Women Break Paradigms at the Honduran Defense Ministry
By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo August 26, 2021
MBA Heidi Carolina Portillo Lagos, undersecretary of State with the Honduran Office of National Defense, is the first woman in her country to hold this position. Diálogo spoke with Undersecretary Portillo about progress for gender equality and the topic of human rights within the Honduran Armed Forces, among others.
Diálogo: You are the first woman in your country to obtain this high-ranking position. What has been the impact of your appointment on the women of the Honduran Armed Forces?
Heidi Carolina Portillo Lagos, undersecretary of State at the Honduran Office of National Defense: Women break paradigms every day. Before being appointed vice minister, I held several positions at the Defense Ministry (SEDENA, in Spanish), and I remember that we had heard rumors that said “they are going to appoint the new vice minister of defense,” as this position had been vacant for almost seven years. I don’t think that even I thought that this position would one day be assigned to a woman, because tradition suggested that this position was exclusively for men. Many of the women who are members of the Honduran Armed Forces have expressed the satisfaction and pride they felt when they heard of my appointment, as it represents a great achievement for all of them, since it bridges the gender gaps in the military institution.
I am aware that there is still a lot of work to be done in this respect, but we have so far managed to make the role that women play visible at the highest level of the armed forces, as we’ve demonstrated that we have the same competences or capabilities as men, and often we surpass them. Women who are part of our Armed Forces are exceptional and deserve recognition for their effort, sacrifice, and courage. As director of Human Rights, I had the opportunity to work on gender issues, and now, as vice minister, I have the obligation to make equality for women a priority issue in the Honduran Armed Forces.
Diálogo: What is your main goal in this position?
Undersecretary Portillo: My main goal is to continue working alongside Minister of Defense General (ret.) Fredy Santiago Díaz Zelaya so that at SEDENA we can generate actions to guarantee that the Armed Forces can access, in a timely manner, the economic resources and logistics required to fulfill their mission. One of my priorities is to continue establishing partnerships with organizations that want to collaborate to strengthen capabilities for the institution, and to consolidate the work and progress in the field of human rights, which we have achieved with the support of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Human Rights Office, through the Human Rights Initiative.
Diálogo: What do you consider to be your greatest challenge?
Undersecretary Portillo: I have several challenges, among them carrying out the organic modification of SEDENA, to set up a more solid and functional structure that will allow us to promote our collaborators’ personal and professional growth, so that they can join in the work of the Armed Forces from an administrative perspective. Another challenge is [to continue] the human rights policy that we have worked on with SOUTHCOM, to set the ground for creating a national defense policy, and to open a human rights training center in the Armed Forces, so that it will become a regional benchmark.
Diálogo: In your opinion, how has the role of women evolved in the Honduran Armed Forces?
Undersecretary Portillo: Women began their participation in the Honduran Armed Forces in 1996, and it has evolved since then. At this moment, the highest rank that women have achieved is that of colonel. The first generation of women focused on the service area, not weaponry, and our legislation prescribes that in order to be promoted to general, [a candidate] has to be in the weaponry track, and today we have women who are moving up in this track. When women show that we have the [same] professional level and capacity than men, gender is left aside, because we manage to make differences between us cease to exist. We have a more open culture that has allowed women to advance in their careers within the institution. There is much work to do, and we must continue to break patterns and work on regulations that guarantee greater institutional equality for women.
Diálogo: How does your professional experience as director of Human Rights and Gender Equality at SEDENA help you manage the issue of human rights in the Armed Forces?
Undersecretary Portillo: In 2016, I was given the opportunity to create the Human Rights and Gender Directorate, an enriching experience that enabled me to become more professional in the field and to witness the Honduran Armed Forces’ professionalism and soldiers’ commitment to this matter. With the issue of human rights and gender [equality], we have made progress from the highest authorities, the board of commanders, who have committed to ensure that the Armed Forces are trained, with the aim that none of their personnel will commit any human rights offense or violation, whether by action or omission.
Diálogo: How has your working relationship been with the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) and SOUTHCOM, for example?
Undersecretary Portillo: WHINSEC and SOUTHCOM have helped us a lot, because they have invested a lot in our education. With WHINSEC, it has been an ongoing experience, since our soldiers train there every year, allowing them to get familiar with other structures and lines of thought to create positive changes in education, training, culture, and military discipline. At WHINSEC, we also worked with a group of lawyers on guidelines to establish the operational legal advisers group in our Armed Forces. With SOUTHCOM, we have always worked together, and they have supported us a lot with their capabilities, not only in the military but also in educational aspects. It is a working and friendly relationship that allows Honduras to continue growing and becoming more professional.
Diálogo: How important is it to have studied at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies?
Undersecretary Portillo: The Perry Center allows us to see the structure at the regional level and to learn about other countries’ experiences in order to generate changes in our institutions. I have been in their courses, and in one of them we talked about defense strategies and defense ministries, and this has enabled me to have other regional visions and to implement some of those experiences in SEDENA, to help our Armed Forces more efficiently.
Diálogo: What do you think will be your greatest contribution to the Honduran Armed Forces?
Undersecretary Portillo: The greatest contribution is to open up spaces so that women can apply for any position they want. Breaking paradigms helps not only women but also men, because it allows them to adopt new tendencies, new lines of action, and to work in a more efficient and transparent way for institutional growth.