No one could accuse Berta Cáceres of being faint-hearted. The leading Honduran indigenous activist has endured multiple threats, systematic judicial harassment and smear campaigns because of her efforts to keep indigenous lands in Honduras free of companies that plunder their natural resources.
Cáceres describes all this as “just part of the struggle”, but says that without solidarity from her peers, it could all be over. “The solidarity is why I am alive and why I am here,” she told a recent meeting of the Mesoamerican Human Rights Defenders’ Initiative (IM-Defensoras) in the Mexican capital. “And, of course, we are committed to continue.”
IM-Defensoras is a three-year-old effort to provide women rights defenders in the region with protection mechanisms that are gender-sensitive and adapted to different contexts, and that go beyond traditional options usually focused on organising some kind of police guard or facilitating exile.
The initiative includes women’s rights activists ranging from some, like Cáceres, who focus on large collective campaigns to defend land and cultural rights, to activists in El Salvador who support women who have been imprisoned for abortion, which carries heavy sentences, even if a woman’s life is endangered by a pregnancy.
Whatever their cause, the organisers of IM-Defensoras say activists in Central America are increasingly being targeted amid rampant criminal violence fuelled by institutional breakdown that means that official offers of protection are rarely effective and difficult to trust. The initiative documented 414 attacks on women activists between 2010 and 2012, a period in which it says 38 women were killed, with the vast majority of their deaths blamed on the state.
“The guiding principle is to find what each woman human rights defender needs to keep doing her work,” says Cristina Hárdaga, of the international feminist group Just Associates, one of six organisations that launched the initiative in 2010. “We try to analyse the situation and design the protective measures that are required.”
The initiative is built around the creation of national networks of activists. So far, these have been set up in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, with about 360 members. The plan is to expand these networks and set up new ones in Costa Rica and Panama.
The importance of the networks stems partly from the recognition that women activists are usually less able to rely on family and organisational support than men. For example, a female leader in danger is much likelier to face pressure from her family, or even from male colleagues, to withdraw from activism.
“The gender perspective means recognising that women defenders have already broken the rules,” says Hárdaga. “This impacts [on] the kind of aggression and also the support networks they have.”
The networks are the basis of most of the work of IM-Defensoras. In times of emergency, the networks may draw attention to a credible death threat or organise temporary exile, for example. They devise strategies that take into account complications such as whether an activist also has children.
But the initiative also recognises that the impact of an emergency can still be felt after the immediate danger has subsided.
“You do not live in the same way [after threats],” says activist Ana Karina López, who received threats in connection with her work with a group of HIV positive women in Tamaulipas, a Mexican state that is infamous for drug-related violence. “You live with the awareness that you could ‘be disappeared’ at any moment. You find yourself wondering at what moment you are going to be executed.”
López says she drew strength from the Mexican network during a recent month-long protest outside the health ministry in Tamaulipas, where demonstrators demanded access to HIV medication.
The initiative also encourages activists to pay attention to the stress they accumulate from sustained threats, attacks, sexual harassment and smear campaigns. The risk of burnout is increased further by the fact that most women activists receive no salary and so also undertake paid work, at the same time as spending several hours a day on domestic chores.
Lolita Chávez, a Guatemalan K´iche’ (Mayan language) activist and mother of two, found herself unable to eat in 2012 after she escaped being lynched by a mob she claims was sent by a local political boss, at the same time as she was being branded a terrorist, a guerrilla, a prostitute and insane. She began to feel more positive again after the initiative organised a campaign to send her messages of support.
“I said to myself: ‘Maybe others think I am a terrorist but there are sisters telling me I am a defender of human rights’,” she says. “It was a counterbalance.”
Chávez also spent three weeks in Mexico at a workshop to help her look after her own mental and physical health, which, like most women activists, she had neglected for years.
“The initiative has filled me with life, but there are many sisters out there who are still waiting for this kind of support,” Chávez told the Mexico City meeting. “It is possible to do what we do and not be a martyr.”