María José Alvarado became a public figure at 19 years-old when she won Miss Honduras. Days before she was due to compete for the Miss World pageant in London, Maria and her sister Sofia Trinidad went missing on Nov.13 and were later found dead in a remote river bank in Northwest Honduras. Sofia’s boyfriend confessed to shooting her and María in a jealous rage after seeing Sofia dancing with another man at his birthday party. Within days, news of their disappearance and murder had reached international press, shocking people around the world. But for women in Honduras, the murder of María and Sofia was not a surprise in a country that has been named the murder capital of the world and where a woman is killed approximately every 15 hours. This story shines a spotlight on the severity and frequency of violence against women in Honduras. We spoke to JASS’ Honduras Country Coordinator, Daysi Flores, about how the public, especially women, are viewing the case of these sisters and its implications on women’s rights in the country.
How did you first hear about murder of Marie Jose Alvarado and Sofia Trinidad?
The story began with their disappearance, and that generated a lot of concern and anxiety on an emotional level because no one knew why they had gone missing. Many of us thought that this could be a femicide. Femicide is not just about murder, it is about murdering someone because she is a woman and the brutality in these crimes is very particular. When it was confirmed, it shocked the country. It did so not only because it was Miss Honduras, but because it exposed the ugly truth, that there are no limits when it comes to femicide and violence against women—not even class boundaries—and contrary to what our Minister of Security said, it showed that femicides affect all women, not just women associated with organized crime.
What happened to the Alvarado sisters is tragic and unfortunately something that every woman in this country confronts in their everyday lives. The reality is that in 2013, 636 women were murdered, meaning a woman is killed approximately every 15 hours. Young women make up 43 to 49 percent of all women killed annually, with the 20-24 year age range being the most highly affected. In Honduras, death is a daily reality for women.
How did the government respond to this crisis after it captured international attention?
The sad thing about all of this is that since the 2009 military coup which collapsed all government institutions, the country has been a breeding ground for impunity. People know that when you kill a person, in general, nothing happens. For homicides, the impunity rate is about 90% and is even higher—close to 98%—for the murder of a woman; even when there are legal proceeding, the consequences are less than nothing. The State tried to add the legal concept of femicide into the penal code, but as of today, no one has been convicted under this code, leaving at least 2,500 women and their families without any justice whatsoever. On the other hand, sexual violence is alarming in our country and women victims don’t have access to emergency contraception, which perpetuates a cycle of victimization because they can find themselves in a forced pregnancy.
Is the case of the Alvarado sisters being treated as a femicide?
At this point, Sofía’s partner has confessed and it seems that this case will be treated as a femicide. Something that must be said about this case is that the murder of María José was more viciously perpetrated. María José’s brother-in-law beat her, she was not his girlfriend but she was a public figure and a woman who died defending the life of another woman.
Do you think this case is characteristic of something that is happening across the region?
I think the whole region is in a crisis around violence against women. According to CDM, Guatemala is number one in the world on femicide occurrences, followed by Honduras, while El Salvador and Nicaragua are third and fourth respectively. This triangle, commonly referred to as the northern triangle of Mesoamerica, is a place where the lives of women are seen as disposable. In fact, it’s no coincidence that these countries are also seen as main transit countries on the issue of migration.
How is the issue of migration connected with violence against women?
Women who travel through this region are covered by a migration agreement among Central American countries called the CA4. Unfortunately, even with this agreement, women migrants are often taken as trafficking victims for multiple purposes, in particular sexual exploitation. In practice, most of this happens in complete secrecy since there are numerous blind spots in the region where neither country responds, meaning these crimes remain in impunity.
Do you think that the increase in policies that militarize government agencies have led to an increase in violence against women?
Absolutely. I think militarization policies are responsible for the increase in violence against women. When you live in a context that is repressive, women tend to have very little power over their own lives, in both public and private spheres. Our bodies then become an outlet for male frustration—from our partners, brothers, friends, colleagues and fathers. This is exactly why feminists have said for many years now that our bodies are not battlegrounds.
Making matters even worse, we live in countries that are armed, the region is armed. It’s not only the military who are armed patrolling the streets; it’s also those secretive armies of private guards, who are trained as gunmen supposedly ready to safeguard the assets of the wealthy. Arms are readily available to all men, which makes it no surprise that 70% of femicides in Honduras are committed with firearms—the case of the Alvarado sisters being one.
What recommendations have international organizations made to improve the situation in Honduras, what requests do the women’s movements have and how has the State responded to all this?
We are gearing up now to present our analysis to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Honduras in 2015 and there have been many recommendations by the international community on violence, sexual and reproductive rights, freedom for women’s bodies, for indigenous peoples, and freedom of expression, among others, but the Honduran government has made it a priority to water down, ignore or deny the human rights situation in the country; we are ruled by makeup artists. The government is trying to pass a law for the supposed protection of human rights defenders but it fails to address root issues and is stuck in the Congress and Hernandez Administration thanks to the extreme right and the military’s power.
We just had a site visit by a delegation from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and they expressed great concern over the issue of militarization and especially programs meant to educate young children military values. We as a civil society, especially women, have made several proposals to improve the human rights situation, including for education, where we proposed utilizing community policing practices, but the government refused to even consider it and instead prioritizes an increasingly militarized police force for public safety. This just goes to show that the current president of Honduras has no interest in ending violence, for example while he was publically requesting for a human rights office to be opened in Honduras, he was simultaneously promoting laws and practices that displace whole communities from their lands to sell to foreign companies without their consent.
In light of this, women’s movements have strongly pushed for changes and laws that can help end violence against women: we have mobilized for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the UN CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) since the year 2000 and likewise, the decriminalization of emergency contraception since 2009. Both proposals have failed to materialize at the highest levels of government.
For more on the situation of violence against women in Honduras, click here.
Photo credit: Mirror