The pandemic marks a new, brutal chapter in a history of violence against LGBTQIA+ people in Central America

Natalia Marsicovetere Gender, Violence Against Women and Girls

As the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence begins, Oxfam gender justice lead for Central America and LGBTQIA+ activist, Natalia Marsicovetere, spells out the pandemic’s impact on LGBTQIA+ people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador

Central America has historically been a particularly violent region for the LGBTQIA+ population who face everything from street violence, to displacement, to lack of opportunities, to discriminatory public policies. The region has had an epidemic of systemic exclusion that heightens inequality and threatens the human rights of gender and sexually diverse people. 

Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have still failed to pass laws to allow same-sex marriage, or gender recognition, and none has public policies in place to protect LGBTQIA+ communities from the different forms of violence and discrimination they face, especially physical assaults. Honduras and El Salvador have the highest trans murder rates in the world, particularly for trans women. Guatemala is close behind in its own trans murder statistics, and studies show that two out of three trans people in the country have faced a form of exclusion or discrimination.  In all three countries, human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable to attacks. 

Governments in Central America actively participate in perpetuating the violence. Guatemala is currently debating two sets of laws that will restrict both the sexual and reproductive rights and the wider rights of LGBTQIA+ people, including undermining the rights of trans youth, cutting access to sexual health education, and further penalties for abortion. Meanwhile, El Salvador is undermining institutions and cutting funds to public services that seek to protect the rights of these populations. Despite a landmark verdict from the Interamerican Court of Human Rights   holding the Honduran state responsible for the brutal murder of a trans rights activist, Honduras refuses to accept responsibility for the killing or change its trans protection laws as dictated by the verdict. 

These different forms of violence are rooted in structural discrimination — and intersect with other factors that the LGBTQIA+ population are vulnerable to, such as misogyny, inequality, poverty, racism, migration and displacement.  

“Many in the community have been locked in abusive and violent households. This loss of safe spaces has led in many cases to displacement and homelessness…”

How COVID-19 has harmed the LGBTQIA+ community 

The problems have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdown measures in particular have closed secure and safe spaces where LGBTQIA+ people, particularly youth, could find shelter, community, support, wellness and even protection from unsupportive families. At the same time, many in the community have been locked in abusive and violent households. In many cases this loss of safe spaces has led to displacement and homelessness, and widespread damage to mental health.  

Alongside this is the impact of the pandemic on the informal economy, where, due to work exclusion based on discrimination, much of the LGBTQIA+ population in these countries makes a living. The decline in the informal economy meant many jobs and ways of making a living were lost or reduced. This further widened the socioeconomic gap between LGBTQIA+ people and the rest of the population, especially when factoring in racial inequality. 

Damage to health services 

Another big impact of the pandemic has been on healthcare for LGBTQIA+ communities in the region. Health services have been always difficult to access due to discrimination, lack of legal identification documents for gender diverse people, and poor knowledge among medical professionals about how to address LGBTQIA+ specific health issues. Yet, at this critical time, service barriers for LGBTQIA+ populations heightened. The locking down of clinics and lack of resources for services, meant reduced access to life-saving programs such as gender-affirming hormone replacement therapies for trans and non-binary individuals, as well as reduced access to drugs and check-ups for HIV-positive patients. Specifically, on COVID-19, LGBTQIA+ people found themselves more vulnerable to the virus and had difficulty getting medical attention, and accessing vaccination programs.  

The coronavirus pandemic has shed light on a parallel, invisible ongoing pandemic:  the violence, exclusion and inequality that LGBTQIA+ people have faced and continue to face in Central America and all over the world. It is urgent that governments act to protect LGBTQIA+ rights through legislation and public policies that address these structural inequalities and help prevent and address violence in all of its forms — and reverse the harms to LGBTQIA+ people brought by the pandemic.  

This is the first of three blogs Views & Voices will be publishing about the 16 Days campaign, as part of a range of content across Oxfam. You can read the launch paper for Oxfam’s 16 Days campaign here and a blog introducing the campaign here 

About the Author: Natalia, a social and cultural psychologist, is an educator and activist for sexual and gender diversity rights in Guatemala. She is currently Oxfam Central America’s lead for Gender Justice.