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She Promised to Empower Women. Will Honduras’s President Succeed?

She came to power pledging to relax some of the world’s steepest restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. But months into her term, rights groups say, Honduras’s first female president, Xiomara Castro, is struggling to fulfill promises, as attempts to empower women rekindle the country’s bitter ideological divisions.

Ms. Castro, 62, became the country’s first ever leftist candidate to win elections in November by promising to bring social equality after more than a century of nearly uninterrupted conservative and military rule. She built a broad coalition of urban intelligentsia, small businessmen, landless farmers, Indigenous and Black groups, L.G.B.T.Q. people and women that propelled her to a landslide victory against the opponent of the incumbent party.

In her campaign manifesto, Ms. Castro said she would advance sexual education, fight gender violence, bring more women into the economy, legalize abortion in limited circumstances and overturn a ban on emergency contraception pills.

“The political agenda of women and feminists will be my priority,” she said during her campaign in August.

Such slogans carried immense symbolism in a male-dominated society with the highest rate of killings of women and girls in Latin America, and where one in four women become pregnant before reaching 19, according to the United Nations.

Now, a sexual abuse scandal is testing Ms. Castro’s promises to bring lasting social change to women.

In March, students at the prestigious Zamorano University near Tegucigalpa, the capital, protested over allegations that a male undergraduate raped two female peers. The police briefly arrested the man, but released him and closed the case after the two women declined to testify.

Although the legal case and the protests quickly waned, they ignited a larger debate in Honduras over access to emergency contraception, as well as the role of religion in politics, exposing rifts in Ms. Castro’s fragile governing coalition.

Feminist organizations and their political supporters have called on Ms. Castro to make good on her promise to legalize emergency contraception. Many Honduran activists who supported Ms. Castro’s candidacy have since joined her administration, raising the internal pressure to act.

“This is the moment to approve the PAE,” a prominent lawmaker in Ms. Castro’s party, Jorge Cálix, wrote on Twitter on March 21 after the Zamorano protest, using the commonly used abbreviation for the emergency contraception pill in Honduras.

Honduras is currently the only nation in the world known to have a blanket legal ban on emergency contraception pills, according to the International Consortium for Emergency Contraception, a policy research group. It is also among the five Latin American countries that prohibit abortion under any circumstances.

Though banned, emergency contraception pills are sold openly in some Tegucigalpa pharmacies for around $10 per dose. But women in poor and rural areas lack access, according to women’s rights advocates.

Human rights activists say the loosening of the emergency contraception ban has been delayed by the socially conservative party in Ms. Castro’s coalition, highlighting the president’s challenge of keeping together the diverse alliances that have brought her to power.

So far, Ms. Castro has largely delegated the issue of emergency contraception to Dr. José Manuel Matheu, the health minister and a member of the center-right allied party, Savior of Honduras. Dr. Matheu has said that legalizing the pill is not his priority, adding in March that he would consult the Catholic Church on the issue.

Major Christian congregations in Honduras oppose the use of emergency contraception, arguing that the pill can terminate an established pregnancy.

To support their case, they cite the label of Plan B One-Step, the most well-known emergency contraception in the United States, which says that there is a possibility it may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.

However, scientific evidence does not support the idea that emergency contraception pills can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Instead, as the Plan B One-Step label states, the pills work primarily by preventing ovulation — the release of an egg before it can be fertilized by sperm.

Ms. Castro’s office, Dr. Matheu and the spokesman for Honduras’s Catholic Church, the Rev. Juan Ángel López, didn’t respond or declined to comment for this story.

Rights groups have questioned Dr. Matheu’s decision to consult the church, pointing out that Honduras is a secular state under the Constitution.

However, ignoring religious concerns over contraception would merely stoke further social tensions at a time when Ms. Castro is confronting conservative interests in other areas of the economy and society, said Natalie Roque, Honduras’s human rights minister, who helped draft the government’s progressive agenda.

Nine out of 10 Hondurans consider themselves Catholic or evangelical Christians.

The government “right now is not in conditions to open another front against such a powerful adversary as the church,” said Ms. Roque, adding that legalizing the pill now “would merely throw more fuel on the bonfire.”

This sense of caution in part reflects the enduring impact of the military coup that deposed Ms. Castro’s husband, Manuel Zelaya, from the presidency 14 years ago, cutting short the previous attempt to redistribute power in Honduras.

As president, Mr. Zelaya thwarted an earlier attempt by the country’s conservative-dominated Congress to ban emergency contraception, vetoing their proposal. A month later, in June 2008, the army arrested him in his residence and installed a conservative caretaker government that proceeded to put the ban in place.

Ms. Castro is now struggling to balance the pressure for greater reproductive rights from civil society and feminist organizations against “the great power acquired by the church in the aftermath of the coup,” said Joaquín Mejía, a Honduran human rights lawyer.

“I don’t think she can continue ignoring these pressures for much longer,” he added.

The controversy over emergency contraception comes as Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have widened access to abortion in recent months, energizing abortion activists across Latin America and hardening opposition in the countries that continue banning it.

Anti-abortion groups in Honduras say legalizing emergency contraception would open a path to legalizing clinical abortion in the future.

“Not everything that is legalized in the developed countries should be imitated,” said Michelle Zacapa, president of Honduras’s largest anti-abortion group, Pro Vida. “A Honduran loves life, and opposes all these ideologies that are being imposed on us.”

Her organization did not provide any opinion polls supporting its positions, but she said that sexual abuse should be fought with tougher punishments for the perpetrators, not with emergency contraception.

Periodic opinion polls commissioned by the Center for Women’s Rights, which supports emergency contraception and abortion, show that a slight majority of urban Hondurans support emergency contraception, as well as abortion in cases when a pregnancy threatens the woman’s health.

Feminist activists and advisers to Ms. Castro said the president remains committed to women’s rights, but acknowledge that she has to tread carefully to avoid provoking the conservative forces that toppled her husband.

The government’s advancement of women’s rights will be gradual, said Ms. Roque, the human rights minister. The first step under review by the government would be legalizing emergency contraception for victims of sexual abuse, and expanding sexual education before making it widely available at a later, unspecified date, she said.

Since taking power, Ms. Castro has faced difficulties in other areas. She has struggled to revive an economy that was devastated by the pandemic and recent hurricanes and is now hurting from rising food and fuel costs. In January, Ms. Castro barely stopped a rebellion within her party, and in recent weeks her government moved to extradite her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, to the United States to face drug-related charges, a move that threatens to create tensions between her and segments of the country’s security forces.

Despite the setbacks, some of Ms. Castro’s feminist supporters remain confident in her. Three who met with the president on March 8 said she appeared committed to advancing her gender policy, but was held back by the reticence of the more conservative sections of her coalition and bureaucracy.

“She is very conscious of all the sexual violence suffered by the women,” said Jinna Rosales, the sexual health researcher. “She said that in a country with the first female president in its history, sexual and reproductive rights cannot continue to be trampled.”

Anatoly Kurmanaev reported from Mexico City, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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