Four walls won’t hold us: Honduran women are breaking free

We want freedom, not four walls. We see a future without violence and impunity. Without impunity, the violence could be investigated; the murderers and abusers would be jailed. Our struggle is against the patriarchal system. Español

Honduran feminist activist María Luisa Regalado, photographed by Whitney Godoy. All rights reserved.

I come from a
very large and very poor, rural family. We all worked on a big farm without
pay, and because of the conditions under which we were forced to live, there
were times when I would rebel; I was always quite rebellious.

My dad was a
very imposing figure in our lives; a real patriarch. He never hit my mum but he
was violent in his words and attitudes and it made me very angry. I recall when
I was young hoping that my dad would die first so that she could live her later
years in peace. It was not to be.

I grew up resentful of exploitation, always ready to resist. Because I had to work I never went to school, no one in my family did. I was 22 years old when I learned to write my name

My mum died
first and was closely followed by my dad. I was left behind with two sisters,
aged eight and twelve and my brother who was fifteen. I had to finish bringing
them up: a child raising three children.

I grew up
resentful of exploitation, always ready to resist. Because I had to work I
never went to school, no one in my family did. I was 22 years old when I
learned to write my name. I really wanted an education so when my parents died,
I joined the church. Out in the countryside it was the only option.

There was a
progressive priest there named Father Factomia. He was a very committed man,
very critical of militarisation and the regional impact of intervention by the
right-wing paramilitary Nicaraguan contras. When I met him, he was openly denouncing the war that in El Salvador
and was very supportive of the refugees.  He coordinated voluntary work in
the community and the refugee camps. When I wasn’t caring for my siblings, I
was helping him.

Father Factomia
was the first person to teach me about the social justice work. In 1982, he was
forced into exile in Mexico because the military wanted him dead. The new
priest only knew how to pray, so I left soon after he did.

A feminist in Honduras

If it had not
always been, by now my path was set. I joined the first peasant organisation
for women, The Federation of Honduran Women Peasants. They were part of a Christian
worker’s federation, which was marred by deep political tensions between
progressives and conservatives. The leadership thought we were making too much
noise with “leftist issues” – so now it was my turn to be driven out. Along
with two other women, I was expelled.

Undeterred, we
formed our own peasant organisation to work closely with what was to become
Honduras’ Trade Union Congress. I participated in its founding but was soon
exhausted by the continuous internal struggles. A part of me wanted to go back
to my village and build a life there; but I was too tied up in the fight, too
wedded to the idea that justice was possible. So, I stayed in the capital,
Tegucigalpa. Together with my compañeras, we founded what CODEMUH is today: a
feminist, anti-establishment, anti-imperialist organisation. That was in June,
1989.

 As a women’s organisation, we soon discovered that feminism was considered an even more dangerous topic than anti-imperialism.

The 1980s were
the height of anti-imperialist struggle in the capital. In the villages and
barrios though, people still thought it was a dangerous discussion to be having.
They were afraid of being associated with us because of the military repression.
So, in the early 1990s we renamed ourselves Colectiva de Mujeres Hondureñas:
the Collective of Honduran Women (CODEMUH): a feminist name. Back then, we
didn’t understand the pillars of feminism but we knew we knew that was our true
identity.

As a women’s
organisation, we soon discovered that feminism was considered an even more
dangerous topic than anti-imperialism, even in the city. We were striving to
work with women across society, from peasant women like me to students, trade
unionists and civil servants. But we found that women weren’t very interested
in speaking about gender, much less feminism. Often, women would ask us what
the point was. “Let’s free the country first,” they’d say, referring to the
struggle for national independence. “The other transformations will follow,
only after the country belongs to the people.”

We knew this
wasn’t right, that we needed to understand and confront gender violence in our
communities, here and now. An independence movement which does not recognise the
voices, perspectives and work of women will never bring us freedom. Likewise,
the Honduran movement against economic imperialism - the struggle for true
independence - would be fatally weakened by the exclusion of women, who make up
half of the population.

 Until 1955 women were not even citizens in Honduras, we had no right to vote, no political or human rights whatsoever. All the gains made since then had come from our own work. 

Until 1955 women
were not even citizens in Honduras, we had no right to vote, no political or human
rights whatsoever. All the gains made since then had come from women’s own
work. We know that to assert our beliefs and have our rights respected, we need
to be part of the political struggle.

We also have to
educate each other, because we need a women’s movement that thinks critically
and sees clearly the root causes of our oppression. Without that vision, the
problems facing our society look very different and so do the solutions. I am
often offered money for labour rights work by corporate funders. We will sit
and talk with them, but we cannot take money from the same corporations that
are failing to guarantee the rights of women in the workplace, or paying us
fair wages, or supporting better conditions for us.  

They fear us

In the
beginning, these commitments cost us dearly. Eomen left and in the end just
three of us remained to build what CODEMUH is today: a women-led grassroots
organisation that has survived for 20 years to fight for the empowerment and
rights of women workers. It is run by feminists seeking change in society that
allows women to realise our potential, free from exclusion and discrimination.

Today we have
150 members organising women in factories across the garment factory sector. Our
greatest achievement has been to take women out of the world of four walls: the
four walls of the kitchen and the four walls of the garment factories - so that
their faces our recognised and their voices heard.

Another success
has been that women take ownership of their own liberation and find courage to
publicly denounce abuse at work, by the state, in the media and around the world.
This includes taking legal action through the courts. We also play a vital role
in raising awareness to have conditions like occupational musculoskeletal
disorders, which are caused by corporate exploitation, recognized as
occupational diseases. CODEMUH is an international benchmark for its expertise
in labour law.

I am thankful
that CODEMUH has grown strong, but time has proven our original perspective
right in the worst possible way. Under the past two administrations, the cause
of women’s liberation has been pushed backwards into a defensive war.

 Women and their bodies have become the battlefields of the big organised crime gangs.

The coup of 2009
and the global financial crash threw us into a political crisis. The gangs,
drug trafficking and organised crime escalated, all with links to the political
establishment. Women and their bodies have become the battlefields of the big
organised crime gangs.

CODEMUH also lost
many sources of funding. We were forced to cut staff and it was a terrible
time. We only survived thanks to the resilience of the women organising our
outreach groups, who really stepped up and developed as leaders.

Instead of
moving to protect the women of Honduras, the state sits back and justifies
violence against us by saying that women are involved in the drug trafficking
and crime. Women are routinely accused and stigmatised without investigation.
The public money spent on security is wasted through corruption. The killers
know they can murder with impunity and sleep with their doors open. 97 per cent
of the time when a woman is murdered, no one is punished

Those in power
would have women return to the world of four walls. Many political campaigns
that claim to represent women’s interests offer only conciliatory gifts
designed to keep us at home. Several government proposals to implement tortilla
microenterprises are designed to send women back into the kitchen. When women
are injured in street protests, the authorities say: “it’s her fault for being on
the street and not where she should be.”

But we want
freedom, not four walls. We see a future without violence and impunity. Without
impunity, the violence could be investigated; the murderers and abusers would
be jailed. Our struggle is against the patriarchal system, which is not only
against abuse by men but the system that justifies it and the state that offers
no justice for women.

Now we are taking
to the streets, demanding our human rights: our rights as women and workers,
they fear us. We are pushing back against domestic violence, sexual harassment
and killings; against those who see women as things and not as people. This is
our fight, beyond the world of four walls, to dismantle the structures of the
patriarchy. It is a lifetime’s struggle. But it belongs to us.

___

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