10/01/2014 06:23 GMT | Updated 11/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Education vs Gangs in Rural Honduras


The afternoon sun is beating down on the mountain town of Copan Ruinas in central Honduras. We are a short drive away from San Pedro Sula, a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Gang warfare has divided the city for years, but the violence has steadily increased since the 2009 military coup when the Honduran Army overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.

Maria Cadena* sits under the shade of a flowering tree in the garden and shuffles her papers, smiling. "At least we don't have to worry about that here."

She has been telling me about gang warfare in the area and how the education of women is the best way to prevent it. Since the coup, unemployment and poverty have skyrocketed, leaving the streets full of disillusioned, bored men. "Women's lives have barely changed,"she frowns. "Women are still in the home."

Men are looking for distraction and Honduras' largest gangs - the MS-13 and the 18th - offer such diversion. The gang's main business revolves around drug trafficking. The mantra is that as you gain seniority in the gang, you can leave the poverty of the Honduran streets far behind.

Maria doesn't buy it. "These men turn up dead on the streets and dead on the doorsteps of their mamas."

She believes that greater education is the way out of Honduras' current economic rut, not violence and the illegal drugs trade.

"Honduras is a patriarchal society. It is believed that women's role is in the house, and the man's is out at work. But wages are at an all-time low. If women were able to get jobs and work alongside their husbands then families would be less reliant on working illegally or joining gangs. It would solve many of the country's problems. No women work here, other than in the market and in shops."

I point out the obvious. Maria was working, teaching me Spanish.

She laughs hollowly. "I have given up my social status for this. My family disowned me for wanting to become a teacher and they said it brought shame on them because it looked like my father's wage was too little to support us. My parents haven't spoken to me for several years."

She scuffs the floor with her toe. "I still send half of my wages back though. I have two brothers and six sisters. Having that many daughters is seen as a burden because they will all have to be married off. So hopefully my wages will help them to get a better life, or at least a better husband. By choosing teaching it means I will be alone forever. No man will ever want to marry a woman who earns more than him: it's shameful."

We begin again on our verbs. Maria is quieter now but I don't sense resentment, only resolve.

*not her real surname