Defending Land and Lives in Honduras

This is the first of a two-part blog series about UUSC’s participation in the May 2018 SHARE Foundation emergency accompaniment delegation to Honduras.

“As women are defending the earth and the land, we also have to defend the territories of our own bodies.” This is how Noemí Dubón described her work, seated next to Carolina Sierra and Andrea Paz. The three women are leaders in the Honduran women’s organization Foro de Mujeres Por la Vida (“Foro”), which has partnered with UUSC for the past two years.

They welcomed my Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) colleagues and me to their office in San Pedro Sula on Monday, May 21. There, we joined their staff around an altar dedicated to martyrs of women’s and human rights movements in Honduras, including Berta Cáceres and Margarita Murillo – two women murdered while leading struggles to protect the lands of indigenous people and small farmers (photo courtesy of Mark Coplan). Over the next hour, Noemí, Carolina, and Andrea informed us about the perils of being a human rights defender in Honduras, as well as the solidarity with other women that gives them strength to keep working for justice.

We were in Honduras as part of a solidarity delegation organized by the SHARE Foundation. However, our immediate purpose was to accompany UUSC partner Radio Progreso as they returned home after a multi-city U.S. tour to raise awareness about the human rights crisis in Honduras and the complicity of the U.S. government in the violence.

Because of the dangers facing human rights defenders in Honduras—including specific threats against our partners—it was crucial that U.S.-based supporters like UUSC join Radio Progreso on their return. Once in Honduras, we met with other human rights leaders, like Foro. In all cases, we wanted to convey a message to the Honduran and U.S. governments: We are with our friends and we will know if you allow harm to befall them.

During our meeting with Foro, their leaders told us about the reality of systemic violence facing women and human rights defenders in Honduras. They informed us that as many as 96% of crimes committed against women are never penalized and that their own colleagues and friends have been murdered or disappeared.

From left, Noemí Dubón, Carolina Sierra, and Andrea Paz, leaders from UUSC partner organization Foro de Mujeres Por la Vida, share first-hand accounts of the violence women and human rights defenders are facing in Honduras. Photo courtesy of Mark Coplan.

In one especially disturbing case, Norma Yolanda, a leader in one of Foro’s member organizations, was abducted while nursing her infant child at home in 2010. The men who took her were dressed as security forces, and identifying themselves as Honduran government authorities. Despite working for eight years to find answers about her disappearance, Foro still doesn’t know where Norma was taken or whether she is alive.

The dangers that women and human rights defenders face in Honduras are inseparable from the violation of ancestral and indigenous land rights—in many cases linked to U.S.-backed development projects. In another meeting convened by the SHARE delegation, we heard from leaders in two Garifuna (Afro-Honduran) communities who are fighting eviction and dispossession of their traditional lands to make way for tourist resorts. One of the Garifuna-led organizations we met with, Mariposas Libres, is a member of the Foro network. The women of Mariposas Libres described to us how the development of a new beach-front hotel has deprived them of access to the coast and degraded the natural environments that are essential to their livelihoods.

Garifuna (Afro-Honduran) community leaders meet with the SHARE delegation members discuss how they are resisting the dispossession of their traditional lands to make way for tourist resorts.

For Foro de Mujeres and their allies, the women’s struggle is always two-fold: defending the land and the integrity of their own bodies.

This struggle continues in the face of patriarchy reinforced by the power of the state. Foro staff described how, when confronted with reports of femicide (the killing of women because they are women) or other human rights violations, authorities often reply that the women ought to have stayed at home with their children. They described how police and military officers have used sexual violence as a weapon of war against female protesters and rights defenders and how women who have been sexually assaulted by security forces sometimes go to report the crime and find the perpetrator at the police station. They added that they have been slandered as “murderers” for speaking out against the criminalization of women who seek abortions, which is completely banned in Honduras without exception.

Even as sexist violence and speech are ingrained in the power structures of Honduras, the human rights movement offers a very different vision of women’s roles. Women’s leadership is central to the whole social movement in Honduras, across its many sectors. Leaders and martyrs like Caceres and Murillo are looked to and honored as defenders not only of women, but of entire communities and ways of life that are menaced by the twin forces of militarism and neocolonialism.

As Foro’s Executive Coordinator Carolina Sierra told us during our meeting, “What we do is we love each other and we take care of each other. We grow together. We hold in our minds those who have been murdered and disappeared because they give us the example of their struggle and their sacrifice, their martyrdom inspires us to continue so they will not be forgotten.”

In these moments and throughout our time in Honduras, the words of Sweet Remember, a poem by Carmen Tafolla echoed in my mind. After describing extreme torture Central American women experienced during the death squads of the 1980s, she ends with the following lines:

this is why
I do not ask
my child to cry
to sit sweet helpless and be cute
to always need a male escort
to think that only he protects,
not she, herself, and not she, him
to think herself so delicate
so weak …
But I will teach her
quite instead
that she is her own brave life
till dead
and that there are no guarantees in life
nor rights
but those that we invent
and that the bravest thing of all
to think, to feel, to care, and to recall
is to be human
and to be complete

Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners (Part III)

Movement-building through Eye-to-Eye Partnership

Our site visits to communities benefitting from Tewa and LAHURNIP’s work kept Michael and I busy for most of our Nepal trip. We were honored to host a convening with all of the partners we’ve been supporting since 2015 before leaving the country.

To sit and listen to their stories, from women who gained livelihood skills (Tewa, Empower Generation, and Dalit Mahila Ekata Kendra) and families who learned to make healthier food choices (RHEST), to groups now able to effectively advocate for their rights (LAHURNIP, Women for Human Rights, single women group), was truly awesome. Partners didn’t hesitate to use time together to discuss synergies between their projects and share ways to better support and collaborate with each other in the future.

Sita Adhikari, co-founder and country director of Empower Generation, presents on their work empowering women through clean energy entrepreneurship and distribution.

These partner meetings and site visits allow for honest, heartfelt conversation that lays the foundation for authentic relationships and meaningful support among organizations. This is especially important as UUSC winds down our recovery work in Nepal. There’s so much to be learned from simply listening – we come to better understand what affected communities need for disaster recovery. We also learn what strengths and relationships can and already exist among groups on-the-ground, and whether they can be further cultivated to empower people in their recovery and everyday lives. Knowing these relationships are in place is crucial to ensuring long-term community resilience.

Michael and I returned home with a profound sense of gratitude for incredible partners who recognize their own humanity and help others to do the same, realizing the impact they can have in the world.

Their work brings to mind the Albert Einstein quote, “Everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Whether it’s a leadership training, providing someone with resources when they are in need, or making space for people to gather face-to-face and share stories and strategies, everything our partners in Nepal are doing matters. In fact, the beauty of their full impact won’t likely be fully realized for years to come.


Catch up on parts one and two of this series and don’t forget to follow UUSC on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs.

Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners

“I can’t explain it in words.” This was a Srijanshil Mahila (Creative Woman) member’s first response when Michael Kourabas, UUSC associate director for program and partner support, and I asked about her experience during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. Although two and a half years have passed, it was evident from conversations we had with partners and community members that the effects are still with them today.

Throughout our week-long visit, we were granted many opportunities to listen and learn not only about the earthquakes’ destruction and injustices exposed but also the ways in which individuals, families, and entire communities tapped into their resilience and power to support one another.

Srijanshil Mahila member describes the value of Tewa livelihood trainings at their meeting space in Dharmasthali village.

Recovery and Resilience: The women of Srijanshil Mahila

Srijanshil Mahila is based in the Dharmasthali village of Kathmandu and made up of women from several districts. Although these women were working to help themselves and their communities as soon as the earthquake hit, the group officially came together about a year ago with support from UUSC’s partner, Tewa.

Shelter, waste disposal, and water scarcity are a few of the immediate issues that arose in earthquakes’ aftermath. Aftershocks and rumors of theft made people uneasy about returning to their homes, so families pitched tents and tarps outside or, when this was not an option, stayed together under the open sky. In Dharmasthali, forty women worked together, traveling to a nearby development to retrieve water for others. In an effort to create more sanitary conditions, some of the women also helped dig holes to dispose of human waste. Several women worked together with Tewa to improve this situation.

Like UUSC, Tewa strives to follow the lead of the communities it supports. In this spirit, they listened to and delivered on women’s requests for trainings relating to livelihood skills and sustainable income sources, such as sewing and soap-making, as well as leadership development, and sexual and reproductive health advocacy.

Srijanshil Mahila members were adamant that other women from the community be invited to participate in trainings, and many were able to combine what they gained from skill-building and leadership trainings to start their own businesses. Several women now run a tailoring shop, and another member runs a beauty parlor.

Fabrics and tailored clothing at sewing/tailoring shop


32-year-old Gauri Basnet (left) and 29 year-old Kabita Khatri learned sewing through Tewa and now run this tailoring shop

When UUSC assesses impact, we’re curious to learn about any unanticipated benefits resulting from our partner’s work. For example, have community members taken on any unexpected leadership roles? Exploring the unexpected benefits is often how we come to understand the compounding effects of our partnership. It illustrates how our support can expand over time.

“This was so fruitful for me,” explained a preschool teacher about her participation in Tewa’s leadership training. “I used to make the rules myself for my classes, but now we are working together to do this. There is a relationship between me and the staff that was not there before. I’m learning from them.”

“Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

With newfound supportive relationships and a greater sense of personal agency, some women have felt empowered to seek leadership enhancement trainings from Tewa, positioning themselves to run for office. One Srijanshil Mahila member remarked, “Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

Men feel the positive effects of these changes as well. Although initially some men were critical of the time and energy women devoted to the Tewa trainings and each other, several have begun asking how they can also receive trainings.

Read parts two and three of the series on our trip to Nepal, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs and news from UUSC.

Nicaragua: A difficult country with resourceful people

Carol and David Holstein in Playa Gigante in southern Nicaragua.

We joined 13 other UUs for a College of Social Justice trip to Nicaragua.  As you might recall, the UU College of Social Justice is a collaboration of the UUA and the UU Service Committee providing experiential learning opportunities in social justice that inspire and help us live our faith. It is a privilege to get to know UUs from across the country, bond with UUSC leadership and meet individuals making a difference in their communities.

Our children cannot believe that we go on a vacation where we need to study plus do homework.  The course work covers quite a range but boils down to: 1) Appreciating Nicaragua’s history, including a long period of deplorable actions by the US and 2) increasing awareness of cultural differences from heritage as well as from economic circumstances.  Nicaragua is the second poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere with its 6 million people having a per capita GDP of only $2,200. It has again moved toward totalitarianism from what started as a populist President.  Yes, Daniel Ortega has been President since 2007 and his younger wife has become VP insuring that the family will remain in power.

Strikingly, Nicaragua is a beautiful country.  It has volcanoes, huge lakes, oceans, beaches, rainforests, mountains and kind, friendly people. It also feels like a step back in time with dinners costing $10, $1 beers and $50 hotel rooms.

Our program focused on two areas: 1) Women’s Rights and 2) Environmental Rights.

We spent considerable time with FEM (Fundacion Entre Mujeres), Foundation Among Women in Northern more rural Nicaragua.  This group is supported by UUSC, reflecting a mission to help marginalized people as well as recognizing women’s role in creating enduring groups, strengthening families and creating wealth.  Nicaragua’s machismo culture, men owning the land, an acceptance of violence against women and women’s being relegated to chores and childbearing produces a clear division where men hold all the power.  Basically, FEM exists to empower women.  It’s education about their rights. It is understanding that violence against women is not OK.  Having children is a choice. It’s the sharing of the household income and wealth.  FEM is servicing a group of women who are largely peasants (campesinas) with little formal education.  FEM’s reach has grown over time.  It trains women in bio-intensive gardening, maximizing the productivity of small subsistence plots.  It helps women get their goods to market via a stall to sell produce.  It created a co-op to sell coffee, honey and hibiscus.  Their fair-traded coffee is marketed by a Wisconsin company under the brand “Just Coffee.” The women are extremely passionate about how FEM makes a difference in their lives.  The most moving “speech” was from a woman who explained how she no longer buys onions from the market but rather sells them.  But, the magical part was that by owning productive land, she gave her daughters a future which is better than hers and provides hope.

Climate change is having a big impact.  Rain falling in the dry season; erosion on both coasts; the possibility of a canal through Lake Nicaragua all have catastrophic implications to traditional ways of life.  Being environmentally sensitive is a “luxury” of wealthy countries.  That said, we visited the Guardianes de Yaoska in Rancho Grande.  This group of peasant farmers is fighting a Canadian mining company B2 Gold.  The Yaoska is a river which is the lifeblood of the community.  Thus far, they have been successful at stopping the company from setting up an open pit gold mine.  They are protecting their rural farming life against a government that encourages mining with little/no safeguards.  But, their success has not come without sacrifice.  They had to forego a year of school for their children as the company and government were using schools to spread the pro-mining message.  Violence against protestors was always a real threat.  The most stirring speech was from a man who held up the produce he grows – Malanga – and stated that this is real gold which you can eat.

It is inspiring when you realize that people with little education, little money and little power still can be successful and make a difference.  Their commitment, dedication and drive to preserve their lifestyle for the Guardians or to improve women’s place for FEM is truly amazing.  It provides some hope as we look at our situation in the US and the intractability of so many issues.

Global Compact for Migration Offers a Strong Signal for the Protection of Human Rights


L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue

Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.

These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.

The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.

UUSC Condemns Repeal of Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Order

In recent weeks, workplace rules protecting against discrimination targeting LGBTQ communities, as well as wage theft, have been rolled back. Most recently, through the repeal of the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” order, these efforts to roll back workplace rights have targeted women’s rights to equal pay and to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace. The “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” order, which applied to companies with federal contracts, required wage transparency to ensure that women were paid equally, and banned forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, which are often used to prevent sexual harassment claims from reaching the courts and entering public record. With characteristic disregard for human rights and what is just, the administration has repealed these protections for women in the workplace just days before Equal Pay Day, which marks the day each year when women’s earnings catch up to what their male counterparts earned the previous year. UUSC stands in opposition to retrogressive policies and actions, such as the repeal of the “Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces” order, that move us further from a world which is free from oppression and injustice, where human rights are a reality for all.

Learn more about the importance of equal pay for women and men and how you can take action to support women and working families with our partners here.