An independent fact-finding delegation to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, led by Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú Tum, found that violence against women—including murder, rape and forced disappearances—has reached a crisis point in the region. The Nobel Peace Laureates are calling for concerted and immediate action to protect women—including those women doing frontline human rights work—and prosecute those committing crimes against women.
“The war on drugs and increased militarization in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala is becoming a war on women,” said Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban landmines. “The governments’ efforts to improve ‘security’ in the region have direct resulted in insecurity for civilian populations—and most especially, for women.”
The delegation, which visited the three countries January 21 to January 31, heard testimony from over 200 women directly affected by the crisis. During the 10-day visit, the delegation met with women working on women’s and indigenous rights, as well as those involved in environmental, labour and land rights. The delegation also gathered evidence from international and regional human rights bodies, and from government representatives and diplomats. This included meetings with President Porfirio Lobo of Honduras, President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, and Mexico’s Attorney General Marisela Morales and Supreme Court Justice, Olga Sanchez Cordero.
Officials in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala openly recognized the problem of rampant violence against women. All three countries have specialized government agencies to deal with violence against women. However the delegation found evidence of a pervasive lack of political will in all three countries to effectively implement existing public safety and justice systems—including special mechanisms to protect women.
“The dysfunctional and corrupt justice system in all three countries is literally creating a breeding ground for sexual violence and other gender-based violence,” said Lisa VeneKlasen, Executive Director for Just Associates (JASS). “In countries where more than 90% of crimes are never prosecuted, one can imagine how unwilling officials are to go after those committing violent crimes against women and women activists. The lack of prosecution is like giving a blank cheque to criminals.”
The delegation found that there has been a significant rise in the targeted killing of women in all three countries, and that violence against women and women human rights defenders nearly always includes some form of sexual violence or gender-specific aspect. The group also heard evidence that indigenous women, particularly those directly confronting mining and other large-scale projects in their communities, are especially targeted for violent attacks and political persecution.
The delegation found that in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala the police—and increasingly, soldiers sent out to cities and communities under the ‘drug war’—not only fail to guarantee public safety, but are also the perpetrators of many crimes committed against women. Private security firms hired by multi-national companies are another unchecked source of violence and insecurity for women, particularly indigenous and rural women.
“Indigenous women are often on the frontlines of communities that are trying to peacefully express their opposition to large-scale projects that threaten the health and land of indigenous peoples,” said Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work to defend the rights of indigenous peoples in Guatemala. “But instead of supporting these women’s democratic rights, governments and multinational companies are too often supporting brutal violence to crack down on these women and their communities.”
The delegation found that the “criminalization” of women human rights defenders is a major problem in the region. In Guatemala, legal proceedings against women for defending their rights and the rights of their communities have become a common response of governments—and a threat to basic freedoms and human rights. Similarly, violent assaults on peaceful citizen protests by police and increased repression against journalists in Mexico and Honduras has made the defense of human rights and freedom of speech dangerous.
The violence against women in the region is part of a general trend of greater violence. Since 2006, the war on drugs has resulted in the murder of more than 50,000 people, and women represent the majority of those who file complaints in the search for justice for victims and their families. The 2009 coup d’état in Honduras and the subsequent crackdown on women opposing the illegitimate change of government has also greatly fueled a climate of increasing violence against women.
The delegation—which was organized by the Nobel Women’s Initiative in collaboration with Just Associates (JASS)—included journalists, women’s rights experts and women from the corporate sector as well as women working in the performing arts. A final report on the delegation, which will include recommendations aimed at the governments of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, will be issued in the spring.
For more information about the delegation, as well a photos, please visit the Nobel Women’s Initiative website.
Findings of the Delegation
The delegation found a significant rise in the murder rate of women in all three countries. Many of these murders include sexual violence, thus qualifying them as ‘femicides’, and most are committed with firearms. The Mexican, Honduran and Guatemalan governments recognize this problem, and have created specialized government agencies to deal with it, but the failure of the public safety and justice systems and a lack of political will at the level of implementation have prohibited any real progress. Human rights organizations in the region reported that forced disappearances are on the rise, as well as widespread sexual violence.
The lack of justice for women is pervasive in the region. Violations of human rights against women are inadequately investigated, or not investigated at all—and rarely do cases involving crimes specifically targeting women make into the court system. Dysfunctional and corrupt justice systems and the subsequent lack of prosecution create a climate of ‘impunity’ for crimes committed against women in particular, and seems to fuel high levels of sexual violence against women.
Women’s human rights defenders in the region are at high risk for violence. The testimony we heard in all three countries reinforced the findings of recent investigations by Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. She released a report in late 2010 expressing dismay at the “extraordinary” risks that women human rights defenders face in carrying out their work. She noted that women in the Americas—including in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala—are at higher risk of being threatened or killed than in other parts of the world. In 2010, 15 women human rights defenders were killed in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.
Women fighting land expropriations are at particularly high risk for violence. Expropriation of land for mining, other resource extraction, mega energy projects as well as large-scale agricultural production is a fact of life in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. The testimonies we heard supported growing evidence that women fighting such land grabs related to mining and resource extraction, as well as other large-scale projects, are particularly at risk for violence.
The “criminalization” of women human rights defenders and other forms of state persecution is a major problem. In Guatemala, legal proceedings against women for defending their rights and the rights of their communities have become a common response of the state and a threat to basic freedoms and human rights for all of civil society. In Mexico and Honduras, peaceful protests are met with violence by the police while the offices of key human rights organizations or journalists are raided for alleged security reasons
The delegation found severe and pervasive problems with police abuse. According to testimonies, in spite of programs to vet new hires, purge ranks and train in human rights and non-discrimination, the police are corrupt and abusive and viewed as a threat rather than an enforcer of women’s human rights in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Last month, following an eight-day trip to Honduras, Ms. Sekaggya concluded that human rights defenders in that country “abstain from seeking protection as they consider that contact with police exposes them to increased security risks”. This message was repeated in testimonials we heard in all three countries. Police violations of women include arrests, torture, sexual violence, rape, death threats and killings.
Private security firms and other armed groups also fuel violence against women. Violence unleashed by organized crime networks has increased violence against women and threats against women human rights defenders, often with the complicity and active participation of police and military forces. Numerous testimonies report that especially in areas where mining and other large-scale projects face resistance by local citizens, private security companies hired by national and transnational companies are responsible for violence against women and women defenders.
Militarization/remilitarization is a significant factor in the increase in violence in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and in violence against women in particular. Many women affected by violence and women human rights defenders cited increased militarization in their communities as a major barrier to reducing violence. In Mexico in particular, many woman who testified indicated that the “war on drugs” had increased violence and eclipsed rights. The war on drugs and “back-up” for companies exploiting natural resources were the primary reasons cited for the deployment of the military in communities.
Women in the region are employing a powerful range of strategies to protect themselves and their communities. Women defenders who are deepening their own networks across the country with other human rights defenders find that these alliances sometimes offers them some protection. Maintaining informal networks at the local, national—and increasingly, at the international—levels helps women to protect themselves and their families and communities.
International support is critically important for those affected by violence and women’s human rights defenders. Grassroots women’s rights activists working in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala stressed that international engagement in directly accompanying cases of violence by providing legal, psycho-social and other forms of support, and publicly denouncing violence against women provides critical support to their work. These expressions of solidarity make the women feel less isolated in their work, and sometimes help to diminish attacks and provide some security. Public support for their work increases the visibility of their efforts—and also in turn becomes a tool for pressuring governments to take more action.
Recommendations of the Delegation
The delegation’s trip to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala is a strong expression of the Nobel Peace Laureate’s commitment to supporting real change, grounded in experiences and perspectives of women. After visiting women’s groups in the three countries, the Nobel Peace Laureates are more convinced than ever that ending violence against women and their communities will take the concerted effort of local and national governments, civil society—including grassroots women’s organizations—and the international community.
Adequate resources and adoption of protocols for investigation and prosecution of femicide and crimes of sexual violence, to increase effectiveness and reduce widespread ignorance of gender issues and sexual discrimination.
Resolution of a short-list of emblematic cases of violence against women.
Classification of forced disappearance as a crime, immediate action to return disappeared persons alive, creation of special prosecutors for cases of forced disappearances, and open and responsive dialogue with organizations of relatives of the disappeared. An immediate halt to all acts of harassment and violence against persons (mostly women) who seek justice in cases of forced disappearances.
Release of all women held as political prisoners and the lifting of arrest orders against women human rights defenders.
Recognition of and effective protection of women human rights defenders, including more effective compliance by government of precautionary measures for defenders, public declarations of support for defenders, immediate responses to threats, and other measures.
Protect and publicly recognize the work of women human rights defenders involved in land struggles and other campaigns; end the practice of bringing unwarranted criminal charges against activists and issue clear instructions to police to halt violent attacks on protests, political gatherings, human rights groups and journalists.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY:
Prioritize human rights and women’s human rights in particular, in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. We urge you to work with the governments of Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala to ensure that it follows through on its responsibility to properly investigate all complaints of human rights violations against women, prosecute violations and compensate the survivors.
Publicly denounce violence against women, including the targeting of women human rights defenders. Diplomats and members of the international community can help end the climate of ‘tolerance’ for targeted violence against women by denouncing specific cases of such violence as they arise.
Tie aid and funding to human rights. We urge you to ensure that technical and financial support provided by different international organizations and governments to the governments of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras fully complies with, and respects, human rights standards.
Monitor the principal of judicial independence. We urge you to push the governments of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to guarantee judicial independence and effectiveness in order to combat impunity for violence against women and ensure fundamental rights are protected.
Implement effective mechanisms for dispute resolution. We urge you to work with the governments of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to implement effective mechanisms to resolve disputes over land rights and titles, labour rights, environmental and collective rights. This will help ensure that women’s human rights defenders do not become targets of intimidation and aggression as a result of their involvement in these disputes.
Support women at the community level to help bring an end to violence in the region. Investing in grassroots women’s organizations working to end violence in their community is a cost-effective, efficient and very sustainable way of improving security for people in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. We urge you to earmark a greater proportion of foreign assistance to women’s organizations. This community-based model will reduce a dangerous dependence on armed solutions to security challenges.
For more information about the delegation, as well as photos, please visit the Nobel Women’s Initiative website.
For media interviews, please contact:
Rachel Vincent, Media Manager, Nobel Women’s Initiative
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