Today’s activist is Masters student and NGO co-founder Antonia McGrath.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Antonia McGrath and I’m a Masters student of International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and one of the founders and directors of a small non-profit organization called educate. that works to support community-driven educational projects in Honduras.
educate. was founded by myself and an incredible friend of mine called Lisa after we both spent a year living and working in Honduras. I was working in a small aldea on the outskirts of a city on the north coast in a home for ex-street children, and Lisa in a coffee-growing town as an English teacher at 9 rural public schools. In Honduras, we witnessed not only extreme poverty, violence, and some of the highest levels of economic inequality in Latin America, but also the ways in which some of the NGOs and development organizations in the area worked in ways that were very top-down, where they imposed projects without local leadership or anyappreciation of the cultural context – and sometimes even without an existing need. In a TEDx talk I gave almost two years ago now, I highlighted some examples of my experiences with these kinds of issues.
For us, starting educate. was not only a way to support some of the communities we had lived and spent time in during our year in Honduras, but a way to work to subvert the idea of ‘aid’ and to allow Honduran individuals and communities to approach us and gain support for their own projects. We work with incredible teams of teachers and educators, community leaders, and people from other grassroots organizations, running projects that are really built from the ground up. For example, we run a scholarship programme through local public high schools; we have supported the starting of community-run libraries at public schools in both rural and urban areas; we funded the start-up costs of an animal therapy mental health programme at a children’s home; and we currently finance a community-run nutrition centre that is gaining increasing self-sustainability through an adjacent farm project. Outside of this more practical work on the ground, we also workto promote discussion about decolonizing the ways in which aid and development are thought about and practised.
While our focus on education doesn’t directly address the Shiloh Project’s themes of rape culture, religion and gender-based inequalities and violence, these are topics we do heavily engage with within our work. Especially when discussing projects and working with our team in Honduras, the ways in which our work relates to themes of gender (in)equality is something we think very deeply about. Our scholarship programme for example, through its support of several incredibly passionate and driven young women from underprivileged backgrounds, is helping provide opportunities for women to study at the university level – something that, while not entirely uncommon, is still dominated by men and especially by those from privileged backgrounds. This scholarship programme, through the women it is supporting, is definitely helping to break down the cultural norms and stereotypes surrounding who ‘should’ be taking up these spaces at university.
One of our scholarship recipients, who is studying industrial engineering, has recently taken a women’sstudies class as an elective, and the last time I met up with her we had a long conversation about her experience studying in what is a heavily male-dominated programme. Though she felt confident in her own abilities to succeed, she said she was often faced with scepticism from her male classmates who would ask her why she was studying such a difficult subject that was ‘meant for guys’.
Despite all the ways in which the Honduran culture ofmachismo (sexism) affects women, recently I’ve also been thinking more about the ways in which adolescent boys and young men in Honduras can also be socially excluded based on cultural concepts of masculinity. Honduras has a huge problem of gang violence, and the image of the young male in Central America, and particularly in the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) is of a strong, tough andoften-violent gang member. I think these images and stereotypes can cause young men to become extremely socially excluded, which only heightens the likelihood of them being pushed into criminal groups. I worry about some of the young boys I know who spend a lot of time on the streets, because there are so few opportunities made available to young men, especially in marginalized and often violent urban areas, that don’t involve crime. Of course young boys on the streets join gangs – it’s a family, it’s protection, it makes perfect sense. But it’s also a huge problem. At educate., we’ve been working to make sure that our scholarship programme, which has so far only attracted young women, is also actively promoted amongst young men, so as to ensure that they are not being unintentionally excluded from this opportunity. I think empowering young women is essential, but in Honduras I also see a definite need for more opportunities being made available for young men.
Honduras has been in the news a fair amount over the past year or so, though not for the most positive ofreasons. In November 2017, protests broke out across the country after a stolen presidential election. I was in Honduras at the time, and was stuck on my friend’s farm for over a week as roads were blocked with barricades of burning tyres. Now, with the migrant caravan traveling north through Mexico, Honduras has been in the news again. A friend of mine, whom I met when he was on hunger strike protesting government corruption inHonduras in 2015, is part of the caravan, and he’s documenting it through his photography on Facebook. I’ve been working with him to put together articles and photo essays for educate.‘s website to raise awareness from a more Honduran perspective, because most of the news about it focuses on a very US-centred view of the caravan.
Many of the female migrants in the caravan are fleeing from gender-based forms of violence. The rate of femicide in Honduras is unprecedented, and other kinds of violence against women are hugely widespread as well. There are countless Honduran women who leave as a result of this – domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, even attempted murder. It’s something that isvery present in everyday life in Honduras. There was a 17-year-old girl in the village where I used to live who lost her hand after a man tried to rape her and, when she resisted, he attacked her with a machete. This was just a few months ago, when I was back in Honduras most recently, and she was taken to the hospital in the back of a friend’s truck with her mother. As far as I’ve heard, they weren’t able to properly re-attach her hand. Her family is incredibly poor; her father couldn’t even afford the bus to the hospital to go and see her. I’ve been trying to reach out to the family to see if we can support them, but it has been hard to make contact.
How do you think the Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to and enrich discussion and action on the topic of gender activism today? Is there more we can do? What else should we post?
I think the work that the Shiloh Project is doing on religion and rape culture is hugely important. Rape culture is an especially pertinent topic at the moment, what with the whole #MeToo movement and prominent cases of sexual assault taking centre stage in international news. It’s a topic that absolutely warrants further discussion. I think it’s also vital to continue promoting diverse perspectives on these issues, and I think the Shiloh Project is doing a great job of that.
In the year ahead, how will you contribute to advancing the aims and goals of The Shiloh Project?
As I mentioned, we’re trying to broaden the reach of our scholarship programme to continue providing opportunities for young women and men in Honduras to study beyond high school. This is a life-changing opportunity for the young people we support, and has far-reaching consequences within their families and broader communities as well. At present, we are supporting young women studying in very male-dominated fields (medicine and engineering), and we’re hoping to be able to support some young men as well. I think the role that these scholarship opportunities can play in creating role models for young people of all genders within their own communities is a way to work towards breaking down the gendered stereotypes that are so prevalent in Honduras – without those values being externally imposed.
This picture shows a young student in one of the libraries supported by educate.
In an upcoming project for educate. where we are working with several rural primary schools to start libraries, ideas surrounding stereotypes and the importance of representation have come into play in our discussions once again. Something that has been important for us while working with the teachers in Honduras to put together lists of books for the libraries has been ensuring not only that the chosen books are culturally relevant and of course in Spanish, but that there are books that challenge traditional gender norms. For young girls as well as boys, I think it is important that the stories that they are exposed to are ones where they can see diverse representations of themselves. We’re trying to get hold of Latin American children’s books that show powerful women, people of various gender identities, and people from different cultures and ethnicities (within Latin America and even within Honduras, there are numerous ethnic groups).
We’ve just launched an Amazon Wish List campaignwhere people from anywhere in the world can directly purchase a book for one of these libraries. When you purchase a book, it gets sent directly to us and we will sort and transport them to each of the schools in July 2019. Each community is currently working to plan their library space and will come together to paint and set up the library before the books are brought in. All of these libraries are being designed and constructed by teachers and community leaders and will provide literary resources to a total of over 500 primary school childrenin rural areas of Honduras. We’d love to have people get involved by purchasing a book (or two!) here:https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/dl/invite/catEvAE
Antonia is a previous contributor to the Shiloh Project.