Feminism Asks Questions Of the New Government
Nicaraguan feminists hope this new government
will recognize and extend the rights of women,
especially those who suffer the worst discrimination
for being poor, indigenous, black, lesbian, differently-abled
or living in rural areas. How will the new FSLN government respond?
María Teresa Blandón Gadea
The revolutionary years, when the FSLN leadership called on women to participate in building a new society “of equality with men,” are still fresh in the memory of many feminists. Even though that equality remained profoundly unequal, the moral and social demands proclaimed by the revolution helped thousands of women break the chains of domestic life, marriage and society in general and claim their full citizenship.
In the 16 years of rightwing government that followed the revolution, the predominant trend has been a clear backpedaling in the recognition and protection of women’s rights. It’s thus understandable that now that a party that declares itself leftist has come to power, many feminists are hopeful that women’s situation will improve.
I’d like to believe that during the next five years of government Nicaraguan women will make progress in achieving the demands we’ve repeatedly called for in the past three decades. Nonetheless, this desire is facing several ethical conflicts and political dilemmas that link the public and private spheres.
Ethical conflicts. This is about weighing the consistency between public and private morality on the scale of our deepest convictions. Judging by what we saw and read every day during the electoral campaign and since the elections, this ethical dimension isn’t important to church officials, businessmen, political leaders or recognized intellectuals—most of whom are men—no matter how much they may claim it is. It even seems that many see no incompatibility between a public discourse that defends democracy and a private behavior that legitimizes abuse as part of daily relations. Probably for this same reason, they all seem comfortable in this new situation, which entwines them in a gender complicity based on silence, willful neglect or even their cynical twisting of the biblical quote, “May he who is free of sin cast the first stone.”
Political dilemmas. Here the contradictions multiply and for that reason I’ll limit myself to what I believe should be the central aspects of the new government’s work to expand women’s rights. One of the main challenges in the communication between the government and women and youth will be sexual and reproductive rights, understood as the recognition that men and women are free and have the moral ability to make their own decisions about reproduction as an option and not as a preordained mandate. These rights include sexuality as a factor of personal realization and not as an uncomfortable secret that puts our moral condition at risk.
Feminists understand motherhood as having great importance in women’s lives. In fact, being a mother is for us much more than bringing a pregnancy to term; it’s taking on the responsibility of caring for and accompanying a new human being on its journey to becoming a person. We speak of motherhood as a possibility, an option, a decision of conscience and responsibility, and not as an inevitable destiny that all women must fulfill. Millions of women frequently exercise motherhood in disadvantaged and traumatic conditions, particularly in societies like ours, crisscrossed with so many forms of discrimination against them.
It’s enough to investigate employment, salary and social security policies, education, training and promotion to know why for the most part women, particularly mothers, remain at the tail end of opportunities to better themselves and their living conditions.
Thousands upon thousands of women in our country become mothers in conditions of extreme poverty, finding themselves in the desperate situation of having to send their children to do difficult tasks that keep them from having healthy childhoods. Thousands upon thousands of women aren’t able to be the mothers they want to be because fighting for survival doesn’t let them enjoy their children’s development.
What reality tells us and what we ask ourselvesReality tells us that many women and men don’t want to and shouldn’t be parents. This is abundantly apparent in the growing number of children abandoned in the streets and in welfare centers, sold for sexual commerce, exploited as a workforce, literally dying from hunger without any protection from their families, the state, or organizations that defend “life beginning at conception.”
In a macho society like ours, men weren’t educated to be responsible and affectionate fathers. Nearly 40% of Nicaraguan households are headed and supported solely by a woman. There are many homes where fathers, even when present, aren’t affectionate or caring; on the contrary, they become the main aggressors against their children.
The patriarchal and neoliberal state isn’t interested in protecting voluntary and safe motherhood. The market economy acts against poor people in general and particularly against women, who are poorer still because they have fewer opportunities and bear the main burden of their own poverty and that of their children.
If the system has failed women, if the state has failed us, if the violent machista society has failed us, then the system, the state and society are ethically, humanistically and legally obliged to respond and respect us when we find ourselves with an unwanted pregnancy. The state and the rest of society must be made responsible. If society is complicit in the violence, if the state is complicit in the systematic violation of women’s rights, they are obliged to compensate and respect us. Therapeutic abortion is one of the ways in which this compensation is demonstrated.
The question that many feminists are asking the new government today is: How can a party that calls itself leftist and has such profound differences with the conservative Right commit itself to recognizing sexual and reproductive rights and at the same time maintain its alliance—which is not a transitory one—with the most conservative sectors of the Catholic and evangelical hierarchies?
Will this “leftist” government be able to respect the country’s Constitution on the issue of the secular state? More specifically, will the FSLN legislative representatives pledge to reverse the criminalization of therapeutic abortion, responding to the legitimate demands of many women who voted for them, the majority of the medical profession, international cooperation organizations and prestigious international health institutions?
How will the FSLN deal with the IMF policies?We can assume that the new government will make some blunders in these controversial issues. Could we hope for more coherence on other issues our society worries about, such as women’s social and economic rights? Will the FSLN government have the will to protect and broaden those rights? Businessmen, well-known intellectuals, the Catholic hierarchy and political leaders have shown themselves to be very comfortable with the government-elect’s commitment to “respect the agreements” assumed with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to maintain “macroeconomic stability” and respect private property without restrictions in order to “attract” investors to our country. (Note the sensual language in business...)
Without going into great detail, we know that the IMF guidelines have been responsible for the privatization of some basic services and for giving favorable opportunities to foreign investors such as the Spanish transnational Unión Fenosa, which not only made the services more expensive but also lowered their quality. Macroeconomic stability, presented as the investors’ Mecca, has meant a drastic decrease in public spending and with it stagnant salaries for health and education workers, most of whom are women, the increasingly deteriorated quality of public services, a million children not in school and public hospitals without medicines.
What will the FSLN do to maintain the agreements with the IMF and fulfill the commitment to a public health system that insures the entire population and to quality sexual and reproductive health services for women and youth?
The IMF guidelines shaped the strategy to privatize the financial system, and with it, to imprison credit and prioritize the overwhelming internal debt, which the country has been mortgaged to precisely because several of those irresponsible private banks went under due to their own fraudulent practices. Can a “leftist” government put the impoverished population’s needs before financial capital’s interests and negotiate less unjust terms for that debt to free funds to invest in people’s—particularly women’s—needs?
Can the government As far as unrestricted respect for private property and foreign investment incentives go, we should ask ourselves whether a “leftist” government will keep looking the other way while businesses and their unscrupulous owners use up Nicaragua’s forests and rivers. Will it go after the timber mafia? Will it stop promoting the kind of foreign investment that is frequently associated with tax evasion through multiple tricks such as changing its legal name every so often, thus cheating both national and municipal tax collection? Will this new government crack down on the sweatshops that violate the labor rights of so many workers, or allow the violations to go on, using the old pretext that they help increase the level of some exports, even though they are of very dubious benefit to the country?
respond to so many promises?
And what will be the reaction of all those who just congratulated and applauded the President-elect for his commitments to stability should his new “leftist” government refuse to accept the excesses of the IMF, the World Bank, the predatory business owners, the indifferent transnational investors, the speculative foreign capital? Conversely, should the new government instead accept the rules of the game established by its rightwing predecessors, will it also be able to respond to the campaign promises is made to the electorate, including commitments specific to women?
Will we be people with rights?The new government promised in the campaign and repeated after winning that it will be made up of an equal number of women and men. Many poor women and others have put their hopes in such a new government, and in the not-so-new National Assembly. But it isn’t enough to name more women to the Cabinet if those chosen are the kind that put their personal beliefs about good and bad above women’s rights and above their own responsibility as public officials to respect and protect those rights.
Will the new government be able to transcend those conservative policies that emphasize the importance of attending to the needs of poor women not as women with rights but rather in their traditional role as intermediaries of the family’s needs?
Can the FSLN government form part of the concert of nations within the UN that has pledged to respect international conventions that affirm women’s rights, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Platform of World Action for Women and the International Conference on Population and Development?
And finally, can it overcome the temptation to co-opt and limit the freedom of the social movements, including the broad and inclusive women’s movement? Will it show a genuine democratic volition to respect their autonomy and diversity? In January 2007 we’ll begin to see how they respond to this test of democracy with equity.
María Teresa Blandón Gadea is a long-time feminist activist.