“Femicides tell us about the society we’ve constructed”
A knowledgeable and passionate reflection
on machista violence in Nicaragua,
the cause of a growing number of cruel femicides.
What drives it and what must be done about it?
María Teresa Blandón Gadea
Some call it “violence against women” while others prefer the term “gender violence.” In the feminist current I’m part of we use the term “machista violence” because it’s the most visible way to focus on the cause, which is the idea of masculinity as virility and of virility as associated with power. We think talking about “violence against women” puts too much focus on the victims rather than the aggressors or the causes that lead them to exercise violence. Likewise, we think the term “gender violence,” coined several decades ago by the United Nations, is too ambiguous because someone inevitably raises the fact that men are sometimes the victims of violent women. It goes without saying that this is true, and is obviously at odds with the law, but these minority cases of violence don’t have structural underpinnings, so focusing on them doesn’t get us to the unequal power relations that are at the core of the violence many men exercise against women.
Femicide is rooted in the conception of masculinity as the exercise of power
Femicide, or feminicide as it is sometimes called, is the murder of a woman by a man, the extreme expression of the continuum of machista violence, the aggressor’s last word. It’s also the last word of the patriarchal narrative in which we’ve been educated. Femicides speak to us of the society we’ve all helped build, rooted in a conception of masculinity as the exercise of power. It’s a power that’s learned and executed first and foremost on the bodies of women and other feminized bodies.
Latin America has the highest femicide rates in the world. Some feminists argue that it is the killing of women out of hatred for them, in other words misogyny, but I prefer the feminist theorists who speak of femicides as crimes of machista power.
Crimes of power always go unpunished, as feminist anthropologist Rita Laura Segato shows in her extraordinary analysis of the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city where over 5,000 women had been murdered by the time she published her work. From her exhaustive investigation, Segato concluded that femicide can’t be seen as an expression of men’s hatred of women. It must be understood as an expression of individual men’s desire for power and of a form of societal organization in which women’s bodies are to be exploited, utilized and finally disparaged and discarded. They are most often the bodies of poor women, and in the cases she researched are also of forcibly uprooted migrant women. She also concluded that there is complicity in all those horrendous crimes not just by concrete individual men, but by economic powers, drug trafficking networks and the State itself, which leaves them unpunished.
The need for a legal difference between homicide and femicide
Feminist organizations in our countries have engaged in intense debates to get the penal legislation to differentiate between homicide and femicide. Mexico was the first Latin American country to emphatically demand that the act of killing women for reasons of power be considered feminicide, the term they use there, rather than being lumped together with homicides. Our argument for this is that the causes and implications of murders men commit against other men over property, an inheritance or some offence are very different from those certain men commit against women.
Many men in machista societies feel they own women’s lives. So when a man kills a woman he’s operating under the belief that he has the right to put an end to a life he considers his property, a body he has previously humiliated and dehumanized. Femicide occurs in social and cultural contexts with significant margins of tolerance and justification of machista violence. In such contexts the State never assumed its duty to protect the victims because it’s still acting under the logic of a patriarchal pact that grants men “natural” rights over women’s bodies. That’s why femicide has the implications it does and why women’s organizations are fighting for the creation of a new penal classification that makes clear that these are crimes of power by ordinary men and that all the tutelary powers—state institutions, the media, criminal networks and the various religious fundamentalisms—contribute to and participate in their commission, albeit in different ways.
Latin America’s terrible statistics
Fourteen Latin American countries are among the 25 in the world with the highest annual rates for the murder of women, including Mexico, with one of the highest rates, and three Central American countries: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, in that order. El Salvador has the highest femicide rate in the world relative to its population size, with Honduras only two slots behind; more than 500 women are murdered each year in those two countries.
Nicaragua doesn’t appear on the list because “only” 70 to 100 women are killed each year here. But competing for the lowest femicide figures is both pathetic and atrocious. What society can be proud that up to 100 women die each year as a result of machismo? Between January and September of this year, we learned of 41 femicides and nearly 50 frustrated attempts, although we’re aware that uncountable cases of women we know nothing about receive death threats from men with whom they have had or even still have a personal link.
It’s not just an issue of justice, particularly not punitive justice
The structural nature of machista violence and femicide as the ultimate machista condemnation oblige us to take a more complex look, one that goes beyond the role of the State and its public policies. That doesn’t mean the State isn’t responsible, but that no form of violence, least of all machista violence, can be understood from the perspective of justice alone, especially when it’s fundamentally punitive justice, as is Nicaragua’s case.
Punitive justice has neither a preventive nor a rehabilitative role, and is certainly not aimed at reparation for the victims. It’s a style of justice that involves discharging the coercive powers’ entire weight on the aggressors—who in the vast majority of cases are poor. Some Latin American feminist researchers have analyzed how such limited justice ends up further burdening women. It’s like a macabre joke, as they then have to take care of these incarcerated men, working even harder than before and getting up extra early to take their imprisoned partners or other relatives little bags of food, clean clothes and medicine. And when all is said and done they are the ones who have to receive these men back into their homes when they are released, not in the least bit reformed but often more degraded and damaged than when they went in.
Moreover, just punishing the concrete aggressors leaves intact the structural causes that generate the violence in the first place. As we’ll see in more detail below, those causes are actively fomented through the messages steadily transmitted in ads, TV programs and multiple other ways telling us that women’s bodies are for men’s consumption, entertainment, use and submission, and are finally theirs to discard.
States aren’t democratic for women
There was a time when Nicaraguan and other Latin American feminists ingenuously believed the State was there to protect us. It was ingenuous because it failed to recognize that the Latin American State originated from and continues to be the synthesis of a patriarchal pact. To speak of a democratic State is thus wishful thinking at best, when not outright fiction. The State isn’t democratic for the whole of society today because it never has been, least of all for the poor, people with darker skin and women. It thus goes without saying how undemocratic the State is for poor women of color.
Many Nicaraguan feminists have come to the conclusion that our nearly 40 years of work to try to get the Nicaraguan State to assume the task of preventing and sanctioning violence against women has been virtually for naught. We knew it was too much to expect it to take responsibility for redressing the violence, but we at least demanded sanction and prevention. All organizations that make up Nicaragua’s broad women’s movement have invested enormous efforts since the 1980s, when we began this struggle. We’re still continuing, more conscious than ever of the gravity and complexity of the problem of machista violence, but some of us have given up looking to the State and demanding consistent responses from it because we assume it’s an accomplice. Unfortunately we have realized it has stopped being our ally in this long, hard and lonely struggle against machista violence. Or perhaps it never was one.
The current government has rolled back our few hard-fought gains
Just over a year ago, Ruth Matamoros recounted for envio the benchmarks of this struggle to get the State to assume its responsibility for enforcing the right of women to live free of machista violence (see the April 2016 article “Three mutilating blows to the law against violence to women”). I’ll quickly recap a few of them since we began the struggle with the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Women’s Movement (AMNLAE), a Sandinista women’s movement. The FSLN leadership constantly pressured AMNLAE to downplay machista violence on the grounds that the priority was the violence generated by the war. They never even recognized the direct connection between virile masculinity, war and machista violence, nor did they want to.
In 1996, during the Chamorro government, we got the National Assembly to approve Law 230, an addition to the Penal Code on domestic violence, which incorporated some forms of violence against women. In 2013, under the current government, we finally saw approval of Law 779, the Comprehensive Law against Violence toward Women that Ruth talked about, which was drafted and presented by various women’s organizations. Abelardo Mata, the Catholic bishop of Estelí, called 779 the new “number of the Beast” because according to him family disunity was caused by this law, not by violence against women.
We also pushed for the creation of Women’s Police Stations and courts specializing in gender violence. Many women’s organizations expended a tremendous amount of time and energy training police offices and judges, teaching them about the international agreements that clearly establish States’ commitments to guarantee the right of women to a life free of gender violence and to incorporate those commitments into their institutional protocols.
Admittedly those efforts and advances were timid and unstable, but they’ve all collapsed since Daniel Ortega’s return to government 10 years ago, and the more recent rise to power of his wife, Rosario Murillo. And we’re not just talking about the under-recording of data on the prevalence of machista violence. This government has consciously covered up the figures on women’s suffering. There’s now verifiable evidence that the National Police doesn’t record many of the charges filed, while in other cases the victims are impeded from filing them and pressured to mediate with their aggressors instead.
Moreover, we’ve witnessed the perversion of Law 779 and the disarticulation of the institutional route for responding to machista violence with the closing of most Women’s Police Stations. It would appear that one of this government’s priorities has been the destruction of everything the women’s organizations have built.
We were very pleased when the Ortega government first agreed to approve Law 779, but it quickly decided to illegally alter the law through the approval of regulations that distort its very objective. For example, the law was designed to protect women’s right to live free of violence, whereas the regulations speak of the family as the juridical entity to be protected. Moreover, the law says femicide is understood as the murder of a woman for reasons of gender, whether committed in public or private, but the regulations only recognize this crime when it occurs outside of the home. And when the law says “for reasons of gender” it is recognition that the causes of this crime are associated with the power asymmetries between men and women, relations in which men assume as a masculine prerogative the right to monitor, dominate and control women using violent means.
What women is it referring to? Those joined by hierarchical links of dependency. And who are these women? Those with less power. Which women have not only less tangible power but also less power over themselves? Those educated from infancy for submission, taught to believe in masculine superiority. These are the most vulnerable women, not only because they were educated to tolerate men’s abuses of power, but also because they have weak or nonexistent support networks, are poor, lack any public voice, economically depend on men and—on top of all that—are burdened with a lifetime of traumas that have undermined their capacity to respond to masculine aggressions.
What do the statistics tell us?
The most recent statistics of the Institute of Legal Medicine, which doesn’t see even half of the cases that occur on a daily basis in our country, show that 3,800 of the 4,372 cases of machista violence examined in 2015 were committed against women and the majority of that 88% corresponded to little girls, teenagers and young women. These investigations included crimes of sexual abuse, rape, beatings and femicide. The number of cases of machista violence studied the next year rose to 4,941, with 87% again against females of various ages and the remaining 13% against male children and adolescents. The vast majority of the aggressors were men, and 92% were known by their victims. The statistics specify partners and former partners, boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, as well as relatives ranging from stepfathers, uncles and cousins to fathers and brothers. It’s proof that girls and women are in danger in their neighborhoods and even their own homes.
What kind of families do we have in Nicaragua if most of the charges of machista violence filed by girls and young women are against men who are part of their lives, men they have affective and/or kinship relations with? These data tell us a lot about the codes that structure power within families. They tell us about a toxic masculinity that doesn’t even respect the women with whom men are or have been affectively linked. They speak of men with a degraded masculinity, with concepts of what it means to be masculine that are impoverished to the point of finding the use and abuse of women’s bodies the only way to recoup their masculinity. They show us something so serious that it’s impoverishing us as a society.
The State throws the poor in jail and protects the wealthy
The State’s action is often late and fragmented. We’re no longer surprised by the delayed justice, the closure of most of the Women’s Police Stations and the existence of corrupt judges who accept payment from aggressors to find them innocent, or of prosecuting attorneys who don’t investigate cases or defend the victims, or of public defenders who ask for reduced penalties even for very serious crimes. There are even deliberate actions by state officials to cover up for the aggressors. And this speaks to us of a State that’s acting outside the law, promoting the inferiorization of women and denying them full citizenship.
The more power aggressors, abusers and murderers have, the greater their impunity. Those who are poor are the only ones thrown into prison when they’re apprehended. In cases of femicides by wealthy perpetrators, in contrast, police rush to the crime scene to try to prove that what happened was a suicide, as we’ve seen on several occasions. All the rapists and murderers of women in prison are poor. It’s not a bad thing that they’re there; what’s bad is that there are politicians, priests, businessmen, military officers and others with power who should be there as well, and are not.
What messages does machista violence give us?
Femicide, sexual abuse and rape reveal not only masculinity’s hegemonic codes but also the codes society as a whole functions by. Although these forms of violence directly affect women, they aren’t women’s problems. They’re problems of the society we’ve constructed that show us how we’ve been educated in daily life and how both families and institutions function.
And by institutions, I’m also referring to those of the Christian religion in all its varieties, because they all contribute to the continuation and even bolstering of this toxic masculinity. These religions and their spokespeople are responsible for exercising symbolic violence against women because the value they place on family unity supersedes women’s integrity, freedom and wellbeing. Turning family unity into a fetish, they defend male power within the family, insisting that women submissively tolerate and resign themselves to it. And that’s symbolic violence. By this point in history these religious should be facing accountability for centuries of violence, but they aren’t. In fact they’re still contributing to more violence against women, and with total impunity.
Femicides are a form of terrorism involving ever greater levels of cruelty not only in Nicaragua or even Latin America, but all over the world. I could spend hours describing the cases we’ve learned about in our country, deciphering the cruelty and malice in each one, because each tells us something; they’re expressive; they have a language. The atrocious murder of Vilma Trujilla, burned alive by a community of Evangelicals in El Cortezal, a district of the municipality of Rosita, speaks volumes about the power religious fundamentalisms have over women’s bodies. The knifing and decapitation of Karla Rostrán by her ex-husband, who then hid her head, speaks of the total lack of empathy of a man educated to do harm.
And analyzing still more horrendous cases would also reveal the morbid way many media have reported them, thus contributing to what feminist theoreticians call the “pedagogy of cruelty,” converting women’s suffering into entertainment for the masses who revel in such morbidity. In Karla Rostrán’s case, the media spared no detail about how this criminal mutilated her body, how they found it, how they buried it without the head, how they later found the head, how they buried it…
What lies at the root of these messages?
We’ll only understand machista violence down to its core once we grasp as a society how the economic, political, military, religious and ideological powers have been constructed and are continually reinforced based on the submission of women’s bodies.
But neither the State nor the media, in fact virtually no one, explains to us the root message transmitted by such cruel crimes as rape and femicide: that such horrendous crimes are only the extreme expression of machista power and the general despoiling of all women, committed outside of any social convention and any moral norm, and that the men who commit them consider the body of the raped or murdered woman his personal chattel to do what he wants with. These crimes tell us of a masculine power run amok, one that knows no controls.
It’s the same message we get from trafficking in little girls for sexual exploitation: their bodies are merchandise that can be sold and from which the seller can make money. It’s also the message religious fanatics are telling us when they compel women to accept religious commandments that oppress them. Religions are an ideological power on a massive scope, which is why we should be seriously worried about the incessant growth in Nicaragua of new religious groups bearing fundamentalist messages. We should be concerned that Reverend Saturnino Cerrato, currently running for the Nicaraguan presidency, says that he didn’t agree with the burning of Vilma Trujillo but that “the devil does exist,” suggesting she was possessed by a devil. And we should be worried about what the State is doing when it deceives poor women with minimal hand-out programs so they’ll see the government as their savior.
What can be seen in these messages and practices is a pact among all men that functions at every level. That pact explains why there’s so much tolerance in society for the psychological, physical and sexual forms of violence that end in femicide.
The government is turning a blind eye
Our society is permeated by machista violence yet the State seems not to understand its essence or to want us to understand it. Why else did it distort the intent of Law 779 so that it is now ordering women to negotiate with their aggressors to reach some accommodation? Why else does it hide the real figures of machista violence? For example, Francisco Díaz, the de facto chief of the National Police, reported that only 19 femicides had occurred in the country as of mid-September, when we in the feminist organizations directly knew of nearly three times as many.
The government also doesn’t want to act. After getting off to a fairly good start with at least some educational propaganda, the state institutions now look the other way to avoid interfering with the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation. During the first half of this year, the Police only reported four cases of trafficked girls. What a mammoth lie! They only have to go the border crossing of Guasaule or the port of Corinto, or almost any point along the Caribbean Coast to realize the alarm in those places about the increasing number of female children and adolescents that are disappearing.
Some years ago women’s organizations from the Caribbean region came to tell us that the drug-trafficking rings operating along the banks of the Río Coco were carrying off girls for sexual exploitation and that there were even parents in the indigenous communities that had sold their daughters for up to $2,000. To my knowledge the State hasn’t lifted a finger to investigate that charge. The Catholic priests and Evangelical pastors in the zone reportedly know about it and we’re told they haven’t done anything either, despite the power they have in the communities to shout the news to the sky, denouncing this sale of little girls as if they were cows. Shouldn’t the government and all the media be talking about this barbarity every single day?
Society is just as deaf, blind and mute
This speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil gives a very poor account of both the State for not responding and society for not demanding a response from it. Even conservatives who throw up their hands in horror and say no to abortion because “life is sacred” say and do nothing about victims of machista violence. Do they not see the lives of these exploited, trafficked, raped and murdered girls and women, these victims of machista violence, as sacred? It would appear that life is only sacred for them in the abstract, not in the living bodies of these girls and women. Or is it only sacred when they are still fetuses?
Admittedly much of our society is horrified by femicides, condemning them and pointing to them as a serious problem. But very few see the connection between femicides and the structures of violence installed in society. Nor does society in general relate femicide to the thousands of child victims of sexual abuse, girls who end up pregnant and are obliged by order of religions, the State and often even their own family to give birth to and raise this constant reminder of what was done to them.
Violence is a universal idea everyone accepts for achieving certain goals, including social peace, as absurd as that may seem. If we draw a pyramid of our society that segments the levels of tolerance of machista violence, only the very tip would be filled by a total rejection and condemnation of femicide. The level below femicide is rape, which we all reject, only as long as it’s committed outside the marital bed, because within it the husband’s behavior must be tolerated no matter what he does. But as we move down into the wider parts of the pyramid where other forms of daily machista violence appear, we see increasing tolerance, of enormous psychological violence, for example. The tolerance is virtually total further down still, where other forms of violence appear that are not even considered as such, including the imposition of servitude on women, obliging them to put men’s needs and demands always before their own.
Age-old excuses to avoid recognizing the truth
It’s an incorrect reading of machista violence to say that it’s the consequence of drug and alcohol consumption. Associating drugs and alcohol to violence doesn’t get us to its structural causes. If we could order the Pellas group to stop producing all the country’s rum and beer, then burn all the marijuana fields and close all the crack outlets, there would still be men who assault, attack, rape and kill women.
It’s also incorrect to think a woman was raped or murdered because she disobeyed some norm: dressed sexy, went out at night or took the wrong taxi. We need to recognize that these age-old arguments are dredged up by broad sectors of society and the State to minimize even these most serious crimes.
First argument: “Women lie.” We’ve been taught since day one that we should never believe a woman’s word, because women are unable to behave correctly. The assumption is that women want to hurt men, to file charges against them out of spite. And that argument is even hauled out to explain why they need men’s protection.
Second argument: “Women exaggerate.” In their defense against charges of psychological or physical violence, male aggressors are prone to argue that “I merely raised my voice, but she’s such a fragile thing that she insists I abused her,” or “She says I hurt her, but I only gave her a little push and she tripped on the leg of the bed and fell”…
Third argument: “It’s her own fault.” This is one of the most perverse and widespread arguments, found in the media, the social networks and family conversations: “What was she doing there in the first place?” “Why was she hanging out with a guy like that?” “Why did she dress like that?” The underlying message when we hear that “she was asking for it” is that a woman can only prevent violence against herself by submitting to the patriarchal norms, to men’s authority, by being faithful to it no matter what. Blaming the victim automatically means exculpating the aggressor. The blame-the-victim discourse also tells us that men have society’s permission to do what they want to whomever they want, with no blame attached, including to discipline women who transgress the mandate to obey. That discourse is dangerous because it gives men permission to discipline us through violence. If we don’t figure this out, we’ll never be able to eradicate the root causes of this violence.
Fourth argument: “That kind of violence isn’t so serious.” The notion that other forms of violence merit more attention from the State is precisely what prevents machista violence from ever appearing in official statistics on citizen security. We don’t see statistics on street harassment or rape, or even on the collective sexual abuses or gang rapes by the few small street gangs known as maras that can be found in certain Nicaraguan urban spaces. Nor can any statistics be found on the abduction of little girls, and also little boys, for commercial sexual exploitation.
Fifth argument: “He can’t possibly have done what they’re saying.” This argument is aimed at minimizing or even denying that a man accused of being violent truly is an aggressor because “he’s such an excellent person.” Nicaraguan versions of this “Bill Cosby syndrome” include Catholics from Matagalpa finding it impossible to admit that the priest Zenón Corrales could have raped young girls, or from Chinandega being unable to recognize that Marco Dessi, also a priest, sexually abused more than 40 poor boys he had “helped” in his social works. Many Catholics or Evangelicals still find it unfathomable that thousands of priests and pastors are pederasts and that the majority remain unscathed because they are part of the structures of power.
“The pedagogy of cruelty”
We need to understand once and for all that machista violence is all about power, and is rooted in the gender asymmetries and interrelation and collaboration of the tutelary powers and their depredating pedagogies. We need to understand that it’s framed within multiple systems of domination and that those systems have constructed “the pedagogy of cruelty” that teaches and trains men to desensitize themselves and distance themselves from women. The patriarchal system, which is also racist and neoliberal, needs that teaching to sustain itself. It needs the majority of the population to believe it’s okay if only ten years of intensive work by the millions of women employed in the sweatshops for re-export is enough to kill them. It can’t have people reacting indignantly to the cruelty and pain suffered by women.
The pedagogy of cruelty is exacerbated during wars, when the State suspends all legal rules. The feminist Jean Franco, who wrote about the horrendous crimes committed by the Guatemalan Army’s elite troops against indigenous women during that country’s armed conflict, explains this in detail in her comparative study of the terrible acts that took place under the government of Efraín Ríos Montt and those committed by the men of the Shining Path in Peru, both in the 1980s.
How does this pedagogy work?
How do men actually learn to be disrespectful, abusive and even violent toward women? It’s sometimes said that mothers are mainly responsible for educating their sons and daughters in machista ways, and that a good education at home would be enough to reduce and even put an end to machista violence. But reality is much more complex than that, particularly because mothers themselves are often not free and thus exercise maternity from a lifetime of captivity in the name of the man’s authority. Victoria Sau, the late Catalonian writer and feminist psychologist, called maternity a “fraud,” referring to mothers who allow themselves to be humiliated, “voluntarily” putting themselves in a situation of servitude dedicated to the lifelong pursuit of others’ wellbeing, stripped of their own role as a woman and redefined as “mother.” This is unquestionably true in Nicaragua, where we have a cult to the idealized mother and reject women who attempt not to lose themselves in the exercise of maternity.
From this critical perspective we can understand perfectly why so many women practice their maternity subjected to the patriarchal norms, their father’s and later their husband’s authority, accepting or even teaching the same privileges for their sons that they saw men assume in their own childhood. Asking such mothers to take responsibility for changing and educating their children differently is necessary, but hardly enough. “Father knows best” is the operative law in the nuclear heterosexual family, where the mother’s role is to be the guardian of the gender mandates and she will be judged harshly if she doesn’t fulfill it. In that scheme of things one of the mother’s prime mandates is to help her sons develop the notion of masculine virility as power.
In Nicaragua when a boy doesn’t appropriate those mandates of virility, if he isn’t aggressive enough and doesn’t have sufficiently masculine mannerisms, the mother is blamed for having feminized him. Likewise, if a daughter is rebellious and doesn’t want to respect the constraining rules set for girls, the mother is also at blamed for having raised a “butch” daughter, or at best a tomboy who doesn’t abide by the gender order the mother should have preserved. The stories of the teenagers of all genders that my organization works with have allowed me to understand the conflicts, ambiguities and contradictions mothers face when their maternity is under such close surveillance by all the patriarchal institutions. Catholic priests and Evangelical pastors are the first to admonish them to reproduce the gender hierarchies according to “God’s plan.”
Not just families, but society as a whole must be reexamined
There are very authoritarian families in our country, with rigid gender models where children are humiliated, persecuted and held up to blame. These families are a good part of the problem, but not its bottom line. Everything, from families, religious institutions and schools to businesses and even political parties, is built on hierarchical and deeply sexist foundations in which men establish themselves as the norm.
Of course there are good men who aren’t violent, fathers who don’t impose law and order in their families, and priests and pastors who seek to both preach and follow the Christian principles of compassion and caring for one’s neighbor. But beyond single cases, whether good or bad, we need to question the bigger picture, the social self-images that prevail in our society. What is Radio YA doing giving prizes to the youngest mother and the pregnant woman with the biggest belly? What is TN8’s Acción 10 news program doing when it puts women’s suffering on the screen as mass entertainment every single day? What are leaders of the governing party doing when they propose sending young middle-class women to Norway to find boyfriends who will “take care” of them?
Machista societies like ours give men moral, legal, cultural, institutional and family permission to be violent with women. The hard core of machismo as virility argues that anything that smells of femininity must be subdued, controlled, manipulated and disrespected. More democratic and egalitarian societies are also more flexible in their ideas and practices relating to gender, while more conservative societies such as ours are harsher with women and more permissive with men. They teach that the best fathers are the most rigid and authoritarian and are good providers, and that the best mothers are the most eternally giving and self-sacrificing, those who most bow down to the patriarchal family order.
Given all this, what is to be done?
Over these past four decades we’ve succeeded in bringing machista violence into the public light, gotten two laws passed and trained thousands of public officials, but we’re now seeing the State itself rolling back everything we’ve built, showing us its limits in dealing with this situation. So where do we turn now? How are our feminist organizations supposed to channel our alarm and indignation amid the unending violence? What is society itself to do?
To put an end to machismo, and also to racism and heterosexism, we need to design and implement new models of education, and not just in the home. Everyone has some measure of responsibility for children’s education: mothers, fathers, schools, community organizations, churches, the media and the State. Families aren‘t sealed-off entities. Different actors influence them with different intensities. No matter how great the mother and father might be, they aren’t omnipotent. They can’t teach their children everything they need to know in the world. Moreover, sons and daughters are leaving the nest earlier and connecting sooner to a wider and more diverse world. What makes us think they’ll be able to construct a harmonious world vision if what they find when they leave their families is sexism, machismo, racism, runaway consumerism and, to top it all off, increasing religious fundamentalism?
All of us in Nicaragua are faced with the challenge of grasping and then working to dismantle the complex social structures of violence underpinning our society. Men in public institutions, those who speak in the name of what is holy and those who hold a microphone in front of the TV cameras are the ones most called on to question all expressions of machista violence. They shouldn’t wait until violent men are behind bars, or until their women reject what the mediators or their church leaders tell them because they can’t take any more, or until their children end up despising them. Men need to start now to learn new meanings and new attitudes and to shake off their machismo, that hard core of badly understood masculinity, that thirst for power that they unleash most easily on women’s bodies. It is there, in those bodies, that they learned the pleasure of dominating another human being. Dominating women is only the first and deepest test of machismo, the next steps being dominating the family, the territory, the State, the economy, weapons, war…
Men need to find more creative and constructive forms of pleasure that aren’t depredatory, such as exchanging ideas and points of view with others, accompanying and sharing experiences with others, caring for other people, seeking happiness in their relationships with others, both men and women. Only by doing so will they come to understand that an act of sexual abuse, of rape, isn’t synonymous with pleasure but with damage, harm and pain. Men have to reinvent themselves.
And we women have to stop being tolerant of masculine expressions of domination and violence, which in many cases can end in femicide. We must unlearn the dependencies taught us in childhood and learn to run our lives by other codes.
María Teresa Blandón is a feminist sociologist.