She came to power and vowed to relax some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. But months into her tenure, human rights groups say, Honduras’s first female president, Xiomara Castro, is struggling to keep promises as efforts to empower women rekindle the country’s bitter ideological divisions.
Ms Castro, 62, became the country’s first left-wing candidate to win elections in November by promising to bring social equality after more than a century of nearly uninterrupted conservative and military rule. She built a broad coalition of urban intelligentsia, small businessmen, landless farmers, indigenous and black groups, LGBTQ people and women who propelled her to a landslide victory over the incumbent’s opponent.
In her campaign manifesto, Ms. Castro said she would promote sex education, fight gender violence, bring more women into the economy, legalize abortion in limited circumstances and lift a ban on emergency contraceptive pills.
“The political agenda of women and feminists will be my priority,” she said during her campaign in August.
Such slogans carried immense symbolism in a male-dominated society with the highest murder rate of women and girls in Latin America, and where one in four women becomes pregnant before turning 19, according to the United Nations.
Now a sex abuse scandal is testing Ms Castro’s promises to bring lasting social change for women.
In March, students at the prestigious Zamorano University near Tegucigalpa, the capital, protested allegations that a male student raped two female peers. Police briefly arrested the man but released him and closed the case after the two women refused to testify.
While the lawsuit and protests quickly abated, they sparked a wider debate in Honduras about access to emergency contraception, as well as the role of religion in politics, exposing rifts in Ms Castro’s fragile governing coalition.
Feminist organizations and their political supporters have called on Ms. Castro to fulfill her promise to legalize emergency contraception. Many Honduran activists who supported Ms. Castro’s candidacy have since joined her government, increasing internal pressure to act.
“Now is the time to approve the PAE,” a prominent lawmaker in Ms. Castro’s party, Jorge Cálix, wrote on Twitter on March 21 after the Zamorano protest, using the commonly used abbreviation for the emergency contraceptive pill in Honduras.
Honduras is currently the only country in the world known to have a blanket legal ban on emergency contraceptive pills, according to the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception, a policy research group. It is also one of five Latin American countries to ban abortion under all circumstances.
Although banned, emergency contraceptive pills are sold openly in some Tegucigalpa pharmacies for about $10 per dose. But women in poor and rural areas have no access, according to women’s rights lawyers.
Human rights activists say the easing of the emergency contraception ban has been delayed by the socially conservative party in Ms Castro’s coalition, highlighting the president’s challenge to hold together the diverse alliances that have brought her to power.
So far, Ms. Castro has largely delegated the issue of emergency contraception to Dr. José Manuel Matheu, the health minister and a member of the center-right allied party, the Savior of Honduras. dr. Matheu has said legalizing the pill is not his priority, adding in March that he would consult the Catholic Church on the matter.
Major Christian congregations in Honduras oppose the use of emergency contraception, arguing that the pill can terminate an existing pregnancy.
To support their case, they cite the label of Plan B One-Step, the most well-known emergency contraception in the United States, that says there’s a possibility it could prevent a fertilized egg from being implanted in the uterus.
However, scientific evidence does not support the idea that emergency contraceptive pills can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. Instead, as the Plan B One-Step label indicates, the pills work primarily by preventing ovulation — the release of an egg before it can be fertilized by sperm.
The office of Mrs. castro, dr. Matheu and the spokesman for the Catholic Church of Honduras, Rev. Juan Ángel López, did not comment or declined to comment on this story.
Rights groups have questioned Dr. Matheu to consult the church, pointing out that Honduras is a secular state under the Constitution.
However, ignoring religious concerns about contraception would only fuel further social tensions at a time when Ms Castro confronts conservative interests in other areas of the economy and society, said Natalie Roque, the Honduras human rights minister who helped draft the report. the progressive agenda of the government.
Nine out of ten Hondurans consider themselves Catholic or Evangelical Christian.
The government “is currently unable to open a new front against such a powerful adversary as the Church,” Ms Roque said, adding that legalizing the pill now “will only add more fuel to the fire.” would throw”.
This sense of caution partly reflects the lasting impact of the military coup that Ms. Castro, Manuel Zelaya, ousted from the presidency 14 years ago, breaking up an earlier attempt to redistribute power in Honduras.
As president, Mr. Zelaya vetoed an earlier attempt by the country’s conservative-dominated Congress to ban emergency contraception. A month later, in June 2008, the military arrested him at his residence and installed a conservative transitional government that implemented the ban.
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Ms Castro now struggles to balance the pressure for more reproductive rights from civil society and feminist organizations against “the great power the Church has acquired in the wake of the coup,” said Joaquín Mejía, a Honduran human rights lawyer. .
“I don’t think she can continue to ignore this pressure for long,” he added.
The controversy over emergency contraception comes as Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have expanded access to abortion in recent months, boosting abortion activists across Latin America and increasing opposition in countries that continue to ban abortion.
Anti-abortion groups in Honduras say legalizing emergency contraception would open a path to legalizing clinical abortion in the future.
“Not everything legalized in developed countries should be imitated,” said Michelle Zacapa, president of Honduras’ largest anti-abortion group, Pro Vida. “A Honduran loves life and resists all these ideologies that are imposed on us.”
Her organization did not issue polls supporting her views, but she said sexual abuse should be combated with harsher penalties for the perpetrators, not emergency contraception.
Periodic polls commissioned by the Center for Women’s Rights, which support emergency contraception and abortion, show that a small majority of urban Hondurans support emergency contraception, as well as abortion in cases where pregnancy threatens a woman’s health.
Feminist activists and advisers to Ms. Castro said the president remains committed to women’s rights, but acknowledges she must be careful not to provoke the conservative forces that toppled her husband.
The government’s promotion of women’s rights will be gradual, said Ms Roque, the human rights minister. The first step under review by the government is to legalize emergency contraception for victims of sexual abuse and expand sex education before making it generally available at a later, unspecified date, she said.
Since coming to power, Ms. Castro has faced problems in other areas. She has struggled to revive an economy devastated by the pandemic and recent hurricanes and now suffering from rising food and fuel costs. In January, Ms Castro barely stopped an uprising within her party, and in recent weeks her government has decided to extradite her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, to the United States to face drug charges, a move that threatens tensions between her parties. to cause. and parts of the country’s security forces.
Despite the setbacks, some of Ms. Castro’s feminist supporters still have faith in the president. Three who met with the president on March 8 said she seemed committed to advancing her gender policies, but was held back by the reticence of the more conservative sections of her coalition and bureaucracy.
“She is very aware of all the sexual violence that women endure,” said Jinna Rosales, a sexual health researcher. “She said that in a country with the first female president in its history, sexual and reproductive rights should not be trampled on.”
Anatoly Kurmanaev reported from Mexico City, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.