Xiomara Castro has been sworn in as the first female president of Honduras on Thursday, marking the culmination of a remarkable rise to power that began just over 12 years ago when she led a massive protest movement in response to the ousting of her husband, former president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, in a military-backed coup.
Castro’s resounding victory in the 28 November election has generated hope for a new era for women in the country with the highest rate of femicide in Latin America and some of the region’s most draconian laws with regards to reproductive rights.
“In her plan for government she took us into account,” said Regina Fonseca, director of the Centre for the Rights of Women in Honduras. “That gives us enormous hope to return to life.”
Activists are optimistic that Castro, of the center-left Libre party, will not only take actions that help improve conditions for women in the immediate, but also accelerate broader changes in the country’s culture.
“This small break in the patriarchy that her win represents can become bigger and bigger, in the sense that it can open even more spaces for participation in government and political participation in general for women in the country,” said Carmen Haydée, a human rights lawyer and representative of the feminist group Luchemos.
Among the first order of business, Castro is expected to undo a prohibition against emergency contraceptives enacted in the wake of the coup. Honduras is the only country in Latin America with absolute bans on both abortion and emergency contraceptives.
As a result, women who have been raped have been forced to seek out emergency contraceptives on the black market.
Since emergency contraceptives were outlawed by decree, Castro will be able to act unilaterally to undo the ban. When it comes to abortion, however, the situation is much more complex.
In her plan for government Castro included a proposal to legalize abortion in the case of rape, when the mother’s life is at risk and when the fetus is not viable. But last year, conservative legislators approved a constitutional reform that raised the threshold needed to modify the country’s total abortion ban to 75% of congress. When a measure similar to Castro’s proposal was placed before congress in 2017, only eight of the 128 legislators voted in favor.
Although Castro’s party has made gains in congress since then, the legislature remains controlled by conservatives – including many from her own party.
“It seems to me that our fight will continue to be within the judiciary to achieve that change,” said Fonseca. “With this congress as it is, it will not be possible.”
Castro’s proposal – the first such proposal from a president in Honduras – is nonetheless significant. “I do believe that Xiomara’s openness to that possibility does allow us to generate spaces for dialogue, reflection, awareness and discussion,” said Fonseca.
On the issue of femicide, there is much more political will to act, but the challenge is no less daunting. “We know that it will not be resolved in four years, but we are also certain that much can be sown and fertilized so that a future free of violence for girls and women flourishes,” said Fonseca.
Women’s rights groups have been working with members of Castro’s transition team to draft a violence against women law that will address deficiencies in the justice system that have led to disturbingly high levels of impunity. Castro has also proposed the establishment of shelters for women who are survivors of domestic violence, more inclusive economic development and the implementation of an integral sexual education program in schools.
“It’s a question of reinforcing in schools the values of respect, values of equality, values of positive identities for girls, that it is understood that women are also human, nothing more and nothing less,” said Fonseca.
In that regard, Castro’s mere existence as president of the nation could have a positive effect. As the presidential sash is placed across her shoulders, countless girls and young women will be watching from across the country.
“I think that inevitably what girls are going to be thinking is that I can also be her, eventually I can also aspire to that, and that opens up a whole world of possibilities regarding your place in society,” said Haydée.