The president of Honduras promised to empower women. He will be successful?

He came to power promising to loosen one of the world’s toughest restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. However, after several months in office, Honduras’s first female president, Xiomara Castro, is struggling to keep her promises as attempts to empower women reignite the country’s bitter ideological divisions.

In November, Castro, 62, became the country’s first leftist candidate to win the election, promising social equality after more than a century of almost uninterrupted conservative and military rule. She built a broad coalition of urban intellectuals, small businessmen, landless peasants, indigenous and black groups, LGBTQ people, and women who propelled her to a landslide victory against the ruling party adversary.

In its Government planCastro said he would promote sex education, combat gender-based violence, bring more women into the economy, legalize abortion in limited circumstances and repeal the ban on emergency contraceptive pills.

“The political agenda of women and feminists will be my priority”, said in August, during his campaign.

These slogans have immense symbolism in a male-dominated society that has the highest index of murders of women and girls in Latin America, and where one in four women becomes pregnant before reaching the age of 19, according to the United Nations.

Now, a sexual abuse scandal is testing Castro’s promises to bring about lasting social change for women.

In March, female students at the prestigious Zamorano University, near the capital Tegucigalpa, protested accusations that a college student raped two female colleagues. Police briefly detained the man but released him and closed the case after the two women refused to testify.

While the legal case and protests quickly fizzled out, they sparked a broader debate in Honduras about access to emergency contraception, as well as the role of religion in politics, exposing cracks in the fragile governing coalition. of Castro.

Feminist organizations and their political supporters have called on Castro to keep his promise to legalize emergency contraception. Many Honduran activists who supported Castro’s candidacy have since joined his government, mounting domestic pressure to act.

“It is time for the PAE to be approved”, wrote on March 21 on Twitter Jorge Cálix, a prominent legislator from Castro’s party, following a protest by Zamorano students, using the abbreviation commonly used in Honduras for the emergency contraceptive pill.

Honduras is currently the only country in the world that has a blanket legal ban on emergency contraceptive pills, according to the International Emergency Contraception Consortium, a policy research group. It is also among the five Latin American countries that prohibit abortion under any circumstances.

Although prohibited, emergency contraceptive pills are openly sold in some pharmacies in Tegucigalpa for about $10 a dose. But according to women’s rights advocates, those living in poor and rural areas lack access to them.

Human rights activists say the easing of the ban on emergency contraception has been delayed by the socially conservative party in Castro’s coalition, underscoring the president’s challenge to keep the various alliances that They brought her to power.

Until now, Castro has largely delegated the issue of emergency contraception to José Manuel Matheu, the health secretary and a member of Salvador de Honduras, an allied center-right party. Matheu, who is a doctor, has said that the legalization of the pill it’s not your priorityand last month added that I would consult the Catholic Church about the topic.

The main Christian congregations in Honduras oppose the use of emergency contraception, arguing that the pill can interrupt an established pregnancy.

To support their case, they cite the label of Plan B One-Step, the most well-known emergency contraceptive in the United States, which says that there is a possibility that it will prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

However, scientific evidence does not support the idea that emergency contraceptive pills can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Instead, as the package insert for Plan B One-Step indicates, the pills work primarily by preventing ovulation, the release of an egg before it can be fertilized by sperm.

Castro’s office, Matheu, and the spokesman for the Honduran Catholic Church, the Rev. Juan Ángel López, did not respond or declined to comment for this article.

Rights groups have questioned Matheu’s decision to consult the church, pointing out that according to the constitution, Honduras is a secular state.

However, ignoring religious concerns about contraception would only stoke social tensions at a time when Castro is up against conservative interests in other areas of the economy and society, said Natalie Roque, Honduran human rights secretary. , who helped draft the government’s progressive agenda.

Nine out of ten Hondurans are considered Catholics or evangelical Christians.

The government “is not in a position to open another front with an enemy as powerful as the Church,” Roque said, adding that legalizing the pill now would “merely add fuel to the fire.”

This cautious attitude reflects in part the lasting impact of the military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Castro’s husband, 14 years ago and derailed the earlier attempt to redistribute power in Honduras.

As president, Zelaya thwarted an earlier attempt by the country’s conservative-dominated Congress to ban emergency contraception by vetoing the proposal. A month later, in June 2008, the army arrested him at his residence and installed a provisional conservative government that proceeded to kick off the ban.

Castro is now trying to balance the pressure for greater reproductive rights from civil society and feminist organizations against the “great power acquired by the church after the coup,” said Joaquín Mejía, a Honduran human rights lawyer.

“I don’t think she can continue to ignore these pressures for much longer,” he added.

The controversy over emergency contraception comes at a time when Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have expanded access to abortion in recent months, spurring abortion activists across Latin America and hardening opposition in countries that follow. prohibiting it.

Anti-abortion groups in Honduras claim that the legalization of emergency contraception would pave the way for the legalization of clinical abortion in the future.

“Not everything that is legalized in developed countries is worth imitating,” said Michelle Zacapa, president of Pro Vida, the largest anti-abortion group in Honduras. “Hondurans love life and oppose all these ideologies that are being imposed on us.”

His organization did not provide any opinion polls to support its positions, but said sexual abuse must be combated with harsher punishments for perpetrators, not emergency contraception.

The opinion polls Regularly commissioned by the Center for Women’s Rights, which supports emergency contraception and abortion, show that a slight majority of urban Hondurans support emergency contraception, as well as abortion in cases where a pregnancy puts endanger women’s health.

Feminist activists and advisers to Castro say the president remains committed to women’s rights, but acknowledge she has to be careful not to provoke the conservative forces that ousted her husband.

The government’s progress on women’s rights will be gradual, said Roque, the human rights secretary. The first step the government is considering will be legalizing emergency contraception for victims of sexual abuse and expanding sex education, before making it more accessible at an unspecified later date, she said.

Since assuming power, Castro has faced difficulties in other areas. He has struggled to revive an economy that was devastated by the pandemic and recent hurricanes and is now hurt by rising food and fuel prices. In January, Castro barely stopped a rebellion within his party, and in recent weeks his government extradited his predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, to the United States to face drug-related charges, a move that threatens with creating tensions between her and segments of the country’s security forces.

Despite the setbacks, some of Castro’s feminist supporters continue to trust her. Three people who met with the president on March 8 said that she seemed committed to advancing her gender policy, but that the reluctance of the more conservative sectors of her coalition and her bureaucracy it stopped her.

“She is very aware of all the sexual violence that women experience,” said Jinna Rosales, a sexual health researcher. “She said that in a country with the first female president in her history, sexual and reproductive rights cannot continue to be trampled on.”

Anatoly Kurmanev reported from Mexico City and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Anatoly Kurmanaev is a correspondent based in Mexico City, from where he covers Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Before joining the Mexico correspondent in 2021, he spent eight years reporting from Caracas on Venezuela and the neighboring region. @akurmanaev

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The president of Honduras promised to empower women. He will be successful?