Women, as violent as men? A look into gender in the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular
By Christian Marstein
Based on his Master Thesis (2012) in Peace and conflict transformation at the University of Tromsø
Is gender an important factor in public protest groups in todays Latin America or has the gender barrier been broken or diminished in this continent of so many gender issues? This article that is based on my master thesis written as part of completing my masters degree in peace and conflict transformation at the University of Tromsø will try to give a small insight into the gender situation in the movement that came together after the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009 (Lomsdalen, 2012).
This article will as such not deal with the coup in it self, the coup is just the part of the surroundings and what has made the situation arise. This article and the master thesis are just focused on the participation in the movement that occurred afterwards.
My master thesis tried to connect to and be a part of the discourse regarding gender and violence, whether or not women are purely victims, offenders or if they do come in different shades of grey as men do. The thesis and this article also tries to give a snap shot of the situation in Honduras as it was in 2011 when I was there for fieldwork, a snapshot that does cover ground that is not so much focused on amongst other political scientists, thus giving it the potential of what could make it an interesting read.
The title of my master thesis was “Gendered Resistance (?) Is gender significant in the “National Popular Resistance Front” of Honduras?” This was based on my research questions that were:
“Is there a gender difference in participation in the "National Popular Resistance Front"? How do gender-differences influence the armed/non-armed profile of the organization?”
Based on these research questions the following points were chosen as hypotheses for the thesis:
Women participate in the movement’s actions in an equal manner as the men.
Women in the movement are participating in the use of and taking of the street in the same manner as men
The women in the movement are as inclined to reject or accept firearms as the men.
Gender differences do not change the overall attitude towards violence in the studied organizations that form part of the movement.
One could argue that these hypotheses show unrealistic expectations in the level of equality that has been accomplished in Latin America. It could probably be argued that this would be unrealistically egalitarian even for North-American or European standards as well, but I wanted to go into this with an open mind, open to view this from the possibility that a social movement such as this one would prove to be as egalitarian as one could hope.
What else that could be read from my hypotheses is some hints to what constituted my theoretical framework; here there is specially H2 that singles out. This is based on theory regarding the use of public space, in contrast to the others that mostly can be said to derive from gender theory. There will be more on this in the chapter regarding theory.
Honduras in 2011
Honduras is known as the quintessential banana republic (Gonzalez, 2009; Posas, 1980, p 46). But today the export factories play a large role together with remittances from Hondurans living in other countries (Ruhl, 2010, p 95). Since the beginning of the 20th century, the governing of Honduras has had an authoritarian touch that facilitated the legacy that Honduras struggles with today (Ruhl 2010:95). Thus the democratic tendencies in the country in the last years before the coup failed to become legitimized in the eyes of the population, both because of inherent problems and the rampant corruption (Ruhl 2010:96). It was one of the worst in the region, and an explosion of crime and violence became apparent at the same time. The failure to legitimize gave also lead to one of the highest dissatisfaction rates on the continent together with an increased willingness to accept a non-elected leader who would rule the country as a strongman (Ruhl, 2010, p 97). There is a widespread political distrust in Honduras (Seligson & Booth, 2010, p 129), caused by the perceived high rate of corruption and oligarchy that exists in the country (Colburn, 2009, 146)
This is combined with high numbers of poverty and crime; in 2010 67% of the Honduran population lived in poverty (ECLAC, 2011, p 13), 45.3 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty (Ronderos, 2011, p 315). Honduras was badly hit by the recession that began in 2008, both by declining exports and by decline in remittances (Seligson & Booth, 2010, p 125). In Honduras violence occurs on a random and widespread level where it is hard to predict who will be affected (Seligson & Booth, 2010, p 124; IUDPAS-UNAH, 2010). In Central America, in general the homicide rate has doubled from 2005 to 2010 (UNODC, 2011, 9), Honduras alone had 6239 homicides in 2010, making the homicide rate 82.1 per 100,000 inhabitants (UNODC, 2011, 95; Bull, 2012). Most of these homicides happened in urban areas (FER, 2010).
Another important aspect to have in mind is that Honduras has a very young population; the median age of a person living in Honduras is only 21 years old (UNDP, 2011, p 171).
Manuel Zelaya, ”the man of the hour” in Honduras, the former president was elected as a conservative candidate and started his term fronting conservative stances (Meyer, 2010, p 1), but he became known for support for the poor and ethnic minorities (Minster 2009). His politics took a turn for the left after allying with Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales (Minster 2010). His policies secured support from groups that did not usually have strong political ties (Frank 2010:8) but it alienated the political and economic elite of the country, including large parts of his own political party (Meyer 2010:2). If you would like to read more on the topic of the coup it self I would recommend the article by Llanos & Marsteintredet from 2010.
The situation was thus one of frequent demonstrations, protests and clashes between police and demonstrators when I arrived in Honduras in 2011. This then building upon the troubles the country already faced before the coup. These were demonstrations that demanded a free and fair election and reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya.
As my thesis was part of a multidisciplinary master with a focus on mixed methods in collecting the data necessary for the theses, I wanted to have an open mind for this. Both to be able to get more answers, and to accommodate for the fact that I only had time for a three week long field work period. This was due to my family situation at the time. Because of the time restraint and the wish to use mixed methods in the data collection I opted for a mixture of surveys, interviews and observation to collect the data necessary for the thesis.
The main portion of the data was collected through a survey, which was handed out at meetings and in the offices of several of the organizations that participate in the resistance movement. These organizations were mainly the FUR, the FRU and in a mixed environment of LGBT groups. All of these groups consist mostly of young people; the two first is also to be considered as student groups. In total there were 87 persons that responded to my surveys, which could be said to be a fairly large number for a short master thesis survey. The questions in the survey were mostly closed questions with several options, but some of the answers were open-ended qualitative questions. Thus opening up the survey from being completely quantitative.
When it comes to the interviews one could imagine that three weeks might be a long enough time to conduct the interviews, but this could hardly be further from the truth. The reason for this is that as time often is “considered” differently in Latin America, three weeks will thus be a too short time-period to get in touch with and arrange interviews. During my visit in Honduras I arranged for six interviews that was to be concluded in writing after my visit to the country. Unfortunately only one of the interviewees followed through on the arrangement. This left me with only one interview to deepen the content from the surveys. The interview was interesting, but I would very much have had several more interviews to complete the information given in the survey, in the observation session and in the first interview.
The last method in the mixed methods used in my thesis was observation. I got invited to participate at a meeting of the local leadership of the FNRP in the state surrounding the capital. This was the only time one of the organizations allowed me to observe their meetings, usually I was told that the meetings was only for members or specific to some parts of the member group. In this meeting I was able to observe the different attitudes and opinions and connect this with organizational affiliation, gender, age and so on. I did also observe at two different demonstrations that took place during my time in Honduras.
My thesis did not have one specific or unified theoretical background, but did rely on a set of theories that dealt with different parts and/or issues that formed part of my thesis and answered different questions related to it. I did rely on theories on female behavior in war, theories on gender in Latin America, theories on the organization of women in times of conflict, theories of the youth bulge in relation to violence and uprisings, and on theories on the use of public space. This is all encapsulated by the use of the viewpoint of Isdal (2002, p 49) and Galtung (1996, p 2, p 61) that threats also constitutes violence or violent behavior. That it is not necessary to complete the threat for it to constitute violence, because of the psychological and/or socio-cultural implications on the basis of the threat.
Gender roles and relations in Latin America have been and are still quite unequal and asymmetrical in favor of men (Valestrand, 2007, p 276). Changes to this system have not often been welcome as feminism has been considered a subversive action and a threat to civic or military authoritarian regimes, including in Honduras (Chant, 2003, p 1). Women were to be at home, and women who chose or were forced to take waged labor were considered to have hairy chests and be too manly (Varley, 2000, p 239). Thus making the to be the breadwinner and a real man’s man, keeping himself distanced from the home (Valestrand, 2007, p 179). The female ideal in Latin America is often described as marianismo (as opposed to machismo) as Virgin Mary is often looked upon as the ideal women (Valestrand, 2007, p 280).
When dealing with women’s participation in war and conflict situations today one sees that there is less violence committed by women and fewer women who participate as combatants in war. The problem in a research situation like this is that the stereotypes applied to the world might only be half-truths. Women also contribute to or support war as men do (Conover & Sapiro, 1993, p 1095). Women are similar enough to men and have definitively proven themselves on the battleground as well. Gender stereotypes do confuse the picture; women do everything that men do in combat, but this is more hidden, maybe because of stereotypes that exists (Hudson, 2009, p 295) or maybe because of essentialist thought. On the other hand women in different countries all over the world and in different historical periods have organized women-only groups to combat militarization and war (Cockburn, 2010, p 139).
My thesis also takes into consideration the possibility that it might be the age and social status more than the gender that defines the level of participation and/or the eagerness to use violence. This is based on the so-called youth bulge theory found in Mueller (2007, p 90) and Mesquida & Wiener (1999, p 182-186).
Men and women traditionally have been using the public space differently, based on the social considerations of what is appropriate and right at any given moment (Mitchell, 2000, p 207). This being said people have always used parks and public spaces to discuss, protest and demonstrate (Mitchell, 2003, p 48). This use of the public space has at times been legal and for free use for the part of the people that want to do this, but at other times this behavior has been frowned upon by the rest of society or by the ruling elites. This has thus opened up for clashes between groups in society and/or between the governed and the government (Mitchell, 2003, p 1-3). Even in situations where such protests and dissent are legal there are often restrictions to when, where and how such protests might be conveyed, to minimize the impact of such protests (Mitchell, 2003, p 4). This can make it necessary for people to take the right to protests for themselves if it is not given to them by the state (Mitchell, 2003, p 42). In human history these excluded groups are often women, workers, dissidents, poor, disabled, sexual minorities and so on; groups that need to take this right by protests or to fight to be heard so that the ruling classes or the elite actually notices and/or listens to their demands or problems (Mitchell, 2003, p 52). Capturing the street as such does not need to be violent, as long as you demonstrate that you also can use it or that you make it harder for regulators to remove you from the space. This can be done through street plays, stands, meetings, carnivals, exhibitions, flash parties (Mitchell, 2003, p 73; Hertz, 2004, p 227), dancing (Holloways & Hubbard, 2001, p 220) and more.
When looking at what I found out from my fieldwork in Honduras it is important to note that my data collection was way to flawed in various ways to be used as anything other that information about the groups I met and/or observed and/or as a point of inspiration for new studies. One more thing to keep in mind is that one third of my respondents was female whereas two thirds was male. In turn, during my observation I noted that it seemed like women was in majority, although a slight one, during the demonstrations. Women are thus as involved in “taking back the street” as the men, if not even more. Women do also take part in the reclaiming or taking of the streets. As there are as many or more women than men in the demonstrations, they are taking their share of the burden for this task of the movement. The movement had regular demonstrations that followed mostly the same routes, and reclaiming the same parts of town. Where they went they would have youth running around making graffiti, regularly making the same graffiti at the same places. To take back what they saw as theirs.
The respondents in my survey were recruited from meetings in the offices of the organizations that are mentioned earlier in this article. Thus making it obvious that most of them were active participants of the organization. At the same time some of my respondents gave answers that indicated low participation, at least on the meetings. A general high level of participation is also the case for the female respondents whom seem to participate in the activities in the movements on a similar basis as the male respondents. The activities they choose to participate in vary to a certain degree based on gender. If you look at the table below you will see that in some of the activities one can clearly find some differences in the responses I got on my survey regarding participation in different kind of actions. Some of these activities could be considered violent, others not.
This table can be seen together with the following table that links attitudes towards arming the movement with gender. As one can see, there is only an average of one in five of my respondents that are positive to arming the movement. The qualitative part of my survey suggests that the reason most of the respondents that are positive about armament are positive, is because of the possibility of self-defense.
From what is possible to see from the survey data, from the observations and from the documentaries and interview by Johannes Wilm (2009; 2011a; 2011b; 2011c; 2011d; 2011e; 2011f), women participate in the violence and in claiming the streets. The main difference one can draw between the genders is that women in particular seem to be more about threatening with violence than actually performing the violence themselves. Some women participate in this too, but to a large degree it seems like the male participants in the demonstrations have a tendency to ask the women to retreat when the violence emerges, thus protecting the women and performing the violence themselves. Women are thus more guilty in psychological violence that occurs before the physical violence.
 Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular – Left-leaning umbrella organization in opposition to the government in place after the 2009 coup d’état. Translates to National Popular Resistance Front in English.
 Llanos, M. & Marsteintredet, L. (2010) “Ruptura Y Continuidad: La Caída De «Mel» Zelaya En Perspectiva Comparada”. In: América Latina Hoy, 55 (2): 173-197.
 The survey and the anonymized results can be found in the appendixes of the thesis
 Fuerza Universitaria Revolucionaria – Revolutionary leftist student organization. http://www.furunah.com.
 Frente De Reforma Universitaria – Reformist leftist student organization. http://www.fru-unah.com/.
 Photos from these demonstrations are part of the master thesis and can be found as illustrations there.
 I discussed this several times in my theses. I must admit that finding flawes in my own methods and results was very interesting.
 This is based on self-reporting and is thus open for various methodological problems.
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