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Interview with Antonia McGrath, Co-founder of NGO educate.

Shiloh NGO Post

Here is the second in our occasional series profiling lesser known NGOs doing important work that addresses – sometimes directly, sometimes less directly – sexual violence and gender-based inequality. In the first instalment we heard from Carrie Pemberton Ford about her organisation’s work in the area of human trafficking (read about it here).

This time we hear from none other than my wonderful niece, Antonia McGrath. Straight out of high school, aged 18, Antonia went to spend a year in Honduras working in an orphanage. The experience influenced her profoundly and moved her to co-found an NGO. She has returned to Honduras regularly and has also given motivational talks. A student of International Studies, she is applying her experiential and academic knowledge for a greater good.

Please read about Antonia and the NGO and please help promote educate! There is a link below for making contact directly, as well as for making financial contributions, which are gratefully received and put to excellent use, directly in Honduras: every single dollar and pound. See if you can watch this short, beautiful and powerful film and not donate.

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Tell us about your NGO and your own role!

My name is Antonia McGrath and I’m a student in the Netherlands, studying International Studies with a specialization in Latin America. I’m also the co-founder and chair of a small non-profit called educate. that works to empower children and youth in Honduras through education and preventative healthcare.

educate. was started by myself and a close friend of mine called Lisa. We both lived and worked in Honduras for a year after we finished high school, and later both ended up studying in the Netherlands. We were both deeply impacted by our experiences and the people we’d met and we had countless conversations and ideas about possible projects we could organise. Eventually, we looked up how to start a charity, and eight months later educate. got registered in Scotland! We now have a board of five directors, all of us university students who work on a voluntary basis, and a growing group of volunteer members who work in a variety of roles. In Honduras, we also have three Project Leaders and a Cultural Advisor, all of whom also work on a voluntary basis.

As an organisation, we’re driven by the belief that education is what lies at the root of sustainable development, and that by providing young Hondurans with opportunities to continue studying, as well as improving the quality of the education they receive, we can make small but significant changes to the immense levels of poverty and inequality that exist in Honduras.

Our main focus is a scholarship programme to allow excellent but underprivileged students to continue their education to the university level. We’re currently supporting two young women from rural communities at universities in Honduras. Stephanie, whose parents are farmers, is studying to become a doctor, and Tania, whose grandfather’s job as a shoemaker makes up the formal income of the entire family, is studying to become an industrial engineer. For both of these young women, this is an opportunity they would not have had without the scholarship. At the moment, we aim to take on one additional scholarship candidate every year. We also run projects at underfunded schools and orphanages around the country, including funding an animal therapy programme and several libraries.

It’s incredibly hard work, but everyone in our team is so dedicated and driven, and the impact that we’re having, even though on a grand scale it might seem insignificant, is completely life-changing for the individuals it affects, which makes it incredibly rewarding.

 

The Shiloh Project explores the intersections between, on the one hand, rape culture, and, on the other, religion. On some of our subsidiary projects we work together with third-sector organisations (including NGOs and FBOs). We also want to raise awareness and address and resist rape culture manifestations and gender-based violence directly. We’re interested to hear your answers to the following:

How do you see religion having impact on the setting where you are working – and how do you perceive that impact? Tell us about some of your encounters.

Religion is incredibly important in Honduras and influences almost all aspects of life. As an organisation, we have no religious or political affiliation, but the presence of religion in Honduras definitely impacts our work – helping in some ways, and hindering in others. Like I said, educate. has no religious affiliation, so I speak here solely based on my own personal views (and, perhaps it is important to mention, I too have no religious beliefs. In fact, I consider myself an atheist).

While Catholicism is still the dominant religion, Honduras is now one of the most Protestant countries in Latin America – largely due to the increased presence of evangelical missionaries in the country. In my experience, people extract great value from what you state as your religious persuasion and your stance creates a picture for them of your core beliefs and the specific ideas and stereotypes that are attached to these in Honduras. A friend, when I told him I was atheist, once said to me: “you’re not atheist, you’re a good person!” In such a religious society, labelling myself as an atheist often requires a great deal of backpedalling to take away people’s suspicions towards me and to prove that I do in fact have morals, despite not being religious.

Where I lived on the north coast, near San Pedro Sula, there’s quite a divide between Catholics and “Christians” (by which they mean Evangelicals and other Protestants). This divide creates a lot of animosity in some communities. “Evangelicals think their ideology is superior, and they look down on the Catholics,” says a good friend of mine in Honduras who says he’s agnostic, “but really the Catholics are just as bad, they’re just more discreet about it.” In a conversation I had with several Evangelicals, they blamed Catholics for Honduras’ problems with HIV/AIDS and gang violence.

The religious divide can clearly be seen through small daily interactions with people. A taxi driver once casually spent the taxi ride telling me how “when I was Catholic I used to dance and drink, but I would never do such devilish activities and be around such sinful people now that I have seen God’s true light.” Another time, I was picking up a Western Union money transfer at the local bank and the lady allowed me to collect my money without showing the proper identification, due to the fact that she had seen me at the local Evangelical church once with my boss, meaning I was an upstanding member of the community. These small interactions are telling, and show, with the utmost bluntness, the complete polarisation of these two religious groups.

I have seen both some incredibly impactful and some shockingly harmful work being done by religious groups in Honduras. The Catholic Church in San Pedro Sula does some amazing work with street children and returning migrants, which I spent many hours discussing with the Priest and the Cardinal on various trips into the city. But not all of the religious work in Honduras is positive. Many seemingly-positive religious projects become murkier and darker once you get inside them. There are definitely people that come and use the Bible as a weapon – “believe this, and we’ll help you.” Or people who take in children and force them to conform to their religious beliefs and violently punish them if they don’t – I have personally witnessed things like this and have been deeply disturbed by the irony of the link between religion and this kind of behaviour.

Despite the divisions it created, I also saw religion to be an extremely important uniting force, especially in poor communities. In these areas, religion and faith provided an incredibly powerful sense of community and ideology to help people get through hard times.

educate.’s lack of religious affiliations has not created any problems for us in Honduras, and we have and continue to work successfully with organisations and individuals from many different religious backgrounds and persuasions. Personally, I think our lack of religious affiliation possibly affords us more respect as an international body outside of Honduras, as we do not base our projects or our funding on religious ideas. Nevertheless, we remain aware of and respect the presence and importance of religion in the lives of our beneficiaries and members of our Honduras team.

 

How do you understand ‘rape culture’ and do you think it can be resisted or detoxified? How does the term apply to the setting where you are working?

Rape culture, in my understanding, refers to the culture of normalization of sexual harassment and assault, the stereotypes that surround gender and sexuality, and the pervasiveness of sexual and gender-based violence that ensues from this.

Rape culture is definitely very prevalent in Honduras. As in much of Latin America, there is a strong culture of machismo in Honduras. Men are expected to be strong and “masculine” – tough and chauvinistic, whereas women usually take on a role that is much more submissive and “feminine.” Machismo also has relevance to sexual culture. Men prove their manliness by being sexually dominant, and they have a sexual appetite that they have the “right” to satisfy, while women have a much more passive role and are less in control. Honduran gender roles within the home present the woman as the matriarch: la jefa (“the boss”). However, this philosophy is centred only within family boundaries, and in wider society, it is expected for women to take on a much more submissive role.

An obvious symptom of machismo culture is the ever-popular music genre of reggaeton, which is played everywhere from the public buses to city streets, bars, salons, supermarkets and on the radio. It’s a genre that is notoriously derogatory and objectifying towards women, with a high degree of focus on male entitlement and disregard for women’s autonomy over their bodies. While reggaeton is certainly not unique as a music genre in its degradation of women, the level of this is extreme, and the popularity of this music normalizes this attitude of male dominance over women in wider society. The fact that young children grow up seeing music videos on buses with women portrayed in a blatantly sexual manner while men clearly show their dominance over these women, makes this attitude of male dominance truly a part of their upbringing. Of course, this is just one example of machista culture at work in Honduras.

A key aspect of rape culture in Honduras, and one that is truly shocking, is the extraordinarily high rate of femicide, with one femicide every 16 hours. Since 2014, the United Nations has reported that 95% of cases of sexual violence and femicide in Honduras were never investigated, and only 2.5% of cases of domestic violence were settled. The threat of violence towards Honduran women is very real and constant.

Forced child marriage is also still common in rural areas in Honduras, having been legally banned only last year, and young girls are often married to much older men without their consent. The consequences of this are huge, with these girls dropping out of school and being forced into non-consensual relationships that often result in early pregnancy, which not only impacts their future but can also cause medical problems as young girls’ bodies are often not physically ready for the demands of pregnancy and childbirth.

The sex industry in Honduras is also a huge problem. At a children’s home in Honduras where I used to work, a young girl told me about how she had provided sexual services for much older men to make money for her family. She was nine when she told me this, but the incidents she described had happened four years earlier. Another time, when I was interviewing various individuals as part of a documentary about Honduras’ migration crisis, numerous teenage girls opened up about horrific stories of rape, often at the hands of their own family members – fathers, uncles, brothers. This is not uncommon.

I think the main ways that rape culture can be combated are through educating people, particularly children and youth, about consent and what that means, teaching individuals about their rights and highlighting that these are not drawn along gender lines, challenging concepts of masculinity and femininity, recognizing problems in the media, churches and communities and working to challenge and change them, and creating policies and programmes that support survivors and victims of rape culture instead of blaming them.

Discussions must take place to highlight to children and youth, and the wider community, that sexual and emotional violence and abuse needs to be reported. Adult men/women referring to an underaged child as sexually desirable due to the fact she/he looks older than their biological age is currently socially acceptable, but this must change. The same is true of expressing that daughters/sons are bringing shame to their families by “tempting people,” when in fact the people they are “tempting” are the problem. Or the pervasive notion that it is a woman’s duty to respond to a catcaller. Or the fact it is unheard of for a Honduran woman to walk alone at night without fearing or facing sexual assault. That to put yourself on the streets or in a situation or area after dark is putting your body on a plate. Accusing the prostitutes on the street of being whores and without morals, yet not breathing a word about the married men who use their services, with one hundred words for a prostitute and barely one for the client. The motel and brothel owners can walk without shame in their communities while the prostitutes are ostracized. These ideas and cultural norms must be discussed and fought against in order to combat and detoxify rape culture in Honduras.

As a white woman who is not from Honduras, I recognize that my perspective is different from that of a Honduran woman and that I cannot truly know how rape culture in Honduras affects Hondurans. Certainly, when I was living in Honduras, and on the occasions that I have gone back to visit, I experienced harassment on the streets and saw, as an outsider, the ways in which men and women relate to one another and what the societal expectations were for each of them. But I cannot claim to have been truly a part of that world. As a white woman, my skin colour affords me some protection (kill a Honduran and no one will ask questions, but kill a tourist and it’ll be on international news), but I still felt unsafe walking at night without being accompanied by a man. It is impossible, on such an intricately complex topic, to claim to understand the lived experiences of Honduran women, because I have never, and will never, experience these first hand.

Speaking to a close friend in Honduras about this topic, he told me that he is worried about raising his daughter in such machista culture. “Women face a lot of physical threats,” he says, “but I think it’s the psychological damage that this culture has that is most detrimental. I want my daughter to believe that she is important, and that she can do anything. I don’t want her to be scared to live her life the way she wants to.”

 

Does your project encounter or address gender-based violence and inequality? Tell us how.

Gender-based violence and inequality are not explicitly part of our mission, but they definitely play a role in our work. While we don’t support only girls, both our current university scholarship recipients are young women studying to become an engineer and a doctor. Simply by supporting them, we are facilitating the process for them to become role models in their communities to younger girls, and this naturally contributes to breaking down norms and expectations in society and creates a platform to change gender-based inequalities. With a university degree, the young women we support gain not only an education that changes their life and the opportunities available to them, it also impacts their families and communities.

 

How could those interested find out more about your NGO? How can people contribute and where will their money go?

We have a website (educate-ngo.com) where there’s lots more information about us and our work, so that’s the main place where people can find out more about us. There’s a blog on the website where we post updates every month or so, but for more immediate updates, there’s our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/educatengo).

On our website there is a link to a donation page. We really appreciate every single donation we receive, and all of them go to making real, tangible impact in individuals’ lives, either through scholarships or through projects at schools and orphanages. Because we’re such a small organization, you can see exactly where your money is going. We all work on a voluntary basis and strive to keep you regularly updated with photos, videos and articles on all of our projects.

We also have a contact page on our website, so for anyone who has questions or who is interested in getting involved, send us a message!

 

What kinds of posts would you like to see on The Shiloh Project blog and what kinds of resources that come into our orbit would be of value to you?

  • How small NGOs can have great impact and the different ways in which they do this.
  • Strategies and methods to combat problems like gender-based inequality and violence.
  • How different organisations combat rape culture and gender-based violence and inequality differently.

 

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Johanna Stiebert

The author Johanna Stiebert

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