Zoila Lagos, A Champion For Women’s Rights in Honduras
In one of the most dangerous cities in Honduras, Zoila Lagos works relentlessly to help women victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She’s fought for labor rights, women’s rights, water rights, and helped found one of the largest feminist organizations in Honduras – but her commitment is always to the grassroots. And she always has a spring in her step.
Zoila Lagos touches the lives of everyone surrounding her. Just like the purple and pink butterfly cutouts that fill her living room, she is full of life and energy, and determined to empower every woman in her town of Lopez Arellano, Honduras, to reach their full potential. “Zoila has been the pillar of my life” says feminist activist, Esperanza Verde, “I’m always learning from her.”
Ever since she can remember Zoila has been a rebel. When she saw her father abusing her mother as a child she began questioning the prescriptive role of women in Honduran society as submissive: society’s demand to “see, hear and be silent” as she puts it. She was never silent. She’s a fan of rock music, hates doing housework and proudly reclaims the word “witch” to describe herself. And she reads anything and everything she can get her hands on. She now spends her time organizing and creating space for the women in her community through the grassroots feminist organization that she founded.
“Zoila Lagos is an exceptional thinker and activist,” says Dana Frank, professor of history at UC Santa Cruz and friend of Zoila. “She has a rare ability to think conceptually at the big level, about capitalism, patriarchy, and imperialism, but she can communicate the most complex of ideas in plain language accessible to all.”
That ability comes from over four decades of activism, starting in the 1980s when she was part of a clandestine political organization. A nurse by profession, Zoila has always believed that the most important work is done on the streets, far away from the cold offices of government institutions. She remembers the difficult year spent in the rural department of Olancho, where she was forced to think on her feet, often treating people’s injuries without the proper medical equipment.
But her watershed moment came in the 1990s when she attended the “Clementina Suarez First National Honduran Women’s Gathering,” – a salute to the trail-blazing 20th century Honduran woman poet. “That was the first time I heard the word ‘Gender’,” Zoila told me, “and the word’s meaning changed my entire life’s vision.” Up until that point she had fought for the common good; for “water, education, transportation, electricity,” but never for women’s equality. Once she started questioning the “normal” abuse and violence against women she saw around her, she never looked back.
Ever since then she’s moved from one organization to the next – “when organizations go big, my mom steps out and moves to another one,” her son Dorian Quintero Popin told me. She was instrumental in the founding of the Center For Women’s Rights, one of the most important feminist organizations in Honduras, when they expanded to San Pedro Sula, representing them abroad at conferences across Latin America, and even traveling to Europe to give lectures about women factory workers. Frank remembers meeting her when she organized young women banana plantation workers; “it was astonishing how she could pull everyone in, make them feel engaged, teach them difficult concepts with ease, and keep them laughing all the while.”
Collective Empowerment: The Mutual Support Association of Honduran Women
In the heart of the San Pedro Sula Valley, the city of Choloma where only 56% of residents have completed their “basic education” is sometimes referred to as “one of the most dangerous cities in the world for women.” Honduras’s industrial core, is home to dozens of textile factories, referred to as “maquilas” that are notorious for their lax regulations and the exploitation of women and girl’s human rights. It’s quite common, Zoila tells me, for girls to begin working in maquilas at just 12 years old. Zoila has been offered many jobs at maquilas but she prefers to be on the streets helping the workers to unionize.
Violence against women in Honduras is an epidemic: In 2021 alone, The Center For Women’s Rights has registered 172 femicides, with at least 28 of the victims under 20 years old; and 3,970 reports of domestic violence in the Department of Cortés, where Choloma is located. According to Zoila there are many more cases that go unreported, out of fear that the abuser could retaliate. The vast majority of these cases go unpunished.
On January 25, 2003, National Women’s Day in Honduras, Zoila and Esperanza founded APOMUH, the Mutual Support Association of Honduran Women, as a nursery for the children of maquila workers. The nursery was short-lived due to lack of funding, but the idea of creating a collective space for women in Choloma lived on.
Now, 18 years later, APOMUH has spread to 14 communities in the greater Choloma-San Pedro Sula area, each one with its own “collective” of 10-12 women, most of them factory workers. But their work can’t be quantified in precise numbers; rather, it should be understood as a process carried out over a long period of time. In addition to providing legal aid and therapy in collaboration with Doctors Without Borders, their main activities are workshops (“talleres”) that they hold on the weekends, on topics ranging from self-care to national politics.
Every October they hold their “witch’s night” celebration, to reclaim the symbols of wise and nonconformist women. They don’t have an office so they meet at each other’s houses, or at Esperanza’s outdoor cafe, next to a white-faced monkey colony that the women of APOMUH take care of. Many of the members of the organization are survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, so the workshops give them a space for collective healing.
The members of APOMUH are also avid participants in Somos Muchas, the national platform of over a dozen pro-choice organizations fighting for abortion rights. Abortion is considered a criminal offense under the Honduran Constitution.
“The biggest problems we have in our area are unemployment and the inability of women to stand up for their rights because they don’t know their rights,” Zoila tells me. “If I don’t know what rights I have, how am I going to reclaim them?” She admits that it’s challenging to unpack topics like gender-based violence and reproductive rights, especially given that the majority of women that APOMUH works with come from conservative Christian upbringings where they are taught that they are the ones in the wrong when they are sexually abused.
“Everyone has the right to believe in what they want to believe in, but let’s remember that we ourselves are not guilty for Eve’s sin – we didn’t give a piece of apple to anyone.” Zoila and Esperanza know how to achieve the perfect balance of welcoming yet forceful language to talk about sexual violence, but even they acknowledge that the healing process takes years. “It takes years to give ourselves permission” to talk about sexual assault and violence, Zoila says. She makes it clear that “rape is not an intimate sexual act – it’s simply the exertion of power of one person over another.” She discusses rape through simple examples – sometimes even using herself to discuss hypothetical scenarios. It’s a hard process but it’s had “great results.”
Zoila works hard to create a safe, inclusive space for the women of Choloma, but she isn’t afraid to speak out in the face of injustice – she describes to me protests when she and the women of APOMUH would shout at police going by – “¡Asesinos!” Even then, her son tells me, she has gained the respect of much of the Choloma police force after educating them on a new domestic violence law a few years back.
The Lucha continues
Driving towards Choloma from San Pedro Sula you’ll see a brightly colored mural on your right depicting three women of different ethnicities. The words read: “We hear you, we come together, and continue.” Zoila’s son painted the mural for APOMUH last November, as a memorial to the women that have been murdered in Honduras. “Strategically placed” so that passersby can’t miss it, the mural is like a beacon for anyone in need of support.
“Coming together [“acuerpar”] is a principle of solidarity. I don’t just pick up the phone when women ask for my help; I make sure they don’t feel guilty for what’s happening to them,” Zoila says. Even in the middle of the toughest circumstances – during the pandemic and after hurricanes Eta and Iota, the women of APOMUH still found a way to come together.
For Zoila and Esperanza “coming together” also means transmitting their knowledge and experience to the next generation – they’re proud that many of the girls in their organization have grown up to be leaders. Esperanza brought her daughter to marches and protests since she was toddler, and now at 19 years old she’s APOMUH’s coordinator of youth outreach.
On March 8 2021, International Women’s Day, the members of APOMUH held a protest in the center of Choloma like they do every year, celebrating their collective strength and demanding an end to patriarchal violence – but with one difference. This year Zoila was sick in bed, worried she might have Covid. She wasn’t there to lead the women that she’s helped grow for so long. Nonetheless, there they were, with their brooms and witch’s hats, standing in a semicircle around their purple mandala.
One participant read a manifesto: “Finally we demand: Justice for every femicide that is committed daily in Honduras. Investigation of all femicides, prosecution of the guilty. Stop the criminalization of protest! Stop violence against women and girls! Are you afraid? “NO!!!” Then, forward, forward, the struggle is constant!”
Dashiell is a graduate of Reed College where he studied Latin American and Peninsular Spanish literature. At Latina Republic, Dashiell elevates the voices of activists and organizers that work to promote human rights and immigrant rights throughout Latin America. His work contributes to the organization’s mission of breaking stereotypes and bringing attention to underreported stories throughout Latin America.