An Honduran migrant woman and her children, who are taking part in the caravan towards the United States, stop at the “Casa del Migrante” (Migrant’s House) in Guatemala City in October.
By Stephen Kinzer
Violent clashes at the US-Mexican border, with refugees throwing rocks and police firing tear gas, are the latest sign of intensifying trouble in Central America. Why are its people fleeing? Some of the reasons are easy to identify. Decades of exploitation by US-owned corporations left a legacy of political oppression and weak coffee-and-banana economies. Militarization in the 1980s suffocated democratic movements. Gang violence has spread. Climate change is eating away at natural resources.
One of the most important factors fueling this crisis, however, is also among the most overlooked: gender-based violence. In recent years, this plague has reached dramatic proportions. “It is taking on a magnitude and a level of cruelty that is devastating Central America,” a United Nations official asserted in 2016. He spoke as the UN released a report showing that among all countries in the world that are not at war, the three with the highest rates of violence against women are Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Many of the Central American refugees now making their way toward the United States are female. They have special reasons to flee. In Honduras, which is the size of Ohio, a woman is murdered every 16 hours. El Salvador has reached an even grimmer position on the horror list: world’s highest rate of “femicide.” A survey concludes that one in every four women in rural Nicaragua, and one in five who live in cities, has been physically attacked. The attorney general of Guatemala, where the murder of women is a daily occurrence, estimates that half of the female victims have been lured or forced into the sex trade, and then killed for some reason — or for no reason at all.
Many female victims in Central America are assaulted or killed by gangs that roam where law has lost its grip. Societies that have long been harshly patriarchal revert to their worst instincts when people can be killed with impunity. That is the effective reality in large parts of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.