Challenging Machismo in the Barrios
On a Thursday afternoon, the women overflow the small building which houses the March 8 Women's Center in one of Managua's poor neighborhoods, or barrios, in the northeastern part of the city. They fill the benches lining the walls of the meeting room, lean in the doorway and spill onto the front porch. Toothless grandmothers share the benches with young mothers cradling a child or two. Battered and abandoned wives, mothers who have lost sons to the struggle and grassroots feminist organizers exchange news as they wait for the center's weekly meeting to begin.
The March 8 Center, named in commemoration of International Women's Day, is one of 27 such centers around the country, 5 of them in the working class districts of Managua. These projects grew out of an internal shift within AMNLAE, the women's association, beginning in 1986. Until that time, AMNLAE's priorities, like those of the rest of society, were shaped by the contra war. Most of the organization's work was with the mothers of young soldiers and of revolutionary martyrs.
As it became clear that the contras were no longer a serious military threat, the need to reach new sectors and specifically address women's issues led to a new emphasis in AMNLAE. In each of the mass organizations, women's offices linked to AMNLAE were founded to speak to the demands of female workers, peasants, agricultural laborers, professionals and community activists. The women's centers which sprang up around the country took on the task of organizing the unorganized: the housewives, tortilla makers, seamstresses, market vendors, young women and mothers for whom the barrio is their primary frame of reference.
The March 8 Center began two and a half years ago as a group of eight to ten battered women who met together for mutual support in a room provided by a clothing cooperative. By May 1989, the project had grown and, supported by a group of Italian internationalists, had acquired a house in Barrio Freddy Herrera to use as an office and meeting space. The house serves the 42 barrios in Managua's District 6, an area that includes the bulk of the city's poor neighborhoods. One hundred and sixty activists do outreach in the fourteen neighborhoods the center works with most directly. Through them, word of mouth brings about 25 women a day to the center for free legal, medical, psychological and social services. They come seeking child support, divorce, an end to abuse, help with wanted and unwanted pregnancies, birth control information, counseling, social contact and relief from the pressures and isolation of the home.
But the March 8 Center, like others around the country, is much more than a service institution where women come to have others resolve their problems. "We are interested in educating women so that they can no longer be deceived," says Luz Marina Torres, coordinator of the center. The project offers workshops in the neighborhoods on family planning, health and sexuality, as well as social issues like legal rights, rape, abuse and prostitution. There are plans underway for a training program in nontraditional job skills.
Educational presentations often take creative forms. A group of center volunteers has developed a series of skits exploring issues of concern to women. One depicts a wife beaten repeatedly by a drunken husband. She finally takes matters into her own hands by having him arrested. The play always evokes the unmistakable laughter of recognition from the audience. It ends with reconciliation and a promise by the husband to reform, a reflection of AMNLAE's commitment to defend and preserve healthy families.
Taking ActionBeyond education, the project stresses organized action. The organizers in the barrios visit those who have used the center's services, urging them to get involved in other activities of benefit to women. On a neighborhood basis AMNLAE women have organized health and other workshops, pregnant women's clubs, associations of midwives, soy nutrition centers, preschools and support groups for mothers of heroes and martyrs. Every Thursday, women are invited to a meeting at the center. There, between 30 and 80 women from the barrios, activists and newcomers, old and young, raise problems and concerns to be addressed by the group.
Teresa Chamorro, who now volunteers at the house, describes her first Thursday meeting, "I saw that people came to talk about problems like abuse and the women made decisions and they took everyone into account, whether or not they had an education. I felt the solidarity among women and the desire to help others; there wasn't any backbiting or gossip or anything like that. I told myself, from here on, this is my place."
It was at one of these Thursday meetings when Fátima Solórzano's case was discussed. Fatima, 33, had separated from her husband six years ago when he took up with another woman and began psychologically abusing her and their two children. In lengthy court battles, she divorced him and won child custody. Her former compañero, however, refused to move out of the house, claiming it as his, despite the fact that they had bought it together and legally ownership would go along with child custody. Lacking the means to move elsewhere, Fatima remained under the same roof with her ex-husband, suffering severe harassment and humiliation from him and his girlfriend who lived next door. After six years, Fatima was unable to hold a job. Her voice quavered, she cried easily and she could talk of little else but her troubled situation.
At the March 8 house, Fatima joined a psychological self-help group and got assistance from a lawyer. Equally important, the women at the center gave her support in the fight to keep her home and to penalize her ex-husband for the psychic injuries he has caused her. The women wrote letters to the courts, contacted the media and gathered support in the neighborhood. They went en masse to the court to argue her case. Though she won on the issue of the house, her claim of psychological damage is still pending. As Nicaraguan law does not yet recognize this kind of abuse, winning will require further mobilization on the part of the women's movement. "We're not going to quit until that man leaves her in peace," said coordinator Torres.
From Passivity to ParticipationThe process of helping women abandon their passivity and develop independence is a long one, according to center leaders. "It's not easy to get women out of the home," said Torres, explaining that machismo on the part of the husband often prevents women from participating. Then too, the fact that the women she works with typically have between five and seven children limits their involvement. The economic situation that forces many women to stay with abusive partners also affects the center. The coordinator receives a small salary—$15 a month—from AMNLAE; the other eight full-time workers at the center are volunteers who originally came to the house looking for help. The project receives solidarity donations, but, in a time of austerity, has no regular source of funding for its activities.
The March 8 Center serves women of all political persuasions; no one is asked what party she favors when she comes for help. Still, activists at the house make no bones about their preference for the Sandinistas and many are involved in the campaign at the local level. "[UNO candidate] Violeta would send us all back to the home, after we just spent ten years struggling to get out of it," said Torres. In her view, only the Sandinistas have given women the opportunities they have for development and defense of their rights.
But women's support for the FSLN is not uncritical. "Some of the compañeros who are directing state institutions really don't care about women's liberation," said Torres, explaining that they often make it difficult for women to take time off to attend workshops claiming their absence affects production. The laws themselves often leave something to be desired. The women's center has sent proposals to the National Assembly that would legalize abortion and establish severe penalties for rape and abuse. A number of the center's grassroots activists also attended a meeting of all sectors of AMNLAE with Sandinista leaders to put forth women's demands for inclusion in the party platform.
Active political participation is a long way from the passive life of a woman trapped in the home and overwhelmed by her own personal and economic problems. Fatima is one of the women who have succeeded in making that step. No longer sitting on the sidelines, when last seen she was engrossed in a discussion about the concept of democracy during a workshop on politics held recently at the center. Afterwards, she reflected on her experience. "The women's movement fights for the rights of women. Marginalized, exploited, humiliated, blackmailed women who have no voice come here to get support. We don't feel alone like we did under Somocismo when what counted was money. If Somoza was still around, I'd be out on the street with my two children.”