over territory, their bodies become battlegrounds.
The unprecedented study also reveals that traditional human rights protection with its focus on the physical protection of the individual through security measures such as bodyguards and bullet-proof vests, does not meet the specific needs of women activists. They prevent her from continuing to speak out and organize. In many cases, these measures separate the woman activists from her community and family, and fail to address her deeper physical and mental wellbeing. Additionally, many women also face violence in their homes and communities for their outspoken leadership and public roles. Our analysis concludes that women activists, or women human rights defenders (WHRDs), are coping with enormous risk and stress without sufficient support or mechanisms for protection and self-care.
A New Initiative: Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders
We begin to collectively envision more deeply feminist approaches to our Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) Networks; approaches that enable and equip women to deal with pain of living in violence and build a shared identity—a sense of belonging and trust, so vital to sustaining hope and to agility.+ Read More
In 2010, JASS begins the long task of building the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (Spanish acronym, IM-Defensoras) with AWID, Consorcio-Oaxaca, Colectiva Feminista (from El Salvador) and UDEFEGUA (a human rights defenders network from Guatemala); we are later joined by the Central American Women Fund. Together we pioneer a set of strategies for documenting and analyzing the unique forms of violence against women human rights defenders, and gradually increasing recognition of the problem and the need for gender-specific strategies among human rights actors and governments. Through national networks and protocols, we work together to provide a combination of services and political actions to respond immediately to urgent cases, prevent and reduce risk, and build a shield of self-defense and support to sustain women defenders in the long term.
For Honduran activists, the emerging national Defensoras network that JASS and others begin to build provide a forum to share information about the crisis in the country, build a sisterhood across many differences and learn from the responses of other organizations to develop new ways to protect themselves. The National WHRDs Network is gradually formalized and supports women facing threats and attacks as they defend democracy, women’s and LGBT rights, and their land, territories and resources. The new networks provide Honduran women with needed support and safety as threats against them mount.
So actually the demonstrations stopped because we were fewer and fewer. Because the repression had gotten so hard that it was really heartbreaking. And we were afraid, I think fear had a very huge role. ~ Daysi Flores, JASS Honduras
Strengthening Networks while Responding to Attacks
We see an increase in organizing as grassroots and women’s movements in the region and Honduras engage in struggles to protect their communities from extractive projects that threaten their land and water. These “megaprojects” displace indigenous and rural communities, cause environmental destruction, lead to greater inequality, and spark conflict where communities resist. With huge profits at stake, state and corporate repression against people opposing these projects rises to alarming levels including rape, sexual torture, kidnapping and assassination.+ Read More
In order to meet these challenges, we see that we need to rebalance a crisis response with strategy for the longer term. Clearly rapid response is critical but insufficient to strengthen and protect women activists. But at the same time, we realize that our protection strategies are less effective and more vulnerable if they are centralized. Our WHRDs networks need to be stronger and more resilient to meet the growing problem of protection. Women activists need space and time to recover their sense of hope and deal with the fear of living with violence.
Deepening Feminist Movement-Building with WHRDs
We begin to collectively envision a more deeply feminist movement approach to our WHRDs Networks. Together with allies, we want to strengthen and support women activists and their organizations so they can wield greater collective power for change. A first step is to enable them to recognize that they are women defenders playing a big role in challenging violence and inequality. This consciousness is critical to understanding and reducing risk. Our aim is to integrate the struggles in women’s personal lives for dignity, safety, equality and control of our bodies, with organizing, leadership and action in public arenas. We understand that our power and safety as women is integral to all aspects of our lives, so our movement building strategies need to be as well.+ Read More
It is this integration of the personal and public, the individual and collective, that creates the foundation of our feminist movement building approach.
With this vision, JASS, IM-Defensoras, and the national networks create safe spaces to provide a supportive space to revive vital energy for women organizers in risky and difficult contexts. In addition to questions of immediate security or organizing strategy, we collectively take on how to emotionally sustain ourselves and our resistance through mutual support and self-care. The self-care work blends with the Heart-Mind-Body approach that JASS developed in its Southern Africa work (see Malawi), and becomes central to training and reflection.
These collective forms of support for WHRDs challenge the usual protection strategies oriented only toward the individual. Through the IM-Defensoras, we incorporate support for families, and open safe spaces to discuss and respond to specific, often sexualized, threats that they often don’t feel comfortable talking about in mixed groups. We incorporate concepts and practices of self-care and wellness to deal with fear, trauma and stigma as we continue to develop more effective practical protection and security measures. As one Honduran activists says, “Your body is political territory. It is one of the first spaces for constructing freedom…for defining how you exist as a woman, human being and a citizen in this struggle”.
Integral Protection for Women’s Collective Action Recognized
What is ultimately called “an integrated feminist approach to protection,” developed by the IM-Defensoras allies with ideas from many others around the world, strengthens the WHRDs networks and their members. IM-Defensoras’ gender sensitive approach impacts the thinking of organizations and foundations, many more now addressing the issue of human rights defenders, for its pioneering focus on the threats to women and for broadening the options for meeting their needs.The strategy’s effectiveness in protecting and amplifying WHRDs garners international recognition.+ Read More
In 2014 IM-Defensoras receives the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, placing a spotlight on the critical role of wome defenders in Mesoamerica.
Among defenders, the integrated approach helps deepen interpersonal connections, and a shared identity and organizational alliances that give women strength and a sense of support. The techniques consolidate women’s self-identification as WHRDs in day-to-day work, and increase recognition of the value of our work in communities, and the unique nature of the problems women face unlike other human rights leaders. For Honduran WHRDs, the holistic approach provides new tools to deal with the tremendous stress of organizing resistance and social change in a repressive environment.
Holistic feminist protection is a way of looking at protection for women human rights defenders that recognizes the gendered needs that we have as defenders, while acknowledging that we don’t live in a different reality than other women, that we have double and triple shifts, that we are discriminated against in our organizational spaces, and on the street, and in our lives, and thus we require protection measures that not only come to our aid in an emergency or specific situation, but also give us the necessary power, resources, and leadership to be able to create safer environments for our protection. ~ Marusia López, JASS
Organizing When Violence is “Normalized”
As the international community eventually recognizes the elections and the LOBO (lender's option, borrower's option) government, the call for a return to democracy loses traction. Waning global attention emboldens the new regime and repression, violence, impunity and violation of human rights in the country become the norm. This “normalization” of violence is masked by Honduran media campaigns that downplay the abuses and seek to convince the nation and the world that Honduras is back to normal and “Open for Business”. The government’s steady repression of the opposition weakens social movements and much of the international community—under strong pressure from the U.S. government—supports the government. This presents a quandary to the resistance, which splits between those that opt for minimal engagement with the new government and those who refuse to recognize it.+ Read More
Grassroots organizers grapple with a sense of hopelessness about the possibility of ousting the conservative regime and face constant threats, fear and grief. Organizations suffer from attrition, division, repression, less support from outside and declining morale.
After the adrenalin rush of the early days of resistance, women and feminists sadly confront the institutionalization of the post-coup government. “We didn’t have the resources to sustain the resistance, our movement wasn’t strong enough… It was as if everything you’d struggled for was shattered and there was no way to turn back the clock. And every day we mourned the loss of another leader or friend,” said Daysi Flores, JASS Honduras. The seeming triumph of injustice is a bitter pill to swallow, and Honduran activists and their supporters face critical questions: How to sustain women activists and organizations for the long-haul and bring attention to the violence they face? How to get their story into the headlines and onto the public agenda?
Disrupting the Official Story and Bearing Witness
We look for a strategy to disrupt the veneer of normalcy and tell the truth both about the violence and about the courage of women activists and movements. Working with friends at the Nobel Women’s Initiative and regional allies we organize a women’s fact-finding delegation to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico led by Nobel Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu Tum. The purpose of the trip is to bear witness and gather firsthand evidence of the impact of escalating violence in the region on women and girls, assess the role and response of governments, and generate media pressure on policymakers.+ Read More
The delegation includes several journalists who generate media while other members of the delegation lay the foundation with JASS to advocate to the US and Canadian governments.
In late January 2012, over the course of 10 days we hear testimonies from over 200 women human right defenders, 100 at the delegation’s event in Tegucigalpa, Honduras alone. Many travel at great risk from across the country in order to tell the stories of their struggles for the first time in an international forum. Half come from indigenous and rural organizing efforts to defend land, water and territories from extractive industry concessions and drug traffickers.
Berta Caceres, one of the leaders of COPINH, who would later be internationally recognized, provides one of the most moving testimonies. COPINH’s increasing strength and leadership in the defense of life, women’s equality and human rights in Honduras has made it a target for repression and criminalization from government forces and transnational companies, along with other activists and organizations. Attacks and death threats, especially to Berta, become frequent. The delegation turns a spotlight on the courageous work of COPINH and other grassroots organizations and the specific threats to women leaders.
Leveraging the Spotlight: Inside-Outside Strategies
The delegation, because of its high profile leadership and visibility, receives the opportunity to meet with the President Porfirio Lobo and key officials. This sparks intense debate among the Honduran activists of whether or not meeting with him constitutes recognition of the legitimacy of his government and a break from the resistance political position.
Ultimately the delegates from the Nobel Women’s Initiative and JASS decide to meet with the president, alongside representatives of Feminists in Resistance. The meeting is undertaken to make the case directly to power and in hopes of finding any allies on the inside that could help bring pressure for change. In the meeting, among several demands, we demand that the government protect women activists.+ Read More
The Honduran feminists in a heated exchange, press for protection, an end to impunity and an agreement to ratify a United Nations recognized protocol that enables activists to report the government for violations. It is a powerful moment confronting the government officials behind so much devastation and suffering.
The delegation raises the profile of Honduran feminist organizations and the urgency of the situation, and the communications strategy results in extensive print and broadcast coverage of the Honduras visit. A powerful report highlights the evidence gathered and recommendations to address impunity and violence against activists is presented at an event in the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.
We also develop a closer relationship with COPINH and other grassroots organizations where women are defending land and territory.
Within a few months of the visit, the government imprisons Berta Cáceres. We spearhead her defense in partnership with COPINH and others, building national and international pressuring her release. Our collective efforts lead to her release—a sense of triumph for activists. Berta’s influence as a feminist leader grows among movements defending lands and territories, becoming increasingly recognized both nationally and internationally. The JASS team in Honduras plays a direct role in her protection and works alongside her in many political actions.
Within a year, the advocacy opens up an opportunity to lay the groundwork for ratifying the protocol. That progress is stalled when a new government is elected. The U.S. government’s financing continues despite the record of violation.
I would say that not only did the media cover up the violence, but also when it became apparent that something was going on, they even went so far as to justify the use of violence, and how did they justify this? By stigmatizing the resistance: they would call us ‘the filthy ones’, calling us dirty, lazy, that we should find a job, that we were all activists of a single party, enemies of the country". I think that social media and social networks played a very important role in making perfectly clear what was going on. They were used throughout the world and that helped tremendously to break the media blockade. ~ Daysi Flores, JASS Honduras
Finding a Way Where There Is No Way: Renewing Our Movement Building Strategy
At this point, we see few glimmers of hope for change. The government’s economic policies accelerate land and water grabs, granting 49 land concessions in Lenca territory alone. Indigenous organizations push back in Honduras and in the region, by blocking construction and roads for vehicles. They face more risks and suffer frequent attacks, even assassinations. Women are often at the forefront of these efforts but despite their high level of participation, few hold leadership roles and are otherwise invisible.
Overall militarization of the country under the pretext of the “war on drugs” along with conservative fundamentalisms threaten our movements, while instilling fear among the general public.+ Read More
As we assess possible movement building strategies in Honduras and the region, the needs of indigenous and rural women activists and their organizations feel critically important, particularly as they have less access to resources. They are often at the forefront of organizing but lack of public recognition and support for their roles. Even within our own Defenders Networks, there are challenges of trust across lines of privilege and difference: indigenous and mestiza (woman of mixed race), lesbian and heterosexual, poor and middle class. And there is a need for more systematic and sustained training for women leaders to strengthen their capacity and effectiveness in political action, and build other ways to increase their safety.
The Alquimia School for Rural and Indigenous Women
JASS creates and dedicates its feminist Leadership School (Alquimia) to indigenous and rural women in 2011. This three-year popular education and organizing program engages the participants in the fundamentals of feminist movement building: gender and power analysis, leadership capacities, alliance-building, communication, organizing strategies, an understanding of global processes, and mutual support/self-care. Twenty-five women from seven countries participate in this in-depth process of feminist popular education that combines in-class sessions twice a year with follow-up in each country.+ Read More
Participants in Alquimia, share hands-on experiences and build collective analysis and knowledge on strategic issues in the region, especially related to defense of land and territories. The course aims to find new ways to foster gender equality in all spheres—from the home, to our own organizations and movements, to society at large.
The Honduran women who attend the school come from key regional organizations, including COPINH and OFRANEH. Many are members of the national Defensoras network. The curriculum integrates JASS’ power framework and analysis self-care and protection within the practice and vision for women’s rights organizing in the context of broader movements. It also provides a space for mutual support and learning.
Personal and Political Transformation Open New Possibilities
Over the course of the three years, participants experience profound personal and political transformation as they share stories, political struggles, tears, laughter, knowledge and dreams. They develop friendships and strategic alliances, and begin to build a common analysis and vision. The individual support and healing lends strength to the emerging networks they’re a part of.Honduran organizers in the Alquimia School bring their experience of integrating feminist visions with national movements and inspire women from the other countries.+ Read More
The common ties of indigenous and rural worldviews or cosmovision and a commitment to women’s emancipation bridge differences among them. We apply JASS’ power analysis to day-to-day organizing, demonstrating the potential of transforming power over into the recognition of power within and the power to transform the world and women’s place in it. The school affirms and provides the how-tos for building power with, or collective power, to affect social and political change.
During the course of three years, women have shared materials and training with women and men in their communities and organizations, and built a powerful political bond amongst each other. This bond is powerful enough that the day before they graduate from the course, they decide to form the Mesoamerican Alliance of Indigenous, Rural and Mestiza Women in the struggle for land and natural resources.
I think that the Lilian back then left behind one story and began another story as a leader flying over various communities, very active, very strong, and tremendously enriched by my learning, from when I didn’t know who I was, about my past or my present, and now I identify as another woman leader, overflying territories, flying, making other women take flight, helping many other women. Everything that I was dragging behind is no longer with me because I am a woman who can contribute to and strengthen more women who can become leaders, bearers of the histories they have experienced. ~ Lillian Esperanza Lopez Benitez, Honduras
The Assassination of Berta Cáceres
In 2015, in Honduras and Guatemala, grassroots protests against massive corruption scandals open up new opportunities for building women’s leadership and movements. In Honduras, a torchlight protests against the President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, and his illegal use of public health funds bring together many organizations. Although Feminists in Resistance don’t play the same leadership role they had in the period following the coup, women participate actively in the protests and help build international solidarity.Then on March 2, 2016, Honduras is shaken by the murder of beloved leader, Berta Cáceres in her home in La Esperanza. The assassination sends shock waves around the world where COPINH and Berta had allies among environmental, indigenous, human rights and feminist organizations.+ Read More
For JASS and hundreds of others, Berta was a role model, an inspiration and a close personal ally and friend. Her death causes widespread grief and anger.
It also shatters many assumptions. In 2015 Berta received the Goldman Environmental Prize, and she traveled around the world building solidarity and calling for women’s and indigenous rights, and environmental justice. She spoke firmly about an end to militarization and the concessions and megaprojects that displace indigenous peoples. Her high international profile convinced many that despite death threats, she was ultimately safe against the government and other private sector actors who sought to silence her. When she received the award, there was great tension in Honduras and several activists received threats, including the JASS staff. We knew that her visibility was critical to her cause, but could see how the interests against her were sowing the seeds of division and conflict within communities by slandering her publicly.
Since her death, many Honduran women activists now fear for their lives. The murder reveals the extent to which powerful interests will go to protect those interests. Berta’s assassins sought to paralyze social movements. But within days of her murder, women and feminist leaders join many others to mobilize action in the streets and at the global level.
Mobilization of indignation in Berta’s name
The assassination of Berta leads to powerful actions and the mobilization of campaigns, media and advocacy on a local to global scale. In Honduras, grassroots organizations and human rights groups stand by COPINH to protest and demand justice in La Esperanza and Tegucigalpa. COPINH restructures its leadership to confront the crisis and begins to activate the solidarity relationships it has cultivated for years under Berta’s leadership. Overwhelming sadness and a sense of defeat give way to indignation, action and unprecedented international and national support from a wide range of actors. Berta’s daughters and the COPINH leadership spearhead a phase of intense mobilization.+ Read More
Within a week, JASS pulls together a delegation to New York—taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the heads of state gathered at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Supported by many allies and collaborating donors, the delegation is led by Berta’s daughter, Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, Lillian Lopez, an emerging leader in COPINH, Yesica Trinidad, Coordinator of the Defensoras network and Daysi Flores from JASS. With an outpouring of support, the delegation has an intensive week of media interviews—dfrom CNN to the Guardian, high-level meetings, a rally in the rain that gathers more than 600 New Yorkers, and culminates with a speech by young Bertha before the Plenary of the UN CSW calling for justice and an independent investigation into her mother’s murder. She also calls for an immediate halt to the Gualcarque River dam project her mother worked so hard to stop and a review of all other infrastructure and development projects in the country to determine whether they comply with the requirement of “free, prior and informed consent” from indigenous peoples on their land. Her speech generates widespread media coverage and international attention. The visit connects the activists and JASS with a new range of allies eager to take action.
The assassination is also a wake-up call to improve and intensify protection measures for human rights defenders. Women’s organizations insist that her feminist organizing and values be remembered as part of her story and integral to the alternative vision of COPINH. Berta clearly and publicly identified patriarchy as a core oppressive system of society and COPINH continues with its anti-patriarchy schools today. JASS joins with international allies, DC-based justice groups and the Women Human Rights networks to call for justice and support for Berta’s demand for an immediate halt to the dam project and the policies of exploitation and extraction on indigenous lands, and for the suspension of US aid.
“The Emergence of Many Bertas”
It’s still too early to tell what changes will come in the wake of Berta’s assassination but the collaboration between environmentalists, feminists, human rights and indigenous peoples in the name of Berta and COPINH is unprecedented and exactly the kind of cross-movement agenda that Berta was building. With the international spotlight turned on the Agua Zarca dam project, international investors are backing away. There is renewed awareness of the destructive impact of megaprojects on indigenous and rural communities that many hope will translate into stronger movements to defend lands and territories, and better safeguards and enforcement mechanisms to protect the rights of rural and indigenous peoples.+ Read More
More intense alliance building has occurred in the past few months than in all the past years put together and a steady strategy of strategic media, research and advocacy has kept pressure on both the U.S. and the Honduran government. In June 2016, a bill— H.R.5474 - Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras—to suspend security aid to Honduras until human rights violations have been addressed was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the center and anchoring this important work is COPINH—a powerful legacy able to galvanize such a multiplying force for change.
Because Berta refused to be defined as just one thing—an environmentalist, a feminist, an indigenous rights activist—her life has become an inspiration to cross lines and link movements. The defense of land and territories takes on renewed force with the attention to her work, but so do movements against militarization, for women’s rights and to end the “war on drugs”. The image of her smiling on the bank of the river she loved and protected challenges our movements to be at once joyful and committed—something that has been at the heart of JASS’ feminist organizing through the worst of times.
Despite the difficulties, Honduran women leaders have shown the world what feminist organizing and courage looks like as they affirm their commitment to building hope as the strongest force of all for making change.
Something else that we did was to press forward our demand for justice, to pressure the government of Honduras so that there would be no impunity in this assassination..We couldn’t allow that, in addition to killing the body of a compañera, they also killed the symbol, what she signified; because if they kill the symbol, they kill the struggle.. It was a matter of disseminating these arguments abroad so that, after five months, they continue to be relevant. I think that if we hadn’t done things in this way from the beginning, this case would have been covered up, like others. ~ Daysi Flores
In the spirit of Berta Caceres, this is a story that captures many narratives. It is a story about Honduran women’s struggle both for their own rights and for justice for all Hondurans. It’s a story about women’s leadership in building broad social movements that bring together indigenous peoples, trade unionists, farmers, human rights activists and feminists. It’s a story about united citizen-led efforts for democracy and security in a context of deepening political crisis, violence and militarization. It is a story of local, regional and global mobilization against repression and corruption. And it’s a story of fear and hope, of great courage and great risk.
I believe that one of the things [that was important] was to call ourselves “feminists” in a struggle that involved the entire population. This is something that must be emphasized. We should be capable of building… in fact, I think we broke a sexiststereotype regarding feminism that alleges that we feminists are really elitists who aren’t part of the people’s struggles, etc. I think that’s one of the most powerful things. Because the feminists didn’t participate as just an additional part of the struggle; rather, feminists contributed to the debate. ~ Daysi Flores
One of things that we stressed a lot was the fact that we women make up half of the world and half of heaven, so we are half of everything, of all struggles and movements, and so patriarchy became a cross-cutting matter. In other words, patriarchy involves abuse of power and the abuse of power at home runs parallel to the abuse of power within the state. ~ Daysi Flores
If they can kill such a high profile activist like Berta in such a devastating way, what kind of message is that sending to us, the thousands of other activists in Honduras who put their lives on the line everyday to demand justice and respect for people's right? ~ Daysi Flores, JASS Honduras
I think that this alliance will lead to more organizing, and not just with Alquimia, but also with other organizations that will be contributing. For me this means that we will have to be more alert to what has to be done, why we have to ally with each other, for not only me to be a leader but also bring in other women to be “alchemists”. This alliance will make us become stronger..to strengthen our countries, strengthen our struggles. ~ Lillian Esperanza Lopez Benitez