The Experiences and Achievements of the Women’s Network against Violence
The executive secretary of the
Women’s Network against Violence
for the past eight years recounts the story of
this branch of the Nicaraguan women’s movement,
which has accumulated valuable
experiences and achievements.
The Women’s Network against Violence was created in 1992 during the national meeting of “Women United in Diversity.” Between the FSLN’s electoral defeat in 1990 and that meeting, the whole country had been really waking up to feminist proposals for creating women’s agendas. By 1992, we were ready to put a priority on thinking about the problems facing women in Nicaragua and proposing what we could all start doing about it.
Five women’s networks were created during that national meeting. They included a health network, now known as the María Cavallieri Women’s Health Network; the women’s economy network, which later became the Las Bujías Association of Women Professionals for Democracy; the Women’s Education Network, which is currently prioritizing adult education, particularly in rural areas; and the Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights Network, which still works in that area. The other network to emerge from the meeting was the Women’s Network against Violence.
1992: Breaking the silenceWe were initially a relatively small group of around 20 organizations willing to do two to four activities a year and to design leaflets to inform women what to do and where to go if they were suffering violent situations. In 1992, we promoted the first national campaign against violence, under the slogan “Breaking the silence.” This came several years after people had first started to criticize physical violence against women in their home. In fact, there had been a great deal of publicity around a video on the problem of domestic violence in 1988. To break the silence in our 1992 campaign we wanted to talk openly about this situation and get society to identify it as a major problem. The longest-serving members of the Network remember that we went around daubing messages such as “The man who lives here beats his woman” on the walls of houses in the Schick housing subdivision. In our desire to bring the problem out into the open, we painted messages, organized a number of forums, broadcast radio messages and TV spots and marched through Managua wearing white ribbons, all aimed at denouncing violence against women and putting the issue up for discussion. We effectively broke the silence.
1993: What are the answers?Over the years, we have always organized our campaigns around November 25, the UN international day for the elimination of violence against women. In 1993, we took another step forward, under the slogan “Breaking the silence… and what are the answers?” We wanted to remind people of the problem and encourage women to denounce it, but we also demanded proposals and solutions from the state and other civil society arenas. That year saw the creation of the first special police stations for women and children and the passing of Law 150, which penalized sexual crimes, although not in the way that we wanted.
By making abuse, violence and other sexual crimes “public order” crimes that the state had to follow up even if the women involved had not filed charges, Law 150 effectively determined that penalizing would no longer be the sole decision of the judge involved. The problem was that the law also classified homosexual relations as “sodomy” and proposed penalizing any public expression of such relations, which the law classified as going “against nature.”
1994: Life without violenceThe 1994 campaign proclaimed, “I want to live without violence,” and marked a new stage in our development. For the first time we produced a badge, which was widely distributed. I think that was the most beautiful campaign the Network has organized. Among our personal, collective and political achievements, we managed to interest young people of both sexes in the issue. We were also able to knock down a few bricks in that wall of incommunicativeness that had previously existed between women’s organizations and young people. It was quite a wall. I remember being asked if I was a feminist during the revolutionary years of the 1980s when I was an 18- or 19-year-old student leader at university. I said no, I didn’t want anything to do with that, because women already shared power, we were able to demonstrate what we could do and if we pushed ourselves we could achieve anything we wanted... Quite a speech! What I didn’t realize was that besides our own capacities, what gave us the chance to occupy posts and helped some of us create a bit of space for ourselves in public leadership was the fact that the men were away fighting in the war during those years.
During that year’s campaign we organized a national network of petition centers to demand the Nicaraguan state’s ratification of the OAS-sponsored Belem do Para Convention, which proclaimed that states in the Americas were obliged to prevent, punish and eradicate all forms of violence against women. We collected around 30,000 signatures in a month thanks to the voluntary work of thousands of men and women, particularly students, who kept turning up at the Network’s office—at the time a small room in the Puntos de Encuentro Foundation—to turn in their sheets of signatures and pick up empty sheets and badges. While they may not have known the convention’s exact words, the population clearly picked up on the idea that they were signing to ensure the existence of laws aimed at stopping the many forms of violence exercised against women.
The badge was an important way to raise consciousness. A badge bearing the message “I want to live without violence” pinned onto a shirt or a student rucksack so it travels around with its owner is more effective than a sticker on a car or a poster on a wall. If it’s on your person, it both reveals and motivates a personal commitment. The badge helped get young people of both sexes interested in the messages, proposals and analyses produced by the women’s movement related to violence against women.
1995: No excuses for violenceThousands of people participated in the campaign that year and dozens of them wanted to find out how to join the Women’s Network against Violence. In April 1995, four months after we mounted that beautiful national campaign and encouraged by the results, we decided to capitalize on the interest and enthusiasm generated and organized a national meeting on the issue of violence against women with the participation of all the organizations and people involved in the campaign. It was during that meeting that we decided to open up the Network’s doors. We would no longer be around 20 organizations exclusively made up of women or people that called themselves feminist. From then on, any committed organization or woman in agreement with the Network’s mission and objectives could participate. The only thing we asked, in addition to this commitment, was for the organizations that joined the Network to send a female representative.
From that year, we started to reflect on what it meant to be a network and geared ourselves up for another great effort: demanding a specific law to penalize domestic violence. In August 1995, three or four months after organizing the national meeting, we decided to draft legislation the way we wanted it. We spent the rest of the year working on it and consulting different women’s organizations throughout the country. We also decided that the year’s campaign would revolve around collecting signatures to demand the National Assembly’s approval of the law.
The work related to the law generated great internal debates. I’d like to share at least one with you. We had two possibilities. We could work either for a new and specific law or to reform the existing penal code. A specific law penalizing domestic violence would have to go further than punishment, it would have to include prevention and attention policies, and clearly define women as the subject to be protected and strengthened. A Penal Code reform would simply introduce new articles into the code to prevent and penalize domestic violence. There was a great deal of debate over which path to take. The problem with a specific and very complete law was that it might be restricted to the paper it was written on, without resources ever being found to implement it, as had happened with the Code for Children and Adolescents. The option of reforming the Penal Code would provide an immediate instrument for judges, because while they may not know or have a copy of certain specific laws, they would be lost without a copy of the Penal Code, which is their Bible.
On the other hand, banking on a Penal Code reform to punish intra-family violence might have led to women getting sent to prison as well, because women also commit violence against boys and girls at home. Recognition of this reality also generated a great deal of debate and reflection, because while we believe that intra-family violence is rooted in violence against women, we also know that women are responsible for transmitting forms of control through violence. This collective, guilt-relieving reflection about our behavior at home helped us find a way to deconstruct such practices. The young women involved in the Network played an important role in these debates. Finally, we decided to draft reforms and additions to the Penal Code.
The Network’s 1995 campaign ran under the slogan, “There are no excuses for violence,” and we had to swallow hard because we knew that deep down the message could also lead to women going to jail. It was a risk we decided to run. We worked on the draft between November 1995 and August 1996. By then, starting with the national meeting, the Network consisted of almost 90 organizations and dozens of individual women, although we have never tried to count them all.
1996: The legislative gameWe wanted the National Assembly to pass our law before the end of the 1996 legislative period, the last one of Violeta Chamorro’s administration. There would be elections in November 1996 and we didn’t know what kind of National Assembly we would end up with the following year. What we did know was that there were representatives in the existing Assembly who were committed to the issue. By the time we started collecting signatures to back up our bill we had at our disposal the first statistics on the incidence of violence in Nicaragua. These were provided by a pioneering research study titled “Candies in Hell,” which involved Las Bujías, the Network, the University of León and the University of Umea in Sweden. For the first time, we could scientifically back up our perceptions and quote figures. For the first time, we knew that one in two Nicaraguan women had been physically maltreated by their partner, not in their childhood. And this figure did not even include psychological violence. We knew that 30% of Nicaraguan women had been hit during their pregnancy and that one in every four women and one in every five men had been sexually abused during their childhood. The research also showed that it was not precisely unemployed men or those living in extreme poverty who beat or maltreated the most, but rather men who worked in the informal sector, and not necessarily those with the lowest income levels.
The information provided by this research gave us extra ammunition in our yearlong campaign to get the National Assembly to pass our law. This positive linking of a research study and a legal struggle turned out to be an exemplary experience in Latin America. We even received special recognition because it demonstrated how research can be used as an instrument for bringing about change and influencing public policy, providing an immediate benefit to the study’s target population.
The draft we presented to the National Assembly established 11 protection and security measures for women experiencing situations of violence, as well as the right of all women to request the measures. This didn’t necessarily mean that the aggressor would go to jail, but it did imply that the judge could order the confiscation of his firearms or knives, prohibit him from approaching the woman’s house or place of work and punish him for engaging in telephone harassment. We also proposed recognizing psychological injury as a crime. This represented an innovatory advance, as the Nicaraguan state would have to recognize that people are more than just a physical body and a reputation. Up to then the Nicaraguan state only penalized physical injuries and damage to a person’s reputation. We wanted the state also to pledge to protect its citizens’ mental health and emotional well being.
We further proposed eliminating from the Penal Code the crimes of illicit union and adultery, which dated back to the end of the 19th century. They were not only antiquated but also extremely inequitable, inasmuch as only women could be accused of and punished for adultery. A man could accuse his wife of infidelity on mere suspicion, while he was not only subject to a lesser punishment for the crime of illicit union but in his case it had to be proved that he had set up another household, and even then it was only punishable if it was within two blocks of his first home! In effect, a man had to go way out of his way to be punishable by imprisonment. Over the years, this definition of adultery was frequently used against women and many lawyers managed to free male aggressors by arguing that the woman had committed adultery without having to prove such an accusation.
Our bill also proposed the legal principle of protecting family patrimony and recognition of violence among family members as an aggravating circumstance in which the maximum sentence should be applied. Up to then, if a crime was committed against a member of the same family it was seen as an extenuating circumstance and the punishment was the minimum sentence prescribed by law for that crime.
After a great deal of work, effort and pressure on our part, the National Assembly’s Justice Commission accepted our draft, but only after eliminating all of the above proposals, leaving us with just the protection measures; our legislation had been mutilated. So we held an assembly of a large number of women to think over what to do: should we take it or leave it? Should we go to the National Assembly to fight for our original draft law following the Justice Commission’s unfavorable decision, or let the National Assembly pass what it wanted to, leaving it quite clear that this legal changeling was not our baby? We spent the whole day in intense debate and finally decided to take on the National Assembly through a fax and letter campaign to all of the representatives. We used the newspapers to publish a model letter to send and the public responded, giving the representatives’ faxes a major workout. At the same time, we set up a solidarity network involving the secretaries and women police officers working within the National Assembly itself. They got us passes to enter the National Assembly precincts whenever we wanted. The women from the food bar gave us free lunch so we could stay on if we were lobbying. We worked in shifts, forming groups so that every day a group of women was within the National Assembly precincts pressuring and reminding people of the issue. We were swimming against the current, looking to convince the representatives to vote for a version of the law with minority support, because the parliamentary majority was supporting the mutilated one. The arguments employed by the representatives were worth hearing: “How can you prove psychological injury? How can you demonstrate that a husband is responsible for the nervous state of a hysterical woman?”
We managed to convince congresswomen from the UNO and FSLN benches to form a coalition, overcoming their party differences. Miriam Argüello was a key element in convincing other National Opposition Union (UNO) representatives of the need to classify psychological injury as a crime. She told her National Assembly colleagues that when she had been in prison in the 1980s the Sandinistas hadn’t touched a hair on her head, but that the interrogations and taunting to which she said she had been subjected had damaged her mental health. She argued that if there had been a law classifying this kind of crime, she would have charged them and several would have been in prison. This argument made a real impression on the UNO representatives and convinced them that what we were demanding wasn’t a Sandinista law, because nobody could accuse Miriam of being pro-Sandinista at the time.
When it came to eliminating the crimes of adultery and illicit union from the Penal Code, Sandinista congresswoman Leticia Herrera helped us by presenting a counterproposal to eliminate just the crime of illicit union and apply the crime of adultery to men just as it was established for women. Faced with the possibility of being accused and sentenced because their wives simply suspected they were involved in extramarital relations, the male representatives backed off their discourse that women were the pillars of the family and their good example had to be guaranteed rather than expose themselves to the resulting danger. They rejected Leticia’s motion and the majority voted to eliminate both illicit union and adultery from the code.
In the end, the only thing we did not manage to rescue from our draft was the protection of family patrimony, because it was argued that this corresponded to civil law, had to do with property and was just not technically possible. Law 230 presenting reforms and additions to the Penal Code was finally passed almost unanimously on August 13, 1996.
The law recognized intra-family violence as a crime against public order, established protection measures and the crime of psychological injury and eliminated the crimes of illicit union and adultery from the Penal Code. In December of the same year, the Health Ministry recognized intra-family violence as a serious public health problem in Nicaragua by means of a ministerial agreement.
Enormous victories and lots left to doSo in just two years—1994 to 1996—we achieved many things. We had carved out a space for the issue, as well as getting an international convention ratified, a law passed and a ministerial agreement issued. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the legal justification for our bill was the Belem do Para Convention, assumed and ratified by the Nicaraguan state as the result of our signature-collecting efforts. This concrete linking of international and national affairs was a great lesson for us. There were a number of world conferences at the time, including the 1994 Cairo conference and the 1995 Beijing conference on women. We were able to use Law 230 to bring the lives of Nicaraguan women closer to these great international colossi, proving that such events and international conferences can represent something more than just meetings of haughty ladies in ties, involving expensive trips and hotels. It showed that international commitments could have a great affect on our lives, both positive and negative. In Nicaragua we saw how in just a year the Belem do Para Convention translated into a national law that immediately put an important tool into the hands of judges and lawyers. It was an enormous victory.
Everything we have done and are still doing in terms of information and mass communication to raise society’s awareness of violence against women is financially guaranteed by international cooperation and by Network volunteers, as their voluntary work also represents a form of financing. We still don’t have any state support. The state has not allocated any budgetary resources to a single campaign related to this issue, although on November 25, 2002, the Network did ask President Bolaños to commit himself to a massive campaign against violence towards women.
We have to recognize that we are still in diapers as far as getting our messages across to the rural population is concerned. Urban women receive much more information and support from the Network than rural women. We want to prioritize radio and the rural world, but we’ve got a long way to go. At the same time we aren’t giving up what has characterized us so far, although we have stopped producing badges because of the expense involved. We now produce cheaper things such as stickers and calendars. The campaign for 2003 has the slogan “I’m a female citizen; I demand to live without violence!” The calendars are very important for the rural communities because they take new messages into the households. From 1995, we agreed to publish nearly all of our materials in Spanish, English and Miskito, in order to reach the Atlantic Coast populations. One donor asked, “If a Miskito reader also reads Spanish, why go to all that effort?” We answered that the Network was helping to reflect Nicaragua’s extensive cultural patrimony.
1997: First strategic planIn 1997 we made an incipient attempt to block the creation of a new Ministry of the Family due to its ideological precepts, but all we achieved was to maintain the autonomy of the existing Nicaraguan Women’s Institute (INIM) within the new Ministry. That same year, the Network came up with its first strategic plan. Over a hundred women from 118 organizations met up to reflect on and define a three-year plan for 1997 to 2000. The same year we also organized work commissions. The Network currently has nine commissions, some of which have a fair degree of autonomy, managing their own resources, establishing their own activities agenda and having their own specific work plans. One of these is the Commission of Women with Faith, which brings together women from both Protestant and Catholic churches. They mounted a 1996 campaign with the slogan “Violence is not the word of God. In God’s name stop the violence!” and collected the signatures of hundreds of ministers, several Catholic priests and the Bishop of Bluefields. They also produced a guide for Christian reflection on violence against women and have held several ecumenical acts. Another is the Legal Commission, which was created to draw up Law 230 and has remained operational to propose new legislation, oversee its application and deal with everything related to legal issues and justice.
A separate commission follows up the work of the special National Police Stations, or Comisarías, for Women and Children. Two years ago, the Network became an official counterpart of the Comisaría project, which has since been administrated by a tripartite board consisting of representatives from the National Police, INIM and the Women’s Network against Violence. These three bodies must jointly agree to any administrative decision. This was a great achievement for us. Following a strong lobbying process we were able to escape from being pigeonholed as a service provision center, a collection of places where women receive psychological and legal attention, and to get recognition as political subjects with something to say and contributions to offer to society as a whole. The success of jointly implementing the Comisaría project generated new reflections about our relationship with the state, although we still haven’t come up with any clear answers to the questions we have subsequently raised. The fact is that in a relatively short time we have gone from painting “The man who lives here beats his woman” on the streets to jointly implementing a project with the government. What does this mean for a social movement and what gains and costs does it imply? This is an ongoing debate in the Network.
The Health Commission has trained a large proportion of the health personnel from both women’s organizations and state institutions. This willingness to train public officials has also generated debate. Are we going to continue doing the state’s work for it and negotiating resources to do what the state should be doing, such as training its nurses, doctors and officials from its Local Comprehensive Health Care Systems? We feel like we’re in a balancing act between our ethical responsibility and the role that actually corresponds to us, between national political analysis and local reality. We can see quite clearly that if María Castillo in Chinandega gets the possibility of going to train health personnel from a hospital up there she’s not going to miss out on it. It’s quite clear-cut in Chinandega, but it’s not so easy in Managua, where the debate over the wisdom of continuing to do the state’s work is still open. The Network’s Methodological Commission was created to facilitate such debates and our strategic planning processes.
1998: Zoilamérica’s case Another turning point in the Network’s history came in 1998, due to both Zoilamérica Narváez’s denunciation in March and the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch in October. Zoilamérica’s charge rocked the whole country and hit the Network very hard. Many of the Network’s women had emerged from Sandinismo and we had more or less close links with the FSLN, so the charge touched our hearts, our feelings, and we all went through a process of personal and collective grieving. It was an acid test for us. The time had come to put into practice what we thought and publicly stated about violence against women. If we asked a woman to recognize that her husband was abusing her daughter, despite the love she might feel for that man, we also had to face up to the facts. And it wasn’t easy because for many of us Daniel Ortega was like a member of our family, someone who without ever having physically set foot in our homes was there through a picture, a place in our hearts or our personal, family or political histories. We knew what the charge meant politically, but at the same time we were indignant and going through a great deal of pain. Some Sandinistas think that the country’s feminists wanted to cut down Daniel Ortega. That wasn’t true. I personally experienced many sleepless and tearful nights.
was another turning point
But there was more to it in my case. Thousands of women like Zoilamérica take a long time to denounce the abuse they’ve experienced, and I’m one of them. I took part in the Literacy Crusade when I was only 11 years old. In the community I was sent to, a 13- or 14-year-old boy fondled me when nobody was around, and I just froze; I didn’t know what to do or say. Soon I started to develop a nervous tic, uncontrollably shaking my head as if to say “no.” When the Crusade was over, my mother took me to a psychiatrist and I lied, telling him that I’d lost the school grades I was supposed to take home and that I’d been very moved by the Crusade’s closing act… and I never talked about it again. Never. I didn’t think of it as sexual abuse. I had very little information about sexuality and I was afraid. It embarrassed me and I thought that my mother would punish me if I told her, that she’d think I’d provoked it. I never talked about it. I had that tic for months and I didn’t want to wear a skirt for four years. Eighteen years later, a few months after Zoilamérica’s denunciation, I was sitting with members of my family and my brother said, “Why’s she only talking about it now? I think it’s false, it’s impossible...” Mom replied that it was possible, and told us that she’d lived through a situation of abuse and that she’d never told anyone about it before. Then I talked for the first time: “Do your remember that nervous tic I had?” And I told them what had happened. Then my mom told us about another relative who had been involved in a situation of abuse. So suddenly we knew about three experiences of sexual abuse in the family that we’d never talked about. It might be hard for people to understand why Zoilamérica took so long to talk about it, but it is almost impossible to understand how Daniel Ortega could act with complete impunity for so many years, how everyone saw and tolerated it without laying down any ethical limits.
Despite our collective grief, we had to draw strength from our weakness and face up to the challenge presented by Zoilamérica’s denunciation. What were we to do? At that time, the Network could have fallen apart. We could have started to apply the “feminometer” of commitment to the cause, in which those who believed her could remain in and those who didn’t would be ousted. But no. What we did was the same we do with all women we work with. We don’t see them as superwomen, we realize that they need to go through different processes to recognize, get back up on their feet and get out of that particular situation. We also needed a process that would help us assimilate that denunciation. So we started to reflect on violence, on sexual abuse, to accompany each other in the personal process implied by accepting what had happened, to share information about sexual abuse and its conditions. We also decided to hold a political debate. At the end, the 100 women who participated agreed that the Network supports all women who make denunciations; we believe them and accompany them in their personal reconstruction process and their demand for justice. That’s as far as the agreement went. This meant that the Network would not launch a campaign to demand that Daniel Ortega be stripped of his immunity, be removed as secretary general of the FSLN or be stopped from running for President.
Since then, we have accompanied Zoilamérica’s personal process and on several occasions have demanded her right to justice. We have spoken up when things are said about this case that contradict the principles we have defended ever since the birth of the Network, for example when people say that such things shouldn’t be talked about, or that sexual abuse perpetrated by one of the country’s most recognized leaders is not such a big deal. Getting involved in the debate, recognizing our limits and personal processes, speaking out when things said to save this particular leader conflict with our work and trying to respect the agreement we reached when the charge was made was what saved the Network at such a delicate moment. And as some of our companions couldn’t or didn’t want to participate more actively in this case, those who did formed a Zoilamérica Support Commission, politically backed by the Network, though not necessarily by all of the Network’s members.
1998 also brought us Hurricane Mitch. Our campaign for that year pronounced, “The hurricane didn’t sweep away our right to live without violence.” We organized a new commission—the Psychosocial Commission—in response to the hurricane. Along with many other organizations, we collected money to send food and medicine to those affected, but we prioritized helping heal the invisible wounds. The commission started to develop healing, reconstruction and empowerment processes among the affected populations, accompanying the communities in their recognition of situations of violence in the shelters, where women and girls were being beaten and abused. That commission also accompanied women in Masaya following the 2000 earthquake and El Salvador in the wake of its 2001 earthquakes. It is still working today.
1999-2000: Resolving internal democracyMitch also provoked another internal crisis that nearly broke us apart. It had to do with our internal functioning, with decision-making processes. Who makes decisions in a Network involving 90 individuals or representatives of organizations? If the Minister of Education calls us one day and says, “I want to sign an agreement with you, but I want to sign it tomorrow,” and there’s no time for the 90 of us reach an agreement, who decides? Do I do so as the executive secretary because of the time limit, or do I phone around? Does that mean that people without phones don’t get consulted? Or maybe only those with access to e-mail will get to have a say. Who makes which decisions?
Given the urgent situations thrown up by Mitch, decisions were getting made without consulting everyone. They may have been right, but the fact was that democracy was getting swept under the carpet. We decided to invest resources, people and efforts to resolving this problem. We considered it a worthwhile political and economic investment, because if we didn’t have internal democracy, we might end up drafting proposals and bills and influencing policies while being internally divided. This debate lasted over a year, between February 1999 and June 2000. And it concluded with the creation of a 13-member Coordinating and Executive Commission. Half of its members must come from outside Managua and it must include young people. This commission has the mandate to make quick decisions and define functions and must be guided by the principles of horizontality, participation, information, democracy and diversity.
We also defined decision-making procedures. After debating different positions and reaching a decision, we always ask, “Who can survive with this decision?” “Surviving” implies that while what was decided may not have been what everyone wanted, it’s close enough. And if someone says, “I can’t survive,” it means that this is a matter of principle for her and we all have to continue looking for a more common position until we reach an agreement in which nobody feels excluded. It’s a slow procedure that has led to us missing out on some important opportunities. Sometimes international cooperation, the government or liaisons from other women’s bodies don’t understand this way of going about things. Nonetheless, it’s a valuable procedure, through which we are trying to build a new arena and a new way of exercising democratic participation to deconstruct the myths and taboos that women can’t agree on anything, that we fight among ourselves a lot, that our arenas are tremendously aggressive and that it’s terrible to work in them.
2001: Dealing with femicideIn 2001 we started having problems with the police. That year we decided to get involved—from Nicaragua—in a campaign triggered by the murder of over 30 women in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. The campaign aimed to spotlight what is known as “femicide”: murder committed specifically against women. These murders are not just linked to domestic or intra-family violence, but to what is known as “gender violence,” or violence committed against a woman just because she’s a woman, regardless of who she is or who the aggressor might be. We started the campaign in November and the police decided not to accompany us. In December of that year, Scarlett López was murdered in Managua in a horrendous crime. This and other events showed us that although we might have the right laws and institutions, there is still a lack of political will, which is what we are currently targeting. The police are willing to receive charges of intra-family violence through the Comisarías, listen to wives, take measures to protect them, but they won’t go any further; they don’t want us to complicate things, to demand any more reflection.
At least two recent murders of women—Scarlett plus Paula in Malpaisillo—could have been prevented, but though the police were warned, they failed to act on the information because the victims were women. It was the same principle in Posoltega during Hurricane Mitch, when local mayor Felícitas Zeledón kept requesting help, fearing that the interminable rains would produce a landslide on a nearby volcano. But because she was a woman, President Alemán called her “hysterical” and failed to react to avoid the tragedy. We want the fact that a woman warns about the danger to be considered an aggravating circumstance rather than the mitigating circumstance that it currently represents. We don’t want to be taken less notice of any longer, so that when a woman talks people understand that the emergency is all the more pressing. That’s why we’ve chosen the slogan “I’m a female citizen; I demand to live without violence!” for this year’s campaign. Nobody’s doing me a favor, it’s something I’m demanding because it’s my right, because I’m a female citizen, because the institutions are obliged to protect me.
1998-2002: Incursion into national policy circlesIn 1998 the Network was one of the founding members of the Civil Coordinator for the Emergency and Reconstruction and we participated in the follow-up of the Stockholm accords, seeking to guarantee women’s health and the eradication of violence against women, which were among the indicators established for the Central American governments. Following Stockholm we started to dialogue and negotiate with other government bodies and began pushing a women’s agenda further than both the state and civil society, actors with whom we had worked with up to then. For years, we had prioritized talking to INIM, and had also talked to the police and the Health Ministry and to a much lesser extent the Ministry of the Family, due to the whole debate still raging around that ministry. We never talked with the Ministry of Education at all during the reign of Humberto Belli, who placed notices at the ministry gates declaring “The presence of NGOs is strictly forbidden in this center.” But things were opening up and we had to bring the issue of violence into the open, treating it as a national public policy problem and not just one of those issues lumped together as “social” policy and fobbed off on the government’s social Cabinet.
We have yet to evaluate our subsequent incursion into national policy. In 1998 the state created the National Anti-Violence Commission and a National Plan against Violence started to be drawn up. We began to increase our range of advocacy and proposals by participating in national plans, inter-sectoral commissions involving government and civil society bodies and the Civil Coordinator’s national efforts to dialogue with the state. In January 2002, at the beginning of the Bolaños administration, this process culminated with the inclusion of our network in the National Economic and Social Planning Council (CONPES), where Matilde Lindo from Puerto Cabezas and I are the representatives and we try to use our participation to represent Nicaraguan women as a whole. Being recognized as political dialoguers in this national debate forum aimed at influencing the design of national policies has opened up new debates within the Network. In 2002 we started to talk about corruption. Are we going to open ourselves up to this and other national issues, will we make pronouncements about the Free Trade Area of the Americas or Plan Puebla-Panama?
Today’s challengesThere has been a big change in the context of the participation of social movements in Nicaragua in recent years, and we have done some debating within the Network on our incursion into national arenas. The fact is that our participation still reflects our individual lives, in which we go out to work and come home to wash the dishes and clothes. In the Network we go out to work in national arenas and come back to do “domestic chores.” We’re still working on two fronts. Although our dialogue with the government has been recognized and is no longer restricted to discussion of domestic violence, we still find it difficult and costly to prepare ourselves for national politics—allocating resources, creating mechanisms or having teams of colleagues draw up proposals and produce ongoing analyses that provide us with feedback. Much of our work is still based on perception, opportunity, a way with words, but we haven’t managed to create an “apparatus” that guarantees efficiency and capacity. We still haven’t exploited all of the intellectual capacity within the women’s movement and the Network itself. Perhaps this is because we’ve been closed in on ourselves for such a long time, building inwardly like ants. So now its time to learn to work outwardly.
Another of our challenges has to do with our fears and all kinds of insecurities. Do we really represent all women or just the Network? Are we speaking for the whole women’s movement? What can we do to encapsulate the opinion of all women and not just speak about what we think is happening? We feel like tightrope walkers, maybe because we’re more aware of the democracy we want to build, the process involved and the commitment we feel. Other men and women with a more traditional way of doing politics are perhaps walking on solid bridges, but we always feel like we’re walking a tightrope.
Other challenges include our local networks. How can we strengthen and develop our local expressions? We know this requires the investment of resources and time as well as a political investment. And though we’ve participated in all the international women’s conferences, we need to build and rebuild links with women’s organizations and movements from all over the world, especially Latin America, without the mediation of international cooperation or UN institutions, as is currently the case. We also need to write down the Network’s history, drawing on our great verbal memory. We did, however, conduct an impact evaluation of the Network’s 10 years working to influence public opinion and policies, titled “Against Violence: From Awareness and Denunciation to Laws, from Laws to Action. Influencing the State without the Mediation of Political Parties.”
2003: Our biggest test so farAt the end of 2002, a year in which we were involved in so many new arenas, we found ourselves starting a new debate: how do we widen the range of our work to move from domestic, intra-family and sexual violence to gender violence? This involves influencing the violence exercised against women just for being women in the private, public, institutional, political and social spheres. It implies talking about labor violence and the ideological proposals transmitted by the state, which represent institutional aggression. We are currently involved in this debate, which is very intense.
We were discussing the resources we need to push ahead with our strategy, empower ourselves as the new social subject we’ve become and capitalize on the prestige and experience we’ve achieved over the past years, when the story of Rose—the nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl who became pregnant after being raped in Costa Rica—reached our ears and hearts. We decided to act. We went to Costa Rica and brought her back to Nicaragua then accompanied her and her parents until her pregnancy was terminated. It was a complicated affair, involving challenges of all kinds. Although several colleagues sensed from the moment we heard what had happened to Rose that this would be an emblematic case, I never imagined the international repercussions it would have. The fact is that the violation of women’s human rights is becoming increasingly important news among the global information traffic. As far as we’re concerned, this story was a triumph because we were able to save that little girl’s life.
Rose was our most recent test, our biggest one so far. In fact, it’s possible to talk of the Network before and after Rose. The debates we’ve had over the years were an enormous help in allowing us to open our hearts and commit ourselves to helping and accompanying Rose and saving her life. Over the years, the Network has done exactly that with a great many women. Unlike other coordinating bodies, we’ve never contented ourselves with politically influencing institutions, laws, public policies and the media. We’re passionate about eradicating violence and have committed ourselves on countless occasions to real women and children who have suffered from it, most of which have remained anonymous and were not picked up by the media. We weren’t just exploiting a “lucky break” with Rose, we simply continued on our chosen path and were able to put our accumulated experience into practice. We never doubted for a moment that we had to side with Rose, a survivor of sexual abuse, and her mother and father, who were demanding their daughter’s right to life. And we did it, facing new obstacles, taking on state and ecclesiastical institutions. We were able to exploit the successes that we had experienced accompanying other women and to avoid past mistakes. We discovered new elements of violence against women and the sexual abuse of women and girls and were able to reveal them to society. Because Rose became pregnant after being raped, we could show society a concrete case of the terrible consequences of sexual abuse: in this case forced pregnancy. Rose’s case allowed the Women’s Network against Violence to present itself to the whole of Nicaraguan society as we really are and as we want to be: a group of organized women committed to the victims of violence and ready to face the final consequences for it. With Rose, we set a precedent that favors women’s lives. And we are celebrating that precedent because it opens the way to saving the lives of many more people like her.