St Andrews was lucky to recently host ‘feministas en resistancia’ Mercédes Laínez and Evelyn Cueller, who attended the SLAS conference to speak about the continued struggle for women’s rights and democracy in Honduras. After hearing their inspiring stories, we felt compelled to interview them for The Saint, so that more students can learn about their struggle.
Feminism has different meanings for different women, but the two hondureñas’ understanding of the term is grounded in their experience of having overcome severe domestic violence. Evelyn told us that the moment she decided to take action was when she found a leaflet, documenting different types of violence, and realised that her ex-husband was inflicting every single one of them. Taking her children and some belongings, she left her home, and described her hesitation before crossing the road. Would she have the strength to start afresh by herself? How would she provide for her children? Yet just at that moment another women took the hand of her youngest daughter, and helped her across.
“I then asked God for one word, the word ‘no’”, she told us. It was this small word that she had to repeat again and again to her husband, who tracked her down, offering the many empty promises which she had heard before. The police refused to investigate. Taking refuge in her father’s house, Evelyn thought that she was safe, but worse was to come. Living in one of Honduras’ poorest areas, armed burglars burst into the house weeks later, spraying Evelyn and her family with bullets, leaving them for dead. On that day, Evelyn lost her stepmother, but the rest miraculously survived multiple gunshot wounds. It was when she refused to return to her abusive husband, even after this great tragedy, that she realised that she could go it alone, as a single mother and feminist.
Mercédes, now a grandmother, had to find the courage to leave a husband of 22 years, who had subjected her to years of verbal and mental abuse. “He never provided me with anything”, she told us. “Whilst he would often splash out on expensive clothes for himself, he would give leftover food to their dog, rather than to his wife”. He also constantly humiliated her, breaking her down until she felt completely helpless; both women agreed that psychological abuse, leaving no physical mark, is often the worst kind.
After these experiences, it is no wonder that as volunteers, Mercédes and Evelyn claim they understand women in similar circumstances better than psychologists. Whilst Evelyn specialises in legal advice, Mercédes is a community leader who runs a weekly self-help group for women who suffer domestic violence. Both work on a voluntary basis, and affirm that the best payment is the regeneration which they can observe in the women they work with. Mercédes and Evelyn showed us photos of when they were married, and emphasise how they have changed dramatically since, not only in confidence, but also in terms of a physical rejuvenation.
In the years preceding the 2009 coup, tireless campaigning had achieved nothing short of a revolution in women’s rights in what is one of Latin America’s poorest countries. The government had set up an emergency phoneline for domestic violence and seven police units to investigate femicide, a phenomenon Mercédes described as “murder motivated by gender”. Two women per week are murdered in Honduras and the media shamefully blame the victims for causing their own deaths by committing adultery, wearing a short skirt, or being prostitutes. With abortion still illegal in Honduras, feminists had nonetheless managed gain legalisation guaranteeing the morning after pill. Things were slowly beginning to change for the better.
Yet all this was interrupted, when Manuel Zelaya’s government was overthrown in a conservative, church-backed coup, he was replaced by businessman Roberto Michelleti then, following contested elections, Porfirio Lobo. Many gains have been reversed, and there has been a return to the old order of impunity. When asked about the link between resistance and feminism, Evelyn told us that they were “resisting because of everything that had been taken away”; and they have paid a high price.
When the National Front of Popular Resistance declared their intention to boycott elections (instead calling for the restitution of their elected president), Evelyn and her partner were two of seven faces denounced on national television as terrorists. The couple began to receive death threats, then in the middle of the night, armed men burst into her house, murdering her partner in front of their children. Evelyn had to flee to El Salvador and although she moved town on her return, she still fears for her life.
Evelyn and Mércedes have been through too much to give up their lucha now. Within the Resistance movement, they promote their slogan “neither democracy at home, nor in this government”. They are not merely victims or survivors, but also fantastic company with an uproarious sense of humour. The inspiring stories of courageous women, such as Evelyn and Mércedes often go unnoticed, like the cases of gender violence which they struggle against. However, we should be clear that domestic violence is by no means a Latin American phenomenon, and we should work to make sure that it is does not go unnoticed here too.