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Honoring Women Who Defend Rights in the Americas: International Women’s Day 2016

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Author: Angelika Albaladejo

Today and throughout the month of March, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) will be shining a spotlight on women across the Americas in honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.

We hope you’ll join us in recognizing the courageous work of female human rights defenders and civil society activists throughout Latin America who risk their lives in the fight for justice and the protection of rights, not only today, but year-round.

Tell your friends: This #IWD2016 I stand with @LAWGaction to recognize courageous work of women human rights defenders across the Americas http://lawg.org/IWD2016

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In Honduras, just days before International Women’s Day, we were devastated to learn of the murder of Berta Cáceres, an internationally recognized Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist. Berta won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership in successfully halting a proposed dam on the Gualcarque River, considered sacred by the local Lenca peoples. Berta showed incredible leadership in the defense of human rights, even in the face of threats against herself and her family. In a 2013 interview, Berta lamented, “I want to live, there are many things I still want to do in this world. I take precautions, but in the end, in [Honduras] where there is total impunity I am vulnerable. When they want to kill me, they will do it.” 



Sadly, Berta’s worst fears came true when she was murdered in her home on March 3, 2016.

This International Women's Day, we remember the life and work of the amazing Berta Cáceres, the Honduran environmental…

Posted by Latin America Working Group on Monday, March 7, 2016

Berta’s story is all too common in Honduras. According to a February 2016 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the high levels of violence in Honduras have the most impact on human rights defenders, women, indigenous peoples, children, adolescents and youth, LGBT persons, migrants, campesinos from the Bajo Aguán, journalists and media workers, and justice operators. In spite of the risks, Honduran human rights defenders continue to press onward. 



For instance, in honor of International Women’s Day a group of women’s rights organizations have launched a petition urging the Honduran government to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), noting the high rates of femicide and impunity in Honduras which must be addressed. Sign the petition to President Juan Orlando Hernández here.


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Virginia Bouvier of the U.S. Institute for Peace introduces Francia Elena Márquez Mina and Luz Elena Galeano during a forum in February 2016. Photo credit: Angelika Albaladejo

In Colombia, we’re proud to celebrate strong women like Francia Elena Márquez Mina and Luz Elena Galeano who have defended their communities in the face of devastating human rights violations committed by actors on every side of their country’s five decades long war. From forced disappearances in Medellin’s Comuna 13 to displacement and environmental destruction in northern Cauca, these powerful women have fought for truth, justice, and representation for their communities at great personal cost.

  • Read Luz Elena’s words about the ongoing struggle to find Colombia’s disappeared and the work of Women Walking for Truth. 

  • Read Francia’s words about the importance of considering the needs of Afro-Colombians in the peace accords and in peace implementation.
  • Sign up for our weekly Colombia News Brief to receive this week’s feature of women human rights defenders, the role of women in the peace process, violence against women during the conflict, and more.


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Doña Mari of Familiares en Busqueda during an event co-hosted by LAWG in October 2015. Photo credit: Angelika Albaladejo

In Mexico, we celebrate women migrant rights defenders, like Sister Leticia, who advocate for the protection of migrants throughout Mexico and strive to bring national and international attention to a humanitarian crisis. We honor and thank the brave women defenders like Sister Magda and Las Patronas who are giving their livelihoods to and operate shelters and offer much-needed physical and emotional support along the migrant route. We stand by the mothers of the disappeared across Mexico who are fighting against all odds to find their loved ones and women from Central America looking for their missing migrant relatives.


In El Salvador, we stand in awe of the women who have taken action to protect women’s rights and fight for a life free from violence against women (VAW). Last year, LAWG had the honor of meeting Jeanette Urquilla and her team at the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) who diligently document every form of VAW from intrafamilial violence to economic exploitation. Alongside other strong feminist organizations, ORMUSA has pushed for legal advances that have moved the country closer to equality and protection from violence. On our trip to San Salvador last year we also met the fierce human rights defender Karla Avelar, a trans woman who has taken up the mantle of advancing protection through the law and defending LGBTI rights as the director of COMCAVIS TRANS.


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In Guatemala, after decades of fighting for justice and more than four weeks of intense testimony, the Sepur Zarco sexual slavery case reached an historic verdict last month. Eleven brave Mayan women detailed the war crimes committed against them during the country’s civil war and two military officers responsible were found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison for crimes against humanity, including sexual violence, sexual slavery, domestic slavery, and cruel and degrading treatment. Sepur Zarco is a huge victory for women’s rights and justice and marks the first time in the world that sexual slavery committed during civil conflict was successfully prosecuted in the country where the abuses took place.


In Cuba, women have been at the forefront of social change and are making advances in the workplace as activists, entrepreneurs, doctors, and more. The work of women on the island has been highlighted and supported for years by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), a Washington-based organization focused on changing U.S. policies toward Latin America primarily through fact-finding and research trips to the region. “Gender equality is a human right and correlates to economic success and good governance,” argued the CDA in a 2013 report featuring Cuban women like Emilia Fernández, an Afro-Cuban woman working in the field of ocular health, and Isell Calzadilla, one of the founders of Las Isabelas, Cuba’s first organization for lesbian and bisexual women.


Thank you for your continued activism and for joining us in standing with these courageous women and the many others across Latin America who work to achieve justice and rights for all.