Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 25 | Julio 1983



Women In Nicaragua: A Revolution Within A Revolution

What is the revolution doing for the liberation of women? What is their role in AMNLAE, the new revolutionary women’s movement?

Envío team

Nicaragua's culture has been influenced historically, socially, economically and religiously by women. In Nicaragua, the woman is a symbol: that of a mother who gathers the nation to her as together they seek a national identity. What is behind this symbol? Is it matriarchal or machista? What is the current socio economic status of women in Nicaragua? Does machismo still exist here? What is the revolution doing for woman's liberation? what is the role of AMNLAE? The following article is an objective study of the oppression liberation dialectic of women in the new Nicaragua. Much has been gained; much remains to be done.


"The high level of participation of Nicaraguan women in the revolution has much to do with their notable participation in the economy. Her insertion in the country's economic life from pre Columbian times to the present takes her outside of the narrow confines of the home. Even when tradition (Spanish Catholicism) intended her to be domestic, passive, dependent and decorative, the reality surrounding her has required another response. History has pushed her to take positions and make decisions that, beginning with the economic sphere, have broadened her social and political participation." (Margaret Randall, The Daughters of Sandino).

The statistics which would enable us to analyze the economic participation of Nicaraguan women are still barely systematized. Only the most basic statistics are available.

In 1950, 14% of the Economically Active Population (EAP) was composed of women. By 1970 this figure had risen to 21.9% and in 1977 it was 28.6% (Nicaraguan Central Bank, July 1978). Currently, in urban areas women make up 40% of the EAP (Nicaraguan Household Survey, INEC, 1981). Taking into account that more than half of the population live in urban areas and that domestic labor which many women still do is not included in the census, this figure only serves as an indicator, and understates the reality of the situation. Similar data for rural areas is nonexistent. At the national level, beginning with the increases experienced between 1970 and 1977, this figure is estimated at 35%.

If we compare these figures with the total figures for women participating in the production process in Latin America, which is only 20%, the statistics for Nicaraguan women are extraordinarily high.

Do Nicaraguan women, therefore, have a significant role in the production process? Most certainly not. In a speech given in celebration of the fifth anniversary of AMNLAE (the Nicaraguan women's organization), Tomas Borge stated that "If we analyze the type of work women do, we can see that in reality a large percentage of them are underemployed. A great many women do domestic work, work that certainly is not productive, and this will have to be further regulated and limited in the future."

In Managua, women represent 70% of the domestic service workers and 55% of the merchants (primarily street vendors, marketwomen, or women who sell door to door), but only 14% of the industrial labor force. According to statistics from AMNLAE, at the national level 57.7% of the female EAP are merchants.


The principal productive activities in this sector are informal ones: small repair services for shoes, watches, and cars, street vendors, or market vendors. Unemployment and underemployment are very common in this sector.

Poverty obliges various family members to work. A large percentage of the economically active women come from this sector. They sell food, clothes, and vegetables in their homes, in the street, in tiny stores, or in the markets. They might wash or iron clothes for a family, or make undergarments that they later sell to neighbors to sell in the market....

The reality is such that in the majority of cases, women work not only to contribute to the family income, but also to maintain the home. According to the statistics offered by Borge in the speech mentioned above, 83% of working women are heads of households. This exceptionally high figure is even more valid in the poor urban sector. The statistics for Managua indicate that 49% of the families have a woman as head of household, and of this number, 85% are economically active. (At the national level, 26% of all households have a woman as head.)

The woman abandoned by her mate and consequently responsible for sustaining the family economically, raising and educating the children and Carrying out the household chores, is a reality throughout Nicaragua, but especially in poor urban areas.

Even though it would be necessary to analyze the root causes of this disintegration of the Nicaraguan family, the reality of underdevelopment explains a lot. When a man looks for work and cannot find it, or when he fails to remain even among the underemployed, which formerly had at least assured survival, he becomes desperate and drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Because he is not able to assume any responsibility for the family, he abandons his wife and children. In other cases, it is the woman who throws him out of the house because he "drinks his salary" and batters her and the children. Often he only abandons them temporarily, but as of that moment he is more of a guest in his own home than a member of the family.

An underlying cause for the disintegration of the family is machismo, a deeply rooted reality in Latin America. Nicaragua is not an exception. "To be a man" has a socio sexual translation: to be able to satisfy several women and to father many children with various women. Unemployment or underemployment makes the man economically impotent: he is incapable of maintaining his women and all his children. Machismo produces a chain of irresponsibilities: the man has to leave his first wife and children in order to marry the second woman, with the intention of meeting his obligations to her, but then the child of his third mistress is born ....

Thus, the woman becomes the pillar of the family. She guarantees not only identity and affection, but also physical survival, i.e., the daily bread, or in this case, tortilla. Girls are educated for this reality from the time they are very young. Their raison d'etre will be found in their children, because they cannot depend on the man.

It is estimated that 50% of Nicaraguan couples live together outside of marriage. It is not a moral problem, but neither is it by free choice. They live this way because the probability that their relationship will last is very small.


This sector is a minority in Nicaragua, and it has certain parallels to its counterparts in some European countries and the United States. While there are no statistics on this sector, we can still affirm that participation of women in the workforce is much, much lower.

Machismo manifests itself in this sector as well, but the incidence of abandoned women is much lower. In this sector, a man maintains his wife and children as well as one or two mistresses with their respective children. The man tries to maintain the appearance of being a good husband and father at whatever cost. and his less encumbered economic situation permits him to do this.


Almost half of the Nicaraguan population lives in rural areas, in isolated and marginal situations in marked contrast to even the poorest urban sector.

The life of the peasant woman is very hard. In the rural world, the differences between men's work and women's work are strongly defined. The woman is responsible for the home and taking care of the children, while the man is responsible for the productive work on the farm and the care of the animals.

Even though there have been a number of cases, machismo among campesinos is less often expressed in the abandonment of family, because farm labor limits mobility. Machismo, in this setting, has its greatest expression in the marginalization of the woman in the family, in the home. The man exercises his role as boss in all of its senses. In his speech during the First Conference of Women Agricultural Workers in April of 1983, Jaime Wheelock, Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform recalled, "How many times we arrived in a peasant home where the woman didn't speak with us because she would not leave the kitchen."

The situation varies somewhat between farmworkers who are either seasonal or migrant workers on the large estates. This group represents 37% of all Nicaraguan campesinos. As this is the least stable labor situation, there are more parallels with the poor urban sector and the situation of the farmworker's wife is similar in many respects to women from that same sector. However, there is something that makes this reality even more difficult: the submissive role of campesino women shapes her consciousness and she loses all initiative before her husband – he is the boss, he is superior and this increases her marginality. The women in this sector may be the most oppressed of all Nicaraguan women.


"In Nicaragua, land of volcanoes and rivers, we have already won our national liberation with the Sandinista revolution. Therefore it is normal, and absolutely logical, that now we speak about a new revolution: women's revolution. That is to say, the revolution which will complete the process of national liberation." (Tomas Borge in a speech given in celebration of the fifth anniversary of AMNLAE.)

Since the first platform statement in 1967, the FSLN took into account the subject of woman's emancipation, referring to the double exploitation to which she has been subjected throughout history. It read: "Unequal wages, a double workload (inside and outside of the home), isolation from political and social participation (fundamentally in rural areas), use as a sexual object (prostitution, exploitation of women in the media, etc.), and to complete the picture, legal discrimination."

Although a minority, women were from the beginning, an integral part of the FSLN structures. They have been combatants, including several commanders such as Dora Maria Tellez, Leticia Herrera, Monica Baltodano and Doris Tijerino. Currently, 22% of the FSLN militants are women. Women represent 37% of FSLN regional and departmental political administration positions.

In middle level executive positions and in auxiliary organizations women represent 24.6%. However, there is not one woman among the nine commanders that compose the FSLN National Directorate.

Even though these percentages are low, they are higher than any European, North American or even Latin American political party. They also serve as an indicator of possible future increases of women's participation, given the short time the FSLN has been in existence.

The most important changes the revolution has brought about for women are in the realm of the law. It had to begin there, as laws are an important part of any social change and can be used as tools against exploitation.

Only one day after the July 19, 1979, revolution, prostitution and the exploitation of women in advertising were prohibited. On August 21, 1979, the Statute of Rights and Guarantees of Nicaraguans was published. It proclaimed the unconditional equality of all citizens and guaranteed equal pay for equal work. In order to assure that this principle is carried out in practice in a sector historically so marginalized as is that of the campesinos, it is specified that "everyone, male or female, who is at least fourteen years of age, must be included on the payroll as a worker." In the past, the "head of household" was the one who received the salary of the family group. Minors and women were not thought of as laborers.

It is the responsibility of AMNLAE, the organization which represents women in the Council of State, to continue seeking legislative gains for women. AMNLAE presented two important laws before this body, and both were accepted and passed. The law of "Relations between Mother, Father and Children" states that the man and the woman have equal obligations and rights with respect to their common children. It substitutes the old concept of "Paternal Dominion", which guaranteed the father's absolute control over the family and considered only legitimate children as having rights.

The second law spells out what these equal obligations are. The Child Support Law, approved by the Council of State after long discussions and many questions (especially on the part of the men), obliges both parents to guarantee their children food, clothes, health care, housing and education and demands familial solidarity with all dependent family members (children, the elderly and the handicapped). An interesting and much discussed aspect of the law addresses household tasks. The law establishes that "all family members who are economically able must contribute, within their means, to the support of the family. This can be in the form of money, goods or household tasks. And with regards to the last category, all family members, regardless of sex, who are capable of doing so, must contribute to household tasks" (Article 4).

These laws are an expression of the willingness on the part of the state, i.e., the revolutionary government, to transform the situation of women. But a law no matter how good it is cannot guarantee social transformation.

Comparing these laws with reality, we can see that even though prostitution is prohibited it has not been eliminated nor will it be eliminated by decree. It is necessary to attack the social and economic roots of the problem, create alternative work for these women and help them overcome their poverty.

At the present time, there are two arts and crafts collectives made up of former prostitutes. These are projects promoted by AMNLAE. The country's difficult economic situation, which is evident among other things in unemployment, does permit the creation of all the jobs needed for these women. The struggle against prostitution will move ahead to the degree that the revolution advances in restructuring society's economic base. This is the only real guarantee for the complete reintegration of these women.

The consequences of the decree prohibiting the use of women as sexual objects are more evident. In Nicaragua, advertisements may not exploit women to sell a product.

With regard to salaries there are varying experiences. In the industrial and urban professional sectors, the labor unions have seen to it that women receive equal pay for equal work. In rural areas, on both the state owned farms as well as the private ones, the situation is different. There still are many places where women receive lower salaries than men for the same job. This is due in part to women's ignorance of the law, even among those women who are executive members of the union, in this case, the ATC (the Farmworkers' Association).

The new laws which guarantee the social rights of women are even more difficult to carry out in practice. These laws assume a revolution in the habits, customs and prejudices of the men as well as the women.

They also take for granted the existence of social services which make possible this transformation. Given the current economic situation, it is difficult to establish these social services. In order to aid in child care it would be necessary to establish daycare centers. In Nicaragua, there are three separate types: Infant Development Centers (CDI) in the cities, Rural Infant Service (SIR) and Rural Infant Cafeterias (CIR) in the rural areas. Currently, only 22 CDI, 22 SIR, and 7 CIR have been constructed in the whole country. They attend to 3,368 children, which is scarcely 0.5% of the infant population between 0 and 5 years of age.

At the same time, the Family Protection Office, part of the Nicaraguan Social Security and Welfare Institute (INSSBI), is working with mothers who have been abandoned, to help them reach an agreement with the errant fathers of the children. These agreements guarantee the welfare of their children and assure that the fathers comply with the Child Support Law. There are cases which must be passed on to the courts because even though the laws have been updated, bureaucracy still exists, and those who arrive without legal counsel must take the matter into court. In order to assist these cases and confront those men who physically abuse women, and to protect minors and divorced women, AMNLAE created the Women's Legal Office on May 8, 1983.

In addition to these laws, structures have been created which will guarantee the enforcement of these laws. But it is even more necessary that the whole community be familiar with the laws and understand their objectives. They must be discussed in the CDSs, schools, factories, youth organizations, unions, etc. It is only through this massive familiarization campaign that people's attitudes will be changed. AMNLAE performs a key role in this task by organizing discussions in neighborhoods, towns, markets and factories.

In both health and education, the revolution has achieved extraordinary advances for women. Without going into too much detail about the advances made in these critical areas, there are some which are outstanding. Some 52% of the students in the Adult Education Program are women. (In rural areas, about 41%.) In the area of health, dozens of programs have been designed to help the women learn more about their body its functions, its needs and its care.

With slow but sure advances, women are beginning to participate in the CDSs, in the unions and in the cooperatives. In rural areas, women’s participation is more difficult, but some advances have been made.


"Marriages improve when women participate in politics because the relationship becomes more flexible. Both my husband and I were in the Sandinista Front. At times, he didn't have work to do so he stayed at home and took care of the children. When I would return from a seminar, he would have my supper ready. He cooked because I worked and was involved with the women's and youth organizations. I was almost always on the run. And when he was working, I stayed at home and did the housework and took care of him when he got home. It is only in this way that we could both contribute to the revolution." (A women worker, 50 years old married with three children, associated with the FSLN.)

Nicaraguan women became organized on a massive scale during the war against Somoza as a reaction against the repression imposed on their children. In 1977 the Association of Women confronting the National Problem (AMPRONAC) was established, with a program for guaranteeing human rights. It also proposed equal rights, prohibited the use of women as sex objects and demanded equal pay for equal work. AMPRONAC played an important role in denouncing Somoza and in the protest demonstrations against the human rights violations. Their organizational work in their neighborhoods was a basis for the formation of the CDSs, which performed a very important role during the insurrection. Women were a logistical base for the FSLN, acting as messengers, hiding Sandinistas in their houses, collecting money and medicine, working as nurses, painting slogans on neighborhood walls, etc.

After July 19, 1979, AMPRONAC changed its name to AMNLAE (The Association of Nicaraguan Women Luisa Amanda Espinoza), named after the first female martyr of the FSLN who was killed in Leon on April 3, 1970. "The name change was not a mere coincidence. In Luisa Amanda Espinoza, we recaptured the political premise and the historical truth that in our country we can only talk of women's liberation within the worker's struggle against the exploiters proletarian ideology as opposed to a bourgeois ideology...."

AMNLAE's chief goals are:

1. Defense of the Sandinista Popular Revolution: This goal is explained in AMNLAE's bulletin, "SOMOS." "The Sandinista Popular Revolution must be defended to consolidate the great accomplishments women have achieved, unconditional equality among all Nicaraguans, etc.

In order to defend the revolution, AMNLAE promoted women's participation in the Sandinista Popular Militia. About 47% of the territorial militia those who are responsible for neighborhood, community and work center defense are women. There are seven reserve battalions made up of women. This figure is very low considering Nicaragua's state of military emergency but can be understood by taking into account the socio economic position of the woman. She is, in many cases, responsible for the home and this impedes her leaving and going "to the mountains" for training. Even without statistics, it is evident that the majority of volunteers doing night watch duty are women.

But defense of the revolution does not only mean military defense; it also implies economic defense. AMNLAE calls on women to participate in the brigades which harvest the cotton and coffee crops. It also promotes the foundation of women's cooperatives and it encourages them to be active members of the agricultural cooperatives that are being created by the revolution.

Defense is also a social issue. Defense is good health and a solid education. In the 1982 vaccination campaign, 70% of the workers were women. In the cities, 71% of the adult education instructors are women. In rural areas, only 45 of the instructors are women.

In the international arena, AMNLAE was responsible for creating the Continental Front of Women Against Intervention in March 1982.

2- To Promote the Political and Ideological Advancement of the Nicaraguan Women: This goal is stated in AMNLAE's charter: "We are resolved to become an organization which promotes the consciousness raising of women as regards their obligations and rights in the new society we are constructing."

This objective is carried out through meetings and the publication of AMNLAE's bulletin. "SOMOS" has grown from a distribution of 2,000 copies in May of 1982 to 10,500 in April of 1983 and continues to grow. "SOMOS" addresses the problems of female farmworkers, hospital care, etc. It uses popular language, and along with formative articles it offers practical advice for planting vegetable gardens, common health problems and children's education.

3. To combat institutional inequality and discrimination against women in general: AMNLAE sees itself in the role of town crier as it works to encourage women to join their unions, participate in their block committees and, in general, be active members of their communities. In Nicaragua, where there are so many kinds of popular organizations, the role of AMNLAE is to assure that women have equal participation in these organizations. In neighborhoods, factories, and large farms, AMNLAE has organized work committees of 3 10 women, so that women may express their opinions in non threatening situations. AMNLAE hopes to expand these work committees to more places so that more women can participate. Already, these groups have grown from 490 in 1981 to 817 in 1982.

For 1983, AMNLAE plans to give priority to rural women. In the First Meeting of Women Farmworkers it was determined that in order to improve the situation of women in this sector, their participation in unions and cooperatives must be increased.

The only body in which AMNLAE has organizational representation is the Council of State.
4 To promote and stimulate the cultural and technical advancement of women, in order to increase their participation both quantitatively and qualitatively in economic and social activities, moving them from underemployment towards the professions and the other areas traditionally reserved for men.

5. To promote awareness about the value of household labor, elevating it to the category of socially recognized work, and placing emphasis on the creation of child care services for working women.

The Child Support Law points out that domestic labor is a social necessity, that should not be the sole responsibility of women but rather of the whole society. one of the limitations of the principle is society's incapacity because of economic underdevelopment to guarantee child care for working women.

One of the goals of the revolution is the abolition of domestic servants but at the current time, the levels of unemployment and underemployment make this impossible. Meanwhile, AMNLAE has among its immediate objectives "to promote and stimulate domestic workers so that organized in unions they will have. the power to achieve social benefits that are within the economic Possibilities of revolution as well as to be assured of the basic human conditions to which they are entitled."


Many North American and European feminists find it difficult to undertand an organization with these objectives, as AMNLAE does not only work for women but rather argues that the issue of women is part of a broader process. Feminist movements per se only exist in capitalist countries. "We, as a movement, respect the ideas of the other movements and we hope that they in turn respect our principles." (Rosario lbarra, member of the National Executive Committee of AMNLAE.)

"Active militancy has shown us the true dimension of our oppression: its economic roots, its social limitations and its ideological justification. This has helped us to understand that women's liberation is a joint task. Our role is to lay the foundation by becoming conscious of our condition, We must name the problem, recognize it in all its forms and work to change it," (Lea Guido, Nicaraguan Health Minister and President of the Pan American Health Organization.)

Questions which always come up with European or North American women are, what does AMNLAE do with regard to family planning? What is its position on abortion? AMNLAE has yet to addres these issues. But in order to understand why this is so, it is necessary to put oneself in the context of the third world countries. The powerful countries have always been the ones which have imposed birth control on dependent countries, often as a necessary condition for receiving development aid. In Nicaragua, there were some U.S. programs which disseminated information about sterilization and even carried it out. Family planning in Nicaragua was experienced as one more U.S. control over the population. The issue of abortion must not be considered out of the context of Nicaragua and the especially close relationship which exists between the mother and child. In this time of transition, if a debate about abortion were begun, it would only produce confusion and rejection.

AMNLAE is aware of these problems, and with the cooperation of the Health Ministry and the Nicaraguan institute of Statistics and Census it is carrying out a survey which will serve as the basis for a family planning program appropriate for Nicaragua.

According to information from a number of health centers in poorer neighborhoods and the Mother Infant Hospital in Managua, there is a growing interest among young women to know more about birth control methods. The most common methods of birth control in Nicaragua are the "pill" and the IUD. Condoms are less used. Sterilization is practiced if requested and if certain requirements are met, among them, that both the man and the woman agree on the sterilization, that the woman be of a certain age and that she have a certain number of children.

Abortion is not legal in Nicaragua, even though the law only punishes the person who performs the abortion, and not the woman who requests it. A lot of interest does exist in designing an effective sex education program. This is much more necessary than the dissemination of information about birth control or the legalization of abortion. At the beginning of 1983, sex education was introduced in the schools as one of the subjects to be studied starting in the fourth grade. Health centers and Family Protection Offices are offering information and organizing talks. Since February, "SOMOS" has been regularly publishing a page called "Becoming Familiar with our Bodies." The Sandinista Youth publication also addresses these issues, in order to aid in the formation of a new man woman relationship in Nicaragua.

The women's revolution has scarcely begun in Nicaragua. "Before we had nothing, now we have the future," is a line taken from the song for the fourth anniversary of the revolution. While apt for all Nicaraguans, it is especially appropriate for women. In order to move forward and construct this future, the best guarantee is the creativity of the people. As one of Nicaragua's many women poets has said:

"Sorrow has been a challenge,
the future a hope
we build, as though a poem,
creating, erasing and rewriting."
(Vida Luz Meneses)

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