In profile: CARE’s Gabriela María Portillo Rodríguez

Gabriela is currently responding to the humanitarian response to COVID-19 in Honduras with CARE in the Prolempa Project.

CARE's PROLEMPA project aims to improve the economic well-being of small producers in the Corredor Seco (Dry Corridor), an area that crosses West, South and Central Honduras where the lack of rain causes severe droughts, water shortages and food insecurity. The project has been undertaken in partnership with CESO, SOCODEVI, TechnoServe and SAJE Montreal Centre and funded by the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada.

As has been the case with many of our projects, PROLEMPA has had to adjust as COVID-19 hit Honduras, adapting its delivery relief and goals to the needs the pandemic has created.

Gabriela María Portillo Rodríguez is a surgeon and is a postgraduate degree candidate on health management. She works in the Intibucá region.

My name is Gabriela Portillo and I am happy to be a humanitarian worker. There has been a great amount of effort put into the [COVID-19] response. Most of us involved in the project have not seen our families yet. The whole team remains COVID-19 negative and that is a huge relief for us. We are so aware of the responsibility we bear each time we visit a community.

We use masks to protect those that come into contact with us. Full protective PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is something that we leave for hospital use, for those working in COVID-19 wards who are even more exposed than we are. [Here in Honduras] PPE is scarce and hospital workers need it to protect their lives. We cannot arrive in a community in full PPE because that would create panic in the communities we visit.

In collaboration with  PROLEMPA and funds from CARE USA, we go to communities to deliver food, provide cash transfers and capacity building. We make sure we follow security protocols. We check people's temperature and explain the use of thermometers and how infrared thermometers are harmless. We ask about symptoms and make sure participants wash their hands and social distance. We provide masks.

One of the lessons we learned in one of the communities in the west part of Honduras is that many people do not have access to disposable masks and cannot afford to buy them. Many didn’t see the use of it and decided to not make getting a mask a priority. We came up with alternatives and found reusable masks that were made in the community's traditional Lenca clothing. They used those with pride, and we were able to support a women-led small business.

In this emergency response, we are doing a bit of everything. From food baskets to tackling the bigger issue of food insecurity, to providing toiletries, prioritizing access to key products such as sanitary pads that are scarce and expensive in these areas. Very few times have I seen women’s needs prioritized and in this project, we have made them a focus.

For me, this work has been a great experience. I am happy that CARE supports women leaders to build their capacity, so they can help in preventing  the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, as well as working to stop gender-based violence. I have met feminist organizations such as Las Hormigas and it was essential for our work to see how these women encouraged others to come forward and stop the cycle of violence. It is such a reward to see these women so confident in themselves. Throughout the project, women have been the organizers and leaders.

The hardest bit about being a humanitarian worker is being away from my family. My dad is elderly with a chronic illness and I can only see my family once a month when we do a breakfast over video conference. Being far and not having contact with them is hard but it is part of the process. It is hard, but seeing the need in these communities…well, this is why I decided to do this work.

I am going to be away from home for a while and I worry when a relative gets sick and I cannot be there but we always get support. Solidarity from other people also helps us, it reaches everyone.

I have so much gratitude and admiration as a young doctor to organizations like CARE and ASONOG (Association of Non-Governmental Organizations). They support our work despite the many challenges. They have trusted me, have respected me and have pushed this project forward.

I am proud of the approach we have taken to create visible and lasting impact, what matters here are people’s lives. I have gotten a lot of fulfillment working alongside such a committed team. It has been so rewarding to work on this project. I feel I have learned and gained so much and I feel thankful.