BEHIND NATURAL DISASTERS WITH HONDURAN WOMEN
Rural Honduran women lead difficult daily lives, which have been exacerbated by additional challenges brought on by the natural disasters during the last two years.
By Rosa del Carmen Aguilar
Last September, while 32-year-old Rafaela Sosa was packing away the last few cigars at the end of her 12-hour work day in a local tobacco factory, strong rains caused the nearby El Pirineo River to rise and overflow. Minutes after the river rose past its banks, it swept away her home.
Without suspecting what had happened, Rafaela left the factory to meet her three children, Kathy, Nilson and Yaneth, whom she left alone because she had no one to take care of them. When she came to her home, she found only ruins.
‘Thank God my children were at my sister’s house when it all happened. Otherwise, they would have drowned,’ she said, staring into the distance as she contemplated what might have happened otherwise.
Rafaela felt completely helpless. Her husband had abandoned her only a few weeks before the flood. Pregnant with her fourth child, Rafaela faced the challenge of rebuilding her house and raising her children with a monthly income of only US$140.
Winter floods during the last two years have brought considerable damage to the families of many Honduran women. And while these natural disasters are not the only source of their problems, they have helped these women see more clearly the crude reality in which they live. Like Rafaela, many rural women have long struggled with deplorable circumstances brought on by little education, poor labour conditions, and multiple responsibilities they must endure due to family disintegration.
The last national census shows that in the field as well as the country, illiteracy is greater among women than among men. It is nearly 43% in rural areas. Because of this, rural women find it especially difficult to improve their conditions or realise self-fulfilment.
Women in rural areas often find themselves in even worse situations when, aside from having less education, more children, and fewer opportunities for earning fair wages, they are left without the support of their husbands. According to a 1995 study conducted by Homes and Families in Honduras, one in four households is incomplete. Of these households, 80% are headed by women.
According to the most recent census, there are 300,000 women heads-of-household. Of these, 52.3% are in urban areas; 47.7% are in rural areas.
The woman head-of-household assumes 100% of the responsibilities of their families, which includes not only taking care of domestic activities, but also raising the children and working outside the home.
If a rural woman cannot find work locally, she often must leave her children with family members while she travels to the city to find work, often as a domestic worker. Such jobs commonly require 12 hours of work a day, for which she might receive a monthly wage of US$68.
A job like this prevents her having a close relationship with her children, since she is with them only during her annual vacation and days off. Such work also prevents her from opportunities to pursue other activities that might enrich her life.
Aside from the difficulty of their daily lives, rural Honduran women - especially those heading households - face additional challenges brought on by the natural disasters during the last two years.
The flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch, and torrential rains in the last rainy season of the 20th century, affected agriculture, potable water systems, infrastructure, the health and education network and, therefore, reduced the potential for survival among the poorest families.
Since losing her home to the flood, Rafaela and her children have had to live with her mother. Overcrowded conditions and lack of privacy there have made life especially difficult.
Rafaela cannot rebuild the house ruined by the El Pirineo River, since conditions in that area are no longer suitable for rebuilding. As a result, she is searching for a new lot from the community landowner. She also must pay for construction materials.
Rafaela’s fourth child will be born soon. For this, she will need more money. However, her earning capacity has not improved. And the constant currency devaluation only makes matters worse. Moreover, her lack of education prevents her from obtaining employment that might bring her a better salary.
The prospect for holistic well-being is not bright for Rafaela’s children. Theirs is an uncertain future, made so not only by unpredictable weather, but also by grinding realities brought on by lack of education and few opportunities for improvement. Families like Rafaela’s need assistance not only during times of disaster, but also over the long term. - Third World Network Features
About the writer: Rosa Del Carmen Aguilar is co-ordinator of communications for World Vision Honduras. The above article first appeared in Together (April-June 2000), published quarterly by World Vision.