Becoming Visible Women in Nicaragua
It has been called the "second revolution" and the "revolution within the revolution." In the last two decades, revolutionary movements throughout the world have broadened their conceptualization of what women's emancipation means and how it can be attained in a revolutionary society. In Nicaragua's case, one can trace a historical continuity from the first Sandinista political statements on women (1969) and their actions during the insurrectionary years, through the post-triumph period, including the new Constitution and the FSLN's 1987 proclamation on women.
The Nicaraguan case has been characterized by the FSLN's stated political recognition of the need for women's liberation within the larger revolutionary process, accompanied by a concrete and ongoing struggle within the revolutionary process by women themselves. Women in Nicaragua are struggling, and have struggled, not in opposition to the revolution, but as an integral part of it. Thus they have been instrumental in defining the direction that the revolution has taken with regard to women.
The importance of the Nicaraguan experience is that it gives us a model of women's rights being won, not in an adversarial position to the government, but as part of larger political and social changes taking place throughout society. Furthermore, Nicaraguan women have made significant progress in improving their status in the last eight years, a remarkable feat in any context, but even more unusual given the reality of the ongoing contra war.
When the FSLN issued its first revolutionary political program in 1969, one point referred specifically to the emancipation of women: "The Sandinista people's revolution will abolish the odious discrimination that women have been subjected to compared to men; it will establish economic, political and cultural equality between woman and man." On March 8, 1987, International Women's Day, the FSLN presented its first "proclamation" on the status of women in Nicaragua to the Third General Assembly of AMNLAE, Nicaragua's association of women. These two documents demonstrate the consistency with which the FSLN has addressed the issue of women's liberation and the very real gains that have been made as a result of the revolutionary process.
Gender and class: Hand in handThe question of women's status in Nicaragua, or the "woman question," is one that raises many interesting—and often intensely debated—points, both practical and theoretical. Nicaragua has borrowed much from traditional socialist formulations of what to do about women's emancipation and has made substantial strides forward, both in generalized consciousness and concrete changes. At the same time, some limitations in the theoretical conceptualization of women's oppression remain, primarily in the way the interaction between the productive and reproductive sector is theorized.
Classical socialist theory characterizes women's oppression or inequality as springing from the unequal and unjust economic structure and the way in which capitalism denies them significant, much less equal, access to the productive world. Working from this perspective, the key task is to integrate women into the productive work of the country. The economic and political power so long denied women is to accompany their massive incorporation into this public, productive (and male) world. In a new, socialist order, the discrimination that women have long suffered, including all the manifestations of "machismo," supposedly withers away gradually, as it is ultimately seen as nothing more than an ideological vestige of the capitalistic economic structure.
The essential feminist critique of this position is that it addresses women's participation and involvement only in the productive world, and leaves the entire sphere of reproduction (childbearing and rearing—or choosing not to have children at all; as well as the entire question of sexuality, particularly in terms of power relations, and the physical, emotional and oftentimes economic maintenance of the household) virtually unquestioned. In other words, it is crucial to identify the way in which class and gender interact as two interdependent factors in determining not only women's social position, but their potential for political action.
Women in the movement against SomozaMany women who became politically active in the fight against the Somoza dictatorship in fact did so from an initial desire to protect their children. Though women have long been criticized as politically conservative and traditional in that they are primarily concerned with caring for their families, women in Nicaragua who wanted to maintain their families found themselves almost inevitably propelled into revolutionary activity. Women who took one initial step to defend their children and families soon realized that nothing less than complete destruction of the dictatorship could ensure that defense. One woman explained her increasing involvement in the anti-Somoza resistance this way:
“As women we had to protect our children's lives, for we had given them life. After having given them this beautiful gift we had to defend it, to put our lives in danger once again for them, just as we had at their birth. Just their youth gave the Guard a pretext to kill them or rape them.... We could not remain indifferent to that suffering. Thus the horrors of the dictatorship unintentionally gave birth to a tradition of revolutionary motherhood in Nicaragua.”
Nicaraguan women took part in the struggle against Somoza in a variety of ways. In the final years they were messengers, ran safe houses and organized demonstrations for political prisoners and against the dictatorship. A number of women (estimates range from 20% to 40% of the total forces) also took up arms and participated in the insurrections of 1978-79.
In the 1960s, the short-lived Patriotic Alliance of Nicaraguan Women was formed by women within the FSLN. One of their statements called for women to overcome the traditional timidity and restrictions that kept them from political activity: "There are great strengths within us that we should use to push forward the revolutionary struggle, a struggle that is necessary to bring about an authentically popular government." In 1977, The Association of Women Confronting the National Problem, AMPRONAC, was organized by a group of women with close ties to the FSLN and was key in organizing women during the crucial years from 1977 to 1979.
Some analysts have pointed out that in Nicaragua, much of the revolutionary activity took place in the reproductive, rather than productive, sphere. In other words, many of the mobilizations against the National Guard were at the neighborhood level, rather than concentrating in factories or other workplaces. The strategy of "a people in arms" that was so essential to the Sandinista victory over the dictatorship depended on the mobilization of entire communities—and though it is not always stated precisely as such, that of course meant the massive participation of women, as the population was organized, barrio by barrio, against Somoza's Guard.
Today as communities throughout Nicaragua continue to mobilize and defend themselves, this time against the counterrevolutionary forces, the reproductive sphere remains crucial as an organizing locus within the revolutionary process. With the strategic decline of the counterrevolutionary forces and an increasing emphasis on economic and ideological warfare, it is likely that an important part of the political struggle in the coming years will continue to be waged in this sphere.
Politics and production: Taking part in the new societySince 1979, women's participation in many public arenas has increased dramatically as the revolutionary process opened up many areas long closed to women. In the legislative elections held in 1984, 13 women were elected to the National Assembly, all of them representing the FSLN, which is the only party that has seriously analyzed women's issues and taken them into consideration in the formation of its policies and plans. Women make up 31.4% of leadership positions in the government, 26.8% of FSLN regional committees, and 24.3% of the FSLN's total membership.
Though these statistics are very encouraging, they demonstrate that domestic tasks and responsibilities are so demanding that many women, particularly those with restricted economic resources, have a hard time keeping up with heavy political responsibilities as well. The number of women in the FSLN before 1979—the time of the so-called "second promotion"—was 38%, and the drop can be attributed in large measure to this question of time and balancing work, domestic and political duties. Despite this, women's participation in the FSLN and in political life in general is greater than in other revolutionary societies where women are subject to the same pressures.
Women have made considerable advances in the agricultural sector as a result of legislation that recognizes their essential participation in that area. Both the ATC, the farm workers' association, and UNAG, the union of small farmers and cattle ranchers, have task forces specifically devoted to incorporating more women into agriculture.
Women's participation in the agrarian sector has undergone several important transformations since 1979. First, the number of women involved in agricultural production has soared, referred to as the "feminization" of agricultural production. Women are now 35% of the year-round salaried agricultural work force, and 45% of the seasonal workforce. The largest jump has been in year-round work, as women have traditionally worked mainly as seasonal laborers.
In addition, women are finding their way, little by little, into agricultural tasks long considered the exclusive domain of men. In some instances, the war itself has been the spur for women's integration into certain of these tasks. One such instance was documented by Nicaragua's film institute, INCINE, which dramatized the case of the women tractor drivers in the Jalapa area in a film called "Mujeres de la montaña" (Women of the Mountains). These women initially encountered a great deal of resistance from men to their learning to drive tractors—even though the men themselves were mobilized in defense duties and the women were the only ones who could do the work. The UNAG and ATC stances are thus critical in setting a new standard and opening many doors for women in this sector.
In the industrial sector, women tend to be concentrated in traditional female occupations, principally textiles, where they represent 37% of the economically active population. According to a study by the government's Office on Women, women in the industrial sector are also concentrated in the lowest levels of the Ministry of Labor's national salary scale and though they are the majority of workers in certain occupations such as textiles, men still occupy the bulk of the supervisory positions. Problems of absenteeism among women were found to be directly related to domestic demands—women missed work to care for a sick child, to do the week's shopping, etc.
Various studies have noted that women make up 80% of the population working in commerce (primarily in jobs that the Office on Women has described as public reproductive tasks—market women, food vendors, etc.) In addition, they are 65% of the informal sector, and 50% of these women are heads of household. The high concentration of female heads of household in the informal sector is partly due to the fact that women have more control over their time, though they work extremely long and tiring hours. One Central American University (UCA) study on household survival strategies notes that women spend a disproportionate amount of time in reproductive tasks directly tied to the home even when they work full time outside the home.
During the last several years, more institutions have begun to take the problem of child care seriously as an issue that must be dealt with at the institutional level. Some institutions employing a large percentage of women (for example, the Ministry of Agriculture and FANATEX, a state-owned textile factory) have childcare facilities at the workplace itself. The Ministry of the Interior, which employs a large number of women, also has a broad childcare program. In addition, the development of childcare centers in the rural areas is helping to ensure the continued high participation of women in agricultural work. Lack of resources remains a serious obstacle to making even quicker advances in this area.
In other important areas, such as education, women in Nicaragua are also present in significant numbers. The large number of young men mobilized in the military service at any given time has meant that young women are the majority of students in many professional and technical training programs. Most women are still entering more traditional occupations, but their possibilities have opened up significantly. In addition, for the first time, the problematic of women and women's issues is being taken seriously at the level of higher education. In one small but important example, the sociology department at the UCA is offering a course on women, family and society that covers theoretical issues in the context of Nicaragua reality.
The very existence of the Office on Women is another achievement. Founded in 1982, and part of the Ministry of the Presidency, the office has carried out a number of studies on women's status and participation in Nicaraguan society. Its research is important in providing background for ministries involved in ongoing policy making in a number of areas.
The Evolution of AMNLAEIn September of this year, AMNLAE marked 10 years since its formation as AMPRONAC. Since 1979, AMNLAE has been able to make the shift from an organization committed to overthrowing the dictatorship to a movement of women committed to consolidating their country's revolution, upon which their own emancipation as women is predicated. AMNLAE has undergone some fairly substantial internal restructuring over the past several years, changes that were institutionalized at their March 1987 general assembly.
AMNLAE representatives have characterized their activity since 1979 as falling into three essential periods. In the first, from 1979 to 1982, AMNLAE's prime focus was on national reconstruction, rebuilding the country after the devastation wreaked by Somoza in the last year before his downfall. Women were very active, as they continue to be, in the country's crucial educational and health campaigns, including the massive 1980 literacy crusade. Women also enrolled in Nicaragua's schools, universities and training programs in very high numbers. Childcare centers (CDIs) began to be set up around the country to help facilitate women's continued participation or incorporation into the workforce. One of the most important things that happened after 1979 was that women started to become visible in Nicaraguan society—for the first time taken seriously and given the opportunity to take part in public life.
The problematic that has always accompanied women's political involvement, not just in Nicaragua but throughout the world, resurfaced with a vengeance after the triumph. As mentioned above, the overarching issue is one of time. Women who want to be politically active are forced to juggle their political work and their paid work with all the domestic tasks involved in rearing children and maintaining a household—a difficult feat, often complicated by a lack of understanding on the part of many individual men. Women were being asked to give an enormous amount of time to their country and indeed wanted to do so, but they weren't given many tools with which to resolve the contradiction between political or productive work and all the domestic tasks that women face.
Nicaraguan women have had to deal with the harsh reality of a country lacking the economic resources that can help ease women's domestic chores. The war in Nicaragua has meant increasing lines for basic goods and foods, to the point that one sociologist from the UCA says that simply guaranteeing basic supplies has become a task in and of itself, apart from and as time-consuming as all the other chores falling under the rubric of "domestic tasks."
So, while the war has meant increased demands on women from the productive sector, the time they must devote to household tasks has also increased dramatically. The "double day" faced by women throughout the world (i.e., women who work outside the home virtually have two full-time jobs) becomes a "triple day" in a war-torn revolutionary society like Nicaragua.
Additionally, domestic chores in Nicaragua are far more burdensome than in more developed countries. Laundry is backbreaking work, done by hand. Many women still cook with firewood or charcoal. Supermarkets and stores are closed by 5 or 6 p.m., so a working woman must either take time off from work, or be able to count on someone else to do the job for her (a maid or family member, depending on her class status—but almost always another woman). On top of all the domestic work, women now must try to fit in political work as well. One party activist described the situation this way, "As a woman, you are always split in two...."
As an organization, AMNLAE emphasized the importance of integrating women into production as a fundamental step towards their full incorporation into society as a whole. However, when they tried to bring women into the productive workforce, apart from the issue of time, conflicts often arose between women and their husbands or partners, who did not feel that women should be working outside the home. The problem was compounded by the jealousies many men felt when "their" women were absorbed in AMNLAE meetings. One AMNLAE organizer characterizes the early practice of inviting only women to the meetings as a mistake since it created unnecessary misunderstandings and made it harder on the women who chose to be active.
Another continuing problem that has confronted AMNLAE is the issue of where a revolutionary activist chooses to make her key political commitment. Most of the top AMPRONAC leadership from before the triumph took up political tasks immediately afterward that were not specifically oriented towards "women's issues." In addition, many of the women who had been activists in AMPRONAC found themselves facing a post-revolutionary dynamic where their work as members of a women's organization was not very clear.
The task at hand for the entire country was national reconstruction. As women, should they work in their neighborhood committees (CDS) or AMNLAE? In their union or AMNLAE? One woman stated the longstanding question this way: "How can you have an organization made up solely of women when these women are also organized, and should be organized, in other ways and participating in the revolutionary process, which is our reality here?" Early on, then, one important issue was how to more closely integrate AMNLAE's work with the work being carried on by the other revolutionary mass organizations.
AMNLAE mobilizes against the contra warDuring the second period—spanning the years 1983-1986—AMNLAE (along with the rest of Nicaragua's mass organizations) was oriented primarily toward the defense of the country, with AMNLAE in many ways serving as a key "rearguard" organization. Some women were organized into reserve battalions and women throughout the country received military training.
After the draft law was passed in 1983, however, women were mobilized essentially as mothers—of the young draftees and later of fallen soldiers. This latter group, the "Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs," comprises women who have lost children at the hands of both Somoza's National Guard and the counterrevolutionary forces. As a group, they are far more organized than the mothers of draftees per se. Their political support was particularly crucial when the contras, through a series of radio campaigns, tried to spread fear among the mothers and their sons during the initial stages of the draft. Reasonably enough, that fear still exists, but the work of the mothers' group—and the clear successes of the Sandinista army—have done much to calm the initial concern.
In addition, the army set up national and regional offices to aid combatants and their families by facilitating visits and communication. Viewing "the mobilization of these women—mothers of soldiers, heroes and martyrs, and young people kidnapped by the contra forces—as a patriotic bastion that is a key part of the women's movement," AMNLAE has provided important logistical and moral support to the functioning of these offices. AMNLAE's almost exclusive focus on mothers, and particularly mothers of combatants, during this second period meant that it was relatively isolated from a significant number of women. The question was how to broaden the base without losing this important focus, particularly important in the context of the war.
The war has meant a sharp, nearly total, focus on defense. "Women's issues" as such thus had to take a back seat. Just as women who organized around women's issues before 1979 recognized that there could be no liberation for women until the dictatorship was destroyed, many women in this period of revolutionary struggle accept that all gains are predicated on the survival and defense of the country.
Nonetheless, a number of issues came up in a formal way during this period and began to be talked about by women in AMNLAE, with a significant ripple effect on the rest of the country. Two of the issues, notable for the fact that they are often considered private, "non-political" issues, were abortion and domestic violence.
Nicaragua has a very high growth rate, particularly in Managua—a city already strained far beyond its capacity. Managua's population is nearing a million, up from some 470,000 in 1979. FSLN representatives from Nicaragua's Region III (Managua and surrounding areas) have said that the need for a more concerted family planning program is essential in order to even begin to deal with the many problems caused by Managua's burgeoning population. Women themselves, in the grassroots constitutional debates and in other forums, have made it clear that some type of program is needed and in fact would be welcomed. To date, however, no integral program has been implemented. Some women speculate that this may be due partly to fear of eliciting a backlash from the Catholic Church, while others point to a lack of understanding on the part of some men in key positions.
Abortion is a much more problematic issue, still extremely divisive—but the number of women who die after attempting to carry out their own abortions has alarmed many women and members of the medical community. A roundtable discussion of the abortion issue that ran for several weeks in Barricada in 1985 brought the issue out into the open as a legitimate item of political debate for the first time. In a recent all-day "De Cara al Pueblo" meeting that President Daniel Ortega and a number of government ministers and officials held with women, a female psychologist raised the issue of the number of deaths and injuries resulting from self-induced abortions—“I know it's a thorny issue," she said, "but the revolution has dealt with many thorny issues.”
In her response, Health Minister Dora María Téllez pointed out that the reported instances represent only part of the actual cases. She stressed the need for education and called on AMNLAE to help inform women about the existing contraceptive program the Ministry of Health has available.
In 1983, AMNLAE opened its first legal office on women, and began to deal with the problems of child support payments, domestic abuse and other legal problems affecting women. By opening the office, AMNLAE and the Nicaraguan government have said to Nicaraguan women that their concerns are concerns of the society at large and that they are not alone. A number of regional legal offices have been opened since 1983.
The legal office has had to overcome women's traditional timidity and fear in publicly discussing problems that have long been considered exclusively "private" and better left unexamined. This has sparked a tremendous process of consciousness-raising among women. One of the principal issues dealt with by the legal office is domestic abuse. The office has a staff of psychologists, as well as lawyers, and they offer psychological assistance to women who want it. They also do therapy for couples—if the man is willing to participate, and a number of them are—and/or families. Since the office opened, domestic abuse has become, if very slowly, a far more acceptable topic of public discussion—in he newspapers, on the radio and at public meetings.
A new vision for AMNLAEDuring the second period, AMNLAE had come to the realization that the rights they are struggling for as women fall into two essential categories: broad legal changes, transformations in the overall structure of education and health facilities, etc.; and those that have to do more specifically with daily life. After a good deal of internal discussion based on the type of political activity that AMNLAE should be taking up, they began to make the transition from an organization to a movement, a transition ratified by the Third General Assembly of AMNLAE in March of this year.
According to AMNLAE members, they can be more effective as a movement with a presence throughout other existing organizations than as a separate or autonomous organization. They argue that because women are part of every sector of Nicaraguan society, it does not make sense to continue to function as a women's organization per se. AMNLAE's energy should rather be focused on raising women's issues in a number of areas, thus avoiding a "ghettoizing" of their position. As one AMNLAE activist explained it, "We are a movement because we are not a social class, we are not a social sector, we are women of all classes and social groups, and we work in the context of this revolution, in all the different sectors, to achieve a better situation for women." Though this analysis seems essentially sound, it could be argued that AMNLAE runs the risk of seeing some important issues get swallowed up by this key organizational shift.
Another central issue not thoroughly addressed by this position is the fact that while women indeed come from a variety of social classes (classes determined by their relation to the productive sector), women do share the common denominator of being grounded in, and having primary responsibility for, the reproductive sector. That is to say, there ”are material issues—those having to do with reproduction—that are common to all women, even though the particular ways they affect women vary across class lines.
Many of the official government positions on women continue to be addressed to women primarily as mothers, while at the same time there is a push for women to enter the productive workforce in greater numbers. Again, the key is analyzing class and gender as interdependent and inseparable factors. An analysis of the often conflicting demands on women, some springing from their personal, reproductive responsibilities and others coming from the more public, productive sphere, as well as understanding and better addressing their real daily concerns, would be useful in ensuring women's ongoing political participation.
In any case, AMNLAE's shift is essentially pragmatic, as it is grounded solidly in Nicaragua's specific reality. It also addresses the fact that a tremendous amount of political work needs to be done and there is little sense in duplicating it. For example, AMNLAE alone could not have ensured that women's issues would be taken up by the key agricultural organizations.
In the current period, AMNLAE will thus continue to take up women's issues within the context of the country's larger political concerns, and its role will be to maintain an active presence in already existing organizations. AMNLAE representatives at the local and regional levels applaud this shift, and say they feel relieved that their work will now be more closely coordinated with other revolutionary work. The change for them is from isolation to integration.
Today the key question is survivalAMNLAE activists have characterized this new period as one that is defined by the US aggression and the accompanying daily struggle for survival. In its Third General Assembly, held this past March, AMNLAE called for a focus on four strategic areas.
The first area is the economic survival of the revolution, which for AMNLAE means supporting and facilitating women's continued incorporation into the productive sector. AMNLAE General Secretary Lea Guido has emphasized the ongoing importance of coordinating this work (i.e., a continued push towards the productive sector) between AMNLAE, the CST (the Sandinistas Workers' Confederation) and the ATC (the salaried farmworkers' union.)
The second area, child care, is closely related to the first and illustrates the necessary linking of the productive and reproductive spheres. It is clear that the burden of time which today falls almost exclusively on women must be more equitably shared out. Some of that burden must be picked up by the state, but a significant amount must be taken up by men themselves.
AMNLAE describes the third focus as dealing with the "dignity of women." According to Lea Guido, "Women's dignity can't only be attended to in campaigns on March 8 [International Women's Day] or May 30 [Mother's Day in Nicaragua]—it has to happen everyday." Thus, AMNLAE calls for continued attention to the problem of domestic violence, as "an ideological problem that the revolution must directly confront." They link dealing with this problem to the creation of a strong family, with mutual respect between men and women. The Nicaraguan family is historically very weak, in large part due to the country's economic development, and women feel they have a real stake in strengthening the family.
The fourth area is sexual education. There is an enormous lack of education, particularly among young people, and that, coupled with scarce access to contraceptives, has resulted in a very high pregnancy rate among young women. This area has thus been identified as vital for future work.
Legal changes: Foundation for a new futureThe legal arena is a prime area in which the struggle for structural change in women's status has unfolded since 1979, and since that time, an important foundation has been laid from which women will be able to make further gains. The Nicaraguan laws specifically addressing women are far more progressive than most in the hemisphere.
One of the most important legal advances for women was the signing of the Nicaraguan Constitution in January of this year. As we will detail later, it overturns the historic legal discrimination suffered by Nicaraguan women and should serve as a catalyst to further social and political change.
After the triumph of 1979, a series of laws were passed in the Council of State (a provisional legislative body between 1980 and 1984) that were crucial in beginning to address some of the fundamental causes of women's oppression. One of the most important, the paternity law proposed by AMNLAE in 1980 as the "Law Between Mothers, Fathers and Children," abolished the old concept of patria potestad," a direct inheritance from Spanish colonialism under which only children born in legal marriages had rights and the father had virtual property rights over his children. In Nicaragua as in much of the rest of Central America, however, the agro-export economic structure that demanded a mobile and seasonal agricultural work force in some of the principal cash crops, along with a lack of priests serving the rural areas, helped to institute a tradition of couples living together in consensual, rather than legal, unions.
Although there was not a great deal of social stigma attached to so-called illegitimate children, many women took on almost the entire economic burden for children and were not entitled to any help from the fathers unless they were legally married to them. Matters were complicated by the fact that (as is still common) many men had children with different women and oftentimes contributed nothing whatsoever to their social or economic welfare. In addition, many Nicaraguan women, particularly poorer women, commonly have eight or nine children. The 1980 law stipulated that men were responsible for children they fathered; paternity, not legal marriage, became the issue.
This legislation also demonstrates, as does much of Nicaraguan legislation in the post-1979 period, a stated concern for the rights and welfare of children (referred to often in slogans as the "coddled ones of the revolution"). There are still a number of problems with actual enforcement of the provisions requiring economic support (which varies greatly region by region), but it is nevertheless a significant and essential first step forward for women.
The political struggle around the passage of the law, including heated discussions about its title—some wanting to retain "patria potestad," with others arguing that fathers should precede mothers—made it clear that women had a long battle ahead of them, most obviously in terms of breaking down a very embedded ideology of machismo. The women working on this law, as well as others, had to confront men from the rightwing political parties, and sometimes within the FSLN itself. One difference is that many of those from the FSLN have been flexible and changed their positions. Another is that the FSLN as a party has consistently maintained a strong stance in defense of women's rights, while the rightwing parties have never initiated or supported policies addressed to women's specific needs and concerns.
In August of 1979, the law establishing equal rights for all Nicaraguan citizens was passed. This law mandated that women be given equal pay for equal work, and also provided for maternity leave. This law had particularly significant implications for the agricultural sector, as many women (and children) who worked were not formally listed as employees on an employer's roster, but were considered part of a "family wage" package.
In the Council of State, there was one important issue on which the FSLN and AMNLAE formally disagreed—that of women's military participation. In 1981 when the contra forces first began to present a serious military threat, AMNLAE was approached by the Sandinista army (EPS), then in the process of forming new battalions to send to the mountainous northern zones of the country. The EPS asked AMNLAE for logistical help—i.e., cooking and other maintenance tasks. AMNLAE responded by forming several all-female battalions. However, -there were a number of problems, as a national AMNLAE leader explained in a 1981 interview:
"There were places where at first people said women weren’t capable of enduring the physical training. There were others where men refused to let their wives go. Then there were women who wanted to join the battalions, but who would take care of their children? ... One thing we have noticed with the women's battalions is that the participants are not necessarily young, not necessarily students, but rather compañeras from the barrios, housewives, members of the Sandinista Defense Committees."
Then in 1983, with the contra attacks on the rise as a result of their steadily increasing financial and logistical support from the United States, the EPS made the decision to implement a nationwide draft of all males between 17 and 25 years of age. When the patriotic military service law (SMP) was debated in the Council of State, AMNLAE's representative argued at length that in light of women's military participation in the war of liberation, it would be unjust to exclude them from this new and crucial phase of national defense.
As the debate came to a close, provisions were written into the law to allow for women as volunteers. However, though it was reported that a number of women volunteered to serve, the first women were not accepted until early 1986—and then in explicitly non-combat positions (most working in communications in Managua). AMNLAE realized the delicate position in which the FSLN found itself and also recognized that for cultural reasons, many families (including the young women themselves) would have been entirely opposed to sending their young daughters as well as their sons off to the military service.
Constitution and proclamation: Changing hearts and mindsApart from the reorganizing steps taken by AMNLAE, 1987 has seen other path-breaking advances for women. Nicaragua's new Constitution, signed into law in January of 1987, addresses itself to a number of issues essential to women's status in Nicaragua. The first Constitutional draft, drawn up by a committee from the National Assembly, was presented to a number of "cabildos abiertos," or open meetings held by sector throughout the country. The June 1986 meeting held exclusively with women in Managua is pointed to by many women activists as an important demonstration of women's participation in the ongoing revolutionary process. It was a highly charged meeting, with women representing all walks of life speaking out on the issues they felt to be most important. One that came up time and time again was that of "una maternidad consciente," consciously-chosen motherhood. The need for sexual education and family planning was also brought up, as were abortion, domestic violence and the need for new family laws. The issue of divorce was specifically addressed several times.
Some of the laws most favorable to women passed in the early days of the revolution were ratified as fundamental rights with the signing of the Constitution. One of the most important sections of the Constitution for women is Chapter 4, which deals with the family. Article 73 of Chapter 4 states: "Family relations rest on respect, solidarity and absolute equality of rights and responsibilities between the man and woman. Parents must work together to maintain the home and provide for the integral development of their children, with equal rights and responsibilities." The chapter as a whole sets the tone for a new vision of the Nicaraguan family, one that will hopefully be translated into reality step by step.
Clearly, there is always a gap between law and reality, and the situation for Nicaraguan women lags far behind this ideal expressed in the Constitution. Laws still date back to the 1904 civil code, but the National Assembly is expected to promulgate a new family code based on the Constitution in the coming months, as well as making other legal changes essential to women's full incorporation into society, both politically and economically. Having the weight of the revolutionary process and the nation's Constitution so squarely on the side of women's equality is a tremendous achievement, and though laws cannot change reality overnight they are essential in bringing about the first steps toward transformation of that reality. In addition, they serve as an important instrument of education.
In March, the FSLN presented its long-awaited "Proclamation on Women." The proclamation continues the tradition begun in the 1969 political program, but is a much more extensive document. It deals quite directly with the issue of machismo by identifying domestic tasks as the responsibility of both men and women. The proclamation is a unique document, as it commits the party to continue moving forward on women's issue and identifies, once again, the emancipation of women as an integral part of the revolutionary process as a whole. One analyst in the Office on Women says that the proclamation has played a prime role in pushing many individual men forward ideologically. Machismo is deeply embedded in Nicaraguan society—among women as well as men. Thus, if women are to reach equality, it must be confronted directly. The proclamation forces serious revolutionaries to take up the issue of machismo, even in their own attitudes, and gives Nicaraguan women a certain moral authority and important base from which to continue to move forward.
Conceptualizing women: Old styles die hardSince 1979, a foundation—both legal and political—has been set in place that has the potential to affect significant transformations in the lives of Nicaraguan women. Yet, as always, one of the hardest parts is changing people's ideas, particularly with something as deeply rooted as machismo. Some of the principal problems affecting Nicaraguan women are directly traced to lack of resources, while others are linked to long-held attitudes about women and their problems.
For example, according to the sociological study done at the UCA, one group of women involved in the informal economic sector has been unjustly considered "reactionary" due to their involvement in the informal sector. These women, the vast majority of them female heads of household, have thus come under attack from the Ministry of Domestic Commerce. At the same time they are being asked to support the mobilization of one or two sons in the draft, sons who play an important role in the family's overall income. While these women thus have two concerns vis-à-vis the government at large, they tend to fall through the cracks with respect to the currently existing revolutionary political organizations. Political organizing centered around the workplace will do little to involve them and AMNLAE's projection for the coming year does not specifically address them either.
The issue is crucial, because there are historical examples of rightwing forces manipulating women around issues of basic food supplies and generalized family concerns, against revolutionary movements. A prime example was during the Popular Unity period in Chile.
One Nicaraguan sociologist has characterized the reproductive sector as being organized in a very "primitive" fashion. There is a tremendous strain on women in general in Nicaragua, and particularly those whose paid work falls under the general rubric of "reproductive" work, although it serves the public at large. The Right in Nicaragua has already shown itself to be only too willing to manipulate these women (contra radio broadcasts regularly encourage women to oppose the draft, and the Social Christian Party has been instrumental in organizing a group of women who are relatives of so-called political prisoners), and has positioned itself against the majority of women by pushing for policies that virtually call for rollback of the revolutionary gains most important to Nicaragua's popular classes.
The struggle goes onA facile separation between "revolutionary" and "women's" issues has often been made in other historical contexts, with people referring to the emancipation of women as a secondary, distinct element, which must always take a back seat to more "legitimate" revolutionary issues—historically those defined by men and having to do specifically with the productive sphere. But in Nicaragua today many women who identify themselves as revolutionaries see the situation as more complex. They are women “and” revolutionaries, and their political response and analysis is based in these two, intertwined material realities.
A political program that denied either reality would be unrealistic, and ultimately, unsuccessful, in Nicaragua. As part of the revolutionary process itself, women and men have been creating the tools they will need to ensure both the defense and survival of the new Nicaragua and the emancipation of women.
The key burden of women's emancipation, however, will continue to be shouldered by women themselves. Their task will be difficult, in the context of scarce economic resources and a deep reserve of machista sentiments, even among male revolutionaries who recognize the need to change their attitude. At a public discussion sponsored by AMNLAE in celebration of its 10th anniversary, one woman emphasized the importance of bringing out the contradictions and complexities of the many issues affecting Nicaraguan women—“they're ‘not’ obstacles to the revolution,” she noted—and called on women to be more aware, analytical and assertive, both in working for women's emancipation and in furthering the revolutionary process, because "without revolution, real social transformation is impossible.”