In response to alarming levels of gender-based violence in the north of Central America, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is calling for more effective, innovative and immediate measures to protect the rights of women, girls and LGBTIQ+ people on the move in the region.
Gender-based violence, often underreported and statistically invisible, is one of the primary push factors driving women, girls and members of the LGBTIQ+ community to flee their homes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. At the same time, it is one of the key risks they face as they search for safety.
The situation became critical during pandemic-related lockdowns, which heightened incidents and risks. Once border restrictions on movements were lifted in recent months, women and girls were prominent among the unprecedented number of people who were forced to flee their homes.
“It is unacceptable that gender-based violence continues to drive women, girls and LGBTIQ+ people from their homes and remains one of the major risks they face during their displacement. National authorities must ensure they are able to access asylum and seek protection, and scale up prevention and response measures,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.
Street gangs frequently target women and girls, forcing them into sexual slavery. Criminals also use sexual assault – or the threat of it – as a weapon to force family members into illicit activities. When women and girls are perceived as having ties to a particular gang, they can be targeted by rivals. Women and girls can also suffer abuse or rape, or even be killed as part of gang initiation rites.
A recent study in Honduras showed that violence against women was a determining factor in displacement, particularly for those who had leadership roles and relationships with members of gangs or security forces.
LGBTIQ+ people, especially trans-gender women, are also particularly vulnerable to extortion, exploitation and persecution. In El Salvador, the NGO Comcavis Trans reports that nearly two-thirds of the LGBTIQ+ people they assisted this year were fleeing from criminal gangs, with death threats given as the primary reason. In Honduras, the NGO Cattrachas reports 373 violent murders of LGBTIQ+ persons since 2009.
But even when they flee for safety, many women, girls and members of the LGBTIQ+ community are vulnerable to trafficking, assault and rape, particularly when resorting to smuggling networks or crossing borders at informal points.
“Prevention measures are crucial in helping empower women, girls and LGBTIQ+ people, and in securing their rights and boosting their self-reliance. At the same time, the survivors of abuse must be at the centre of all responses,” Triggs added.
One response in the region is a programme that uses roving vans, known as UNIVETs, launched in Guatemala by UNHCR and the Secretariat Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Trafficking in Persons. UNIVETS travel to remote locations and along transit routes, to provide information and support to survivors of gender-based violence.
Fighting gender-based violence is a key focus of the Comprehensive Regional Framework for Protection and Solutions (MIRPS), a regional mechanism for solidarity and responsibility sharing, which includes Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Panama.
To discuss ways to improve protection and solutions for women and girls in Central America and Mexico, Triggs will participate on 7 December in a high-level event organized by the Government of Canada, the chair of the MIRPS Support Platform.
The panel discussion with experts from the region will explore gender-based violence as a root cause of displacement, advancing solutions, and women’s empowerment.