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CENTRAL AMERICA: Progress for Women’s Rights More Impressive on Paper

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jul 6 2011 (IPS) - After protracted battles, women in Central America and southern Mexico have made headway in winning respect for their rights over the past decade, but the progress has been more formal than real, say women academics and activists.

“A number of achievements have been made, mainly in formal and legal terms, with regard to women’s rights,” Adelay Carías, a researcher with the Honduran NGO Feministas en Resistencia (Feminists in Resistance), told IPS.

“Now all of the countries have laws against domestic violence and national women’s institutes. Furthermore, there are women’s prosecutor’s offices and the women’s movement has become an important interlocutor with the state, with growing influence,” she added, referring to the countries of Mesoamerica.

Mesoamerica comprises the seven countries of Central America – Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – plus the nine states of southern and southeast Mexico, and has a combined population of 70 million people, with high overall poverty rates.

Despite the progress made, Carías says the accomplishments are not yet tangible for women in the region. “Achieving real and substantial changes in the lives of women is still a major challenge,” she said.

The activist said women’s rights are still being trampled – a situation that has taken a turn for the worse in Honduras since the June 2009 coup d’état that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.

“Women had the right to use emergency contraception (the ‘morning-after pill’) for 20 years, but the day after the coup it was banned,” she complained. “We have been the victims of repression, and our National Women’s Institute was weakened.”

Walda Barrios, director of the gender programme at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Guatemala, told IPS that without a doubt, progress has been made in the fight for the rights of women in Mesoamerica.

She added that “in countries like Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador there is now specific legislation clamping down on violence against women, under the specific concept of ‘femicide’,” a term coined for misogynist or gender-related murders of women.

She also mentioned strides made in other areas. “In the case of Guatemala, we have seen the creation of new academic and institutional spaces like the Women’s Institute in the University of San Carlos,” she said.

One of the aims of the Women’s Institute, which began to function in 2005, is to foment the participation of women in driving and guiding Guatemala’s development process, and in coming up with solutions to combat the oppression, marginalisation and discrimination of which women are victims.

Barrios also cited the strengthening of the Presidential Secretariat for Women, established in 2000 to coordinate public policies for the promotion of women’s development.

But in politics, for example, limited progress has been made in the last decade, and the marginalisation of women continues, the activist said.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in Mesoamerica, Costa Rica has the highest proportion of women lawmakers, 39 percent of the total, followed by Mexico, with 26 percent. Belize, which does not have a single female legislator, is in last place in the region.

“There have also been setbacks, in terms of the rise in violence against women, for instance,” said Barrios – despite the fact that there is now a greater number of institutions overseeing women’s rights and more laws to punish domestic and gender-based violence.

In 2009, women’s organisations reported that more than 2,000 femicides were committed in Central America and Mexico.

In Guatemala, the most hostile country in the region for women, more than 5,000 women have been murdered since 2000.

This is occurring in the context of high overall levels of violence, especially in the so-called “northern triangle” of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – which have some of the highest murder rates in the world: 52 per 100,000, 48 per 100,000 and 58 per 100,000, respectively, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Central American Human Development Report 2009-2010. This is in comparison to a global average of nine per 100,000 people and a Latin America average of 25 per 100,000.

“It’s the machismo, the patriarchal model of society, the idea that our place is to be mothers, wives and homemakers, and that producing knowledge is a man’s thing,” said Barrios. “Although that has started to change, it’s still the predominant mindset.”

Mayra Alvarado with the non-governmental Unión Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (National Union of Guatemalan Women – UNAMG) concurs with Barrios.

“There have been changes favourable to women in general, but over the last 10 years the violence has gotten out of control, while in politics women still have a hard time gaining access to public positions,” she told IPS.

“The social inequality, poverty, illiteracy, limited opportunities for education, etc, suffered by a majority of women fuel the violence,” she said.

Indigenous women, meanwhile, suffer the most extreme, and cruel, marginalisation, although they have overcome some hurdles as well.

“Many (native) women have grown in awareness that they are valuable people who have something to contribute, and this is a battle won, because these people have always been neglected and discriminated against,” Margarita Mayoral with the non-governmental Centro Nacional de Ayuda a las Misiones Indígenas (National Centre to Support Indigenous Missions) in Mexico, told IPS.

“They weren’t even seen as people, but as animals,” she said.

“Of course there is still a long way to go,” but “many indigenous women and men have gained awareness now and have recovered their sense of dignity.”

She said that in Mexico, where indigenous people are variously estimated to make up between 12 and 30 percent of the country’s 110 million people (the smaller, official, estimate is based on the number of people who actually speak an indigenous language), the 1994 uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) was key in “bringing visibility to native people, showing that we exist and that we want to be taken into account.”

On Jan. 1, 1994, thousands of indigenous people in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas organised in the barely-armed EZLN occupied several communities demanding justice and respect for the rights of Indians. But although a ceasefire was declared after just two weeks and the group has not fired a single shot since then, it drew global attention to the discrimination and poverty suffered by the country’s native people.

And the struggle continues. “Indigenous people have to be active subjects of their own development, as they grow in awareness of their own identity, as valuable people who can contribute to society and to the world,” she said.

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