With hope against gang violence

This content is in English.

The life of 25-year-old María (not her real name) resembles building a house on quicksand: A futile attempt to create stability in a world that keeps uprooting individuals and destroying what little they have achieved for themselves. Yet, the young woman in Central America has not given up and she recently found a supporting partner in ACT Alliance member Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

María is a member of the Christian Lutheran Church of Honduras and part of the LWF Youth Leadership Project “Ecumenical Leadership Construction in Central America”. The goal of this project is to encourage young people from Central America in Faith-Based Organizations, to teach them and provide them with the skills to be leaders in their communities.

A mother in high school

María’s story is that of many young women in Central America. She grew up without her mother, who had emigrated to the United States to find work and support the family after she lost her job in Honduras. María lived with her father and his family. She became pregnant at the age of 14– the fate of every fourth teenage girl in her country, according to UNICEF. The father of her child was also a teenanger. María had to move to a special government school which held classes at night during her pregnancy.

After a high-risk pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Mayriane, María went back to school – at night, with the infant on her knees. “The baby would not take a bottle, so I had to breastfeed in class. She was with me every day throughout my ninth year of high school”, she adds. After that she quit school and found a job, to gain more independence and provide for her baby.

Unemployment in Honduras is extremely high but Maria was able to find work. In the following years she worked in numerous low-paid jobs, from being a sales clerk to cleaning land with hoe and machete and sweeping the streets of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa. Eventually she found the means to support herself, move into an apartment with the father of her daughter and finish school at the age of 22. But then the family was thrown off balance again.

A broken home

María was visiting her mother’s family when they received a call from a mara, a local gang. The maras are a phenomenon in the region, mainly Honduras and El Salvador, where the Supreme Court has declared them “terrorist groups”. The family of María’s mother lived in Comayagüela, one of the conflict zones between rival maras and suddenly the family found itself between the lines.

“They assumed that my family had money, because we have many relatives in the US,” María recalls. Five of her cousins have already migrated to the US. What followed was a nightmare. The gangmembers threatened violence and finally the the family moved to another city to save their lives. “Everything we owned remained in that house. My family left with only what they were wearing”, María says.

As the gang members could not find María’s extended family whom they had initially threatened, the mara turned on María and other relatives, eventually forcing them to leave the country and move to GuatemalaOne of her cousins ​​had several failed attempts to migrate to the US. María planned to go to Mexico illegally. “I had no courage to enter the country illegally, so I stayed in Guatemala,” she says. “I left all my dreams, plans and responsibilities in Honduras, especially my partner and my daughter.”

María could not anticipate the consequences. The long-distance relationship with her partner did not work out and the couple separated.  “My home was irretrievably broken,” she says. “I had to move house several times because I still do not have a job to support me financially,” she says. She returned to Honduras and was reunited with her child. But since she no longer has a partner to support them, she and her daughter again live with  her father’s family.

Life, dignity and justice

What looks like an extremely unlucky combination of circumstances is a sad reality for many young people in Central America. Poverty, poor health care and lack of education and the ever-present gang violence drives thousands of young people from their homes every year. Many of them are young men who such try to escape forced recruitment into the maras, and attempt to move to the US. Almost as many are caught by US immigration police and sent back home, where they work hard until they have the money to try for the US again.

Honduras is said to have one of the highest number of violent deaths in a non-war country worldwide. The violence tears apart families, the last source of stability in a country where other community structures have already been weakened. The LWF project “Life, Dignity and Justice for People in Central America” is meant to re-build these structures, by empowering and strengthening the young people of the country.

María, with other young people, is now working hard to rebuild a parish in Tegucigalpa that was attacked by local gangs. A member of the Lutheran Christian Church of Honduras (ICLH) herself, María values the support by the LWF Department for World Service which has a country program in the region. “From the first day in that project, I felt supported to carry out projects, tasks or plans with young people of our country and church” she says. “We feel included, and backed for great ideas and projects with the resources we already have.”

The project has been set up with young people in the four Central American countries Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. “I hope this initiative inject a dose of encouragement to the youth of Honduras,” María says. “We have much to give, but we need support.”

Contribution by Zoraya Urbina, LWF Central America. Edited by LWF Communications.

For the safety of people still threatened by local gangs, all names of the people in the story have been changed.