The invisible price women have to pay for privatisation

Ana María Ferrera; Suyapa Martínez; Filadelfo Martínez; Mirta Kennedy; María Elena Méndez
Centro de Estudios de la Mujer (CEM-H)

Within the framework of the free trade treaties progress is being made in the process of public service privatisation in Honduras. The disappearance of State responsibility for maintaining public services has led to women having to double or treble their workday to take on a greater workload at home, with more hours of voluntary work in the communities and in activities generating income, to the detriment of their health, quality of life and leisure.


InJanuary 2002, Ricardo Maduro, a nationalist conservative, took office to headthe government. Maduro presented himself as a leader breaking with conservativemodels and managed to receive most of the votes because of his campaign’scentral proposal: the promise to solve the problems causing citizen insecurityin a country showing a rapid rise of violence.

Althoughthe National Party won the presidency with an ample majority, it does notcontrol the National Congress, and thus the minority parties can play a role inlegislative decisions. However, in practice this has not implied a greatercapacity for negotiation due to the political compromises neutralising theseparties.

Inspite of the apparent democratisation implied by the electoral process, womenare poorly represented in the legislature, although the Equal Opportunities Actestablished a quota of 30% female participation in the posts elected by thepeople. The electoral results reflected only 5% and 17% female participation inCongress in permanent and alternate posts respectively, as compared to 9% and11% during the previous period. This situation has not favoured the promotion ofgender equity policies.

Unpopularmacro-economic measures

Thegovernment is facing serious problems with the fiscal deficit exceeding 10% ofthe GDP and is therefore studying new income-tax increases and the possibilityof raising the value added tax from 12% to 15%. The macro-economic measurestaken by the present government, such as the Financial Balance and SocialProtection Law, known as “the package”, continue to implement unpopularstructural adjustment models. These policies are aimed at increasing directtaxation for the middle class and indirect taxation for the population ingeneral; reducing taxes and tax incentives for the large and transnationalcompanies; and privatising state services while leaving the informal andsmall-enterprise sector unprotected, where women have considerableparticipation.

Sixmonths after taking office, the new administration submitted its plan forgovernment, characterised by superficiality in addressing issues such as genderequity and human rights.

Thegovernment plan adheres to the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA) andhas no country proposal, not even foreseeing measures to buffer therepercussions expected from increased poverty, which will affect the majority ofthe population. The government’s economic policy continues to be one ofopening up frontiers and markets, to the detriment of national production andfood security. Honduras is negotiating free entry of North American productswithout taking measures to guarantee minimal protection of national ruralproducers and other sectors of the economy.

Themulti-year government plan contemplates the creation of incentives for theinstallation of the maquila[1]industry and the improvement of highway infrastructure within the framework ofthe free trade treaties. According to those defending these treaties, anotherimportant component is the development of tourism. However, on examining thefigures for Central America, this item represents only 4% of the total loans tobe granted, and 96% will be divided between highway intercommunication andimprovement of the telephone network, benefiting traffic in trade.

Tourismas a strategic item in the government’s economic plan promotes the eviction ofethnic Garifuna peoples from the Caribbean coast to make way for theinstallation of transnational tourist developments, an industry linked to thepromotion of prostitution and the sexual exploitation of minors in the region.

Foreigndebt and HIPC

Accordingto World Bank figures, Honduras foreign debt was USD 5,121 million (80.2% ofGDP) in 2001.[2] Through the application ofthe HIPC initiative, the country will receive a reduction in debt service overthe next seven years, provided a series of conditions that the internationalfinancial institutions have negotiated with the government are fulfilled.[3]

Thelack of “agreement” with the International Monetary Fund has preventedHonduras from achieving finalisation of the HIPC initiative foreseen formid-2002. The Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and an alleviation of the foreigndebt are closely linked to this “agreement”, which demands a substantialimprovement in fiscal deficit management and “freezing” of salaryexpenditure in the government sector, presently accounting for 70% of the totalpublic expenditure.

Movingtowards privatisation

Withinthe framework of the free trade treaties, as part of the United States’strategy to have greater control over world and regional markets, progress isbeing made in the process of public service privatisation in Honduras. Theservice for reading the meters belonging to the state electricity company hasbeen privatised and is managed by the SEMEH Company, and 60% of energygeneration is in the hands of private companies. This situation is more seriousconsidering that the energy is produced in thermal plants fuelled by oil, whileHonduras has the greatest hydraulic energy potential in Central America.

Airportoperations have been leased under disadvantageous conditions for the country.Critical sectors of private enterprise have denounced the bid as fraudulent. TheNorth American company INTERAPORT was favoured, which has involved a drasticincrease in the price of airport use and no improvement in the quality ofservice.

TheNational Congress is presently discussing the Water Law Framework, which is infact the elimination of the state company SANAA presently managing theseservices. Under this law, management of water supply systems is handed over tothe municipalities, which in turn can lease them to private companies. In SanPedro Sula, the second largest city in the country, the state company DIMA wasreplaced by the private company Aguas de San Pedro, an Italian company that hasincreased costs while failing to achieve any improvement in coverage or quality.

Basichealth packages[4] will be implemented in theframework of the PRS. These packages—a total of 100,000—will be managed byprivate organisations as a first step towards privatising the health caresystem. Since the previous administration, this system is no longer a“public” health system. It should be noted that the health care serviceunits operate with a shortage of human and material resources, and the shortageof drugs is chronic.

Theweakened educational system is also tending towards privatisation. In thesecondary education sector, 39% of the services have already been privatised.Out of the total number of schools corresponding to the first six years ofprimary education, 81% have fewer than six teachers, and of these, 62.2% haveonly one teacher.[5] According to the firstschool census carried out in 2000, 6% of the schools in Honduras did not haveany teachers.

Themunicipality of Tegucigalpa, the capital city, implemented a privatised systemfor monitoring parking, involving the application of heavy fines. Various mediahave denounced the fact that the company is managed by a recognised violator ofhuman rights responsible for the disappearance and torture of civilians duringthe 1980s.

Thepresent government administration has maintained a reduced allocation of stateresources to the institutions set up during the 1990s in the framework of stategender equity policies, such as the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office forWomen and the Family Departments, which defended and cared for women affected byviolence. This reduction in resources for these services is accentuating thetrend towards their dismantling. Over the past few years, the budget increasefor basic health, education and the Public Ministry (public defence) has beentwo percentage points per year, lower than the annual average growth rate of thepopulation (2.4%).

Thegender impact of privatisations

Thedisappearance of State responsibility for maintaining public services has led towomen having to double or treble their workday to take on a greater workload athome, with more hours of voluntary work in the communities and in activitiesgenerating income, to the detriment of their health, quality of life andleisure.

Thegovernment’s economic plan is characterised by privatisation of publicservices and adherence to free trade treaties under the assumption that sourcesof employment for young women will be opened up with the operation of themaquilas. However, women, and especially young women, have paid a high price forit. These processes generate new forms of concealed inequality for women,preventing them from finishing their education and prolonging their productiveworking hours, causing damage among the young, female work force.

Thisdamage of women’s labour has produced multiple adverse effects due to thedeplorable working conditions: for example, in agro-industries such as melongrowing or shrimp farms high concentrations of toxic products are used, causingwomen to become disabled at an early age. These working conditions seriouslyaffect women’s rights, such as violation of the right to personal integrity,sexual abuse and harassment, induction to abortion, forced sterilisation, andviolation of the right to liberty and freedom of expression.

Anti-democraticretrogression and the reaction of women’s and civil society movements

Duringthe first months of government, the National Congress, without the participationof organised civil society, concentrated on reforming and approving a series oflaws. The reform of article 205, item 10 of the Constitution of the Republicincreased the powers of the National Congress, granting it the ability to“construe the Constitution of the Republic at regular sessions, in a singlelegislature, with two thirds of the votes of the totality of the members.”This act is considered by civil society as a technical coupd’etat—throughout the whole of Honduran constitutional history, theinterpretation of the Constitution has never been a power of the NationalCongress but has always been performed by the Supreme Court of Justice throughits Constitutional Chamber. With this action, the National Congress has upsetthe balance of State powers by appropriating a power that belongs to the SupremeCourt of Justice.

InJanuary 2002, Congress adopted and ratified the reforms to the Constitution ofthe Republic, establishing the creation of a Supreme Auditing Office,responsible for preventing and fighting corruption. This proposal is consideredby civil society and women’s organisations as incomplete and having hiddeninterests as the proposal does not guarantee the independence of the Office, norare the participation of civil society or mechanisms for social auditing clearin this law.

InJuly 2002, civil society became organised in a forum, in which women’sorganisations were represented, under the name of Civil Society Coalition for anindependent Supreme Auditing Office, generating a national debate aboutguaranteeing a real and true participation of society. However, in spite of thefact that consultations were held all over the country, there are serious fearsthat the recommendations set forth will not be considered by the deputies, asmany politicians are accused of corruption.

TheNational Women’s Institute (INAM) is operating with foreign cooperationresources, outside the priority interests of the government, without a dialoguewith most of the women’s movements. INAM spends resources on internationalconsultations, the results of which have never been seen, and uses strategiesfor division to neutralise the discontent of organised women in the face ofpoverty, exclusion and institutional weakening.

Itis also important to note that the measures set up for the reduction of domesticviolence are being undermined, as in the case of the Public Ministry’s SpecialProsecutor’s Office for Women. The Investigation Police have been separatedfrom the Public Ministry and incorporated into the Security Secretariat, leavingthe Special Prosecutor’s Offices unprotected. Consequently, this createsobstacles for women to denounce violence as there are no resources for theinvestigation and implementation of immediate protection measures as establishedin the Law against Domestic Violence.


[1] Translator’s note: Maquila: sweatshops or factories producing consumer goods for the US market.

[2] World Bank,

[3] These conditions are set out in documents such as the Letter of Intent with the IMF and the Poverty Reduction Strategy.

[4] As a first stage, these basic packages are aimed at communities with difficulties in accessing the health system and consist of displacing a technical team, to provide care in the various Health Secretariat programmes: clinical health care, training of voluntary personnel, house visits and follow up on cases. This Programme for strengthening the health system (PRIESS) is financed with IDB funds, available until 2005.

[5] The average teacher-student ratio is one teacher per 34 students.