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Femicide rates in this country are higher than anywhere else in Latin America, and shelters say it’s getting worse as police leave abusers unpunished for increasingly vicious crimes

This mother of three in Cortes, Honduras, has moved several times to avoid an abusive ex-partner with gang connections. She was one of several Hondurans The Globe and Mail interviewed to understand the scope of gendered violence in the Central American country.

Behind a heavy locked door facing the bustling streets of Tegucigalpa, and down a path lined in green trees, sits one of the few sanctuaries in Honduras for women fleeing violence.

They show up here every day, many with children. Some arrive starving and sleep deprived, with just the clothes on their back. Others are seriously injured.

They usually stay for one or two nights, sharing a room of bunk beds, before deciding if they want to go to a longer-term shelter.

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Ana Cruz is director of a women's shelter in Tegucigalpa, Asociacion Calidad de Vida.

Ana Cruz, the director of the Asociacion Calidad de Vida, opened the shelter 27 years ago.

Back then, she was hearing about women trying to report domestic violence to authorities, only to be turned away – facing harsher abuse when they returned home. She wanted to give them a place to go instead.

Since then, she’s seen the violence become more severe, and that need has only grown. Last year, five women have showed up to her shelter missing a hand owing to a machete wound inflicted by a man.

“We see the aggression increasing because there’s no jail, no penalty and there’s impunity,” she said. “We suffer a lot of danger because of being a woman.”

An estimated 45,000 women and girls worldwide were killed by their intimate partners or other family members in 2021, according to a report from UN Women published in November. 7,500 of those homicides occurred in the Americas.

A separate UN report, which detailed a breakdown by country for the same year, found that among 11 Latin American countries, Honduras had the highest rate of femicide – murders of women that are gender-motivated – with 4.6 cases per 100,000 women.

Women’s organizations estimate that 90 per cent of Honduran femicides go unpunished.

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At Ms. Cruz's shelter, educational pamphlets pile up on shelves underneath a security-camera monitor.

Organizations in Honduras that support women receive funds from other countries and international groups. Canada provided $30.8-million to Honduras in 2021-22, the majority of which went to multilateral organizations formed by groups of countries, followed by Canadian organizations working in Honduras, and other foreign organizations.

Geneviève Tremblay, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said all of the government’s funding to Honduras supports the objectives of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, meant to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls around the world. She added that, through the Women’s Voice and Leadership initiative in Honduras, “Canada is working to improve the capacity, services and advocacy of twenty-two local women’s rights organizations and platforms.”

Four of those organizations operate shelters for women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, including the Asociacion Calidad de Vida.

To understand the scope of the problem, and what is being done to protect women in Honduras, The Globe and Mail travelled throughout the country and spoke with dozens of women’s rights activists, professors, lawyers and survivors of violence. Experts and victims say a culture of impunity, machismo, religious conservatism, powerful street gangs and corruption among leaders have created the perfect conditions for this epidemic of violence.

As well as arranging shelter, Ms. Cruz’s organization also provides a number of other services, such as access to lawyers, psychologists, social workers and medical workers. In total, they support about 1,200 women and children each year. On top of all that, the Asociacion Calidad de Vida does advocacy work to push for laws that will prevent gender-based violence. In Honduras, Ms. Cruz said, the systemic oppression of women, as well as faith-based conservatism, puts them at constant risk.

“Our culture is very religious,” said Ms. Cruz. “So women get advice that they have to forgive.”

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Miriam Amador works with a survivor at Asociacion Calidad de Vida. Honduras has the highest rates of femicide in Latin America, about 4.6 women out of 100,000 in 2021.

The shelter has a children’s room filled with toys and a kitchen for preparing meals. Most women who come here stay a night or two as they decide where to go next.
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Ms. Cruz, who founded Asociacion Calidad de Vida 27 years ago, says the women she's seen here recently have shown more serious injuries than before, such as missing hands.

Vanessa Siliezar is a woman who has worn many hats. She began her career as a criminal lawyer before becoming a college professor teaching women’s studies and human rights. She’s also in charge of the gender unit in the Regional Observatory of Violence, which is an office within the National Autonomous University of Honduras. There, she works with women from civil society to validate statistics of violent deaths of women, analyzing individual cases and determining the cause of death.

In addition to that work, Ms. Siliezar runs the Unit for the Integral Development of Women and the Family (UDIMUF), which she and a group of women founded 16 years ago in the coastal city of La Ceiba.

Back then, the non-governmental organization opened a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence. Today, UDIMUF – which receives some financial support from Canada – also provides legal and emotional care for domestic-violence survivors and victims.

Like Ms. Cruz, Ms. Siliezar has seen horrors, especially at the violence observatory. “We have had cases of women killed while they are pregnant,” she said, adding that sometimes the fetuses are then taken out of their bellies to send a message, usually to the man in the woman’s life.

She said her organization sends some women, particularly victims of human trafficking, to Ms. Cruz’s shelter in Tegucigalpa, so they will be far from their perpetrator.

Ms. Siliezar said a lack of any real punishment for violence against women creates a situation where men commit these brutalities again and again. Compounding that problem, she said, is that weapons are easily obtained, and men do not have any education on healthy masculinity. “They really want to control our lives,” she said. “I’m gonna be 46 next week and I’m not happy, you know? Because I’m getting older and I’m really tired. I think nothing is gonna change.”

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Vanessa Siliezar is director of UDIMUF, an organization for survivors of domestic abuse which receives part of its funding from Canada.

Honduras is one of the poorest and most unequal countries in Latin America, according to the World Bank. In 2019, the organization reported that about half of the population lived on less than US$6.85 a day. Human development is among the lowest in the region, according to its human capital indicator, which found that a child born in Honduras will be almost half as productive when they grow up than they could be if they were guaranteed adequate education and health care.

Luis Martinez Estrada, a sociologist and the co-ordinator of the Regional Violence Observatory, said the rise of violence in Honduras spans decades but intensified in the 2000s. Although he said some progress was being made in human rights, the 2009 coup that ousted president Manuel Zelaya reversed some of that.

“We saw a militarization of our society and how politicians with connections regained the power of the country,” he said. The narrative, he added, has become one of “you can do whatever you want and you will not get punished.”

Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that Honduras’ justice system has suffered political interference for years – and that laws hindering prosecutors’ capacity to investigate “have enabled impunity for corrupt acts that contribute to human rights violations.”

Mr. Martinez Estrada described the situation as a vicious cycle: The atmosphere of impunity results in more people solving conflict through violence. Those who suffer the most, he added, are young women.

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Schoolchildren clean a playground in La Ceiba, a Caribbean port on the northern Honduran coast. Lack of education and health care can take a heavy toll on children in Honduras, one of the region's poorest and least equal countries.

Women across Honduras described the country’s deep religious conservatism as influencing both how authorities respond to violence against women, and why women feel they must endure abuse.

A 31-year-old woman who stayed at Ms. Cruz’s shelter said she sought help after being drugged and raped by a hotel employee while staying at a resort in Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. But even after reporting the crime, there have been no consequences for the perpetrator.

“Because of our culture, I have been called responsible because I was carrying condoms, I was travelling alone and I was drinking alcohol celebrating my birthday,” she said.

Another young woman, who found shelter with Ms. Siliezar’s organization, pointed to her faith as one reason she spent 10 years waiting for her abusive husband to change. As a Christian, she was taught to believe people can transform for the better. But that never happened.

“If the Bible says that hell is a place of torment, I can say that I lived in hell,” she said.

The violence in her home began with her husband yelling, punching the wall, and throwing chairs and plates. When he found out she was pregnant with a second child, and that it was another girl, he beat her because he wanted a boy.

One night, he punched her two-year-old daughter. But she stayed with him even then. “That’s the way I lived for years and years.”

Finally, last February she reported him to the police, and they told her about the shelter in La Ceiba. She stayed there for a month, but not wanting her daughter to miss the start of the school year, she eventually returned to her husband. She hoped once again that he could change. Instead, the violence got worse.

“Every night he used to whisper in my ear that he was going to kill me, how he was going to kill me, and where he was going to dump my body,” she said.

She prayed to God not to let her fall asleep and tried desperately not to cry, because if she did, her young daughter would wake and beg her to stop.

She said she never really wanted to live with her husband, but felt she had to. “You want to be worthy before the eyes of God and that’s why I married him,” she said. She also wanted to escape her father, who once drunkenly chased her with a machete.

After suffering more after returning to her husband, she finally did get away. She packed a backpack and left with her daughter, walking into the street without knowing where they would go. They ended up staying with a friend, then her mom, and eventually finding an apartment.

Still, her husband would drunkenly stalk around her mother’s house in the middle of the night.

Reflecting on her time in the shelter, she said she learned from hearing about other women’s experiences that women “have almost no worth at all in our society.”

“You see in the news almost every day that some woman has been killed in the country and you know it’s not normal,” she said. “It’s very difficult to be a woman here.”

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This 31-year-old sought help at Ms. Cruz's shelter in Tegucigalpa after an employee at a Roatan resort drugged and sexually assaulted her. He has faced no consequences since she reported the attack to police.

Beyond the personal impacts of domestic violence, the increasing number of women who are forced to flee creates migration issues within and beyond Honduran borders.

The United Nations refugee agency reported that, so far in 2023, it has served more than 15,000 people, primarily those displaced within the country. The agency attributes the causes of forced displacement to violence, extortion, social and territorial control by armed groups, forced recruitment, gender-based violence and human rights violations.

In March, Canada announced it would accept 15,000 migrants from Latin America. The commitment was made as part of a deal Canada reached with the United States. Under the agreement, each country can turn back asylum seekers trying to cross the border.

“This pathway with economic opportunities will be a safe alternative to the dangerous journeys many are forced to take when fleeing their country of origin,” said Bahoz Dara Aziz, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marc Miller.

Rema Jamous Imseis, the UN refugee agency’s representative to Canada, said Canada has an important role to play in helping respond to forced displacement in Central America, including Honduras.

“At a time of record-high forced displacement in the Americas, we also need Canada to continue providing humanitarian and long-term funding to the region, so countries like Honduras can support people forced to flee, prevent further displacement and work with countries in the region to ensure that those in need of international protection have access to asylum.”

In Cortes, a region in Honduras with a heavy presence of violent gangs, a mother of three shares how she has had to move multiple times to keep hidden from her ex-partner, who is tied to a powerful gang.

In the past he had told her that her children were not going to be able to identify her body, not even by her hair, after he killed her.

To further instill fear, she says people connected to her husband murdered many of her cats. “They kill them and they place them in front of the house so that I get a message.”

She said she doesn’t know why her ex-partner continues to torment her, but believes he’s only letting her live because their 12-year-old daughter is with her. Her son from a previous relationship, who is older, fled the country two years ago, and she has enlisted the help of refugee agencies to help her and her daughter do the same.

Standing outside on a private balcony, the woman’s face was full of worry but she remained defiant: “We have been told that as women, we should not talk about these things, that we are better if we keep quiet.”

She says she’s made multiple complaints to the police about the abuse and threats, but they’ve done nothing.

“I fear for my mother’s life, my daughter’s life and my life,” she said. “I don’t want to be another number in the femicide rates.”

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This mother of three in Cortes fears that her custody of her 12-year-old daughter is the only reason her ex-partner has not yet killed her. She is seeking help to leave Honduras as a refugee.

Women who support victims of violence persevere – often placing their own safety at risk.

Zoila Lagos, a 70-year-old activist in Choloma – a manufacturing city in the Cortes region – is a co-founding partner and general co-ordinator of Asociacion de Apoyo Mutuo Honduras, which provides support for women suffering abuse. Owing to its high level of gang activity, the area of Choloma they work in is considered the most violent in the city.

She uses her home for the headquarters of their work – but wishes they had funding that would allow her to rent an office.

“Taking on cases in my own house is really placing myself at risk and I just really wish to have a safe space after 20 years of doing this work for women and children.”

In some cases, they have helped women report abuse to police, where they are made to feel responsible for the violence they’ve endured. Ms. Lagos said they teach the women not to listen to those words, and to fight for their right to file a complaint.

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From her home in Choloma, Zoila Lagos works for a group she co-founded to help survivors of violence against women.

Discouraged, some women abandon the process, and later Ms. Lagos and her colleagues sometimes learn that they have been killed by their partners.

In some exceptional cases, Ms. Lagos helps women leave the country.

Through her organization, she said, she’s saved lives. She wishes, though, that the government would act to prevent violence in the country.

“It doesn’t matter if they are approving laws that aren’t being applied or enforced,” she said. “A lot of women are being murdered and nobody is in jail.”

Ms. Cruz said now that more women are reporting abuse, more shelters are needed. She has been pushing for the approval of a shelter law that would provide government funding to existing shelters so they would not need to rely as much on support from Canada and other countries.

But that’s just one step, she said.

“We need more strengthening and sensitization of justice operators because I believe it is in their hands,” she said, explaining that the current penal code even lowered penalties for crimes against women in recent years. To her, it’s a travesty that women and girls have to turn to her organization to seek justice rather than being able to rely on the state.

“We want to do more, but we know we are few doing this work.”

The trip to Honduras was partly funded by Bigger than Our Borders, an NGO-supported initiative urging the Canadian government to increase foreign-aid programs. They did not direct, review or approve the article.

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