TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — In a small town tucked in the hills outside Tegucigalpa, there is a stuffed gray bunny rabbit that knows a little girl’s secrets. “I tell him all my things,” she says. “About how I’m doing, and when I feel sad.” She feels sad a lot lately. “I start thinking about things that I shouldn’t be thinking,” she says.
There are a lot of things she shouldn’t be thinking. She is 12 years old and just weeks away from giving birth to a baby.
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Sofia and her mom told me her story when we met at a women’s shelter in mid-April. Sofia (like others interviewed for this story, she asked me not to use her real name) was raped by a family member of her mom’s boyfriend. She still doesn’t totally understand what pregnancy means or what childbirth entails, but she knows the delivery is looming, and that scares her. “At first, she said that she did not want to have the baby,” Sofia’s mom told me. “She said that she wanted to commit suicide.” When doctors told Sofia she was pregnant and explained that pregnancy meant she was going to have a baby, Sofia, in her soft, small voice, asked whether she could have a doll instead.
When Sofia’s mom found out about the rape, she reported it to the police, and now the man who did it is in jail. But his family kept threatening them, and Sofia and her mom have good reason to worry about what happens once he’s out. Most crimes like this—more than 90 percent—aren’t even prosecuted in Honduras. The few women who do see their attackers go to jail are offered little protection when those sentences end. “If he comes out,” Sofia’s mom says, “I am afraid for my life and her life, too.”
What do you do when you fear for your life and the state won’t protect you? Or if the state might make your already tenuous situation worse? The fraught calculations that face Sofia and her mom are endemic across Honduras, a country that remains in the grip of a rash of violence against women and girls. For some, the answer is simple and disruptive: They have to leave. When exhausted families, mothers toting babies and young women traveling alone arrive at the southern border of the United States, it’s not just gang violence or criminality in general that they’re fleeing. It’s also what Sofia whispers about to her bunny: men who beat, assault, rape and sometimes kill women and girls; law enforcement that does little to curtail them; and laws that deny many women who do survive the chance to retake control and steer their own lives.
As of 2015, Honduras ranked among a tiny group of nations, including war-racked Syria and Afghanistan, with the highest rates of violent deaths of women. Although Honduras’ overall murder rate has decreased in recent years, it remains one of the deadliest countries in the world, and the murder rate has been declining more slowly for female victims. Murder remains the second-leading cause of death for women of childbearing age.
Honduras’ troubling numbers are representative of stark challenges in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Central American migrants are now the majority of those apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, and most come from these three countries. The level of violence in Honduras has gotten attention, but the deeper cultural factors at work are less often plumbed. After two weeks of interviews with more than two dozen women in five Honduran cities and their far outskirts, a portrait emerges of a country where day-to-day violence and misogyny collide with restrictive policies to narrow women’s options to a vanishingly small window of possibility—driving them, sometimes, to flee.
A decade ago most border-crossers might have been single men looking for work. Now the majority are families. According to one analysis from the University of Washington, before 2011, just a third of migrants from Northern Triangle countries said they were fleeing violence; from 2011 to 2016, it was more than 70 percent. Among female migrants, more than half listed violence as their reason for trying to get to the United States. Honduran migrants are more likely than even those from El Salvador and Guatemala to say they’re running away from danger—and from the danger of domestic violence.
Hostile rhetoric and harsher policies have been cornerstones of President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda. But even arrests, deportations and family separations can pale compared with the costs of staying put for many Honduran women. Both local women and advocates here described rape and the threat of rape as methods of terrorizing neighborhoods and controlling women in their own homes. One in 10 Honduran women says her partner abused her physically or sexually at least once in the previous year. (No comparable statistics are available for the United States, but in Canada, the proportion is 1 in 100.) Still, these statistics can be unreliable because family violence and sexual assault often go unreported, and it’s not hard to see why: In 2016, of the more than 400 homicide cases with female victims in Honduras, only 15 were even investigated, resulting in just two convictions.
The Honduran government, with backing from the Catholic and Evangelical churches, exacerbates this crisis by limiting women’s options after sexual violence. Honduras is the only nation in Latin America that bans emergency contraception outright, including for rape victims. Abortion is also outlawed, with no exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal abnormality or the life of the pregnant woman. Women who seek abortions anyway assume physical risk and the potential of years in prison. Women who go through with unwanted pregnancies face a maternal mortality rate that is one of the highest in Latin America; a woman dies nearly every day and a half from pregnancy or childbirth here.
All of this has left Sofia with few options. Sofia’s mom had to quit her job when they decided to move, which means there’s not much money for a new child. A local women’s shelter is helping with counseling and paying for her medical bills and transportation, but it’s not much. Sofia’s mother says her daughter asked for an abortion, but given the law and what Sofia’s mom heard at church, that wasn’t a possibility. And so, Sofia, her fully pregnant belly protruding in jarring juxtaposition to her diminutive preteen frame, is no longer able to go to school, and waits in her one-room home for her delivery date, confiding in her stuffed bunny.
The plan for now is for Sofia’s mom to raise the baby as her own, and tell the girl that she and Sofia are sisters. Hiding up in the hills with a new baby on the way, Sofia’s mom says that leaving Honduras anytime soon is not on the table. But many women in similar positions make the calculus that the short-term risk of migrating is better than the longer-term risk of staying. “Women have to be creative,” says Joaquin Mejía Rivera, a lawyer and human rights investigator in the city of El Progreso, about an hour outside San Pedro Sula.
Vanessa Siliezar, a women’s rights lawyer based in the coastal city of La Ceiba, put it starkly: “If they’re killing you here, it’s better to go die in the desert.”
Mercedez is making that calculation now. She’s a curly-haired 19-year-old, almost feline in her skittishness—when two men’s silhouettes pass by a window, she visibly flinches. She gave birth to a baby girl so recently that when she curls into herself, she still cradles her soft, expanded belly. Mercedez (also a pseudonym) grew up in and around Tegucigalpa in a series of state-run homes for children whose parents died or could no longer care for them, moving from shelter to shelter until she was 18 and found herself abruptly on her own.
When she was volunteering at a nursery, she told me, she began dating one of the security guards, a 22-year-old she eventually learned was a drug dealer and a gang member. As retribution for who knows what, one night he tied her up, gagged her, and he and his friends tortured her in a small house in a dodgy neighborhood. Later that night, the house’s cleaning lady left the door ajar, and Mercedez made her escape. She ran to the police station and begged for a ride to the bus depot; the officer who promised to drive her, she says, took her on his personal motorcycle to an empty plot of land instead, where he raped her. She says he drove her back to the main road, threw 200 lempiras (about $8) at her and took off. It took her hours to get back home to Tegucigalpa. On the way, a drunk man tried to kiss her, and then followed her when she got off the bus. When she crossed the street to sit and wait for her transfer, another group of men started heckling her, asking her the price for sex.
Mercedez says she cried when she read the positive pregnancy test. “What was I going to do with a baby?” she says. “I didn’t have any experience.” She would have taken emergency contraception immediately after the rape, she said, but didn’t know how to get it. She wanted to have an abortion, but knew it was illegal and didn’t pursue one. She initially tried her own way. “At first I didn’t eat, and I didn’t take medicine, because I didn’t want her,” Mercedez says. “I still think the same way I did before. I’m not ready. I don’t know how to do this. … I don’t have a way to support her.” Still, she wants the best for her baby, and as a result, has considered leaving the country—but she’s an orphaned teenage mom, and so she’s not sure how to do that, either.
The reasons people migrate are complex. For Honduran women, economic instability and physical insecurity are intertwined, and both are exacerbated by the patriarchal norms of society here and women’s lack of political power. Only about half of Honduran women work outside the home. When women do work, they make about half what their male colleagues do. Since men can and do “leave whenever they want,” Siliezar says, women might be left “with three or four children without the possibility of supporting themselves.”
For women who are lucky, a new boyfriend can bring love, affection and support; for women who aren’t, he can be a new source of power and control over the family’s finances and physical safety. Some of the worst scenarios, Siliezar says, are also troublingly common: abusive men who control women and violate their daughters.
“When [a girl] finally gets pregnant at 10 or 11, because it’s the first time she gets her period, she has lost all faith in the future,” she says. “When she goes to ask for help or to the hospital, the law says she has to go with her mom. And that mom is the one who has been quiet about what this girl has gone through her entire life.” There is then a rush to blame the mother—a woman who, Siliezar says, often has her own story to tell.
Four hours by car from Siliezar’s office in La Ceiba and just outside of the big city of San Pedro Sula is Choloma, which just may be the most dangerous city in one of the world’s most dangerous nations.
Here, in a small house where chickens roam the yard, lives Ricsy (not her real name), at 19 the youngest of her mother’s six children, and one of four still alive. She’s not sure how old she was when her big sister, who was beautiful and tall and had long hair, was found dead among the sugar cane, but Ricsy thinks she was about 4-feet tall when she saw her sister’s body, pants pulled down, on TV. She’s also not sure how old she was when her stepfather began raping her. “I remember he got there when I was 5, and then I turned 8, I turned 9, 10, 11, 13. I was 13, and then I had the baby,” she says.
She told her mom about the abuse, and said she would commit suicide if it continued, but her mom didn’t believe her. It was only after Ricsy became pregnant with her son that her mother took her claims seriously, yet the stepfather stayed in the house for two more years. He would beat up her mother, too. Ricsy isn’t sure what he did for work, but she knows he used drugs, and “when he didn’t have any money for his vices, then he would go out and hurt people.”
Abortion wasn’t an option. Legally it was off the table, and Ricsy grew up hearing it was wrong. “I went to church, and the pastor had said if we had an abortion, it’s like we are killing someone,” Ricsy says.
When Ricsy was 15, her stepfather was murdered. That brought relief, but not resolution. When she looks at her now 6-year-old son, Ricsy says, “I just remember everything that I have gone through.”
A few months ago, Ricsy told me, she was raped by a stranger on her way from work at a shopping mall just a few blocks from her home, grabbed as she passed her son’s elementary school. Her boy keeps asking why she doesn’t walk him to school as much as she used to, and why she cries when they pass the building. She doesn’t have an answer. She goes to church for solace, and the pastor knows something is wrong. He is the only person, Ricsy says, “who asked me why I am not the same happy person I used to be.” She tells him she’s just busy because, she says, “I feel ashamed.” Besides, she can guess what he’ll say: “‘Let’s pray for that person so God may put his hand on him,’” Ricsy says. She isn’t sure she has it in her to pray for the man who raped her.
For now, she gets through the days with her son and her 3-year-old daughter. On the days she feels strong enough to take her son to school, “We hold hands, and we sing worship songs,” she says. On one of their walks, “He asked me, ‘Did you pray today?’ And I said yes. And I asked him, ‘Did you pray today?’ And he said yes. He said, ‘I prayed for all the sadness to leave your heart.’”
Ricsy isn’t sure that she will ever escape this sadness, so deep that she sometimes finds herself curled in a ball underneath her son’s bed. But she may escape Honduras. In her 19 years, Ricsy hasn’t been safe at home, and she hasn’t been safe on the street; she can’t walk through the market without a sense of hypervigilance, like someone is following her. Ricsy, who had asthma, was a sick kid, which meant she was forced to drop out of school at 7, and now as an adult she cannot read or write. She’s poor, and so leaving for the United States would mean walking, and that brings its own perils. But she’s seen the caravans and is increasingly thinking about joining one, imagining how good it would feel to send some money back for her kids, to be able to say “yes” when her son asks for a new schoolbook or soccer cleats. Whatever hazards lurk along the way feel less daunting than life in Choloma. “My mom said the journey was very dangerous,” Ricsy says. “And I told her, ‘I know, Mom, but I can no longer continue to live here.’”
A great number of Honduran girls have been, like Sofia and Ricsy, raped and impregnated as children. More than 20,000 Honduran girls age 18 and under gave birth in the country’s national hospitals in 2017, according to Centro de Derechos de Mujeres, a women’s rights group, giving Honduras the second-highest adolescent birth rate in Latin America. Of these 20,000 girls, 819 of them were 14 or younger. Twenty-five were just 10. Under the Honduran penal code, all sex with girls under the age of 14 is rape; a 2014 study found that nearly 80 percent of Honduran adolescent girls in relationships were physically, psychologically or sexually abused by their partners.
Telling women and girls that they cannot prevent pregnancies with emergency contraception, then barring their access to safe abortion, can compound the trauma of rape, says Amber Assaf, a psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Choloma. Assaf sees sexual violence survivors in her practice regularly, and says that women who have been sexually violated need to return to feeling like they’re in control of their bodies in order to heal. Women and girls who are raped and then refused the choice to prevent or end pregnancies feel “that they have lack of control of their own lives,” Assaf says. “They end up feeling that that is normal, as they do with the other kinds of violence they suffer.”
Siliezar observes that control over women’s reproductive lives extends from the state to the household. Many men in Honduras, she says, “cannot tolerate that a woman is not going to have a baby.” Siliezar works with victims of violence, and often hears that men fly into a rage if they find out their female partners are using contraception. Sometimes, the women are beaten. One woman Siliezar met tried to take a break from more than a decade of childbearing by using birth control pills. When her husband found them, Siliezar says, he forced her—his wife and a mother of six—to drink the pills with toilet water.
The United Nations and other human rights groups called on Honduras to change its abortion law in 2017 to allow the procedure in the cases of rape and incest, or where the pregnancy posed a threat to the pregnant woman’s life or health. But the Catholic and Evangelical churches rallied against even a minor liberalization of the abortion law, lobbying legislators and bringing their political influence to bear. In the end, the religious groups won—abortion stayed illegal and criminal.
Recently, the government did update the nation’s penal code: Later this year, Honduras is expected to decrease the penalty for violence against women, to between one and four years in jail, according to local news reports. The Honduran government has spent decades making it difficult for women to assert control over their own bodies, even after they survive violence. Now, that same government is poised to make it easier for perpetrators of violence to walk free.
If you’re a woman in Honduras who wants to leave all of this for America, there are two ways to do it: You can go through formal means and wait, perhaps for decades, to see whether someone says “come in,” or you can try to cross the border without documentation.
For Honduran women who are victims of violence and are seeking asylum, both these routes are highly uncertain. Asylum protections have long extended to those who flee their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group; domestic violence survivors have been found to be a particular social group, and have been granted asylum on that basis. A year ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to make it harder for victims of domestic and gang violence to get asylum; while he succeeded in giving judges less leeway and making these claims more time-consuming to obtain, women who survive domestic violence can still apply for asylum in the United States.
But even if a Honduran woman meets the requirements of asylum, there is no “asylum-seeker” visa she can apply for from Honduras to enter the United States; she must have left her country first before applying. This is one reason so many people from the Northern Triangle are caravaning to Mexico and trying to get across the U.S. border. From 2012 to 2017, the number of asylum applications filed by citizens of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in the United States rose nearly 800 percent, from just over 3,500 in 2012 to more than 31,000 in 2017. According to researchers at Syracuse University, the percentage of asylum applications denied by U.S. immigration courts has been on the rise since 2012—hitting 65 percent in 2018. That year, immigration judges granted only 21 percent of asylum cases from Hondurans.
Facing these obstacles, some women, like Heydi Garcia Giron, 34, wait. Heydi has never left her hometown of Tegucigalpa, let alone Honduras, but she knows she needs to go. The scar across her shoulder, extending across her neck, is a daily reminder. Heydi has what you might call “presence” if she were a politician or an actress; she draws your gaze, holds your attention. When she says, “I am a warrior,” you believe her.
Heydi was orphaned at 6 when her mother died during pregnancy, and her father, a drug dealer, was in jail. Before that, when she was an even younger girl, Heydi was raped by her father’s best friend, she told me. After that, when she was in boarding school, she was sexually abused by her own best friend’s father. Heydi had a son with a man she spent nine years with, and then a daughter with a man she was with for another nine years. She almost had another baby, but her daughter’s father beat her so badly during the pregnancy that she miscarried. He’s the man who finally tried to kill her, attacking her with a machete last fall. He cut the nerves in her arm, and so she still struggles to use it. He nearly severed her jugular.
It happened on the day after her birthday, and he was angry she had met up with a friend. “Do you think that you own yourself?” Heydi says he yelled at her before he grabbed the machete. “I am going to show you how to respect men.” As he brought the machete down on Heydi’s neck, their 5-year-old daughter threw herself at his feet, begging him to stop. He paused to comfort her and pet her head, telling her it was over. That’s when Heydi, one hand holding her throat closed, dragged herself away and ran. At the hospital, Heydi says a doctor told her, “If you believe in God, start praying, because I do not think you are going to make it.” She thought about her children, and “at that moment, my world just fell.”
But Heydi did make it. When she woke up in a hospital room, a doctor asked her some basic questions to check her consciousness, and then told her not to talk so her throat could heal. “I just told him, ‘God gives his hardest battles to the toughest soldiers,’” Heydi recalls.
By the time the anesthesia wore off, “everything hurt, even my hair hurt,” she says. Her heart hurt, too. Her daughter was having nightmares, waking up screaming, “Dad, don’t kill my mom.” A mysterious woman showed up in Heydi’s hospital room, and said she was sent by Heydi’s now-ex to check up on her. “I was scared,” Heydi said. “If he could send someone to the hospital to see how I was doing, he could send someone else to kill me.” She filed a police report, and the case against her husband is moving forward. But there’s no guaranteeing the outcome or his sentence—or that members of his family or friend network won’t make Heydi pay.
And so Heydi, like others, wants to seek asylum in the United States.
“We are seeing a mass migration from Honduras from women who are fleeing everything from domestic violence to violence by gang members, and often there’s overlap between the two,” says Lori Adams, director at the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, a U.S. organization that works with victims of gender-based violence, including on asylum claims. “Women are leaving with no other option but to flee north, even knowing that the journey itself might be life-threatening, but knowing it’s a near certainty that they will be killed if they remain.”
Heydi gathered all the evidence and paperwork, but she says when she went to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, officials referred her to a U.S. government call center, which just referred her to a website. A friend at the embassy also told her to try the Mexican Embassy and request asylum there. But Mexico, she says, is just as dangerous. If she could stay in Honduras, she would. But “violence here in Honduras is unbearable,” she says. “It is my country. I love it and it hurts, but it is the truth.” (The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa did not respond to a request for comment.)
Heydi has heard about the caravans and those who walk or take boats across the border, but she has also heard it’s dangerous and isn’t willing to put her children through that risk. And so, she waits. “My life was gray,” Heydi says. “I don’t want my children’s lives to be gray. I want to break that chain and see the light.”
In mid-April, I watched a group of a migrants depart from the San Pedro Sula bus station just as the dawn light broke through the gray morning. Those with money for a bus ticket had left the night before, extending fistfuls of cash for a place on one of several overcrowded coaches that would take them to the border. Those who couldn’t pay arrived at the station in a steady stream, gathering through the night as they waited for an appointed leader to say it was time to go. Napping men pulled their baseball caps down over their eyes. Women fed babies in a state of half-sleep, while family members lolled in the nearby grass, counting down the minutes until they had to wish their loved ones farewell. When the caravan of several hundred Hondurans from across the country set out on foot, young mothers walked with hips jutting sideways from the weight of sleep-heavy children. Women took hold of tiny hands when it was time for the group to cross the highway. Some pushed baby carriages draped with blankets.
Three months earlier, Marlin, 32, had been one of those women. She was also seeking a new home in the United States, but she did what Heydi wouldn’t: She took her children and her partner, and they walked with the caravan that left San Pedro Sula on January 15. The choice, Marlin says, was made for her when her 9-year-old daughter was raped. She only found out when a doctor’s exam for an unrelated health issue discovered a perianal wart, a sexually transmitted infection that the girl would need removed. The rapist was Marlin’s mother’s boyfriend, she said.
Marlin and her family stayed for the criminal trial, even while her own mother turned on her. “She says I’m a bitch and that my daughter is a prostitute,” Marlin says. “My mom said she was going to give my address to his siblings so they can go after me and kill me.” He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but there’s no assurance he will serve the whole term. And his family continues to threaten Marlin, saying “that I was going to pay for what I had done to their brother,” as she puts it. She especially worries because she knows they own guns.
“Shortly after he pled guilty, I heard about the caravans. I couldn’t take it anymore,” Marlin says. “It was pain after pain, it was tears after tears, and I could no longer bear having that life.”
They walked for days through the rain and the cold; sometimes they hitchhiked. Border guards in Mexico tear-gassed them, leaving the children sobbing. “They cried and just kept calling, ‘Mom, Mom,’ and I just asked for forgiveness and also asked God for forgiveness for putting them through this ordeal,” Marlin says. In Mexico, they got bare-bones legal advice from volunteer lawyers; they were also put in jail for a night before making their way farther north. “I never felt safe,” Marlin says.
Marlin is currently in Mexico with her children, all their names on a waitlist for asylum in the United States. It’s hard to fill the days when you’re waiting for your life to begin, but it could be worse. Her daughter smiles again now. If they can just make it over that border, maybe her daughter will be safe; maybe she’ll have opportunities. Maybe her son will see there are different ways for men to be. Maybe, Marlin says, they will have the choice to become whoever they want.