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Why these Honduran women would like to see their country’s ‘macho’ culture change

Honduras has the highest femicide rate in all of Latin America. Part of that is due to the country's aggressively masculine culture — a culture some Honduran women are trying to change.

Lyzanka Garcia was abused emotionally and physically. Now, she’s helping other survivors

Lyzanka Garcia stands in front of a bullet-riddled sign saying Olancho in big yellow letters.

WARNING: This article contains details of abuse and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

When Lyzanka Garcia looks into the faces of her fellow Hondurans, she recognizes the struggles and obstacles they've had to navigate.

"I see my mom's face. I see my face. I see my brother's face. I know how it feels to wear those shoes," she told The Current producerLiz Hoath.

Garcia is a senior assistant in protection with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She works with vulnerable women across Honduras, including at the Juanita Dias Women's Centre in Juticalpa. That centre is supported by the UNHCR and gets funding from the Canadian government.

Garcia said she sometimes thinks she's living in a "dream," now that she's able to assist vulnerable women in her country. But she also knows the nightmare some of her fellow countrywomen have had to live with, due in part to the "macho" culture there.

"All the danger, all the things that the people go through when they live in these places in Honduras, all the gangs, they're still making people to run away from their houses," she said.

When Garcia was 13 years old, her family also fled Honduras for the U.S. due to gang violence. A few years later, she says, she was abused by a man in the U.S.

"It was so [psychological], physical, mental abuse from him to me. And I end up being in hospitals every single time that he beat me up because he was a huge guy," she said.

She says it got so bad she had a miscarriage.

"I was expecting my first baby and I was so excited," she said. "But unfortunately, in all the consequences and all the fights and the beat-ups that I got, my baby came premature … so he wasn't able to make it."

I know how it feels to not understand why somebody doesn't leave the person who is making bad stuff to you, because it's not easy.

-Lyzanka Garcia, senior assistant in protection with the UNHCR

Garcia was in the United States illegally at the time, and she said she was reported to immigration authorities by her abuser.

But rather than wait in prison herself for her paperwork to be processed, Garcia chose to return to Honduras.

"I was just so tired, depressed. I feel so bad because I didn't have my son and knew this guy … meant to do me more danger, more hurt than he already had," she said.

"So I took the decision on my own. I didn't ask my mom or my dad. I just called in at 4:00 in the morning and told them I was in the airport already, and then I was coming back to Honduras, where I didn't have no idea who I was coming to live with or where."

Two women conduct an interview in front of a giant, bullet-riddled sign that reads "Olancho".

Garcia, now 36, said her experience losing her unborn child taught her a "big lesson" on how to protect herself and the children she's had since. Critically, she said, she learned not to see herself as a bad person who "wasn't good enough," as her abuser would suggest.

She's now passing those lessons on to the at-risk women she's working with in Honduras.

"I know how it feels to not understand why somebody doesn't leave the person who is making bad stuff to you, because it's not easy," she said.

"I understand it and that makes me want to do more over here and to stay and work for those people and look out for some kind of way they can make it to a safe place."

'Macho' culture

Garcia says there's a "macho" culture that exists in regions such as Honduras' Olancho Department, where Juticalpa is located.

Fanny Hércules, the vice-mayor of Juticalpa, regularly sees the impact that culture has on local men.

"I dream of a town where men don't carry guns. But kids here from the time they're in kindergarten they're carrying water guns, toy guns. Kids are raised in an unhealthy environment," she said.

Women are often the victims of this violent culture. According to the UN's Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean, Honduras has the highest femicide rate in all of Latin America.

On the right, the words "MS 13 controlando" are spray-painted on a red wall. On the left, a woman and man walk beside the wall.

Hércules recalls meeting a woman who became pregnant after she was raped by seven men. She wanted an abortion, and was trying to give herself a miscarriage.

"It was very difficult, because I saw her climbing a wall and threw herself down, and then she climbed it again and threw herself down, and she kept doing that," she said.

Hércules intervened and was able to not only help the woman through her pregnancy, but get the baby adopted, too.

But Andres Celis, the head of mission for the UNHCR in Honduras, says it's not uncommon for women who've been abused to go without help.

"Honduras is a country with authorities, with constitutional framework, with democracy institutions working, but without enough capacity to solve our problems," he said.

Celis said that has given rise to chaos in parts of Honduras.

He said this can be seen in areas where different gangs maintain levels of control — sometimes within the same neighbourhoods.

This can make it difficult for some women to seek assistance.

"The challenge for people that live in these areas is to find the way to survive, taking into account that they can't move from [one] side to the other, or they can't call the authorities to solve this specific situation," he said.

In some cases, women remain in their abusive relationships, and the trauma passes from mother to daughter.

"In some of the stories I thought like they're still in the circle of violence," Garcia said. "They're not out. They're still there and it's a circle [that] is repeating with their daughters."

A man in a dark green button-up shirt sits in an office and smiles directly at the camera.

Education could help

Garcia said Honduras does not have the tools to support women at risk at the moment — and she admits that sometimes makes her doubt the work that she's doing.

"It makes you feel bad because you think, why are you working for it?" she said. "And I've been working on this for so many time and I don't see the change."

"The problem going on and going on. So it makes me feel really sad, but it makes me feel too that we have a lot of work to do."

Although we are physically different, we all deserve the same respect.

-Fanny Hércules, vice-mayor of Juticalpa

Nevertheless, Garcia said that if one person changes for the better, others will follow suit and "we're going to see the difference one day."

Hércules, who said her family faced threats after she took office, said she believes it starts with addressing the cultures that exist in parts of the country.

Fanny Hércules stands beside a reddish-orange pillar. She's wearing a sleeveless, floral dress.

"We have to invest in educating our youth, especially the young men. Because this is a culture that is learned from parents from home," she said. "Education is where we transform a society, a mentality, a human being."

"I think through school we need to teach them that we are all equal and, although we are physically different, we all deserve the same respect."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mouhamad Rachini

Journalist

Mouhamad Rachini is a Canadian-Lebanese writer and producer for CBC Radio's digital team. He's worked for several CBC Radio shows including The Current, Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. He's particularly passionate about stories from Muslim and Middle Eastern communities. He also writes about soccer on his website Between the Sticks. You can reach him at mouhamad.rachini@cbc.ca.

    Produced by Liz Hoath.

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