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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 426 | Marzo 2017
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Central America

When women are forced to migrate...

When women decide to migrate, get out, run away, escape, uncertainty, fear and even the risk of losing their lives en route are on one side of the balance sheet. On the other are probably only two powerful yearnings: surviving and safeguarding their dignity.

Karina Fonseca Vindas

One cannot generalize what forced migration means for women. Many leave because of tragic experiences, others for reasons of sheer survival. Courage is always involved. The risks increase exponentially when the woman has no other option but to leave her country in search of opportunities or protection, taking routes that expose her to all types of abuses. Although there’s not enough information, context and figures, those that do exist indicate the urgent need to make greater commitments to protect the lives of the thousands and thousands of Central American women who migrate.

“Generalized violence” doesn’t tell the whole story


It’s painful to see the force with which the displacement of Central American men and women having to seek refuge in other countries is being repeated in the three Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) decades after the end of the armed conflicts in Central America. They are fleeing political persecution, poverty, gender violence and also the violence unleashed by armed criminal bands that extort, blackmail and menace.

The number of women who seek to escape the multiple manifestations of violence concretely affecting them is on the rise each year. Because the statistics of those leaving usually aren’t disaggregated by sex, there is concern that the specific abuses so many women suffer within their families is remaining invisible and thus that the emotional, physical and patrimonial dimension of the violence generated by organized crime against women isn’t being taken into account. The notion of “generalized violence” used to analyze the Central American context doesn’t allow us to fully understand what’s happening.

“I can’t tell them what happened”


Let’s listen to Silvia, the fictitious name of a Salvadoran migrant who at the age of 18 suffered repeated sexual abuse from three gang members who threatened to kill her two little brothers if she didn’t comply with them: “I can’t tell my parents what happened there, never. I don’t know how I could face them. I went to an interview with a psychologist here and she told me that if I said it in my statement it would be easier to get refugee status, but I don’t want that in my migration files. If a judge reads that in front of my father I would be so ashamed. I had to do it, there was no way out. My family doesn’t know anything about this, I kept it to myself. And when my father told us to grab what we could because we were leaving the next day for Costa Rica, I was very happy. My suffering would end, nobody would threaten me anymore... My father was a taxi driver and we had to leave because the gangs were asking for too much money as extortion to allow him to work. At least now nobody knows what happened to me.”

Experiences of domestic and gender violence caused by criminal bands often aren’t recognized as sufficient grounds to request refuge. And when countries that supposedly have favorable refugee policies regarding gender issues allow some requests, they tend to be discarded because of scarce information about such types of violence or lack of sensitivity by the “competent” immigration authorities who issue the verdicts. It’s worth investigating the reasons given for denying refuge to women who have undergone traumatic gender violence in the countries they are escaping from. Although that research doesn’t exist, a good part of such arguments are presumably rooted in the patriarchal culture that still persists in the world.

Naturalized machismo is another cause


In the 2013 study, “Global care chains” promoted by UN Women, researchers noted that one of every four women who leave Nicaragua, a country that doesn’t suffer the severe violence plaguing the Northern Triangle, do so to escape violence in the family or marriage, even though they have no possibility of obtaining any sort of migratory status in the new country or of being able to demonstrate the risky situation they’ve had to face.

The 2012 book La dignidad vale mucho, Mujeres nicaragüenses forjan derechos en Costa Rica (Dignity is worth a lot, Nicaraguan women forge rights in Costa Rica), by Carlos Sandoval García, Mónica Brenes Montoya and Laura Paniagua Arguedas, offers testimonies along these lines. Among them is Celia, a young Nicaraguan who suffered several rape attempts by her brother: “My father came up and yelled at him: ‘What are you doing?!’ My father ran after him with a machete and I started to cry. I didn’t know what was going on and now I know what happened and what would’ve happened had my father not arrived at that moment.”

Years later, Celia was visiting her biological mother at her home and while resting in a hammock felt someone touching her. When she opened her eyes she saw it was her brother: “‘You got away once, but this time you won’t.’ That’s what he said to me. I don’t know how God gave me strength but I grabbed a gun that was in the house and shot him. God saved me from killing one of my brothers, I only injured him... After that I realized I had to get out of there.” Celia first left León for Managua, where she got a job as a domestic worker. Soon afterwards she migrated to Costa Rica.

Analyses about Central American migration have focused mainly on economic factors, criminal violence or political persecution, paying little attention to naturalized expressions, sometimes subtle, of machismo violence. The increasing number of Central American women who leave their countries deserves deep reflection about the causes associated with machismo and other control mechanisms to which women are submitted in our societies.

Honduras’ figures are horrifying


According to recent figures of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Honduras, where 43% of migrants are women, their deplorable living conditions, the violence they suffer for reasons of gender or sexual orientation plus the prevailing impunity explain their decisions to migrate. In May 2015, the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) and Radio Progreso charged that violence has a particular impact on women and girls in Honduras due to increased organized crime and drug trafficking along with deficient judicial responses, which translate into impunity and corruption.

In 2013, 636 Honduran women were murdered, a 263.4% percentage increase over 2005, and a rate increase from 2.7 femicides to 14.6 for every 100,000 people. The number dropped somewhat in 2014 and 2015, to 526 and 471 women, respectively. Currently, a woman is killed every 16 hours in Honduras. The rise in reported disappearances of Honduran women and girls is alarming. In 2008, 91 women were reported missing, a figure that rose to 347 by 2013. Added to these horrifying figures are 155 charges of unjust imprisonment, kidnapping and human trafficking.

As regards sexual crimes, the 2,612 women victims made up 86.6% of the total of 3,017 reported in 2015. In the logic of the gangs or drug-trafficking networks, among others, a young woman’s rejection of sexual advances by their members is understood as “resistance,” which is sufficient reason to be considered an “enemy” or “traitor” and could thus merit a death sentence or other severe abuses. In such cases, concludes the analysis by ERIC-Radio Progreso, migration is nothing short of a survival strategy.

An accumulation of violence in El Salvador


Data from El Salvador’s National Civil Police, taken from the digital bulletin of the Observatory of Violence against Women (ORMUSA), shows 575 reported femicides in 2015, up 158% from 223 in 2014. According to figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the femicide rate in El Salvador is 5.7 for every 100,000 people, surpassed only by Honduras.

Much like Honduras, the causes of violence against women in all its expressions are many, complex and increasingly worse within a climate of impunity, insecurity, lack of trust in authorities and the activities of criminal groups. It’s not difficult to conclude that one of the main reasons Salvadoran women feel forced to leave their country is this accumulation of different types of violence.

Where to run to?


Forced displacement of women is worse than that of men as they don’t tend to perceive themselves as victims of a violence that strikes them precisely for being women. Very often the experience is so traumatic for them and shameful in society’s eyes that they hide it, telling no one. This suggests a huge under-reporting of machista violence as the detonator of women’s migration, in which they escape from that fury to save themselves and their younger children.

A decade ago, Canada granted significant opportunities for refugee status to Salvadoran women victims of gender violence. However, that window has closed with the Canadian government now prioritizing refuge requests from people fleeing countries suffering wars. This has forced Salvadoran and Honduran women who can’t go the United States or other countries to see Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua as more accessible possibilities for protection.

Costa Rica is increasingly a refuge alternative


Costa Rica doesn’t have updated official information on how many Central American women are requesting or have received refugee status in that country. We are aware, however, that in late 2015, for the first time in recent decades, requests for that status by both Central American men and women were in first place among the cases presented that year.

According to UNHCR, Costa Rica received 2,203 requests for asylum in 2015, a 176% increase over 2013 and a 17% increase over 2014. In 2016, 4,470 requests for refuge were recorded, with Salvadorans accounting for more than 1,470 of them. Costa Rica approved fewer than 30% of these requests, a very low figure relative to the increasing demand. This leaves many people in a judicial limbo, with no possibility of returning to their country and scarce access to other migratory regularization options in Costa Rica, due to the high costs and cumbersome requirements that characterize its migration processes.

Claudia, again a fictitious name, arrived in Costa Rica with her husband and two little daughters in mid-2016, having fled the extortions from the gangs in San Salvador. Each had only three changes of clothes after deciding to abandon everything: “We made the decision the day before we left. My husband had a small food business and didn’t accept paying them. The gang gave us 24 hours to leave our house. We didn’t tell anyone we were leaving much less that they had their eyes on the girls: the message they sent us was that they would kill him or our daughters.... But we never thought everything would be so difficult in Costa Rica. We had been told that many organizations help those requesting refuge, but things haven’t gone well for us. We haven’t found a job and have had to change homes three times because we can’t gather enough rent money by the end of the month. The worst part is that our request for refuge was denied. But in spite of the hard times we’ve gone through, there’s at least calm. Back there we were always looking over our shoulder, thinking someone was watching or listening. We’ve been left with the habit of always being afraid.”

Thousands of women heading for the US


The journey to the United States for those thousands of Central American men and women who don’t have entry visas is a long and tortuous experience during which various borders must be crossed.

In recent years, several researchers have noted that Mexico has become a wall and an obstacle in which these people’s rights are violated. Women, who are 20%-30% of the migrants, suffer most in passing through Mexico. The strengthening of migratory controls in that country has caused a dramatic increase in detentions, rejections and deportations from Mexico. At the same time, criminal networks, corruption and the ineffectiveness of the state apparatus in Mexico and other countries of transit have turned irregular migration into a very lucrative and thus more and more dangerous business.

For several reasons, figures about the number of women and men in transit to the Unites States or other destinations are not precise: people cross the borders through clandestine points; official statistics don’t include the sex of those caught; and people seek to move without leaving any trace of their movement or else give false data. Having said that, official entities and civil society organizations estimated that by 2005 between 150,000 and 400,000 undocumented migrants were entering Mexico annually, 20% of them women.

From Haiti to Brazil until reaching Costa Rica


In addition to the increasing exodus of Central American men and women, a migratory stream of people from other regions also crosses Central America on their way north. There’s the case of Marie, who left her native Haiti in 2013 for Brazil, attracted by the aid plan it organized after Haiti’s devastating earthquake. She stayed in Santa Catarina, in the southern part of the country. The activation of Brazil’s economy by the construction and services required for the World Cup soccer games in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, which offered many job opportunities, further motivated her to go.

Marie worked hard as a maid in several hotels, with the dream of sending money to the three children she had left behind with one of her sisters in Port-au-Prince. The economic and political crisis that shook Brazil, however, left her and thousands of other Haitian women in the air and deep in debt.

Together with many other Haitian men and women, 36-year-old Marie left Brazil, crossing thousands of kilometers and several countries: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama… “If I’d know what was awaiting me, I would never have left Brazil,” says Marie, now in Costa Rica. The hardest part of the journey, she recalls, was the stretch between Colombia and Panama known as the “Darien Gap,” a distance of about 150 kilometers where the Pan-American Highway is interrupted and a dense tropical forest begins. The risks there are enormous: snakes and felines, hunger and thirst, the possibility of getting lost in the jungle... Marie says that those who take this route on foot seeking the United States frequently have no clear references about which country they’re in and the distances they have to walk

Marie relates all this with a broken voice and teary eyes. She tells me they saw people die on the way. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Marie’s dream is Canada


Marie’s dream is to make it to Canada and request refuge. Even our explanation that her experiences, no matter how traumatic they were, aren’t part of the considerations they assess to grant that migratory status didn’t deter her. Returning to Haiti has no place in her plans. “The situation there is extremely hard, she says emphatically; “there’s a lot of poverty and the government is full of thieves. We would feel like failures... God will not abandon us.”

Even when we suggested the possibility of staying in Costa Rica, this small country she’d never heard of in which she is now resting and recovering her strength, she didn’t waver in her decision. She doesn’t seem afraid of the dangers we’ve warned her about if she continues traveling through Central America and Mexico. Nor does she seem to think about her three-month pregnancy. “The thing is that here we have nothing and we know we’ll be better off in Canada. Being able to speak the same language may help us so they don’t cheat us so much in our jobs.”

Overwhelming difficulties


Despite the inaccuracy of data on irregular female migration, several state and nongovernmental entities have determined that the vicissitudes they face during the journey are overwhelming.

Research by Gabriela Díaz Prieto and Gretchen Kuhner done in 2006 indicated that women face a much larger proportion of difficulties than men with respect to arbitrary detentions and extortions by Mexican authorities; physical and verbal violence from organized crime groups, government authorities, civilians and even other migrant men; robberies; kidnapping for extortion; work and sexual exploitation; and failure to comply with due process. In addition, there is the one thing they suffer more specifically than men: pregnancies resulting from rape.

Several years have passed since this research, but it’s illogical to think any of it has decreased. On the contrary, all these expressions of violence have probably acquired enormous dimensions, not only because more women and men are heading north each year, but also because criminal strategies for making money off the human tragedy of massive forced and clandestine migration under unprotected circumstances drastically increase each year.

The greatest danger is girls and young women traveling alone


Forced migratory movement doesn’t shatter the lives only of adults. It also happens to children and teenagers of both sexes who make this journey with relatives, other people they put in charge or coyotes, plus the many who, despite their young age, travel accompanied. As a tendency, fewer female minors migrate alone than that males. While girls of all ages migrate, the majority are between 14 and 17 years old.

The number of minors who travel alone has increased considerably in recent years, be it those traveling to the United States via Mexico or Guatemalan girls and adolescent women only going as far as the southern parts of Mexico, as indicated in a 2014 report from the Autonomous Institute of Mexico.

The UNHCR says that between 2008 and 2013, Mexican migration authorities sent about 22,000 minors from the Northern Triangle back to their countries of origin. In that latter year alone Mexico’s National Institute of Migration sent back 5,653 girls and boys caught traveling alone through Mexico, 19.5% of whom were Salvadoran, 39.2 Guatemalan and 39.7% Honduran.

Requests for refuge by minors has also increased in the United States, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. According to 2013 data of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Guatemala’s General Directorate of Migration reported that between 2005 and 2011 some 607 girls were sent back. The largest number of girls was deported in 2005, exceeding the number of boys by 15.56%.

The most minors traveling alone come from Honduras, with estimates that one of every four Honduran migrants is under the age of 18, 60% of them male. One of Honduras’ documented realities is that of teenage mothers traveling with their infants to the United States, making them especially vulnerable to the risks of the journey.
“Uprooted,” a 2014 UNHCR publication, states that female children and adolescents traveling alone face far greater risks due to gender, age and the lack of safe ties during their transit, with this perverse combination exposing them to all the forms of violence possible. Even those traveling with their families risk separation from them when the groups they are traveling with are detained by immigration authorities in both Mexico and the US.

Figures for deported women


The tightening up of migration legislation in the US has caused a significant rise in the number of deportations of Central American men and women. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported that people sent back to Central America in 2014—including those rejected, deported as undocumented or who had committed some sort of crime—had increased relative to the number of Mexicans sent back. That year 27,180 Salvadorans, 54,423 Guatemalans and 40,695 Hondurans were deported, all three groups with a high proportion of women.

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, 62,494 Guatemalans, 45,909 Hondurans and 20,538 Salvadorans were sent back to their countries in 2011-2012—including assisted returns, expulsions and the return of minors. Between 12% and 23% of the groups from those three countries are estimated to have been women.

Other information from the IOM about Guatemala, covering the five-year period of 2007-2012, shows increasingly more disturbing figures. During those years, the US forcibly returned 174,864 Guatemalans, of whom 15,893 were women. During the same years 221,864 Guatemalans were deported from Mexico.

More recently, deportation figures from 2015 and 2016 show a rising number sent back to Honduras. According to the Returned Migrant Care Center (CAMR) and the Directorate for Children, Adolescents and Family (DINAF), 34,164 people were returned or repatriated there during 2015. Just between January 1 and April 30, 2016, the number had already reached 21,824, suggesting that by the end of the year the figures would surpass those of 2015. According to CAMR representatives, 20% of the total number of deportees were women.

Starting all over again?


It is hard to precisely document the number of women who are victims of deportation or “voluntary” return. The few opportunities Central American women forced to return have to get a job with a fair salary face is a serious obstacle to reintegrating into the lives they left behind. It is particularly hard as their need is even greater than before leaving because of debts acquired with the coyotes to take them to the US.

Even less would they get psychological accompaniment and protection mechanisms once they’ve re-established themselves in their hometowns, given how many of them had fled different forms of sexual or physical violence, threats and extortions. Their return exposes them to greater vulnerability.

Thousands of indigenous migrant women


The migration of indigenous women is marked by even more dynamics of violence and specific particularities. There are those who move around within their country, those who migrate through the Central American region and those who opt to take on the journey to Mexico and the United States.

One of the most significant cases in southern Central America is that of indigenous women who head out of the Ngäbe-Buglé district in Panama for Costa Rica. In lesser numbers, Miskitu women and men from Honduras and Nicaragua have settled mainly in urban zones of San José. In northern Central America, the migration of indigenous women from Guatemala to Mexico and the US stands out, given the multiple risks they face along the way.

The country with the greatest internal migration of indigenous women in Latin America is Panama, with 7%. It is followed by Uruguay (6%), Costa Rica (4.6%) and Ecuador (4%). Panama’s areas of greatest expulsion are associated with the territories belonging to indigenous people.

Panamanian indigenous women in Costa Rica


During the five years before the 2011 Population Census, 13% of the indigenous women in the Kuna Yala district and 5% of the Ngäbe-Buglé district migrated to Costa Rica to work in the coffee harvest and in other similar jobs. In recent decades, the migration of Ngäbe and Buglé women to Costa Rica has acquired a weight similar to that of men, with the growing trend to take on the journey as a family seeking opportunities in the agricultural and informal sectors, better living conditions and access to basic services.

Ngäbe and Buglé migrants total 23.4% of the foreign indigenous migrants coming to Costa Rica, according to the most recent information from its Department of Immigration and Foreign Affairs. The census indicates that 6,139 migrant women say they belong to an indigenous group, mainly Nicaraguan Miskitu women (3,150) and Panamanian women (2,072). Indigenous women in particular, who tend to knows less Spanish than men, face not only a language barrier in Costa Rica, but also the difficulty of regularizing their migration status, with discrimination and xenophobic prejudices present in institutional and employment arenas; and also difficulty accessing public services, especially health and education.

Guatemalan Indigenous women


Indigenous migration intensified in Guatemala during the armed conflicts of the 1970s and 80s, causing massive internal displacement and requests for refuge, especially in Mexico. Throughout the 1990s and on until 2005, the structural adjustment economic programs triggered increased migration to the United States, with those most affected the Mam, K’iche’ and Kanjobal peoples. The Guatemalan departments that lead in migration figures to other countries are mainly indigenous: San Marcos, Huehue¬tenango, Quetaltenango, El Quiché and Totonicapan.

In Guatemala, the indigenous population in general, but particularly women, often lack birth certificates or any other sort of identification document. This exposes them to physical, sexual and patrimonial abuses by Mexican authorities during the sojourn towards the US. Mexico’s Migration Institute doesn’t provide them interpreters and there’s no special protection agency for indigenous women crossing through Mexico or those who decide to stay in the country.

When the men leave


Guatemala’s 2002 Census showed that households headed by a single woman increased from 18% in 1994 to 23% the year of the census. Among other things, this suggests that women are taking on the responsibility of maintaining the family given men’s increased international migration. An estimated 6% of Guatemala’s population has at least one family member living outside the country, with 30.5% of such homes in departments with major indigenous populations.

Internal migration towards Guatemala’s municipal capitals is common for Guatemalan indigenous women, with young women migrating more than adult women. They move alone, with their partners or with their whole family. They also migrate to Soconusco, Mexico, to work on the coffee farms there. Many young women do circular migration to the tourist zone of the Gulf of Mexico.

Another characteristic of Guatemalan indigenous women’s migration is the frequency of reunification with their families abroad once the men are settled and have found a job as the men frequently they seek a way to bring their wives. Twenty thousand K’iche’ people now live in the state of Rhode Island.

Indigenous women whose husbands have migrated remain under a control determined by the culture into which they were born. The families of the absent men and the community itself affect the autonomous development of the women who stay behind running the home, as they don’t have deeds for their houses or other properties. Nor do they manage the remittances sent to them by their husbands; that task is left in the hands of the husband’s family.

Women mutilated on the train called “the beast”


Among the harsh risk to which Central American men and women are exposed during their undocumented journey to the US is that of suffering physical and emotional injuries, which in many cases are permanent.

Among the variety of tragedies, one of those that stand out the most are those who fall or are thrown from the trains they are traveling on clandestinely up through Mexico, crossing Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Mexico City... As these are cargo trains, people travel packed on their roofs. Organized crime groups often climb on and attack them or the Mexican authorities themselves catch them. On occasion the guards on the train are the ones who threaten them. Women who resist rape are usually thrown onto the train tracks, where they are mutilated or killed. The trip is especially stressful for women traveling with little children, as they have to climb onto a moving train and then endure the tremendous fatigue caused by the long trip on the train roof fighting off fear and exhaustion.

According to recent data, the number of Hondurans mutilated during the risky train trip is over 700. In Honduras, there is now an Association of Returned Migrants with Disabilities (AMIREDIS), created to defend the rights of those injured during their attempt to emigrate. Many such people return to their communities, where the socioeconomic difficulties they face are greater than they were when they left.

The exact number of Central American women who have suffered injuries during these exoduses is unknown, but it is lower than men, as women tend to avoid the train and seek less visible routes. It is known that most of the women who have lost one or more limbs traveling by train are originally from El Salvador and Honduras.

Mobilized for dignity


Central American women are moved to migrate by much more than merely economic reasons. They are also fleeing a system that excludes and denies them opportunities to live with dignity and are often escaping to save their lives and that of their children from machismo violence stalking them in their homes and surroundings.

Multiple causes are constant in the stories we hear from them. There is no single valid answer when they survive amidst so many dynamics of violence. It is impossible for us to deny the hardship of this reality after listening to the testimonies of so many Honduran women who have taken some sort of birth control measure before starting out on their journey towards the US because they assume—with resigned precaution—that they’ll be sexually abused somewhere along the route.

Assuming rape and other abuses and hoping to escape death are realities inevitably present along the road that will take them to a “better life” away from their homeland. This is only one of the multiple tragedies masked as resistance that overwhelm thousands upon thousands of Central American women, tragedies that are not spoken about enough and for which little or nothing is done.

It’s urgent to expand this analysis. And it’s essential that immediate actions are agreed to and implemented to offer support to the women who migrate for economic reasons, flee from violence, are left in charge of children, help them in solidarity, give a face and energy to the struggle for the dignity of all those forced to migrate every day and those who, right this minute, as you are reading this, are making the fateful decision to leave, get out, flee, escape....

On one side of the balance sheet, thousands of women must put uncertainty, fear and the risk of losing their lives during the journey. On the other side, they probably have nothing more to put but two powerful yearnings: first that they will survive and second that they can safeguard or at the very least salvage their dignity.


Karina Fonseca Vindas directs the Jesuit Service for Migrants in Costa Rica. These are extracts from her report on the 2016 campaign by the Jesuit Network for Migrants in Central America called “Mujeres y hombres en movimiento por la dignidad” (Women and men in movement for dignity), with research assistance by Mónica Brenes Montoya.

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