Women in Nicaragua: The Revolution on Hold
Luz Marina Torres
"It's a question of training woman to woman; understanding our bodies, knowing the laws that benefit us, understanding women's health... a whole number of things that let us begin to see that we as women are active subjects of our lives, instead of somebody's object. If we're peasant women and we have to fight for land, then I'll fight for land. But, in addition to that, my problems, who's worried about them? My problems—of pregnancy, pleasure, abuse, rape. When I fight for land, men fight too. But when I fight for myself, it's not so easy for men to fight at my side."
—Luz Marina Torres, Director of Managua's District 6 Women's Center
The FSLN's electoral defeat in 1990 deepened already existing tensions in many grassroots organizations linked to the party, and the women's organizations that identify themselves as revolutionary were no exception. One of the ongoing debates is how to strike a balance between the need for strong and decisive leadership and listening to what people at the base—women, workers or peasants, for example—are saying about what they need.
At the same time, the defeat created an opening of sorts, in that many organizations, no longer committed to defending the government, could speak more candidly about the political situation, including frankly addressing problems with the FSLN itself. The opening, of course, came in the context of an overall rollback in progressive programs and services at a national level, with resources and government support for them virtually vanishing overnight.
envíolooks at some of the changes and struggles the Nicaraguan Women's Association (AMNLAE) and the rest of the women's movement have gone through in the last several years as well as the challenges and obstacles presented by the new era.
Women in the revolutionary yearsWith the 1979 triumph of the Sandinista revolution, many women in Nicaragua were suddenly afforded access to opportunities that had seemed light years away during the Somoza dictatorship. Seeing some of their revolutionary ideals realized, more and more women began to feel that, if the world was to be authentically transformed, revolutionary ideals had to include basic feminist precepts as well. Women who sought to truly revolutionize women's lives did not always have an easy time of it. From its first party program, published in 1969, the FSLN recognized women's emancipation—understood as little more than full participation in the workforce—as a key issue. With the FSLN's March 8, 1987, Proclamation on Women, as complete and progressive a statement on women as has ever come out of any ruling party, that position was reaffirmed and broadened. The proclamation recognized women's problems as ones that society as a whole must address, and took a stance on positions long considered private, such as the allocation of domestic tasks within the household. However, the party was either never willing or never able to use the document as a guideline for political policy or practice.
The gains made by women under the Sandinista administration were many and far-reaching. They include legislation, broad educational opportunities, training programs for working women, childcare programs to help women enter the work force and greatly increased participation and even leadership positions in a whole range of political activities. A less tangible, yet crucial, change was that, for the first time, women felt they had access to government and the political system. Haydee Castillo, who worked for many years with the Sandinista Youth organization, says simply, "The revolution gave us the chance to speak."
Toward gender consciousnessWhile those steps were important, even critical, for Nicaraguan women, the revolution failed women in some key areas as well. As an activist in women's issues who is also a Sandinista party member said, "The revolution offered us everything—it gave us the basic conditions to move forward. We can't deny that and we can’t underestimate the importance that the revolution had—and continues to have—for us women. But it also let us down, and we need to be very open about that and demand an accounting of what happened."
Despite its progressive stance on women, the FSLN never developed a clear or shared understanding of what distinguishes women's lives, on a daily basis, from those of men and thus shapes a gender-based identity. While the 1987 proclamation was an admirable document, it’s questionable how many FSLN party members—either leaders or rank and file—felt at all committed to it, or understood its possible ramifications.
Within the party, positions ranged from the classical Marxist argument that women's emancipation is achieved by involving women in the productive sphere to one that recognized the struggle for women's liberation from both economic and personal oppression as an issue in its own right. This second position argues that class and gender struggles must be taken on simultaneously, despite the complexity and difficulty of actually carrying that out in practice. The split within the organized women's movement today falls along the lines of these two positions.
The effective position taken by the FSLN leadership was that, women would take their place as full citizens once they were involved in production. Even those who recognized that not all women's issues would magically be resolved by addressing society's economic problems believed that the more specific struggle for women's rights should be subordinated to the important task of consolidating the revolution. In other words, there was never agreement that women need to be politically organized both as women and as revolutionaries. At some basic level, then, a serious omission was made with respect to recognizing the very different reality of women's and men's lives which, in turn, leads to very different gender-based identities.
Much has been learned about the importance of recognizing ethnic identity in political organizing on the Atlantic Coast, and some analysts have pointed out that the FSLN's failure to understand peasant consciousness contributed to its overwhelming electoral defeat in the countryside. No one at the level of party or government leadership was willing to recognize the differences—some would say far more essential ones, given that they virtually split society down the middle—that can be attributed to gender identity.
Nicaraguan women's realityGender differences are perhaps most deeply felt in developing countries, where the physical burdens of women's daily lives are much heavier than for the average woman in the developed world. In a country like Nicaragua, gender identity springs largely from the fact that child rearing falls primarily (indeed, in many cases, entirely) to women. Most women in Nicaragua will spend some, if not all, of their time as single mothers—abandoned by the fathers of their children and left to raise them on their own, or with the help of their own mothers. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many Nicaraguan women have their first child at a very young age. Women also assume most, if not all, other domestic tasks—the only "solution" being to pay another woman to do them, or rely on the unpaid help of a mother, sister or other female relative. "This country," one woman remarks, "runs on maids and grandmothers."
Nicaraguan women generally manage the household economy, a task demanding considerable mental agility, if not magical powers, given the country's economic crisis. However, this should not be confused with wielding real power in the household. While women administer the small household economy and work endlessly in the home without pay, men continue to make many of the key decisions. Women complain of their husbands not letting them study or work outside the home (even when another salary is desperately needed). In general, they are not allowed to have a life outside the home.
What women lack in power they make up for in tremendous influence over their children. Ironically, the machismo permeating Nicaraguan culture is primarily learned and reinforced at home, as women are the ideological torchbearers in this society. Women are thus key participants in reproducing the very system that harms them. This is perhaps most obvious in the socialization of children. In Nicaragua, the male ideal is a sexually active man with many women (who always goes back to that most important woman, his mother), while girl children are raised to be "good" (i.e., safe behind the locked doors of their home). Women who fall from grace are, of course, "bad" forever, in the classic double standard of the virgin and the whore.
Victims in Their Own Homes. Though women may have a fair amount of influence in their homes, they are not safe there; the majority of Nicaraguan women suffer either physical or psychological abuse. While statistics on battered women are difficult to gather given women's reluctance to report abuse, a 1985 study done by AMNLAE's Legal Office on Women gives an idea of the problem. Of 350 cases of women who sought help of all kinds at the center, 51% reported abuse, 91% of those suffering both physical and psychological abuse and 9% exclusively psychological abuse. Of the women reporting domestic violence, 40% had put up with the situation for more than three years, with concern for their children and economic necessity ranking as the two primary reasons they had done nothing about it. Similarly, 1986 data from the Nicaraguan Social Welfare Office (INSSBI) indicates that just over half of all women seeking any assistance from their offices also reported that they were victims of abuse.
In Nicaragua, as in most places throughout the world, the family is the locus of violence against women. Nicaraguan sociologist Orlando Núñez characterizes this violence as "daily and ongoing." In a tragic cycle, the violence often extends throughout the family, as children of both sexes are routinely beaten and many—particularly young girls—are incest victims. Legislation passed during the 1980s—including the 1987 Constitution—attempted to strengthen the family, but there was no thoroughgoing critique of the family as an institution that, as currently constituted, is often dangerous and destructive for women and children.
Though these realities are obvious to many people, what is not understood is that they foster a gender consciousness in women, an identity fundamentally different from the way men see themselves. A male worker in Nicaragua, after a trying day on the job, does not have to go home to keep house for and offer sexual favors to a member of the very group that structurally oppresses him. Many women in Nicaragua experience this on a daily basis—they live with and are dependent on men who do them violence regularly.
Demeaned in Politics. The question of morality in daily, revolutionary terms has particular relevance to relations between women and men. It is obvious with violence, but exists on many other levels as well. What does it mean, then, that the revolutionary leadership never fundamentally addressed the morality of daily life? One unfortunate and all too common example is the number of revolutionary leaders, at all levels, who are known as mujeriegos, womanizers. Though revolutionary figures were expected to set examples of behavior in other areas, the simple fact is that many of them offered glowing examples of entrenched machismo in their everyday conduct.
A classic case is Antonio and Patricia (not their real names), a young Managua couple, both of whom are dedicated revolutionary activists. In 1984, Antonio was sent to the mountains of northern Nicaragua for several years while Patricia stayed in Managua with their young child, went through a second pregnancy alone and tried her best to make ends meet. Antonio's trips home were less and less frequent, and marked by increasing tension and arguments. Finally, Patricia discovered that her husband had started another family with a woman in the town in which he worked. She is bitter for a number of reasons. "His boss knew everything," she says, "but instead of saying anything to him, he actually helped him out and Antonio got promoted. And if I had done the same?"
Blackmailed at Work. Women also run into machismo on a daily basis at their workplaces. Men with varying degrees of power pursue women for romantic or sexual liaisons. These women are often "rewarded" with job security or other economic benefits—although their status is entirely dependent on the whim of the men—and "punishment" is sometimes meted out as well to those who refuse someone's advances. Men who behave in this manner have a certain prestige, yet women are likely to suffer social or job sanctions for initiating similar behavior. Patricia points to what she calls machismo in women when she insists that there is "little solidarity among women. Instead, there is competition, and I think we all suffer in the end." This situation is not something that the revolution invented, but nor did it do anything to set new, fairer standards. As Orlando Núñez says of the conflict between a gender and an economic focus, a primarily economic view leads to a terrain of struggle away from where the problem is actually happening—that is, the household. Two key issues are at play in the household—power and control—and whatever a couple's personal relation, the structural set-up is such that the male dominates socially and legally. Machismo is a deeply embedded system in which both men and women participate. Feminism within a Nicaraguan context is thus committed to developing an alternative vision of society that will offer both men and women something better.
Whose body is it?The fact that women are responsible not only for childbearing (a biological necessity) but also child rearing (a culturally-assigned task) has marked women's existence in most cultures and epochs throughout the history of the world. In Nicaragua, issues relating to reproduction have come up consistently in the past decade, with varying responses.
Though it is rarely openly stated as such, the issue of reproduction and reproductive rights is about power—essentially, who controls women's bodies. In a November 1990 forum on women and violence at the UCA, one panelist charged that, in Nicaraguan culture, "women are merely reproductive vessels."
Nicaragua has one of the highest birth rates in all of Latin America (3.4%), and a high percentage of those who become mothers are very young women. According to a 1990 survey by the Managua-based Nimehuatzín Foundation, many teenage boys begin sexual activity as early as age 13 and have a number of sexual partners. Though girls tend to begin sexual activity a bit later, they too change partners frequently and many end up pregnant. Being saddled with children at a young age, as opposed to consciously choosing them later, restricts a woman's options for the rest of her life.
Family Planning. A thoroughgoing sex education and family planning program is imperative to deal with the soaring birth rate. Though some work was done during the 1980s, government leaders dragged their feet on the issue. Family planning programs were sometimes even attacked as an imperialist plot against the Third World—perhaps most memorably by then President Daniel Ortega at a 1987 De Cara al Pueblo meeting with hundreds of women. He pointed to Nicaragua's low population density and war deaths as rationales for even more births. While denouncing USAID-style family planning and sterilization programs in Bolivia, Puerto Rico and other countries, women at the meeting insisted that a revolutionary family planning program was crucial to respond to the needs of Nicaraguan women, particularly poor women in both the countryside and cities. They repeated their demand from the June 1986 women's consultation on the draft Constitution for a motherhood as a consciously chosen option. "I have ten children," one working woman said, "and I love them all, but it's too difficult these days with so many economic problems—how can you give your children enough? We want to be mothers, but not every other year."
Speaking in a 1989 interview, well-known journalist and feminist Sofia Montenegro said that the FSLN never was able to develop a population policy, which would have implied a policy on sexuality itself. The state and party would also have had to take serious measures to make contraceptives widely available. A 1986 Ministry of Health study estimates that only 26% of all sexually active women use contraceptives, attributing that figure to lack of education as well as limited access to contraceptives.
Sex Education. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Health, the Sandinista Youth and other organizations did fairly extensive work in the area of sex education. One young woman from the Sandinista Youth asserts that sex education is still one of the most critical issues for young women, and that one obstacle to carrying it out was "perhaps more than anything the fact that the leadership never wanted to confront its own machismo."
A number of the women's secretariats in Sandinista mass organizations agreed on the importance of sex education, and the Farm Workers' Association (ATC) set up clinics to attend to women agricultural workers. María Teresa Blandón of the ATC describes that experience: "We carried out full-fledged training programs with women about sex education, but without AMNLAE's support; it was never one of their priorities."
Abortion. The fact that neither birth control nor sex education was accessible to the majority of women led, inevitably, to the polemical appearance of abortion in the arena of public debate. Abortion became an increasingly obvious problem throughout the 1980s, with women, including many gynecologists, emphasizing it as a public health issue. A soaring maternal death rate led more than one activist to call the problem "the silent death." In the 1987 De Cara al Pueblo meeting, women stressed that, while abortion was often attacked as a "middle-class" issue, it was in fact almost exclusively poor women who were dying from botched, self-induced abortions, while women with money could find someone to do an abortion safely. "Men fill us up with children, as they say. They make us old so quickly," says Angela, who irons clothes in a middle-class Managua neighborhood. She herself says she does not like the idea of abortion, but admits to seeking out a local "midwife-abortionist" several years ago and says the abortion she got left her with lingering health problems. According to a study conducted at Bertha Calderón women's hospital between 1983 and 1989, so-called clandestine abortions are the leading cause of maternal death.
The Sandinista government was understandably nervous about a direct confrontation with the Catholic Church on the issue. The FSLN did, however, defeat an attempt by the Conservative Party during the 1986 Constitutional debates to include a "right to life" amendment. Luz Marina Torres says, "It wasn't just the FSLN's fault. If we, as 2,000 women, had marched to the National Assembly, maybe they would have done something about abortion." Though abortion was never officially legalized, therapeutic abortions were performed at Managua's women's hospital, and the government took no action against private clinics providing abortion services for women.
The revolution should have been a process of breaking chains. While it promised to create the "new man," new oppressive structures were created in many ways. The new man did, to a certain extent, emerge from the rubble of pre-1979 Nicaragua, but the new woman? She was someone still largely unable to control her own body, still subjected to unconscionable violence in her own home, denied, in some cases, entrance to the party, and instead offered the chance to participate in beauty contests or send her son off to war.
Organizing women in warAMNLAE, like every other Sandinista organization after the first year or two of the revolution, focused increasingly on coping with the escalating US war. The war took its toll in every area of society, and meant that social and political programs across the board—whether in health care, education or women's organizing—had to make do with ever-tighter budgets and fewer professional activists. It is widely recognized that it would have been nearly impossible in material terms for the government to do things in a substantially different fashion. What has been given less attention is that the way the war was fought on an ideological plane encouraged and actually reproduced many traditional roles for women on a daily basis.
Mothers. With the introduction of the draft at the end of 1983, sophisticated and nearly full-time political work with the mothers of potential and actual draftees was essential. Working closely with the Sandinista army, AMNLAE threw itself into this new task, which soon consumed nearly all its energy. This ideological work dovetailed with the very potent role played by the Virgin Mary in Nicaraguan religious and popular culture. Mothers were exalted first and foremost as mothers, and praised for giving their greatest gift—their sons—to the cause.
Offering an essential support network to women as mothers was not wrong under the circumstances; they were a sizeable group and needed political attention. The problem was that they were never dealt with as women. Their public and political identity was directly linked to the fate of their sons, and they were offered few other forms of political expression, or at least none that came with such prestige and recognition.
AMNLAE would have been the appropriate group to reach the vast majority of unorganized women (mainly young women, housewives and informal sector workers), but its work was so politicized around party issues and support for the war effort that it was soon talking primarily to the party faithful—in this case, the mothers of soldiers or of young men and women killed or kidnapped by the contra forces. AMNLAE became virtually personified by these politicized mothers, and they in turn were used by the FSLN for its own political needs.
Young Women. If the older generation of women were mobilized as mothers, what happened to younger women during the war years? The war offered them many "opportunities" in that they were soon the majority in schools and universities and had access to jobs left behind by men. But increasing emphasis on the "cachorros" (pups, as the young draftees were called) meant that, to a certain extent, young women became marginalized. Haydee Castillo recalls what happened in the Sandinista Youth organization as the war really began to heat up. "When the men left, we took on the key responsibilities inside the organization," she says. "Two years later when they came back, they were the heroes of the country, we understood that. But when we talked about promoting new leadership—candidates for student associations, etc., the young men returning from the war were chosen, as they were the only ones who represented the struggle to defend our sovereignty. Most of the women were displaced from their positions as a result." No one suggests that the young men returning from the battlefield should not have had special recognition, but it is striking to note that young women had no similar rite of political passage. As one feminist activist cynically commented several years ago, "What's left for young women? Sandinista youth beauty contests?"
Housewives and Informal Workers. The war's military importance declined to a certain degree by the late 1980s, but the country was still very much at war—the new and formidable enemy was the severe deterioration of the national economy. The tremendous weight of the economic problems created by the war fell disproportionately on women as the primary caretakers of the household. While the government or party could do little of significance to change this situation, overt public recognition of the huge burden women were suddenly forced to assume would have helped. It would have had particular political value for unorganized women, who received virtually no political attention or explanation of what was happening. At moments of especially acute economic crisis, market women were instead pegged as "speculators" by the pro-Sandinista media, when from their point of view they were simply doing everything possible to assure their household's survival.
In a 1988 opinion poll, the two groups most disaffected with the government were the informal sector (where women predominate) and the so-called domestic sectors (housewives and maids); that is, paid and unpaid household labor. While gender was not separately analyzed in the poll results, it seems clear it was at play. These two significant groups of women had no ongoing political attention, and because of their roles were hit most directly by the crisis. They were thus logically apt to be most confused by and angry about the worsening economic crisis. Both groups are by their very nature hard to organize, and neither the party nor AMNLAE made any substantive attempts to bring them into the fold.
A 1989 internal AMNLAE study done with an eye to the 1990 elections identifies the low level of political participation among housewives as "an area of great concern," noting apathy and indifference to political activity, which the study attributes to "monotonous domestic work" as well as the crushing burden of the economic crisis. It states that the revolution had simply not attended to this group, adding that housewives constituted "a possible social base for rightwing parties." Unfortunately, the conclusions of this study were nowhere evident, either in AMNLAE's subsequent public political work or in the FSLN campaign itself.
Though financial resources were scarce, ideological resources (if creativity is used) are relatively cheap. Had women been more firmly integrated—as women—into the war effort and the political changes underway, the benefits would have been twofold. Women themselves would have benefited from greater participation and the accompanying status and recognition. And from the party's point of view, the response of these women to the electoral choice they were facing on February 25 might have been very different. Although many people identified themselves, at least nominally, with the FSLN, the Sandinista era was summed up by two overwhelming negative factors—the war and the economy. Both hit women very directly, and Violeta Chamorro capitalized on this far more effectively than the Sandinista campaign.
Fissures in the women's movementDuring the revolutionary years, AMNLAE was the official expression of the women's movement. Like other organizations linked to the party, AMNLAE was wracked by an ongoing struggle for autonomy from the FSLN. AMNLAE was often used, perhaps even more than the others, to promote party and/or national interests rather than to advance sectoral interests per se. Nonetheless, for a significant group of women—notably the mothers whose needs and concrete interests were being addressed—AMNLAE was a "liberating" experience in that it involved them directly in political activities and gave them a collective voice and strength they had never had.
During the mid-1980s, with the emphasis on organizing around political issues directly related to the war, those groups of AMNLAE women working on women's issues within specific social sectors—most notably women affiliated with the ATC—were given short shrift within both AMNLAE and the party for bringing up issues considered too "feminist." These issues included, not surprisingly, abortion and family planning. They came up not as part of some abstract theoretical stance, the women in the sectors argued, but because they were among the many concrete problems that women at the base needed to resolve, and the sectors were often the only place they could be addressed.
Women in the ATC went to the national AMNLAE offices in 1987 to push for a thorough decentralization of the movement. Their alternative was to organize women fundamentally by sector. María Teresa Blandón recalls that "the ATC's women's secretariat was the result of a disagreement with AMNLAE, which felt that work should be done outside the sectors, while other women argued that it was precisely in the organized social movements where work needed to be done, not only with women, but with men as well—to transform reality." Women's secretariats were eventually established in a number of other mass organizations, including the Sandinista Workers' Federation (CST), the Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), the Health Workers' Federation (FETSALUD) and the Sandinista Professionals' Association (CONAPRO Heroes and Martyrs).
An intense internal discussion around this and other more general issues of feminism and AMNLAE-party relations led to the 1987 FSLN proclamation on women. After it was issued, the bulk of the women's movement essentially settled into two parallel structures. AMNLAE, faithfully toeing the party line, focused on organizing women by "territory"—that is, in neighborhoods and rural communities—rather than by workplace. The women's secretariats in the mass organizations—which became known as the "sectors"—grew in scope and, though officially functioning under AMNLAE's auspices, became increasingly distant. They emphasized transforming the political work in their particular organization to include, or at least introduce, a gender perspective among women themselves.
The fissures in the women's movement are complex. On the one hand are the theoretical differences in how women's problems are conceptualized. At the same time, however, another division exists regarding political organizing. AMNLAE used a very top-down style of political organizing over the years (perhaps largely, if not entirely, due to its party links). The sectoral women's movement, though its roots are in AMNLAE, is working to build consciousness—and a movement—from the ground up. These divisions are not always clearly drawn, and many women involved in women's work at the base level may not even be aware of the overarching theoretical debates at play. However, the same could be said of theoretical debates in other organizations, and does not mean that the issues in dispute are either unimportant or irrelevant to women's lives.
AMNLAE on a leashSince the revolution itself gave rise to so many societal changes, it was perhaps inevitable that women would begin to agitate for far-reaching changes in their status. Women, many for the first time, began to feel that they were human beings worthy of respect and dignity. Ana Criquillón, from the Puntos de Encuentro Foundation, which works in the area of training and research on women's issues, explains why the secretariats essentially had more freedom than AMNLAE itself: "Women's self-image changed a lot, and oftentimes did not correspond to the image men continued to have of women. This caused tensions and conflicts that people commonly blamed on AMNLAE." These tensions erupted in many homes and relationships. Blanca, a young secretary, says that after marrying in 1983, her husband refused to let her study. "He said, what do you want to do that for? You'll be one of those AMNLAE women who think they're better than everyone else."
Though AMNLAE's mandate was territorial after 1987, it essentially still limited its work to mothers of draftees and the war's heroes and martyrs, while also attempting to coordinate the work of the women's secretariats. Within AMNLAE, there was deep resistance to the decentralized vision of the movement. Criquillón speaks of "a fear that the AMNLAE leadership was going to lose ideological control of the movement, that feminism would become more developed."
That fear was linked directly to the FSLN's considerable control over AMNLAE, an underlying problem for the women's organization. AMNLAE organizers were perhaps afraid to take the party on, or simply realistic in assessing the attitude of the male leadership. Luz Marina Torres says, "We think the FSLN thought the women's movement belonged to the party, that it could tell us what to do and name the leadership it wanted. The truth is that, consciously or not, they took on the women's movement as if it belonged to them and never gave us a chance to develop the way we wanted to."
AMNLAE was often restricted to serving as a conveyor belt for the party line and was held closely in check so it would not assume "radical" feminist positions. The irony of this was not lost on Ana Criquillón, who noted that "the mixed organizations—the sectors—took much more radical positions on women. AMNLAE, on the other hand, had to confront many internal debates within the FSLN about the whole issue."
Another irony of sorts is that while the party dismissed women's demands outside AMNLAE as "radical" or "petit-bourgeois," those demands were attempting to address the needs of poor women throughout the country. Middle and upper class women have the economic wherewithal to potentially resolve, albeit as individuals, some pressing problems like family planning, legal assistance and abortion. Poor women are the ones who most desperately need society to address these larger issues. So while the nascent feminist movement in Nicaragua was branded early on as an international import, it has roots deep in Nicaraguan reality.
Women's workshops open new doorsThough AMNLAE was seriously restricted by the party's lack of vision regarding women's issues, it did initiate a number of projects and programs attempting to address women's basic needs. Training workshops have been one way to give women long-term tools to confront economic hardship as well as personal and political subjugation. During the revolutionary years, AMNLAE trained women in sewing, cosmetology and other traditional women's occupations—work that continues today. Both AMNLAE and independent women's groups have also trained women in nontraditional tasks—including repairing small electric appliances—as well as emphasizing efforts to launch small-scale entrepreneurial enterprises. All the workshops had as their goal giving women enough skills so they could support themselves and their children.
Perhaps the workshops that most transformed women's consciousness focused on gender itself. Julia Margarita Trujillo from the Training and Professionalization Consortium (SINACAP) works with women in setting up and conducting training workshops, including those that introduce women to the whole concept of gender consciousness. "For me there's no point in training women just for the sake of training them," Trujillo says. "I don't want to train women to keep thinking like men. It's very, very important that they have a vision of gender differences—that they understand the dynamic generated around traditional gender roles."
The workshops bring up the issues but let the women themselves do much of the talking through each topic, attempting to empower them rather than tell them what to think. After a workshop, one woman said, "The great thing was to know that there are so many women like me, with the same problems—a husband who drinks, too much work and no one to help—the great thing was to know that we're not alone." After that initial glimmer of recognition, the workshops try to give women the tools to help themselves in both economic and personal terms.
The workshops deal with very specific problems. The category "workers" is normally taken to be male workers, but women have very specific demands and needs that grow out of their condition as women and as workers. As one woman textile worker says, "We don't want to always be divided in two." The ATC, responding to the practical needs of its sizeable female constituency, made a demand many years ago that the basic market basket of goods promised to all its workers should include contraceptives. Women in many workplaces, both rural and urban, have also successfully pushed for childcare facilities so they can work outside the home and still be assured that their children are cared for.
Movement grows, AMNLAE lags behindThough the vast majority of the women's movement recognizes its debt to AMNLAE as a path-breaking organization, a number of women's organizations had sprung up outside AMNLAE's authority by the late 1980s. They were formed by women who felt they had simply gone as far as they could within the AMNLAE structure. Their aim was to respond to needs that women felt AMNLAE was simply incapable of dealing with for political reasons as well as the simple logistical fact that, with its relatively small budget and staff, it could hardly be expected to organize half the country's population.
One such organization was the Matagalpa Women's Collective, described by Gloria Elena Ordoñez: "We're an autonomous collective; we've never felt represented by AMNLAE because we work with ideological questions, with transforming values. AMNLAE has never responded to women's specific interests; it uses women for things like the coffee harvests and mobilizing in support of the draft."
One way the collective has dealt with the "ideological question" is through theater, performed largely for peasant audiences on state-run farms as well as at cooperatives, women's centers and community events. One short play follows two giant turtles—man and wife—through the vicissitudes of a typically machista Nicaraguan relationship. Women watching the play generally laugh in recognition as the male turtle takes off for days at a time, popping in when he feels like it, sometimes with money, but more often drunk and empty-handed. Another play deals with domestic violence, drawing the audience into a world many of them already know too well.
Other women organized independent women's centers and clinics, including the Ixchen clinic, which opened the doors of its Managua site in January 1989. It now has several branches throughout the country and offers gynecological, legal and psychological services to women for a moderate fee (though one still prohibitive for the poorest women).
Even within AMNLAE, some women began pushing for increased independence from the national leadership. The AMNLAE-supported women's centers operating in the Managua neighborhoods deal on a daily basis with poor women and do their best to address their needs. These women acknowledge AMNLAE'S importance, but feel that the association needs more freedom from the party.
One such center serves District 6, which comprises 43 of Managua's northeastern neighborhoods, most of them very poor. The center was founded after a small group of women came together in early 1989 to deal with the problem of domestic violence. Many of the women were initially wary of participation, fearing their husbands or partners would find out. After meeting together several times, the women began seeking out other abused women in the neighborhoods to put them in contact with the appropriate state institutions (police, INSSBI) and provide whatever personal support they could. One problem they encountered was that many women asked for help in jailing or otherwise sanctioning their husbands, then often refused to press charges or follow through with the legal process. (A woman in Nicaragua must pursue any abuse charges herself, as domestic violence is considered a personal, rather than criminal offense.) One reason many women back off is that they need any economic support, however scant, that men provide. However, a deeper explanation is that they, as well as men, are steeped in machismo and simply cannot envision a direct confrontation with their husbands—or life without them.
The women of District 6 officially inaugurated their center in May 1989 with a staff gynecologist, lawyer and psychologist (all funded by government institutions), while volunteers made up the bulk of the staff. They began to do workshops on sex education, women’s economic alternatives, family planning, legal problems and domestic violence. The workshops are held not only in the center but out in the neighborhoods as well. "If women don't come here, then we have to go to them," one woman commented.
In abuse cases, the center's psychologist asks the man in for a session (usually alone first, then with the woman, if both agree) to see if there’s a possibility of getting the couple to work together. According to one of the activists, "We tell the women that it's an ideological problem, a social problem—a problem that men have because of the way they were brought up. Women have to realize that it's not their fault; it's not something they need to hide. We need to make it clear to men that they can and should change—we really need to do much deeper work with men."
All the centers are financially strapped in the wake of UNO's electoral victory—the Ministry of Health no longer provides a gynecologist, the legal and psychological services are no longer paid for and AMNLAE's budget itself (which pays the directors a small salary) has been slashed. Though the UNO administration means harder times than ever for the women's centers, District 6 director Luz Marina Torres says the centers should keep their doors open to everyone, whatever their politics. Their goal is to work with poor women in the neighborhoods around concerns shared by all.
The centers continually try to learn from the experiences of other women, through workshops and exchanges of ideas. Bertha Inés Cabrales, director of the District 4 women’s center, criticizes AMNLAE for neither promoting this nor trying to generalize it to the other women's centers in the country. "We don't need a model handed down from on high," says Cabrales; "it's the experiences of other women, the interchange with other women about what they've done that gives us inspiration."
Concertation: The personal is politicalThe debate over emphasizing purely economic versus gender factors is summed up in whether one emphasizes the public (productive) or private (reproductive-household) sphere. In Nicaragua, this debate reached new heights by 1989 as the Sandinista government began a second round of adjustment measures as part of the overall push towards economic recovery. The measures included a new policy of seeking negotiated agreements (concertation) with the country's different economic sectors. In March, a poster was issued for International Women's Day declaring that if concertation was the order of the day, it was something that also had to happen in homes all across the country.
A direct confrontation between a number of women's activists in the party and high-level Sandinista leaders ensued, in which Ana Criquillón says the national leadership completely refused to deal with the gender issue. The party agenda (and thus AMNLAE's) focused entirely on the 1990 elections. The women pushing for a broader focus by AMNLAE suffered another blow in May 1989 when a new AMNLAE executive council, including AMNLAE coordinator Doris Tijerino, was appointed by party leaders instead of being elected from the base.
Elections 1990: Where were the women?In the midst of those tensions, AMNLAE, along with most of the rest of the country, put everything on hold and geared up for the 1990 elections. In the year leading up to them, there was virtually no dialogue between women's activists within the FSLN and the party leadership. Ana Criquillón calls it a "horrible" situation in that "we weren't allowed to make an alternative proposal to the party regarding how to run a campaign that would respond to women's needs."
Many activists lamented the campaign’s tone and style—its heavy use of macho symbolism, with almost no attempt in public rallies and meetings to discuss issues in any depth. The campaign used very traditional ideological elements regarding masculine and feminine roles. Not only did the campaign not try to promote different values, it reinforced old values of domination and subordination between the sexes.
Violeta Chamorro, meanwhile, fairly floated through campaign crowds in a sea of white like the Virgin herself, the all-forgiving mother promising to put Nicaragua's shattered family back together. It was an image that spoke powerfully to many Nicaraguans, and apparently to many women in particular, as some studies suggest that the women's vote was decisive in putting the Sandinistas out of office.
Women under UNONew Government Turns Back Clock. With only a year of governing under its belt, UNO has already begun a major offensive against women's rights. In a context where religious ideologues are setting the new "moral" tone, sex education programs cannot expect to receive continued, much less increased, support. In fact, new textbooks are being used to promote a rigid view of marriage and morality that scarcely corresponds to Nicaraguan reality. They enshrine a middle-class family unit virtually unknown to many Nicaraguans, including schoolteachers themselves. In addition, "morals" is being introduced as a subject in primary and secondary schools. Family planning programs that do come to Nicaragua are more likely to be US-style, with all the attendant negative consequences. Facilities for therapeutic abortions have been shut down, and the maternal death rate is likely to soar. In early April, the police tracked down a poor woman from the San Judas neighborhood after she was reported as having had an abortion. The woman, who has five children, was taken to jail, and submitted to a gynecological exam by the police. A worker at the Isnín women's center in Altagracia, in western Managua, called it "outrageous" and asked, "Where are the millions of contraceptives that women need?" adding that "this government doesn't even want to fund child care centers." There is talk among UNO representatives of rolling back unilateral divorce legislation, and late last year then National Assembly president Myriam Argüello nixed an attempt to criminalize domestic violence.
Media Roll-back. Although the Council of State, the legislative predecessor to the National Assembly, passed a law prohibiting the use of women's bodies in the media for commercial purposes, it did occur during the Sandinista government. Yet it is with the return of the so-called "Miami boys" and the insistent consumer culture accompanying them that Nicaragua has seen a virtual explosion of women's bodies in advertisements, particularly on television.
Shock Plan Hits Women Hardest. Perhaps the most destructive and dramatic impact the UNO government has had on women has been in the implementation of the now notorious structural adjustment plan. According to independent economic research center FIDEG, the "shock" measures have had a particularly damaging effect on poor women. IMF plans imposed on other countries have spelled disaster for women—leading to what many analysts call a "feminization of poverty," as women struggle to maintain their households and keep their children healthy on drastically shrunk budgets. When massive layoffs begin, women tend to be represented disproportionately among the ranks of the newly unemployed.
One example in Nicaragua is among women agricultural workers. The ATC reports that only 8,000 women are now represented among its ranks, down from some 15,000 a year ago, and that 5,000 of those remaining have only temporary employment. As the informal sector, long a safety valve for the unemployed in Nicaragua, constricts with the growing recession, many women who were trying to make do with extremely small-scale business or service ventures are no longer able to keep afloat.
The woman question: Will the FSLN get it together?Facing what is shaping up as a dramatic and dangerous step back in time for women, the women's movement today is working to expand its base. On March 9-10, AMNLAE held its first national assembly in over two years to discuss organizing strategy and elect new national leadership. The assembly was controversial and essentially represented a triumph for what could be called the "party line" position. Though she was nominated by the AMNLAE assembly to serve another term, outgoing General Secretary Tijerino took her name out of the running. She was then acclaimed honorary president, with longtime Sandinista leader Gladys Báez elected to replace her. In an interview published several weeks before the AMNLAE assembly, Tijerino insisted that AMNLAE has complete autonomy from the FSLN. She added that she would like to see "an AMNLAE capable of a Sandinista, Nicaraguan feminism." That, other activists would argue, is something AMNLAE was never able to achieve and is precisely what the FSLN was so effective in blocking—consciously or not—in nearly 11 years of revolution.
Most of the women's secretariats boycotted the AMNLAE assembly, charging that because of the way the delegates had been selected, there was no possibility that their positions would be listened to or taken seriously. They sponsored the "52% Festival" over International Women's Day weekend, with the participation of women's groups and centers from all over the country. AMNLAE, though invited, did not officially take part. Some of the women from the women's centers who did attend the AMNLAE assembly complained that their views were not heard and that they were treated disrespectfully by many of the other delegates.
Xanthis Súarez, of the Managua-based independent "Mujer y Familia" office, said in a radio debate the day before the assembly that "AMNLAE recognizes that it’s just one part of the women's movement, a movement much broader than AMNLAE and one still being created." She argued forcefully that unity within the women's movement is particularly crucial given the economic onslaught facing women today, and urged the women's secretariats not to boycott the assembly.
The fact that some 600 delegates attended AMNLAE's assembly indicates that the organization does have a loyal—and not insignificant—group of backers. The issue is far more complex than is sometimes indicated in the media and is not a mechanical split between gender and economic issues. What often gets lost in the emotionally charged discussions of who is a feminist, or who best represents Nicaraguan women, is whether either branch of the movement is attempting to build democratic structures from the base up and let women define their own interests and needs.
Both AMNLAE and the broader women's movement have their work cut out for them. If AMNLAE cannot effectively cut the ties of subordination to the FSLN, it may find itself speaking only to the same women it now counts as firm supporters.
An analysis of the Nicaraguan women's movement has much to say to the FSLN as a whole. The FSLN lost the women's vote, and their hearts and minds, for several essential reasons. First, it was never able to articulate a clear understanding that gender identities are a reality that must be taken into account if any effective political work with women is to be done. Writing in Barricada, Sofía Montenegro urges that the issue of gender be taken up seriously by the party as part of the upcoming FSLN Congress: "Sandinismo as a political force has not really analyzed the problems and perspectives of the women's movement, much less conducted an open and honest self-criticism that could reopen debate on the issue."
In addition, in a situation repeated in many mass organizations, the party was never willing to give AMNLAE sufficient autonomy to respond genuinely to the needs of women at the base. The women who most sharply criticize AMNLAE are also very quick to point out that the problem is not, and never has been, one of personalities. It’s rather a problem of structure, which created a debilitating level of dependence and sometimes inertia within AMNLAE.
The confusion between the party and AMNLAE also made it almost impossible for AMNLAE to reach out in a significant or effective way to the country's unorganized women, precisely the sector that most needs political attention. The party paid dearly for that mistake last February 25. There is a lesson in the AMNLAE experience; it remains to be seen if the party will learn from it.