Maria Jose Alvarado had the sort of dimpled smile that could stop anyone in his or her tracks. Vivacious and effortlessly beautiful, it would come as no surprise to anyone who knew her that she would one day be crowned as Miss Honduras. What no one could predict, however, was that in 2014, her short life would be cold-bloodedly extinguished just days before she was due to attend the Miss World Competition in London. It would have been the first flight she had ever taken in her life.
Maria and her sister, Sofia were shot by Sofia’s boyfriend, Plutarco Ruiz. Afterwards, he buried their bodies in shallow graves near a secluded riverbank. The man in question was later sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Honduras is a tropical paradise with pristine beaches and glimmering white sands. Yet, behind the façade are streets overrun with gangs, drug trafficking, and murders of which women are some of the biggest targets.
In 2015, a report ranked Honduras among a few countries, which included Syria and Afghanistan, as having the highest rates of violent deaths of women. It stated that it was among the countries with a violent death rate greater than 20 per 100,000 population, and that three out of four killings of women were categorized either as homicides or femicides by organized crime. About 60 per cent occurred in public spaces, and one in ten was classified as an intimate partner homicide.
Maria’s story is not dissimilar to the many victims of femicide. The only difference is that as a media personality, Maria’s murder garnered public attention and the authorities invested more time and effort in her case.
Most cases of violence against women in Honduras will not receive the sufficient attention needed from the authorities. Apart from the killings, in many instances, women have also been burned, raped, and subjected to other forms of torture. The UN estimated that around 95 per cent of crimes related to sexual assault and femicide in the country were never investigated.
Heydi Hernandez, a 30-year-old mother of five spoke to ABC News about the indelible night that would forever change her life. Her husband attacked her with a machete. It was an act so brutal, that it severed both of her feet.
“There was one leg that was just attached by a piece of skin,” Hernandez said tearfully as she sat in a wheelchair.
She also believed it was a sadistic attempt to steal her physical independence, alluding to the fact that if he wanted to kill her, he would have. Yet, he purposely went after her legs.
In a society where women are seemingly disposable, male chauvinism prospers. The problem is propagated by gang culture and a government struggling to enforce better legislation to implement better rights for women.
Sonia Medina is the Director of Casa Hogar Santa Rosa, which provides temporary shelter for women and their children, victims of violence, and those whose lives may be at risk. Located in Santa Rosa de Copán, a city in western Honduras, Casa Hogar Santa Rosa was founded in 2010 and has served more than 1,200 people who have sought refuge and assistance with problems of violence. The organisation has worked relentlessly to prevent the deaths of women and their children.
“Violence in Honduras is multi-causal, which comes from a patriarchal culture, conditions of poverty, ignorance of laws that protect women’s rights, and a lack of prompt access to timely and efficient justice. And for many years now, other factors that have caused the deaths of women in our country have been the gangs, smuggling, and common crime,” Medina explained.
“Unfortunately, women are in a vulnerable position. In addition to that, the situation has led many to lives as migrants to the United States.”
The number of women and unaccompanied minors fleeing to the US to claim asylum has risen substantially in recent times – many of whom are doing so to escape violence.
“There are many stories of women’s rights being violated. One sad case was a woman who went to a police station on a weekend, trying to lodge a complaint against her partner for violence. The policeman who spoke to the woman told her that she had to return on Monday. She had to go back to her house and by Monday, she had been murdered,” Medina continued.
In recent times, murders in the country have declined, yet that does not necessarily mean that is decreasing for women. For women who are under the age of 45, murder still remains the second-leading cause of death in the country.