Social worker Michelle Carbajal is blunt about Honduras, with its extreme levels of poverty and violence, widespread legal impunity, and femicide so high that busloads of women flee north to seek asylum in the United States. “The country is a mess,” she says.
Michelle lives two lives – professional and activist - with an overlapping focus on gender rights. As a social worker with Centro de Derechos de Mujeres (Women’s Rights Centre), she defines her community work as humanitarian development with a focus on women and LBGTQ people.
As an activist, she is part of the Somos Muchas (We Are Many) feminist platform that fights for the decriminalization of abortion in Honduras. And she is active in the Yo No Quiero Ser Violada (I Do not Want to be Raped) movement. In that role she promotes women’s rights, sexual health and campaigns against gender-based violence and criminalization of abortion.
“Sometimes the morning is for work and the afternoon is for activism,” she said in an interview. “I try to have a balance.”
Age 28 and based in the capital Tegucigalpa, Michelle also writes a digital column, along with young women from different parts of Honduras, published in Libertad Digital. They work with artists to illustrate their stories about the lives and struggles of women “without all that disgusting sexualization of women in normal media publications.”
Her biggest challenge in work and activism is to avoid revictimizing women and girls who have suffered violence. “I don’t want to make them relive what happened,” she said. “Our culture teaches us to be victims. We can have a really bad experience but don’t want to be a victim all the time.”
She is especially proud of being part of the original team that led to a landmark ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on June 26, 2021, that Honduras violated the rights to life and personal integrity of Vicky Hernández, a transgender woman killed in 2009 during a military coup.
“When we began five years ago, we were a team of five persons and I had the chance to write the case history,” she said. “They won the case this year and it’s amazing. I’m really happy for that team.”
Michelle said 2021 was especially violent in Honduras because it was an election year. Hate speech and a nasty mix of conservative politics with religion was used against the country’s female presidential candidate who campaigned for decriminalization of abortion, she said. Criminalization of abortion is also embedded in the Honduran constitution.
“The system of justice we have in this country is not working,” she added. “We have a really, really high rate of impunity. The system is broken. Women prefer to flee than to access the system.
“Sometimes I’m not even surprised by the number of people that try to run away because this country is a really big clown show.”
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2021 said there are thousands of gangs in Honduras which forcibly recruit children and sexually abuse women, girls, and LGBT people. Gangs kill, disappear, rape, or displace those who resist.
“Marred by corruption and abuse, the judiciary and police remain largely ineffective,” the report said. It said tens of thousands of Hondurans are internally displaced or leave the country each year. Among them are “children subjected to forced gang recruitment, professionals and business owners who face extortion, domestic violence survivors, and LGBT people and members of ethnic minorities who face violence and discrimination.”
What drove you into activism?
At university I was part of the student movement defending public education. The student movement has had that cause for more than 10 years now. It’s about money. It’s about public access. More than 50 per cent of the population right now lives in poverty, 25 per cent in extreme poverty. Public education is really limited.
I’m not clear when I started with feminism, but I remember yelling with other students and we were very few young women in the leadership compared to the young male students. I started to speak with women leaders, amazing women, and here I am now.
What is the most encouraging or satisfying part of what you do?
I don’t know if satisfying is a word I would use because I will never have that feeling in this country. But I feel happiness when I see young girls we work with saying we want to start an organization or talk about women’s rights. It’s like ‘Oh my God!’
That motivates me to keep going, to keep working with girls. It’s not just for my happiness, it’s for their happiness, for those moments when we feel safe, where we feel we can speak loud in a secure space.
Joy is the best weapon we have against the system because the system wants to see us broke and crying with pain.
Describe one of those moments of happiness.
It was amazing. Visiting a rural community in my job, a space with 15 to 20 girls and women speaking about their experiences. Happiness and laughs. I thought it’s amazing how we can heal. They just passed through the tropical storm that menaced the north. Even living in communities with a high amount of violence they felt safe within that school and had the security to speak, to laugh. It was really incredible to see that.
It’s the same thing with the movement. When we go to communities and hear the journeys of young teenagers, at the start they are so shy, they don’t want to speak and when they are finishing they are laughing and screaming and dancing. They are feeling free. It’s really amazing to see.
What advice would you share with other young women activists?
I will say something that I wish somebody told me when I was beginning – don’t rush. I ran and ran and ran and ran. I was tired. Sometimes in the movement we forget about ourselves.
Remember that you are important, that you are valued, that your mental, physical, and emotional health is really important to keep doing what you are trying to do. Because this is a way of life. It’s my way of seeing feminism - it’s a way of life.
The media makes us try to go really fast with our personal goals, our professional goals, our academic goals. So, in the feminist movement we can experience that. Don’t rush. Take your time. Don’t be cruel with yourself.