Centroamérica / Inequality

Single mothers in Honduras face the pandemic head-on: “We can't just sit on our hands and do nothing”

Friday, June 12, 2020
Jennifer Ávila

Originally published in Divergentes

Illustrations by Divergentes

Tegucigalpa, Honduras. In the last two months, after the pandemic quarantine was mandated in Honduras, 911 calls for domestic and intra-family violence increased by 20%. To support and address this, phone call networks for women were activated. But there is another, more subtle type of violence experienced by single mothers, who represent 33.5 % (722,054) of the heads of household in Honduras, according to the latest household survey conducted in 2018 by the National Institute of Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística — INE). These single mothers are facing a pandemic that has brought the additional hardships of unemployment and stay-at-home orders that prevent them from going out to earn a living for their families, all while caring for their children and taking care of household chores.

Jessica Isla of Coalición Todas, an umbrella organization for various Honduras feminist and women's organizations, says that while she continues to receive calls from female survivors of violence who have not been well served in their individual crises, she also receives reports about hospitals that deny women their right to health care, and from communities where politicized government food aid isn’t reaching families in precarious living conditions. “Many other aspects of this pandemic response have also been politicized. People receive the bolsa solidaria (the government-provided “solidarity” basket of rice, coffee, sardines, flour, personal hygiene products, and other essentials) and the food aid, but what’s missing is a strategic look at women’s needs, especially abused women, single mothers, and young people with sexual and reproductive health needs”, she explains.

According to a Ministry of Labor report, the pandemic’s economic impact in Honduras has put about 120,000 people out of work. Across the country, 276 companies have taken advantage of the emergency measures in Honduras’ law to assist the productive sector and workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which allows for four-month unpaid furloughs of workers. Many have permanently lost their jobs. The support pledged by President Juan Orlando Hernández to respond to the economic crisis consists of a $20 bag of food distributed through the Honduras Solidaria program, which has been suspected of corruption in its handling of the crisis.

Isla adds that there are many unemployed women in the service and education sectors. “For example, the university teachers who are hourly contract workers have been dismissed. Many are single mothers who can’t see a way out of this. We have many networks of women, and we are wondering how they will survive. There is a network for bartering goods, but even that is difficult because of the mobility problem. Also, women working in the marketplaces, or those just trying to survive on the streets, are more exposed to infection”, she explains.

Jessica Isla is also a mother, and says that one of the biggest challenges, besides the need to work, is the emotional impact of this confinement. “The issue of sisterhood in these difficult times is important, as are the care networks. It’s difficult for us when we get a call for help and we can’t respond by visiting them. We end up crying too; there is no comprehensive care for those we serve. We also know about doctors and nurses who have been attacked because people say that they’re spreading the virus”, says Isla.

“These are times of maintaining caring relationships at a distance”, she adds, “and of thinking about how to sustain these financial support initiatives and women’s networks. The social media networks and things like WhatsApp have helped, but resources are slowly dwindling. Consumer goods distribution networks have been co-opted, the government is becoming even more repressive, and life gets harder. Three Honduran women tell us what it’s been like to cope with these many pressures, because they have decided not to just sit on their hands and do nothing. 



Roxana Corrales — holding it all together

Roxana Corrales is a 29-year-old woman who lives in one of the 12 communities on the Zacate Grande peninsula in the Gulf of Fonseca (southern Honduras). It’s a neglected community dogged by land disputes. According to data from a Latin American project called Tierra de Resistentes, 50 attacks were recorded over the last 10 years in this area, including legal harassment and threats. Roxana is part of the only community-based organization that is confronting this problem — the Association for the Defense of Zacate Grande (Asociación de Defensa de Zacate Grande — ADEPZA).

Now, with the pandemic lockdown, she has had to figure out how to access her own virtual classes as well as her 12-year-old daughter’s classes. Roxana is still taking university classes, and when she manages to connect to the internet— if the internet service and electricity don’t go down — the two of them take turns. “I turn off the microphone while I’m in class, and help my daughter with her class”, she says. She feels like one of the few privileged people in her community. Many single mothers are illiterate and would find it difficult to help their children with homework or virtual classes, even if they did have a smartphone.

But Roxana not only has to deal with the vagaries of the Internet and electric power, she also juggles many jobs. Once a week, on Thursday afternoons, Roxana is in charge of programming for the community radio station where they report the latest national news. This is a very big responsibility in this area, since very few people have Internet access  and radio is the only way to find out what’s going on. She also works on ADEZPA projects and gets involved in organizing the community to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There are no positive cases yet in her community, which has worked to control the entry and exit of people and to disinfect its residents. This has also caused problems in the community, says Roxana. “It’s tougher for those of us who have been more visible in the communities because of the land disputes, because people already know that we are the ones who are going to make sure that things are done right. For example, there are just a few people who decide who can enter and exit through the community’s pandemic fences, and we have to make sure that everyone’s rights are respected. We’ve even been accused of wanting people to become infected. Once we stood up for a woman who returned from Tegucigalpa to be with her child in quarantine, and they wouldn’t let her in. We were negotiating with the mayor, the police, and people from the community who were guarding the entry points, because they were violating her right to be with her daughter. It’s all because people here think that those coming from Tegucigalpa are infected, so they are stigmatized”, says Roxana. 

Roxana deals with this every day, but also struggles with fear. “Fear does its own thing. Sometimes I wonder what I’m going to do if my daughter gets this disease. The health center has no tests for the virus. There are protective measures such as spraying chlorine on those entering the community, but nowhere in the municipality are there trained personnel or places that specialize in this. I’d have to find a vehicle to take her to the hospital, which is an hour and a half away. Fear does what it does and magnifies everything”, says Roxana.

Does fear magnify everything?...

Marta Izaguirre, adjusting to the crisis

Marta Izaguirre is 41 years old and has two children, a 23-year-old son and a 25-year-old daughter who is also a single mother. Marta became the breadwinner for the whole family after her husband was imprisoned for assaulting her. Her daughter was also assaulted by her partner, but he didn’t end up in prison. At least he’s far away. Marta says that she’s had to overcome adversity all her life for her children, and that this pandemic is no exception — it’s time to get creative. “I’ve never received government support. We can’t just sit on our hands and do nothing. There are quite a few single mothers in my community. Yesterday, I was with two women who are making Honduran treats like baleadas and hojaldras to sell, and others wash clothes to earn a little money. Me, I’ve been selling masks that people are always ordering”, says Marta, as she sews the most recent order of the cloth masks that she makes in her living room.

Before the pandemic, Marta worked as a seamstress, mending second-hand clothes in a shop in Tegucigalpa, 32 kilometers from her community. Now, unable to leave home, she came up with the idea of making masks for people who order them from her. In Honduras, the use of masks is mandatory and cloth masks are acceptable as a preventive measure. Marta doesn’t think that the government aid is sufficient. Since the lockdown began, the mayor’s office has only distributed two food rations per person, each valued at $15 (the Honduras Solidaria food assistance).

She also says that women must take care of each other, because Honduras is a lethal country for women... just since the pandemic began, 26 cases of femicide have been recorded, according to the Center for Women’s Rights (Centro de Derechos de Mujeres  — CDM). “There are several men from this community who have migrated, so some women have been left behind to fend for themselves. But others, maybe most, are on our own because we have survived domestic violence. As women, we have to value and care for each other. I had my daughter when I was very young and her father treated me badly — but we shouldn’t give up. Sometimes you think you can’t go on, but one way or another you get through it. You have to make an effort, go out and find an honest way to make money, find some work. She ends by saying “God doesn’t abandon anyone”.

Have we been abandoned?

Alejandra Vásquez, stigma and health risks

Alejandra is 32 years old and has a 10-year-old daughter. Her daughter’s father lives in the United States, so Alejandra is raising her alone. But she has the support of several family members — her sister and niece. Alejandra is a clinical laboratory technician, and before the pandemic changed all of our lives, she ran the laboratory of the family-owned clinic. Now she is temporarily employed in the laboratory at the Health Center in Choloma, a city in northern Honduras and the country’s COVID-19 epicenter. 

“There are infected people where I work, so we get tested often to make sure we haven’t been infected. We don’t have the proper supplies to do our work. The Ministry of Health isn’t providing us with the necessary protective equipment — it just sends us weekly deliveries of provide masks, gowns and caps. Personally, I try to have a positive attitude because when I get scared, I get discouraged. I have my family to think about and need to keep my spirits up”, says Alejandra. Two months ago she was hired by the government as part of the emergency response measures, but she still hasn’t been paid. She has to work in a high-risk environment because she hasn’t been given the daily biosecurity equipment needed in an area with high levels of COVID-19 infection.

Things aren’t easy for Alejandra, especially since health care workers have been harassed and discriminated against during this pandemic. The Cattrachas Lesbian Network (Red Lésbica Cattrachas) issued a report demonstrating that “fear of catching the disease has led to discrimination against groups that previously had not experienced discrimination, and that are being stigmatized. COVID-19 patients, their families and health care workers have recently suffered threats to their lives, illegal evictions, physical attacks, and discrimination by service providers, as they were wrongly considered to be ‘sources of contamination’”.

When Alejandra wears her uniform in public, people think she’s a virus carrier. She has also been discriminated against because two family members were infected. “We need solidarity now, and empathy. My brother had the virus, and when members of his neighborhood’s patronato (neighborhood organization) found out, they investigated who he was and wanted to kick him out of there. So, I have experienced both of these types of discrimination from people acting out of fear, and who don’t have a conscience or accurate information”, says Alejandra, who professes to seek the daily strength she needs to not give up. 

In Honduras, there is no talk of prevention beyond the use of masks, hand sanitizer or liberal use of chlorine. There is no talk about mental health and maintaining a strong immune system to beat the virus. Alejandra says that, as much as possible, they try to eat healthy and stay strong, despite her minimal income and what little help her family and the father of her daughter can provide. She has already seen two family members survive the virus without complications.

Another reason why Alejandra focuses on staying active and positive is that her daughter has a slight developmental delay and exhibits some signs of autism. “The isolation from staying at home stresses her out a lot, so I don’t ask much of her. After work, I help with her homework. I also have the support of my niece and aunt, who live in my house. It’s very hard to come home, put on a happy face, and think up ideas about her schoolwork. That’s why at home we sing, dance, do karaoke, make up choreography, and try to play musical instruments. All these activities give us strength and keep us calm”, she says.

There is a common phrase used by women facing this pandemic: “We can’t just sit on our hands and do nothing”. Alejandra said it too, and like the other women in this article, thousands of Honduran women are right now looking for ways to overcome this new hardship.

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