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She promised to empower women. Will Honduran President succeed?

She came to power and promised to ease some of the world’s steepest restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. But months into her tenure, rights groups say, Honduras’ first female president, Xiomara Castro, is struggling to fulfill promises as efforts to empower women revive the country’s bitter ideological division.

Ms. Castro, 62, became the country’s first left-leaning candidate ever to win the election in November by promising to bring social equality after more than a century of almost uninterrupted conservative and military rule. She built a broad coalition of urban intelligentsia, small businessmen, landless peasants, indigenous and black groups, LGBTQ people and women who drove her to a landslide victory against the opponent of the sitting party.

In her campaign manifesto, Ms Castro said she would promote sex education, combat gender-based violence, bring more women into the economy, legalize abortion under limited circumstances and overturn a ban on emergency pills.

“The political agenda for women and feminists will be my priority,” she said during her campaign in August.

Such slogans carried a huge symbolism in a male-dominated society with the highest rate of homicides of women and girls in Latin America, and where every fourth woman becomes pregnant before reaching 19, according to the UN.

Now a scandal over sexual abuse is testing Mrs Castro’s promises to bring lasting social change to women.

In March, students at the prestigious Zamorano University near Tegucigalpa, the capital, protested against allegations that a male student raped two female peers. Police briefly arrested the man, but released him and closed the case after the two women refused to testify.

Although the legal case and protests quickly subsided, they ignited a major debate in Honduras about access to emergency contraception, as well as the role of religion in politics, revealing divisions in Mrs Castro’s fragile governing coalition.

Feminist organizations and their political supporters have called on Ms Castro to live up to her promise to legalize emergency contraception. Many Honduran activists who supported Mrs Castro’s candidacy have since joined her administration, increasing internal pressure to act.

“This is the time to approve the PAE,” said Jorge Cálix, a prominent legislator in Mrs Castro’s party. wrote on Twitter on March 21 after the Zamorano protest using the commonly used acronym for emergency contraception in Honduras.

Honduras is currently the only nation in the world known to have a generally legal ban on emergency contraception, according to the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception, a political research group. It is also among the five Latin American countries that ban abortion in any case.

Although banned, emergency contraception pills are openly sold in some Tegucigalpa pharmacies for around $ 10 per person. dosage. But women in poor and rural areas lack access, according to women’s rights activists.

Human rights activists say the easing of the emergency contraception ban has been delayed by the socially conservative party in Mrs Castro’s coalition, highlighting the president’s challenge of holding together the various alliances that have brought her to power.

So far, Ms. Castro has largely delegated the issue of emergency contraception to Dr. José Manuel Matheu, Minister of Health and member of the center-right allied party, the Savior of Honduras. Dr. Matheu has said legalizing the pill is not his priority, adding in March that he would consult the Catholic Church on the issue.

Large Christian congregations in Honduras are against the use of emergency contraception and argue that the pill can terminate an established pregnancy.

To support their case, they cite the label for Plan B One-Step, the most well-known emergency contraception in the United States, which says there is a possibility that it may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

However, scientific evidence does not support the idea that emergency contraception can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. Instead, as the Plan B One-Step label says, the pills work primarily by preventing ovulation – the release of an egg before it can be fertilized by sperm.

Ms. Castro’s office, Dr. Matheu and the spokesman for the Honduran Catholic Church, Pastor Juan Ángel López, did not respond or declined to comment on this story.

Rights groups have questioned Dr. Matheus’ decision to consult the church and point out that Honduras is a secular state under the Constitution.

But ignoring religious concerns over contraception would only create further social tensions at a time when Ms Castro is confronting conservative interests in other areas of the economy and society, said Natalie Roque, Honduras’ human rights minister, who helped draft the government’s progressive agenda.

Nine out of 10 Hondurans consider themselves Catholic or evangelical Christians.

The government “right now is not in a position to open another front against such a powerful opponent as the church,” Ms Roque said, adding that legalizing the pill now “would just throw more fuel on the fire.”

This sense of caution reflects in part the lasting impact of the military coup that ousted Miss Castro’s husband, Manuel Zelaya, from the presidency 14 years ago, interrupting previous attempts to redistribute power in Honduras.

As president, Mr Zelaya thwarted an earlier attempt by the country’s conservatively dominated Congress to ban emergency contraception and vetoed their proposal. One month later, in June 2008, the army arrested him at his residence and installed a Conservative interim government, which continued to impose the ban.

Castro is now fighting to balance the pressure for greater reproductive rights from civil society and feminist organizations against “the great power that the church acquired in the wake of the coup,” said Joaquín Mejía, a Honduran human rights lawyer.

“I do not think she can continue to ignore this pressure much longer,” he added.

The controversy over emergency contraception comes as Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have expanded access to abortion in recent months, giving energy to abortion activists across Latin America and intensifying opposition in the countries that continue to ban it.

Anti-abortion groups in Honduras say legalizing emergency contraception will pave the way for legalizing clinical abortion in the future.

“Not everything that is legalized in developed countries should be emulated,” said Michelle Zacapa, president of Honduras’ largest anti-abortion group, Pro Vida. “A Honduran loves life and is against all these ideologies that are being imposed on us.”

Her organization did not present any polls that supported its views, but she said sexual abuse should be combated with harsher punishments for the perpetrators, not with emergency contraception.

Periodic polls commissioned by the Center for Women’s Rights, which support emergency contraception and abortion, show that a small majority of urban Hondurans support emergency contraception, as well as abortion in cases where a pregnancy threatens a woman’s health.

Feminist activists and advisers to Ms Castro said the president remains committed to women’s rights, but acknowledges she needs to tread cautiously to avoid provoking the conservative forces that overthrew her husband.

The government’s promotion of women’s rights will be gradual, said Ms Roque, the human rights minister. The first step the government is reviewing would be to legalize emergency contraception for victims of sexual abuse and expand sex education before it becomes widely available at a later, unspecified time, she said.

Since taking office, Mrs Castro has faced difficulties in other areas. She has struggled to revive an economy that was devastated by the pandemic and recent hurricanes, and which is now suffering from rising food and fuel costs. In January, Ms Castro narrowly stopped a riot in her party, and in recent weeks her government moved to extradite her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, to the United States to face drug-related charges, a move that threatens to create tensions between her and parts of the country’s security forces.

Despite the setbacks, some of Mrs Castro’s feminist supporters remain confident in her. Three who met with the president on March 8 said she appeared committed to advancing her gender policy but was held back by the restraint of the more conservative parts of her coalition and bureaucracy.

“She is very aware of all the sexual violence that women are exposed to,” said Jinna Rosales, a sexual health researcher. “She said that in a country with the first female president in its history, sexual and reproductive rights can not continue to be trampled on.”

Anatoly Kurmanaev reported from Mexico City, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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