- Xiomara Castro vows to ease strict ban on abortion
- Conservative critics call her 'baby killer'
- Slim majority may leave her unable to reform law
TEGUCIGALPA, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Xiomara Castro has made history as the first woman to be elected president of Honduras - now she faces another battle to ease the country's strict ban on abortion.
Women's rights campaigners hope the country is on the cusp of joining other Latin American nations in increasing abortion access, though Castro may struggle to push through her campaign pledge in the face of strong conservative opposition.
"There has never been a more optimal circumstance to advance the fight to ensure every pregnancy is because of a desire to become a mother," said Neesa Medina, a member of feminist collective Somos Muchas.
"Honduras advanced as a country and it voted for a woman close to the feminist movement," she added.
Honduras is one of six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that bans abortion under all circumstances, and it is the only country in the region to ban emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill.
Castro, a former first lady whose political career was launched after she led a national protest movement against a 2009 coup that ousted her husband Manuel Zelaya as president, stressed commitments to women's rights in her election campaign.
Her government plan commits to legalize abortion in the case of rape, risk to the mother's life, and deformities of the fetus. She has also pledged to allow the use and distribution of the morning-after pill.
But Castro, of the leftist Libre Party, will face an uphill struggle to undo the regressive policies of the conservative post-coup governments, said Regina Fonseca, the founder of the Center for Women's Rights.
Since the coup, the government has banned emergency contraception, enshrined abortion curbs in the constitution, and decreased criminal penalties for gender-based violence.
This January, legislators voted to make it more difficult to decriminalize abortion by requiring a three-quarters majority in Congress to change the current law.
Feminist groups filed a legal appeal, which is ongoing and would be key to providing Castro with the conditions to follow through on her promise to decriminalize the procedure.
"The challenges facing the first female president-elect of this country are much bigger than the ones that previous governments faced," said Fonseca.
"There is much to be rebuilt."
An estimated 40% of pregnancies in Honduras are unplanned or unwanted, according to Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations estimates that between 51,000 and 82,000 Honduran women and girls risk unsafe abortions each year.
In 2017, more than 8,700 women were hospitalized in Honduras because of abortion complications, according to the latest data available from the public health ministry.
Most Latin American countries, including Brazil - the most populous, allow abortion only in specific circumstances such as rape or health risk to the mother.
But some nations have moved to liberalize access as women's rights movements demand change and attitudes shift in the largely Roman Catholic region.
Argentina became the first big Latin American country to legalize abortion last year, while Mexico's top court ruled to decriminalize abortion in September in another watershed moment.
About 60% of Hondurans believe abortion should be legalized in the case of risk to the mother's life and deformities of the fetus, and about 46% in cases of rape and incest, according to a 2018 survey by Honduran opinion polling firm Le Vote.
But nine in 10 people oppose offering abortion on demand, and nearly half said all Honduran women who managed to end a pregnancy despite the current ban should be jailed.
The conservative National Party, Castro's strongest rival in the election, had aimed to stoke fears and whip up its base by calling her a "baby killer" prior to the election.
"We declare ourselves totally against abortion and all the bad Hondurans who want to promote a perverse agenda and try to turn our country into a land covered in the blood of innocent babies," the party wrote in a September statement.
The outcome of the election showed the majority of Hondurans were not swayed by those smears, said Medina.
Voters' anger over growing poverty, corruption, and allegations of the outgoing president's links to drug trafficking helped to seal the win for Castro, and bring an end to 12 years of rule by the National Party.
"We want a change," said unemployed 27-year-old Libre supporter Zury Castro - who is not related to the incoming president - at a celebration where she cited the economy, education and healthcare as her biggest concerns.
"We think that a woman can do it," she added.
GOODBYE, 'MACHISTA' CULTURE?
As Castro aims to bring her reform agenda forward, she will need support from the country's Congress to update laws and pass new legislation.
As of Monday, the results of the congressional election had not been finalized, with Libre hoping to gain control with a slim majority for the party and its allies.
Controlling Congress would mean Castro could pass most of her agenda without negotiating with conservative opposition parties.
However, without a supermajority, she could struggle to get the three-quarters threshold she needs to decriminalize abortion.
Allowing emergency contraception, however, does not need congressional approval. The current ban was enacted with a ministerial decree and can be over-ruled with a new one from Castro's health minister, who is yet to be announced.
But just the possibility of a president presenting legislation to protect women's rights and abortion access represents a major political shift for Honduras, women's rights advocates said.
"We're very proud as women," said 22-year-old marketing student Andrea Moncada at a celebration for Castro's victory.
"This means empowerment. We're leaving behind a machista country that has pushed women aside."
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