The Women of Malpaisillo: "Our Lives Have Changed"
Changing the lives of women may well change the life of Nicaragua. The experience of the Malpaisillo women’s organization gives us clues, renews our strength and fills us with hope.
José Luis Rocha
Malpaisillo, a municipality in the department of Leon, is a lively center with a population of approximately 3,200. Set down in the middle of 888 square kilometers of desert, its 46 communities are scattered along a zone that is so dry that even the most tenacious optimist would get discouraged. Even its name is pejorative. It is named Malpais or "bad country" for the band of volcanic rock that marked a commercial trading route between Leon, Matagalpa and Jinotega in the last century. A bitter sadness seems to dominate the patchily paved road that joins Malpaisillo and La Paz Centro. The air is hot and still, stirred only by the small blue birds that occasionally cross the road to rest on a fallen gourd.
Most of the vegetation consists of dry listless shrubs, begging that the rainy season will bring enough rain for them to become green again. The forests have been virtually wiped out by the use of firewood for household cooking and for the area’s small brick-making factories scattered on the outskirts of town. The Cerro Negro and Momotombo volcanoes are visible, and the volcanic chain continues on northward with Telica, the infamous Casitas, site of the disastrous Hurricane Mitch-induced landslide in Posoltega, Chonco, San Cristóbal and Cosigüina. The threat is constant. The hills are bald cones; fires having converted the dry vegetation to ashes.
The Liberal central government has never brought either its boasted works or its glorious words to Malpaisillo, because it can make few electoral inroads here. For one thing, the municipal government has always been in the hands of the FSLN, and for another, many people have left Malpaisillo to seek their modest fortunes in Costa Rica, as have those from other former cotton-growing areas.
It began with a mobile clinicAbove Malpaisillo is the sun’s fire, below it volcanic magma, with scorching air in between. One might ask if anything good could emerge from these rocks, if anything at all could flourish on this gloomy steppe. But just as water can spring from the ground, Malpaisillo has also been revealing its hidden potential, and in this unexpected discharge of energy, words and dreams that cannot be destroyed by dust storms, scorching sun, withering drought, the protagonists are women.
The history of this feminine and feminist explosion began ten years ago when three FSLN Municipal Council members decided to start a mobile sexual and reproductive health clinic for women. The clinic offered Pap smears for the detection of cervical cancer, screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptive information and prenatal, delivery and post-partum care.
They wanted to do something new and different, something that would be unquestionably useful, and they did. The clinic has helped lower women’s mortality, especially maternal mortality. According to the official statistics from the United Nations Fund for Population Affairs (UNFPA), 133 women die for every 100,000 pregnancies in Nicaragua. The causes of this high maternal mortality rate are many. Approximately 55% of births occur in rural areas where the average time to reach a health center is more than an hour. Use of prenatal care services is low. In 1998, only 69% of rural women received prenatal care. Women who never received prenatal care made up more than half of the maternal mortality cases. Adolescent women were the victims of one third of maternity-related deaths.
The Malpaisillo women’s clinic has been addressing this, and many other problems for the past 10 years. The clinic promotes and dispenses various contraceptive methods, another area where there is a tremendous lack of services. Only 51% of rural women practice family planning. A UNFPA survey found that Nicaraguan women are having more children than they want, with three-quarters of the women surveyed expressing a desire to limit the size of their families or space their pregnancies. According to this survey, if women could avoid all unwanted pregnancies, Nicaragua’s fertility rate, one of the highest in the world and a serious limitation to sustainable development, would be reduced by a third. Adequate control of population growth would also go a long way toward improving the quality of life.
Another study by the UNFPA has demonstrated the larger the family in Nicaragua, the greater the probability of being poor. Increasing family size by just one additional child increases the probability of being poor by 10%, which increases to 69% when a household has three children under the age of five. Poor Nicaraguan households have an average of more than seven family members.
Among adolescents, the situation is even worse. The infant mortality rate for children between one and eleven months old born to adolescent mothers is 34 per 1,000 live births, compared to 21 per 1,000 for children born to mothers between 20 and 29 years old. Contraceptive use by adolescents, including married adolescents, is very low. Sixty-one percent of adolescents in common-law marriages do not use contraception, despite the increased risk involved in pregnancy. Seventy-one percent of the adolescents interviewed by UNFPA who were pregnant or already had children at the time of the interview stated that their children were wanted. In Nicaragua’s traditional patriarchal culture, maternity confers an identity, self-affirmation and community recognition for the majority of women, particularly in the rural areas.
The personal is politicalIn Malpaisillo, women have searched for and found sources of self-affirmation and self-esteem that do not sacrifice autonomy or mortgage the future. Change begins with one’s body. The work of the mobile clinic, which started with five women, rapidly expanded to include consciousness-raising that allowed women to perceive their social role and helped them strengthen their autonomy and decision-making capacity. The apparently innocuous services of a clinic, which could easily have confined its activities to providing health services, instead became the seed of an organization that today includes 800 women and covers 32 communities. Judging by the enthusiasm, the resources and the growing array of projects we have seen, the clinic shows all the signs of being a growing and consolidating project. Choosing to be mobile so it could bring services to the most remote areas was an important factor in the growth of this bold organization, because it challenged the traditional power relationships and gave power to those who had always been powerless. It had to be that way. As Mertxe Brosa, one of the founders, recalls, "All of us had been political, and still are, because to work in the process of empowerment is political."
Those who had been deprived of everything—public life, access to education, decision making, control of their own bodies, their own voice—became the priorities of the initiative that gelled into the Xochilt-Acalt Family Orientation and Sex Education Center, known to all in Malpaisillo as simply "the clinic." Perhaps because of its origins, the clinic continues to be the part of the organization with the greatest cultural impact. Starting from the knowledge that the women gained about their own bodies and the gender perspective that taught them to defend, love and care for their bodies, they have knocked down many taboos of macho culture—the oppressive pieces of a culture that has always subordinated them—like dominoes, one pushing the next.
Full sail against the currentsAn organization of women and work with women: two pivotal aspects of this project that go against the prevailing culture. In the eighties, the word organization was a slogan or a cliché. Everyone was willing to organize at the drop of a hat. But to organize under the shadow of 21st-century neoliberalism, with its allergy to collectivism, and the development experts’ eagerness to distance themselves from anything that smells of politics, might almost seem foolhardy. Nevertheless, they push forward. The organization prospers. The words and deeds of the women continue to convince other women and pull them along. Mothers get their daughters involved and the organization grows stronger, despite present-day currents of disillusionment and widespread political apathy.
To make a preferential option for women does not seem so bold at first glance. These days a lot of funding is available for those who adopt a gender focus. Vegetable gardens and credit, workshops and many other initiatives for Nicaraguan women are promoted by foreign cooperation agencies. How many of these programs have been successful? If tomorrow all the credit and all the workshops disappeared, what mark would these programs have left on their beneficiaries? Their lasting impact would be even less if they had worked in the rural sector where machismo is so entrenched it has converted women into its most devout proponents. Those who insist that feminists and others who work in the area of gender theory are facing a granite-like cultural barrier in the countryside are not without basis. So how has the Malpaisillo women’s organization come to have 800 members? What is the secret of their success? What has made the difference? What is the intangible in this case?
The economic catacombsThe project had to do something to improve the economic situation of the women in this extremely poor municipality. In fact, it had to do a lot. Women’s precarious labor situation is at the nerve center of their strategy. According to the International Agricultural Development Fund, an organization that has taken a strong interest in improving the situation of third world women in the past few years, 75% of Latin American women do unpaid domestic work, and only 9% have income from non-agricultural work. Women play a large role in the economy, especially in the family, communities and countries where subsistence agriculture predominates. It is a largely invisible role—domestic chores, fruit and vegetable cultivation, gathering firewood, carrying water. For women to emerge from the catacombs of the economy, the cultural conviction that "women must dedicate a lot of time to their children, husbands and home, so are not interested in the economic point of view" must be refuted.
A 1996 survey by Nicaragua’s International Foundation for Global Economic Development (FIDEG) found that 40% of rural Nicaraguan women were employed, 3% were unemployed and 57% were economically inactive, working in the home, studying or retired. Of the rural women who were working, 45% were employed in agriculture and 54% in services or commerce. Only 26% received a salary and only 1% owned a business. Thirty-one percent worked for themselves and 42% worked, without pay, in a family business.
Confined, shut in, captive in the private sphere, because the public sphere is the domain of men, women see their social status as minimized. Work humanizes, socializes and is a source of learning. Women’s work, done in the seclusion of the home, dehumanizes and individualizes and is an expression of the fencing in and underdevelopment of women’s minds and ideas. Women in rural Nicaragua are responsible for 70% of the time spent carrying water, 21% of the time carrying firewood, 98% of the time preparing food, 98% of the time caring for children, 94% of the time cleaning the house and 60% of the time shopping for the household. The patriarchal culture presents women as being naturally endowed for domestic work, justifying the sexual distribution of labor that impedes the development of other talents. As Marx stated, so-called "natural talents" are a consequence not a cause of the social division of labor. Taking on new tasks permits the unfolding of new talents. If "work makes the man," devaluing women’s work makes women with low self-esteem.
Credit beneficiaries and property ownersThe Xochilt-Acalt Center proposed a Copernican revolution, a totally radical option for women, their introduction into the public sphere through a wide door as full card-carrying citizens. In the first place, the Center offers credit exclusively to women, who were always excluded from the state-run National Development Bank (BANADES) before it was shut down in 1997 because men with fat loans did not pay them back. According to a 1995 FIDEG study, only 0.4% of women who were beneficiaries of credit had obtained it from BANADES as opposed to 18% of the men. The Xochilt-Acalt Center has looked for ways to correct this situation, offering credit with interest rates in line with the profit-making capacity of the projects it finances. The center’s overall goal is to improve the lives of the beneficiary families. As Mertxe Brosa explains, "We don’t want to go the route of many micro-finance programs, which have moved from paternalism to the purest and hardest neoliberalism. Credit must be an instrument for development. It becomes an end in itself if one only measures its success by the rate of recovery of funds."
In Nicaragua as a whole, 64% of land titles are in the hands of men, 13% are held by women, 3% by couples, 0.3% by collectives, 9% by cooperatives and 11% in other types of ownership. Among rural women property owners, 40% have holdings of under 2 acres, 41% have roughly 2 to 8 acres, 8% have 8 to 17 (compared to 17% of male property owners), 7% have 17 to 83 (compared to 14% of male property owners) and only 4% own properties greater than that (compared to 6% of male property owners).
The credit program is used as a means to promote the empowerment of women. In order to receive credit in the form of cows, at least 7 acres of the family farm must be in the woman’s name. Along the same line, to be eligible for post-Mitch housing (this area suffered devastating flooding during the hurricane), the land on which the house would be built must be in the woman’s name. "Men here know very well that we will not invest any money if the property is not in a woman’s name," explains Mertxe Brosa. It is a type of blackmail that increases the whole family’s security. When men own the property they can put one woman out and bring in another, sell the property or desert the household entirely and take the property title with them.
Three years after this policy was implemented, the distribution of land has changed radically. As new landowners, the Malpaisillo women are directing the construction of houses, wells, water tanks, stables and corrals. Women are making rope pumps, silos, irrigation systems and filters. They are raising cows, pigs, hens and goats. They cultivate vegetables and their innovations with the cultivation of cassava and mung beans are highly successful. Women are learning to read and write and are teaching reading and writing. They receive and then teach sex education. They reflect on feminist theory, receive medical attention and work in the clinic. They have successfully marketed their harvests in Managua. They have adopted and promoted new agricultural technologies such as organic fertilizers and biological pest control. They study, debate and experiment.
The women have become the family’s economic engine. All of their income goes to the family, and none to bars, pool halls and cockfights. As the driving force in family development, they can negotiate as equals with their husbands, fathers and brothers, whom they viewed as their "owners" until recently. They are now equals because the women no longer have to depend on the men for more than company, complicity and affection. They sum up the effect of this revolutionary change with a phrase that they repeat again and again, often with surprise. "Our lives have changed."
Women are architects, engineers, The road is filled with thorns as well as roses. Mertxe Brosa, who has been involved in this process for a decade, points out one of them. "Some women needed a house so badly that once they got it, they came to a standstill, as if they had achieved their final goal." But she adds with pleasure, "most are not like that. Most women want to continue advancing, and continue increasing their abilities." Among them are a group of 21 veterinarians who rescued thousands of animals during Hurricane Mitch. Also notable are the reproductive health educators, the organic agriculture educators and the construction workers who have built the houses and stables. The majority of them are moving forward. It is remarkable to see how the women of Malpaisillo have appropriated with such clarity the language that had previously been the exclusive property of specialists, male specialists. Those who remain anchored in old decadent stereotypes interpret that they "are no longer peasant women." Mertxe Brosa admits, "They have appropriated the information they received and now don’t talk like the peasants their detractors knew and under-valued."
artisans, carpenters, builders and farmers
The women themselves are the first to express their surprise at how much their lives have changed. Lidia Mendoza, from the community of Puente de Oro, tells us proudly of the skills and ability that emerged during the post-Mitch reconstruction period. "In my community three or four women were organized before Mitch. They had vegetable gardens. When Mitch happened, something had to be done, and that’s how the women elected me to be the housing construction leader. They elected me because I spoke out. In the communities, few women dare to speak. Because I spoke out, the 22 disaster victims elected me as their representative. At first, I was in charge of distributing material. Soon I learned about the process of building houses. I learned how to place the anti-seismic beams, the crown beams and the intermediate beams and how to prepare cement. The experience I gained enabled me to assume my present role as head of the construction project of wells and small water collecting systems for gardens and goats and large water collecting systems for irrigation. I began in my community and later went on to supervise the construction of water collection systems in the community of La Esperanza." As with many of the women, Lidia’s family and neighbors comment on how much she has changed. She radiates a sense of dignity, of knowing what she can accomplish and how to do it.
People with skills are staying in MalpaisilloThe rainbow of services offered by the Xochilt-Acalt Center has been an effective instrument of self-discovery for the women. They have discovered who they are and how much they can accomplish when they control resources, however limited those resources may be. Because of this, and because of the dignity and security they have acquired, they continue to learn new skills and don’t want to leave Malpaisillo.
It is an exceptional situation. Ordinarily young men and women in the rural areas who receive training end up migrating to the cities. Managua is a great magnet. They go in search of better opportunities, jobs with more status, higher wages, more consumer goods and entertainment. This internal brain drain re-enforces the national inequality in the distribution of trained human resources and incomes, and undermines the possibilities for local development. Malpaisillo is the exception. The Center has generated attractive jobs in an atmosphere that gives women prestige and respect that would take them much longer to achieve in other work places. To add to this success, girls between the ages of 16 and 17 are developing their own patrimony—land, house, water and goats—with the center’s support. These are strong incentives to stay in the community and continue to advance.
The construction of 200 houses in Malpaisillo will be completed in the year 2001. This is great progress in a part of the country with a severe housing shortage and very difficult conditions. In the department of Leon, 14% of rural families do not own their homes and only 27% have houses made of cement blocks, bricks or concrete. In this department 55% of the rural homes have only one room, 36% have two rooms and only 2% have four or more rooms. The center has built three-room houses, but more important than the number or type of houses is the status and skills that the women have gained in the construction process. Construction projects, both pre and post-Mitch abound in Nicaragua. Some of them have built homes that offer dignity, security and comfort, but it is difficult to find other projects where women are the main protagonists and where the construction process has so successfully served as a device for the discovery and formation of leaders and the growth of self-esteem.
Education is the key and the foundationWithout doubt, one of the center’s greatest achievements, the foundation of its success, has been its education of the women. Chilean writer Isabel Allende was once asked what Latin American women lacked to be able to achieve equality in a civilization dominated by men. "We lack education," she replied. "During my 55 years of life, the women’s liberation movement has succeeded in making some incredible changes, but these changes have only reached educated women in the urban areas of some countries. In most rural areas, the countryside, among indigenous women, in the poor areas and among uneducated women, not only have their lives not changed, they haven’t even heard about these changes yet. Much is still to be done."
In rural Nicaragua, the lack of education is especially alarming. According to the UNFPA, approximately 500,000 Nicaraguan children were unable to enter the educational system in the year 2000 because of budgetary and infrastructure limitations, in other words a lack of classrooms and teachers. For the country as a whole, 26% of school-aged children do not attend school, and this climbs to 44% in poor rural areas. Women, because of their domestic responsibilities, including caring for their children, are the most excluded from the education system. Forty-five percent of Nicaragua’s rural women are illiterate.
Speaking up about sexuality The Xochilt-Acalt Center has been an abundant source of education and of holistic formation. It was no accident that reproductive health was the first step. To talk about sexuality among women, only with women, is to take control of the situation and not skirt around the issues. Sexual topics are taboo because sex is the essential hinge in power relationships and plays a central role in the power schemes that trap us all.
transforms power relationships
Men exercise power over women by controlling their bodies and their sexuality. All traditional forms of a woman’s oppression are woven around sexuality. Her body is taken from her and becomes the property of others. The point of departure for the patriarchal system is denying women the knowledge of how their own bodies work. In order for men’s public polygamy to continue, women’s sexuality is confined to birthing babies. The paths to sexual pleasure are closed to women.
Sex education taught from a gender perspective seeks to change power relationships, opening a book that had previously remained shut by deep-rooted fear and false modesty. That is why the results are so liberating. Today the organized women in Malpaisillo proudly and self-assuredly proclaim that they are the ones who decide when they will marry, rather than bowing to the social pressure that they will remain old maids. They decide when they will have sex, not based on pressure from their husbands but rather on mutual desire. They decide when they will have children, not based on the pressure of a religion that opposes and hides birth control methods. The plain and simple fact that women are discussing sexuality collectively and openly is a liberating break that is producing a cultural mutation, giving them the power to begin to transform unequal gender relationships.
An enormously rich and important moment occurred in the women’s formation process during the socioeconomic assessment of Malpaisillo’s communities. The assessment included extensive and detailed surveys conducted by the women. The results in some cases were very revealing, sparking a reflection process that lasted a year and first led to a literacy campaign. That was followed by training that responded to need and demand in which agriculture and construction courses and much, much more followed the literacy training.
They aren’t stopping. The project’s vigor is based on creative flexibility in the ongoing search for and discovery of new needs to fill. Many women have received scholarships for primary, secondary and university education. They return to their communities full of ideas. Right now, 33 women are receiving basic reading and writing, 123 have scholarships for primary school and 40 more for secondary school, specialized courses or university.
Conflicts with their husbandsThe women’s newfound power has brought new difficulties. Their persistence has broken down barriers and persuaded the men that they are up against an irreversible situation, that their wives are no longer the same women they once were. This is how Lidia Mendoza tells it. "My husband isn’t very happy because now I have money and buy whatever I want and dress however I want to. He’ll never be happy that I’m earning a salary at the Center and that it’s more than his. He’ll just have to get used to it. Some others in the community are envious of how my life changed from one moment to the next. Some men see that these jobs of ours bring increased income into the household and they accept it and are happy about it. But others don’t see it that way and their wives have to deal with them. My husband says that all I’ve learned is to hang out away from home. This is what he thinks and he’ll probably think that way until he dies, because I’ve already told him that I plan to continue what I am doing. Do I love him in spite of his annoying attitude? Well, yes, he’s the father of my five daughters."
And this is how Verónica Mayorga of El Piñuelar describes the stigma she has had to face: ‘The men say that what they teach us is vulgar and that they teach us to be whores. They want to order us around. They want us to be submissive forever."
Transforming fathers and husbandsIn traveling this rocky road, the women have gradually induced a transformation in their husbands, fathers and families. This is the experience that 22-year-old Maricela Solís Rostrán of El Piñuelar shares with us, a sparkle of happiness and clarity in her eyes as she tells her story. "When I finished high school I began to work in the fruit and vegetable garden project, and had my garden at the house. I also attended the reflection groups. My father screamed at me and insulted me, the way he had always dealt with me. But I began to learn that this is a form of violence. One day I made a decision. I said to him, ‘Papa, don’t talk to me like that, I don’t like it.’ ‘Why should I listen to you?’ he answered. ‘What right do you have to criticize me?’ That’s how we began. I was very repressed during my adolescence. Now he’s changed a lot because I began to educate him. I also began to educate my mother. I said to her, ‘Why don’t you get organized, too, Mama?’ She said ‘No, I don’t like that kind of thing.’ But I kept on insisting until I convinced her. She has suffered a lot of violence with him and, before, all she would do was cry. I said to her, ‘Mommy, don’t cry, that doesn’t accomplish anything.’ I was the only one who criticized my father. When he was drinking, he would say that I was the only daughter who didn’t love him. I would say to him, ‘Your hands can’t hold a broom? My mother splits firewood and works in the garden, which is men’s work. How come you can’t sweep?’ He finally heard me and has changed a lot. He even remembers to water the plants in the garden. I am respected in my home. I earn my money and buy my things. I feel fulfilled."
One of the women from Santa Teresa, recipient of a scholarship from the Center, told us of the extraordinary progress she has made. Her husband’s attitude, once vituperative, is now supportive. "Our lives have changed. Now our husbands let us know that the truck is on its way to pick us up. Before? Before they made comments such as, ‘There go those loose women. We’ll have no peace as long as they are around. Don’t let your woman go with them because she’ll start cheating on you. She’ll become a whore. They all get prostitute licenses and watch naked men on big televisions.’ When we went to reflection meetings, they would accuse us of being with other men. All they would do was criticize us. They were afraid. They would come home and go straight to the hammock to rest. We worked all day without stopping—with the machete, the broom and the pots and pans. All of this has changed. Before, Ramón wouldn’t even help me sweep the floor. Now he mops and helps in the garden. That gives me the time I need to study."
Accumulating capital: Human and femaleThey have come a long way from being seen as "the crazies, the whores and the lesbians." Their prestige has grown to the point where the municipal health authorities and local teachers recommend their clinic and library. The number of organized women grows each year. They have gained so much status, training, property and consciousness that it would be hard to reverse the process.
A prestigious economist has postulated what would occur if the atom bomb were dropped tomorrow on Japan and on Nicaragua, destroying the economy and infrastructure of each country. In 20 years, Japan would recover the level of development it presently enjoys. Nicaragua would be the same or worse. This is because what counts is the intangible. It is the human and social capital, the skills and contacts, the acquired knowledge, the accumulated experience and the manner of organizing. What was said about Japan could apply to Malpaisillo, although naturally on a different scale. If tomorrow all the houses were swept away by a disaster, the crops were flooded and the goats and cows annihilated, it would take much less time to recover all of this infrastructure and means of production than it took to build it originally. That is because these women, with their changed lives, would still have the essential elements for development—knowledge, contacts, social networks, status, the accumulation of know-how and power.
Religious conflictsBecause those in the church hierarchy are men who defend their human and divine power, women’s emancipation in Malpaisillo has come up against church condemnation or has had to negotiate with religious groups and leaders. Some, like Lidia Mendoza, have found no other option then to break away completely. "I had to stop being an evangelical because to be one is to deny one’s own life. You can’t cut your hair, or wear tight skirts or pants or participate in any activity, even a book presentation, because for them these are pagan activities. When they spoke of me, they said that ‘the sister has been destroyed.’ They punished me by making me sit in the last bench, where the excommunicated sat, although they called it discipline. They made me sit there for several months, because you can only advance to the front bench if you behave the way they want you to. That’s why I left the evangelical church. It was very hard at first because I thought that God would not forgive me. Later I began to think that it would be better to ask God to forgive me in my home, although they think that God only listens in church."
Verónica Mayorga, of El Piñuelar, found herself in a less adverse situation, where she was able to create some space. "I heard about the Center from my mother. She was the one who started. I stayed home and did the housework and she went to meetings. I was 18. I read all the pamphlets that she brought home, but I didn’t express my opinion. Later they formed a youth group and invited us to a reflection. Two of us went. We were both young evangelicals. During the reflection, they taught us about our vulvas. We were shocked! I said to the others, ‘Lets get out of here. This is vulgarity and we’ll all go to hell.’ My mother continued to go to the meetings, but I stayed away for two years. After a while I decided to go to another reflection, and finally understood that it was good that they explained so clearly and positively about how our bodies work. I continued to go to meetings and they made some comments about me in church, but I only looked down. I figured that I should keep going to reflection because God gave us these bodies and everything that God gives us is good. If we talk about our hands and we know what they are for, why can’t we talk about our genitals, which give life and give us so much pleasure? Now I share what I’ve learned. Today I go to church and speak very carefully, but I speak, because if we take the space that is ours, defend our ideas and affirm our rights there’s no problem. They will respect us. That goes for men as well as women, ministers as well as priests. This is what I’ve learned here and this is what I teach others."
Never satisfied, always something newHaving come so far, the organized women of Malpaisillo are not content to rest on their laurels. The work they have created is already directly benefiting 10% of the municipality’s population, but they aren’t stopping. They are looking for ways to shore up what they have already achieved and expand into new areas. Eager for complementariness, for true empowerment, they are working with the municipal government on a project called Citizen Participation in Local Development, financed through an exchange program with Vitoria in the Basque Country.
Mertxe Brosa explains the origins, objectives and motivations behind this new project. "Until now we haven’t seen other NGOs we could form alliances with to work on the process of holistic empowerment in the communities. Since we don’t want to lose our profile as facilitators in the process of women’s empowerment, we have helped form an NGO made up of guys we can form an alliance with. They are from the communities, elected because of their record, their abilities and their attitudes. We are co-implementing a new four-year citizen participation project with them. With this project, we have fully entered all the communities. We’re working with the communities in coordination with the mayor’s commission on governability, with which we have a good relationship. Women from the Center, working with the municipal government, developed a proposal for using advocacy and citizen empowerment to democratize the electoral process on the community level. We met with no political polarization, just receptivity. Both Liberals and Sandinistas completely supported us, thanks to the Center’s prestige."
The new project has begun with a school to train both male and female leaders. A decade of work consolidating women leaders has demonstrated the problems that can arise, including abuse of power, delegation as a way to avoid personal responsibility, opportunism and the whole gamut of weaknesses that thrive in the present political culture. The communities often want to dump all the responsibility on one person. Both men and women leaders often suffer from that national affliction known as "presidentitis," using excessive authority and assuming all the power, decisions, contacts and the last word. The formation of leaders is crucial if Nicaragua is to break with the caudillo or political boss tradition and opt for a more participatory empowerment model, based on negotiations and far from the "all or nothing" attitude so characteristic of the national political culture, particularly in the rural areas.
This democratizing process will begin by designing election guidelines for the district committees. The first step will be to examine the past, resurrecting the history of the district committees. The embryo of these committees began in the eighties, and was further developed during Violeta Chamorro’s government, with the initiation of the decentralization process. This process aided many leaders to break with the top-down style of the Sandinista period, when the FSLN "sent down the line."
The current modus operandi of the district committees varies greatly depending on the municipality. Some mayors, out of administrative expediency or political affinity, assign the role of "mayor’s deputy" or "mini-mayor" to community committee leaders and use their committees to support the work of the municipal government. All too often however, the mayors have minimized the work of the district committees and district leaders, an attitude legitimized by the informality of the committees.
Without a doubt, NGOs have greatly helped strengthen the committees’ leadership role in local development. The NGOs generally seek out the leaders of these committees to be promoters for their projects. This form of respecting local networks, done with the best of intentions, has not been without adverse effects, however. It has often had the effect of further entrenching caudillo-style leaders, impeding rotation of leaders, feeding opportunism and re-enforcing the top-down tradition.
The goal of the Center’s ambitious citizen participation project is the ongoing accompaniment and formation of local leaders and the institutionalization of citizen participation. It is evident that this new line of work will deepen the impact of the Center’s work.
They have struggled for autonomyThe rhythm of the work of organizing women is one of gradual growth; it surges with training activities, is slowed down by fear, and is marked by the profundity of the transformation that occurs. To have been able to reach 800 women in 10 years, an average of 7 a month, is remarkable and gives an idea of this movement’s vitality. The Center’s democratic structure, with its collegial leadership style, has had a great influence on its development. The leaders have been able to avoid the pitfalls of maternalism, paternalism, verticalism and political bossism.
The Center’s Council of Directors is made up of seven women, each one responsible for a different area: construction, finance, production, administration, the clinic, organization, training, the scholarship program and citizen participation. They meet every two weeks, and their arduous work style impedes the concentration of power that was harmful to the Center in its early days. Internal struggles were poorly managed and were exploited at times by project funders and by the FSLN, to use the Center’s prestige to its electoral advantage. Getting beyond that stage, growing autonomously and reconstituting the center’s relationship with other entities involved various crises, a painful leadership purging process, a self-definition process of what the center is in relation to others such as the FSLN, the municipal government and the funders, and the adoption of a true alternative leadership style.
Independence and financial sustainabilitySeen from the outside, this style and strategy have allowed the Center to establish independent relationships with the NGOs, the municipal government and politicians of all stripes. The non-polarized political atmosphere in Malpaisillo, a zone untouched by the war in the eighties, makes an understanding with both Liberals and Sandinistas easy, and the mutations in the national political culture have contributed to this independence.
Several of the Center’s leaders, who have Sandinista roots and organizing experience from the eighties, are convinced that the degree of autonomy achieved by the movement would have been impossible when the FSLN was in power. The FSLN tended to co-opt grassroots initiatives and nullify alternatives that were not explicitly supportive of their orthodoxy. Local and special group interests were subordinated to the great national project. Specific demands such as gender equality disappeared from the agenda.
Today the Center enjoys not only independent relationships with the political parties, but also the luxury of choosing their funders. They reject the concept that "he who pays the piper calls the tune" and have turned it around, believing that those who work should be those who command. The Center decides who will support them on a basis of mutual respect and a shared vision of development. It is very comfortable and attractive to put money into already successful programs. Supporting the Center increases the donors’ prestige. Through its hard work, the Center has gained the power to negotiate from a position of strength.
To solidify this autonomy, the Center has established a series of small businesses to achieve financial self-sustainability little by little. These enterprises—investment in cattle, truck rental, sale of photocopies and of pumps, silos and irrigation systems—are beginning to generate serious income for the Center.
Slowly, but surelyA much more important factor than financial sustainability is human sustainability because it provides the basis and the rationale for the financial sustainability. This is a point that these visionary women never forget. Within the organization, one perceives the profound respect that exists for the process of personal change. Rather than say, "Look at this woman we made into a leader," they say, "Look at the leader we discovered." She was there all along, but just didn’t know it. The Center gives the women a space to develop what already exists within them and to go on from there. This say of doing things requires time, patience, imagination and agility in readjusting the load as one goes along. The road to women’s empowerment does not follow a straight line, nor is it smooth and wide. It is tortuous and full of curves, with backslides that force one to learn and improve along the way.
The Xochilt-Acalt Center, otherwise known as the Malpaisillo "clinic," questions the lack of imagination and courage of many development projects that incorporate a gender perspective but are designed from the outside, from above and far from the rural women themselves. In Malpaisillo they are inventing a design that is longer and much slower, but more real. The results are beginning to be noticed. Women no longer see themselves as invisible, mute, blind or sold out, and no longer permit others to see them as such.