By Cristina Hardaga Fernández
JASS (Just Associates) is an international women’s rights organization dedicated to strengthening the voice, visibility, and collective power of women to create a just and sustainable world for all. Anchored and driven by our regional networks in Mesoamerica, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia—comprised of local activists with ties to diverse groups and movements—JASS trains and accompanies activists, women human right’s defenders and their organizations in 27 countries who are building movements to address diverse justice issues including LBGTI rights, HIV and reproductive health, indigenous land rights, and violence against women human rights defenders.
For the Mesoamerica Region, but particularly in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras where we work, the diagnosis is very clear: women are increasingly the victims of violence. This reflects the discrimination they suffer in society, which views them as objects for manipulation and subjects them to gender-specific forms of violence that are particularly cruel and demeaning. In these countries both governments and non-state actors are systematically committing crimes against women—and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. Their security forces and institutions frequently act to support political interests and the economic interests of private sector companies rather than the public good, eroding public safety and blocking access to justice.
The lack of a gender perspective deepens discrimination on all levels of government. This creates even greater barriers to justice for women and leads to attacks on them when they defend their rights and seek justice. In addition, the wave of violence in Mexico and Central America has deep economic, social and political roots. In Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, bloodshed is accompanied by silent forms of violence—hunger, poverty, inequality, and illiteracy—all of which affect women more deeply due to discrimination and the fact that so often women are the main caregivers for families.
In this context JASS Mesoamerica’s movement-building strategy links activist training and analysis with political organizing, communications and action and focus on the strategic importance of increasing women’s individual and collective citizen power in order to fight against human rights violations and for gender equality.
For us the network is a key resource and that’s why JASS Mesoamerica began focusing on building strategic alliances in order to join regional efforts to protect Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs). One such alliance is the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (known for its Spanish acronym “IMD”). Created in 2010, by JASS, UDEFEGUA, AWID, La Colectiva Feminista, Consorcio Oaxaca, FCAM and Red de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos en Honduras, the IMD creates alternative holistic protection, safety and self-care mechanisms in order to respond to the violence WHRDs face in the region. We’ve also made significant progress through Mexico and Honduras’ national WHRD networks comprised of numerous organizations and activists in both countries.
Recognizing that almost all social constructs (including the theory of holistic human rights protection and its instruments and mechanisms) are created according to the needs of men, reaffirms our belief that prioritizing WHRDs is necessary in the context of exclusion, discrimination and inequality that all women have and continue to suffer. Based on JASS Mesoamerica’s experience using a feminist approach within the women’s movement, we have created spaces for open dialogue with our allies to better understand the specific experiences of WHRDs in the region. We have learned how WHRDs are carrying out their activism safely, and we have identified their principal concerns.
In Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, we prioritize bringing attention to women human rights defenders, the work and contribution they make in different contexts and social and political levels. That is why it is also important for us to focus on the effects that the work of a WHRDs has and the impacts on their lives, since becoming a woman human rights defender means taking risks and facing violence in these countries. For many women, it also means breaking internalized chains and stereotypes. Social and community norms teach women that they are next to worthless. Making decisions as simple as what to stitch on a blouse becomes an act of self-affirmation.
Women from Ciudad Juarez on the US-Mexico border to San Pedro Sula, Honduras are organizing to assure security for their families and themselves, to seek justice and to defend their homes. Often not recognized as human rights defenders, they have few allies and many opponents. JASS believes in continuing to highlight the importance of driving attention on and design of gendered protection strategies that are adequate for the particular realities of WHRDs. We aim to reduce some of the differences and inequalities between women and men by contributing towards adequate protection mechanisms which will allow WHRDs to continue with their work in more equitable environments. For us the unfulfilled promise of women’s equality cannot be realized without mobilizing the power of women’s voices, knowledge and numbers for sustained pressure and influence on policies, institutions and social norms. With growing backlash and violence today, organizing women is also about protecting activists and their organizations.
In light of recent events in Mexico, we want to add that despite international pressure and public outrage, the forty-three students who were disappeared by the police in Ayotzinapa, Mexico on September 26th are yet to be found. At the moment, JASS is joining with allies at home and around the globe to keep the focus on the role of the Mexican government in the violence and complicity with organized crime. We ask the international community to join with us in demanding that the forty-three school students be returned alive and to join the chorus of voices yelling from the marches “they took them alive and we want them alive”.
Cristina Hardaga Fernández is a feminist dedicated to the defense and promotion of human rights. Bringing years of experience, Cristina has an International Relations degree from the Universidad Iberoamericana (UIA) and a post-graduate degree in Human Rights and Democracy from the Universidad de Chile and the International Transitional Justice Center (ICTJ). Before joining JASS in 2013, Cristina worked as the International Area Coordinator with Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña “Tlachinollan” in the state of Guerrero, Mexico for four years. She also worked as a Human Rights Advisor with the LX session of the House of Representatives and as a researcher for the UIA Human Rights Program. Since August 2013, Cristina joined the JASS Mesoamerica team to lead regional and international solidarity and political engagement.
 The title of the article comes from our report: From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala: http://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/americas_report_low_res_july2012.pdf
 This article is the perspective of Cristina Hardaga Fernández, Strategic and Political Engagement Coordinator. The article is based on elements of the fact finding mission organized by JASS with the Nobel Women Prize Initiative and the work with the Mesoamerican Initiative for Women Human Right’s Defenders. For more information: http://www.justassociates.org/en/about-us
 For more information about the IMD online: facebook IM_Defensoras and twitter @IM_Defensoras. To submit to the IMD’s Scribd account, http://www.scribd.com/IM_DEFENSORAS, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Red de Defensoras Honduras we recommend: http://redefensorashn.blogspot.com to learn more about Red-México please reach out to: email@example.com. Facebook: Red Defensoras Dh México Twitter:@RedDefensorasMx Recent IMD publications: Travesías para pensar y actuar. Experiencias de Autocuidado de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos: http://es.scribd.com/doc/223570458/TRAVESIAS-PARA-PENSAR-Y-ACTUAR-EXPERIENCIAS-DE-AUTOCUIDADO-DE-DEFENSORAS-DE-DERECHOS-HUMANOS-EN-MESOAMERICA; IMD report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 2014: http://es.scribd.com/doc/214940590/Informe-de-la-IM-Defensoras-ante-CIDH-27-03-2014 Diagnóstico 2012: Violence against WHRDs; http://es.scribd.com/doc/166580906/DIAGNOSTICO-2012-VIOLENCIA-CONTRA-DEFENSORAS-DE-DERECHOS-HUMANOS-EN-MESOAMERICA-IM-DEFENSORAS. Marusia López, Regional Director of JASS Mesoamerica was a co-founders and at the moment the co-coordinator of the IMDefensoras.