According to those who loved her, Grace González was a hard-working, happy woman who liked to laugh too loudly and dress too brightly. Her enchiladas, she declared, were the best in the barrio. Last month, neighbours watched in silence as her bloodstained body was wheeled out of the front door of the small house she shared with her two daughters on the outskirts of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
Hours earlier, a man had come into her house and tried to rape her 15-year-old daughter, Rosa. When Grace tried to protect her child, he held her down and slit her throat. Almost a month after she buried her mother, Rosa says she doesn’t expect justice. What she does expect is for her mother’s murderer to come back and kill her too.
“I told the police that I knew the man and saw him kill my mother, but since then they have done nothing. There is no investigation. They tell me that he has left Honduras but I don’t believe them,” she says.
“Now this man knows I went to the police so he will come back and kill me too. There is nobody who will stop him. Women die here all the time and nobody does anything.”
Women are being killed in Honduras at a rate of one a day in a wave of gender-based murders – or “femicide”. Gender-based violence is now the second highest cause of death for women of reproductive age in this tiny Central American country. Human rights campaigners say that more than 2,000 women like Grace have been killed in the past five years.
A report launched by Oxfam Honduras and a Honduran NGO, the Tribunal of Women Against Femicide, says that women are dying because of a deadly mixture of gun crime, political instability and the “systematic indifference” of the police. Convictions for these crimes are rare – between 2008 and 2010, there were 1,110 reported cases of femicide, yet only 211 made it to court. Only 4.2% of these cases resulted in a conviction.
The report says the number of women being killed in Honduras has dramatically spiked since a rightwing military coup deposed President Manuel Zelaya in July 2009. Yesterday, Zelaya returned to the country after two years in exile, in a move that sparked nationwide celebration and hopes for a return to order.
But in the month after the coup, there was a 60% rise in the number of femicides, with the bodies of more than 50 women found in the two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
The report also accuses the new government of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, voted in three months after the coup, of inaction and complicity in the growing wave of murders.
“Since the coup in July 2009, we’ve seen a sharp rise in gender-based killings, with many of these crimes simply going unreported,” says Maritza Gallardo of Oxfam Honduras. “We don’t even really know just how many women are being killed because families of victims are afraid to report violence and murders because they realise the legal system gives impunity to those responsible for the killings.”
A surge in violent crime is also claiming the lives of hundreds of Honduran women as Central America’s notorious Mara gangs extend their power.
“In many cases the women who die are not directly involved in gangs, drug-dealing or commercial sex work. In most cases they are the victims of vengeance attacks, carried out to send a message to male family members,” says Gallardo. “In other cases, family members have identified members of the police as the executors of these murders, killing women as retaliation for gang attacks on police officers. The lives of these women are simply seen as collateral damage as gang violence gets worse.”
For many women the only chance of survival is to flee the country. Luisa Silva, 21, spoke to the Observer from an immigration lawyer’s office in San Antonio, Texas. She says she was raped, beaten and threatened over a two-year period after she spurned the advances of an influential businessman.
“After he beat and raped me for the second time, I went to the police, who said they would do nothing and that I should do what the man wanted,” she says. “After that the violence got worse. He threatened to kill my family. There was nobody to protect me or help me, so the only option I had was to run.”
She was recently granted asylum by an American judge. “There are many women with the same story as me in Honduras, but most of them die,” she says. “If I had stayed, I’d be dead too.”