On March 8, International Women’s Day is commemorated, not to celebrate but to recognize the achievements of women and to make visible the inequality and discrimination experienced by women around the world; many of whom have had to go through terrible violations of their human rights: sexual violence in different contexts; femicides; forced pregnancies in girls and adolescents, and political persecution and exclusion.
Thanks to the work of women’s and feminist group collectives globally, awareness has been raised about the importance of empowering women in all settings, protecting their rights, and ensuring that they can reach their full potential. However, in several countries these achievements are threatened by their own governments. Below, WOLA outlines some of the advances, obstacles, and setbacks in human rights for women in Central America and the implications for their democracies, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
As part of the democratic backsliding that several countries in the region have faced, many leaders, politicians, academics, and other sectors have expressed a discourse of hatred and opposition to feminist policies that promote gender equality and diversity by pejoratively categorizing them as “gender ideology”: a conservative school of thought that defends traditional values on the concept of family and sexuality. Its agenda includes the rejection of same-sex marriage, gender identity diversity, sex education in schools, and abortion.
This has led to the lack of changes to laws that threaten women, such as the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador, or to the promotion of regressive laws, as in the case of Guatemala. In 2022, President Alejandro Giammattei presented the Law for the Protection of Life and the Family, proposing that the government fully criminalize abortion and marriages between people of the LGTBIQ+ community; a law that, in the end, was not approved because it was highly questioned by the United Nations and other entities. Giammattei even accused the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights before the Organization of American States (OAS), of “extortion” in promoting the rights of women and the LGTBIQ+ community.
Xiomara Castro committed to a gender agenda and to promoting women’s human rights, but politically it has been difficult to achieve her promises. In Honduras, academia and the media have been part of this regressive and repressive wave against women’s human rights. The Technological University recently offered a conference entitled “Sexual Identity and Gender Ideology” with the support of the Biomedical Campus University of Rome, in which sexual education and the right to gender identity were labeled as issues that should not be part of the political agenda. In response to the announcement by the Secretary of Education in Honduras in February 2023 that classes on gender equality will be taught in schools, several directors of private schools reacted against it. So did the National Party official Tomás Zambrano, arguing that prior to teaching the courses, the Ministry of Education should share the content with the churches, stating that the government of Xiomara Castro should not impose “imported ideologies.”
In his social networks, President Nayib Bukele stated that he would not propose pro-gender ideology legal reforms to legalize abortion and same-sex marriage. In fact, El Salvador has drastic sanctions against abortion, which is criminalized in all circumstances, even when there are fatal fetal malformations, thereby increasing morbidity and health complications. Women can be convicted of murder and sentenced to up to 50 years in prison for losing a baby in childbirth. Since 2009, 70 women have been released from sentences for voluntary or involuntary terminations of pregnancy; six are still behind bars. Additionally, several LGTBIQ+ groups have stated that with the presidency of Nayib Bukele, progress in the protection of the rights of these groups has regressed.
In Costa Rica, President Rodrigo Chaves has repeatedly expressed his rejection of gender equality policies such as scientific sex education, noting that “gender ideology has colonized Costa Rican education”.
Despite the adoption of legal frameworks to protect women from violence, there are still serious obstacles to achieving equality. These legal changes were an important step forward because they recognized that violence against women is a public-political issue and that its most extreme form are violent deaths, creating the criminal definition of femicide/feminicide, i.e., a violent death for gender reasons; a crime that is not recognized in the United States, for example. These legal frameworks recognize different types of violence suffered by women (such as physical, psychological, sexual, and economic violence), but they have not been able to create effective policies that have a real impact on women’s lives.
In February 2023, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador approved legal reforms so that in cases of femicide there is no statute of limitations for criminal action nor for crimes against the sexual freedom of minors or incapacitated persons.
Trans women without protection
In Central America, only Costa Rica has adopted a gender identity law. As of 2019, some 14 countries in the Latin American region allowed the change of sexual identity, while 22 had legalized the change of name. Unfortunately, transgender women in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are even more vulnerable; first, because the States do not recognize and reject this category and do not have regulatory frameworks to protect them; and second, because they are also rejected at the socio-cultural level, being doubly discriminated against in their daily lives.
Despite these obstacles, there are important changes on the way. In May 2022, the Honduran government admitted its responsibility before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for the 2009 murder of Vicky Hernandez, a trans activist and sex worker in San Pedro Sula. This decision and public apology are significant because Honduras is one of the countries in Latin America that lags the furthest behind in LGBTQ+ rights. It obliges the Honduran State to take legislative and administrative measures to achieve recognition of the gender identity of trans people. This represents a change in the general trend towards state inertia regarding LGBTQ+ issues.
In addition, in February 2022, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador ruled that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gave the Legislative Assembly one year to develop a mechanism by which trans people could change their name on identity documents. However, so far this has not been fulfilled.
Women must have protection for their physical autonomy and, in the event that their physical autonomy is violated, effective mechanisms for access to justice. However, both international and national legal frameworks are not sufficient to prevent the violence to which many women are subjected on a daily basis. This is reflected in the high rates of violence, lack of access to justice, and impunity in their cases.
Central America does not escape the global trend towards conservatism, which, together with democratic regression, puts human rights, particularly women’s rights, at risk. The Geneva Consensus Declaration, signed in 2020 by 34 countries, including Guatemala, makes anti-rights policies a priority, creating a common cause among governments opposed to the promotion of equality.
The closure of civic space, censorship of the press, and the lack of judicial independence in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have had a serious impact on the work of civil society, especially women’s groups, as there is a constant climate of fear due to political persecution. In Nicaragua, feminists have been persecuted and work in exile. Women are also affected by the criminalization and attacks against justice operators in Guatemala. At least 13 women have been forced into exile for their anti-corruption efforts, such as the former anti-corruption prosecutor Virginia Laparra, today a prisoner of conscience according to Amnesty International.
Countries such as Honduras have shown political will to promote an agenda for women, but without substantive progress because violence against women continues to be approached as a legal problem, i.e. as a criminal phenomenon and not as a sociocultural problem caused by the patriarchal culture deeply rooted in the communities. Its approach, therefore, must be comprehensive, including measures to (de)construct masculinities and what it means to be a man, improve access to sexual and reproductive education, generate equitable opportunities, and women’s political participation.
In the face of the rising anti-democratic practices, political support for women’s groups and feminist collectives is more necessary than ever. Groups such as the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative have been necessary to protect women human rights defenders, as has the Latin American “green wave” that has even reached the United States (a country that until recently led the way in promoting individual liberties) amid the possibility of further restrictions on abortion rights and thus the threat to women’s human rights. Protecting and defending women’s gains is imperative to building a more democratic and just society in Central America and globally.