Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 404 | Marzo 2015



Zero Hunger: How are the women doing?

In 2010 a team from Matagalpa’s Grupo Venancia investigated “how it’s going” for women beneficiaries of the Zero Hunger bond, the government’s flagship social program. In 2014, they went back to the same groups to do some follow up on that earlier research, Adding a few more questions to those of 2010: Have cooperatives been formed that empower women? How are the clientelist practices of the government’s social policies regarded?

Grupo Venancia

In 2007, Daniel Ortega’s government launched the “Zero Hunger” Food Production Program (PPA), as the main instrument of its food security policy. The program’s general stated aim is to eradicate hunger, chronic malnutrition and extreme poverty, and it has three components: capitalization, through the issuing of a Food Production Bond (BPA); training, with technical support and workshops; and organization, with the formation of “cells” and promotion of cooperatives.

A family-based logic

One of Zero Hunger’s main features is that its direct beneficiaries are women, based on the premise that this will have more impact on rural families and will also help transform gender relationships in the countryside.

Zero Hunger’s gender approach concurs with many social assistance programs tied to awarding Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs), established as major policies for overcoming poverty in Latin America since the beginning of the century. In the CCTs the woman is the direct beneficiary of the transfer because it’s believed that “they’re better administrators of household resources and have more commitment to the children’s education.” This “family-based” logic uses the women as instruments to ensure the efficacy of these policies, although they are considered a “means” or “conduit” for policies more than necessarily being taken into account as having rights.

Feminist academia has argued that while women’s empowerment may be a by-product of these policies, it isn’t their main objective. Those in favor of CCTs argue that they improve women’s economic situation and their bargaining power in the household and the women are empowered through administering the economic allowance transferred to them. Feminist research into the power relations within households, however, has challenged these arguments, showing that giving women money doesn’t automatically mean they control it.

These policies have been criticized because they don’t question or break away from a sexual division of labor, but rather re-traditionalize gender roles by assuming that women are in charge of reproduction. The problem of CCTs isn’t just that they “feminize responsibility and obligation,” but also that they perpetuate masculine privilege by absolving men of any clearly specified role. Academics such as Sylvia Chant, Developmental Geography professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science) say that the CCTs actually avoid “real empowerment” since they encourage women to be altruistic and family-oriented instead of promoting a renegotiation of their position in the household. Some feminists therefore claim that this kind of policy only intensifies women’s exploitation, disguising it as empowerment.

These authors warn about the dangers of the “feminine altruism” concept. The way women are incorporated into this kind of program has to do with women’s logic, which tends to prioritize the welfare of others before their own; furthermore women are apt to offer to work voluntarily. The disproportionate amount of “altruism” borne by women in low-income households seems to be increasing rather than diminishing with this kind of policy.

Four years earlier

Using this frame of reference, GrupoVenancia, a women’s collective dedicated to Grassroots Feminist Education and Communication, published research in 2011 about Zero Hunger’s gender logic in three municipalities—Matiguás, MuyMuy and Río Blanco—in the department of Matagalpa. Among the notable benefits identified at that time by the women who had received the bond were: improved nutrition, increased self-esteem, more economic security and greater say in their households. We identify all these elements as positive contributions to women’s empowerment, but contend that Zero Hunger has serious limitations to significantly contributing to it.

Specifically, we note that the PPA doesn’t address the issue of women’s lack of access to land; that it doesn’t change but is in fact based on and reinforces the sexual division of labor; that it justifies and ends up reproducing male irresponsibility; and that a program that has the welfare of the family as a unit rather than women’s empowerment as its stated objective will rarely have a significant effect on women’s empowerment. It isn’t that Zero Hunger doesn’t positively impact many of the beneficiaries but that its capacity to effectively contribute to women’s empowerment has been limited since its conception.
We finalized that investigation arguing that the most worrying aspect of a policy like Zero Hunger is that it was implemented in a context where previous governments had neglected the population, undermining people’s citizenship, thus laying the groundwork for clientelist practices. We also argued that where these programs clearly use patronage and where there’s political polarization—as there is in Nicaragua today—they could represent a serious setback to women’s citizenship. Women’s material conditions may improve but at the cost of reinforcing their role as homemakers and transforming them into the obedient vassals of the government in power.

This document is a continuation of that work done previously. We decided to follow up on that research four years later.

Capitalize, train and organize
the beneficiary families

Since 2007, the PPA-Zero Hunger has been one of the “stars” in the Ortega administration’s social policy, which has four focal points: education, health, water and sanitation supply, and food security.
The food security policy’s objective is to eradicate hunger—prioritizing children—and the PPA is its main program. Its principal aim is “to eradicate hunger, chronic malnutrition, extreme poverty and unemployment in 75,000 poor rural families through a quantitative and qualitative increase in the production and consumption of protein foods, at the same time encouraging replacement of the use of firewood with biogas.” Zero Hunger was initially implemented by the Agricultural and Forestry Ministry (Magfor), but when the Ministry of Family, Community, Cooperative and Associative Economy (Mefcca) was created in 2012 it took over this function.

The PPA has three specific objectives: capitalize, train and organize the beneficiary families.

Number of beneficiaries: The PPA increased the original scope of its goal from 75,000 families to over 100,000. By the end of 2012, 103,336 Production Food Bonds had been issued throughout the country and the new goal of benefitting 100,000 women had already been surpassed. Mefcca said it issued a further 25,000 in 2013. Taking these figures as our reference, we estimate that by the beginning of 2014 approximately 128,336 bonds had been given out. It’s noteworthy that the most bonds were handed out in the election years of 2008 and 2011.

Capitalization: This means awarding the Production Food Bond, whose elements have varied over the years. Initially, a typical bond contained a pregnant cow, a pregnant sow, a rooster, five hens, building materials to make corrals and a pigsty, plants and trees, while current bonds basically consist of fowl and a sow and are intended to be managed in a backyard.

One of the reasons for this change is that having a cow as part of the BPA meant that the recipient needed to have roughly three quarters of a hectare of land in order to get the bond—the minimum space needed to keep a cow—and this excluded the poorest families in the communities. With the new procedure, the cow disappears but the number of beneficiary families is increased.

Training: In addition to the changes in the assets given to be capitalized, the beneficiary families received regular home visits for technical assistance up until about a year ago and had regular training sessions with other program beneficiaries on issues basically related to managing and caring for the assets received.

Organizing: Here too there’s been a change, since the termination of one of the projects funding this program resulted in most municipalities drastically reducing their technical staff responsible for monitoring Mefcca’s other programs in the municipalities as well as working on Zero Hunger. Not only have the home visits disappeared, but so has the training in the field. This change has been accompanied by the creation of a network of Social Solidarity Promoters among the beneficiaries.

The organizing of the families is based on creating cells comprising 25 to 40 women who must save 20% of the value of the bond to create a revolving fund to support productive initiatives among the beneficiaries active in the program. The program design originally envisaged that once these cells achieved this level of saving—a goal expected to be met within two years—they would go on to form credit unions. But the program has developed differently. Seven years after the first cells received their BPA, most of them are far from achieving the 20% proposed savings.

Not all cells have formed cooperatives. This part of the program has been implemented differently depending on local and cell realities. According to Mefcca, 297 cooperatives—comprising 8,376 women—were legally constituted by early 2013 and accredited by the Nicaraguan Institute for Promoting Cooperatives (Infocoop) as a result of Zero Hunger. In addition, 26 business plan proposals have been made with support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (FIDA) and the Inter-American Bank’s Agro-Food Production Support program (Apagro-BID).

From “beneficiaries” to “protagonists”

One aspect that’s remained stable since the launch of the Zero Hunger program has been the targeting of women as beneficiaries. Documents defining the program talked about women as owners of the means of production, rural women’s new role, men’s shared responsibility and “the change in men’s social behavior in the home as a school for new social behavior.” They made clear that the assets of the bond are to benefit the family but in the woman’s name because they are better administrators: “it’s proven that women take better care of reproduction and owning the means of protein production than men.”

The only significant change we found is that currently, both on the Mefcca webpage and in its experts’ discourse, the Zero Hunger program no longer refers to “beneficiaries” but to “protagonists.” We suspect that this change has been a response to criticisms that it’s a “charity” program and promotes clientelism. It needs to be explored whether this metamorphosis at the discursive level has meant an effective change in the program’s design and implementation.

Changes were also made in other aspects that were criticized, such as the quality of the assets—especially cows but also sows. Instead of bulk purchases of animals, the women are more actively involved in the purchases, having the opportunity to choose and check the animals themselves. Changes were also introduced based on criticisms that selection of the beneficiaries demonstrated a political bias favoring the governing party. The requirements remained the same, but they tried to make the selection process uniform and added another level of checking. They introduced forms to be filled out for each potential beneficiary identified by the FSLN political party community structures at the community level. After that pre-selection, the list goes to the local technical staff of the ministry responsible for implementing the program for a technical check. The ministry then passes these lists to Managua.

Brigades of young people from Solidarity Promotion come from the capital to check once more that the preselected women meet the requirements. Both at the community level and in Managua, the Sandinista Youth (JS-19J) seems to be playing an increasingly important role in this selection process. The Solidarity Promotion “movement” was created in 2010 to encourage young volunteers and support the implementation of some of the government’s social programs: Plan Roof, Love for the Youngest Ones, distribution of basic food baskets…

“Abandonment” by technicians
and the arrival of promoters

Technical support is mentioned as a key element in the functioning of the cells. The visits by technical staff were essential to encourage payment to the revolving fund, convene meetings and share information about the program’s development.

A fundamental change in implementation occurred in 2014, due to budgetary constraints. In the three municipalities visited, if there were seven technicians two years ago providing follow-up, the number fell to one or two and the municipal coordinator is the only one in the field.

This has created an important change in the program’s dynamics. Most beneficiaries see it as “abandonment” by the technicians. In a study conducted by the Dutch Embassy in 2009, Paul Kester warned about the dangers of such abandonment and the feeling of “frustration” this could create once funding for the program ends.

In many of the cells we visited, the women identified the lack of a technician as the main cause for the decline or break-up of their cell. Most of the women interviewed didn’t understand the budgetary changes the program had undergone and many believed they had stopped visiting because of the low level of savings they had achieved.

The idea is that female Social Solidarity Promoters will fill the gap left by the reduction of technical staff, but their logic isn’t the same as that of the cells. If the women in the cell are from different communities—one of the reasons hampering cell consolidation, especially if the communities are remote—the promoters attend to the 10 or 12 who live closest to them, regardless of which cell they belong to. They have two tasks: to provide the beneficiaries support on animal husbandry and sell them products at cost from their veterinary kit, and to help them process letters disposing of or selling animals.

Some promoters have received financial training so they can motivate the women from the cell to save. However, this promoters’ network doesn’t seem to work with beneficiaries and Mefcca staff. The promoters are more focused on gathering census data about production and increasing the program’s beneficiaries than on giving the women technical support.

Very few women have actively taken on this promoter role. It’s voluntary work, takes up a lot of time and the beneficiaries are geographically dispersed; moreover the other beneficiaries haven’t always been informed about and accept their role as promoters.

Both the sense of “abandonment” and the distrust of the promoters arise mainly from a lack of information and communication about the changes the program has undergone. It should also be noted that the creation of a Zero Hunger promoters’ network entails the shift of a work load from paid personnel, the technical staff, to unpaid volunteers, the women.

This “transfer” or abuse of “feminine altruism” is typical of development policies that assume women have unlimited free time. But, for those who become promoters this means another extra workload: attending meetings, visiting the other beneficiaries and meeting with the technical staff, as well as the unrecognized economic cost all this traveling involves.

“You get depressed”

Both the Mefcca team and the beneficiaries agree that most of the cells today are scattered and disjointed. There are inactive directive boards and cells that haven’t met since the technicians stopped giving direct support. Some cells were already disbanded from before. Because of a lack of ministry staff in the field, the women who received the BPA in 2014 have still not been integrated into existing cells nor do they have information about how much they must save.

The fact that the cells were originally formed with women from different, occasionally very remote communities, has made it hard for them to stay organized. This is especially evident in MuyMuy, where the cells were formed among women living in communities at opposite ends of the municipality. That’s why meetings with the technicians were often held in two places. The board’s responsibilities were also divided: half on one side and half on the other. We don’t know the logic for having organized the cells that way, but it’s clearly been a major impediment to cohesion and self-sustainability.

As to cell dynamics, many of them have strong leaders who centralize information and decision-making. The beneficiaries normally identify a central figure in their cell to be the one to handle the card for depositing the cell’s savings. These leaders are usually also the ones who call meetings and decide about authorizing loans to those requesting them. There are clear difficulties of exercising democratic leadership.

When asked about the possibilities of reforming the cell, the women associate it with the presence of an outside person who will convene them and encourage them to continue paying what they still have to save. One of the women put it like this: “The technical assistants have to stay on top of this bond business… When that assistance is suspended, it’s like you slow down too, you get depressed and no longer participate or anything because you feel bad.”

It’s hard for them to save

Many of the women who struggled to deposit the savings quota gradually stopped attending meetings out of embarrassment. Although we did find women who had already finished saving the required 20%, they were a minority. The initial goal was that the cells would complete it in two years, but the Mefcca workers themselves said that no cells anywhere in the country have saved 100% of the quota. They mentioned a municipality where one cell has managed to save 80% while in the other more or less advanced cells they’vesaveD about 35-40% of it.

In the 2011 research we asked the women how they had managed to pull together the savings quota. Very few were generating enough production to have a surplus to sell and thus save based on their bond assets. Four years later, things have changed. Most of the women are selling milk, rennet cheese and eggs. They’ve also sold piglets and calves. All these sales generate revenue which they’ve partially invested in the savings quota. But, as we saw in the first study, many beneficiaries mentioned having paid part of the savings from other sources: working in Costa Rica; selling nacatamales, corn, fried food or clothing; wages earned from picking coffee; aid from other programs; help from their sons and daughters—including remittances from those who have emigrated—and from their partners.

They hardly give loans

There’s a lot of disinformation about the revolving loan fund: who decides about the loans; who can use the fund; what happens to women who don’t pay the whole loan back; if the quota payment is compulsory; what happens to the money saved when the cell deactivates… Most beneficiaries don’t see this fund as something belonging to them and about which only they can decide. This clearly shows the dependence on the technical staff and the concentration of power in the cell’s leader, the one who “handles the card.”
To date very few loans have been given. Mefcca sources explained that the idea is for the loans to be used for productive projects. However, of the few that have been given not all have met this requirement.

In several focus groups and interviews the women shared their disappointment about not having obtained loans. One woman told us: “I got discouraged because the policy was supposed to be that what we were contributing was a saving for each of us. But it wasn’t like that, because I once asked for a small loan to fix my house and they turned me down. That’s when I became demoralized and told her I wouldn’t pay one penny more.”

Another shared her feeling of having been tricked: “They told us we were going to help each other with loans; that we were going to get ourselves out of our poverty. That’s how they had us going and then, nothing; that’s how they took us in, how they tricked us.” None of the women we interviewed and/or participated in the focus groups had received a loan from her cell.

The dream of thousands of cooperatives

One of the key components in the initial structuring of Zero Hunger was that cells organized around the revolving fund would form credit unions. On Mefcca’swebpage it says: “By the end of the program we’ll have 75,000 women organized in cooperative cells of 50 women each, i.e. 1,500 women’s cooperatives. Each cooperative will handle a revolving fund of C$250,000 [roughly USS$1,000 at the exchange rate at that timE], which makes Zero Hunger the largest program for forming cooperatives and creating revolving funds, with a total of C$375 million [some US$15 million].”

What we found in the three municipalities aren’t cooperatives arising from the cells but a municipal cooperative for collecting, butchering and processing pork, primarily made up of the program’s beneficiaries. Cooperatives in the three municipalities studied have been formed that are linked to Procaval, Mefcca’s own meat project.

The pioneer cooperatives were in Río Blanco and MuyMuy, and they obtained legal status. The Matiguás cooperative applied for legal status when it started doing field work. The MuyMuy cooperative is the most advanced. Although they’ve had problems obtaining a land title for the place where the animal enclosure is located, they’ve already purchased their first pigs to sell to Mefcca.

They’ve also had difficulties in Río Blanco because the place they built for enclosing, slaughtering and processing the animals has no electricity and the machinery can’t work until this problem is resolved. Between July and August 2014, the Río Blanco cooperative had 210 affiliates; Matiguás had 182 and MuyMuy 126. Reviewing the information to which we had access, we calculate that a third of the beneficiaries in these municipalities decided to join the cooperative.

“They don’t take us into account”

Very few women talk about the cooperative as a way to meet women’s needs through collective work. It reminds us of the experience of the eighties and doesn’t seem that lessons have been learned. In several of the cells we visited the women who initially decided to join the cooperative are now discouraged. There’s a lot of discontent. Some think that information and decision-making is handled by only a few: “They don’t take us into account.” They don’t get information and complain that they won’t get back the money they contributed to form the cooperative.

The women who decided not to join the cooperative gave us various reasons. Some didn’t because they’d had to sell the sow and others because their husbands didn’t let them. There are also those who didn’t want to join because they felt it would mean an extra workload: “I’m the only woman and who’s going to mind my kids? I don’t want to because it’s more work.” Most of the beneficiaries in one community didn’t want to join because of distrust.

Better nutrition for the family

The Zero Hunger program has had clear benefits for the families that received the bond. The most obvious benefit, and the first mentioned when talking with the women, is the improvement in nutrition. Eggs, milk, cheese—and occasionally meat—are foods the beneficiaries and their families now have on the table without having to buy them. Not having to buy milk and being able to sell its derivatives, in addition to eggs and meat, in order to buy basic products—sugar, salt, oil, soap and clothing—is the expression of economic improvement.

Compared to our first study, most of the women now regularly sell surplus generated from the BPA assets. Most have managed to reproduce the original package of assets, although a lack of land has been a serious constraint on this reproductive capacity. We still agree with the assessment made by the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies (IEEPP) in 2008: “The PPA goal of helping 75,000 families in five years and enabling them to generate food not only for domestic consumption but also for the community, the department, the country and for export seems rather ambitious and unrealistic.”

They now work for themselves

Some of the beneficiaries have improved their houses by selling surplus and the animals they breed. Others say they’ve used the money to “get out of debt.” One beneficiary proudly stated that she paid for her daughter’s preschool graduation with BPA money: “When my little girl was about to graduate from preschool, I told her: I’m going to get together the money to take your photos and buy the things for your graduation. I paid for her graduation with the cow’s milk.”

Two participants in the focus groups managed to save up and buy a manzana [0.7 hectare] of land from their father-in-law. In addition to having disposable income, the women feel they now have “where to turn” in case of need. If anyone is sick, if any large or unexpected expense arises, having cattle represents “insurance.” Someone from Mefcca, who has been working in Zero Hunger for years, says that only those who have enough space to keep a cow have improved economically. Others mention that not having to work on other people’s haciendas is a positive impact. Owning means of production puts them on another level. One woman put it like this: “We’ve improved here because we don’t have to go out as day laborers… You don’t have to go and serve others, not any more. Now we work for ourselves, breeding our own animals.”

They used to work as day laborers, cooks or coffee pickers on the haciendas. All of it is heavy, exploitative, insecure work: long days, low wages and no labor rights. They now work for themselves, not others. The women see this as clearly beneficial, although it’s double edged: for some who used to go out to work, the change has meant returning to their traditional place in the home. Is it “going back home” or turning women into producers and entrepreneurs? It depends where the emphasis is put.

It’s also worth further investigating the women’s concept of what is and isn’t “work.” When they talk about no longer having to go out to work on the plantation, many now say they “don’t work.” All the reproductive and productive tasks they do in the home isn’t perceived as work. A study of rural women in Nicaragua notes that they see themselves as “housewives” despite all the agricultural work they do.

Another benefit that already appeared in the first study concerns the women’s increased self-esteem and confidence: “I have more incentive now. I go out with confidence and I talk with other people,” one woman told us. The changes in women’s self-esteem are related to their access to goods, their productive capacity and their participation in organized spaces.

“Men say they’re the women now”

As in the first study, most of the women’s families, men included, shared their joy in being a Food Production Bond beneficiary, especially in receiving a cow. All those interviewed mentioned that their husbands were happy and typically went with them to bring home the animals.

However, aside from that initial reaction, we found evidence that men feel threatened by what they perceive as their spouse’s increased power. On becoming cattle owners, certain tensions have arisen between the couple. One woman commented: “My husband tells me: ‘You’re the owner because now it’s you that’s got the money. I feel you’ve got more than me.’ Well, I said he was joking or it could be blackmail because sometimes he tells me: ‘Imagine that, you’re always complaining and you’ve got more money than me.’ So I tell him: ‘Yes, it’s true that the cow is money, but money doesn’t grow on it like leaves’. I have to sell it in order to have money. It isn’t something I can take from the cow anytime I want.”

Men’s perception that their wives now have more power through having the bond and being organized is also clear from this experience: “They say that now they’re the women and we’re the men, because we have more rights than them as we’re taken into account everywhere.”

“Before, if you didn’t ask, you couldn’t do it”

Women’s bargaining power in the home greatly depends on their owning and controlling assets. The women perceive the change because they now feel “they have something.” Some stated that their decision-making power in the home has increased and they feel more autonomous about the decisions they make.

In most cases they relate this power to an ability to meet their own and their children’s needs, to handling their own money and to the possibility of deciding on how to spend the small savings they generate: “Before I had to tell him a day ahead if I was going out but now I don’t. Now I just get ready and I say: ‘Look, I have to go to a meeting’ and he doesn’t tell me not to go, he says: ‘Well, you got yourself into this, you have to keep on with it.’” Another woman explained: “Now I get to decide. I have something to fall back on. I’m not like before when if he didn’t give me I didn’t have; if I didn’t ask, I couldn’t do it.”

Another example of the increased decision-making power appeared in the focus group, where one of the participants explained that her husband gave her an ultimatum: she could go to the meetings or stay with him. She chose the meetings and her partner, seeing that she wasn’t going to change her mind, finally accepted her decision. It explains how having money is a key element in not having to ask permission: “I used to ask him for the fare: ‘Look, I’m going to x place, give me the fare,’ but now I take my bit of money out from where I keep it, I get ready and when he says ‘When are you coming back?’ I tell him I don’t know.”

Another woman shared with a focus group her feeling of freedom on being able to make decisions about money without having to ask her partner: “Before they gave us the bond we didn’t have anything to fall back on, any way to make a buck. We could only ask our husbands. But now I have this money and don’t have to ask him for it. He pays for the household expenses, I buy other things and if I want to buy something for my little girl I do it. I don’t tell him I want it for something. It makes you feel free, different.” These are examples of women’s increased autonomy when they have access to money.

What do men contribute?

In most cases they talked about the couple and other family members sharing work. However, the division of labor still corresponds to a sexual division of labor, in which the women do the “easy” work, close to home, and the men do the “heavy” work, further away.

Usually the men—whether partner, brother, son, father or brother-in-law—”deal with” the cow, although there are also cases of separated, widowed or single women who are responsible for it. Among the women who handle the cow, most learned to do so when they were young. Care of smaller animals—the sow and hens—normally falls to the women, as does processing and selling the derivatives. Men play a key role in the sale of animals because they know about cattle prices while the women lack information and negotiation skills in this market.

They all mentioned that they manage the bond’s assets and resources, although in several cases together with their partners: “I make the decisions myself. He tells me: ‘They’re yours, you look to what you do.’ If I ask him to help me with something, he does, but I decide about what’s mine.”

A finding we didn’t address in the previous investigation concerns the support the women get from their daughters fulfilling reproductive tasks. Especially the beneficiaries who are active in the cell, on the board or the cooperative’s directive or are promoters have to attend innumerable meetings and training sessions, which obliges them to be away from home regularly.

When we asked them how they resolve this problem, almost all of them mentioned the support they get from others, usually their daughters. This must be taken into account because it’s invisible work often undertaken by under-age girls, supposedly benefited by their mothers’ participation in these programs, but also involves an extra workload through having to take on tasks their mothers would normally do.

In the previous study we pointed out that other research into similar programs and policies found that in some cases the increase in the women’s income caused the men to take less financial responsibility in the home, that the men saw the women’s contribution as a substitute for rather than a complement to their own income. In this fieldwork we found that Zero Hunger has caused changes in the men’s workload.

In more than one case the women said that now their partners don’t have to go out to work “at anything,” since the bond reduces the pressure on having external sources of income. This could be positive, if by not having to go to work, the men were to take on tasks traditionally assigned to women. But instead they said that their partners “don’t have it so hard” now while they work as much if not more than before.

One woman says: “Right now no one’s working, because there’s no work, so he helps me with the food. My husband worked, but right now he’s working here at home, cleaning and pruning coffee bushes, planting corn and beans. Previously he had to buy the food and work at whatever he could. It was too hard. Now he’s able to rest more.” When we asked if her workload had also reduced, she said: “For me it’s the same and maybe a little more because with children you work more.”

Land for rural women:
A law that isn’t complied with

In Nicaragua, women are 23.19% of landowners, according to government figures (Inide 2011), as owning assets—especially land—is a key element in increasing the decision-making power of women, especially rural women, in the home. A recent study in Nicaragua shows the positive relationship between women owning land and the reduction of both gender inequality and violence against women. The description of the Zero Hunger program on Mefcca’s webpage recognizes facilitating access to land, as well as to water and credit, as important pieces of the program: “To think in optimum conditions for the animals granted through facilitating access to water, land and credit.”

In 2010, consistent with the focus on food sovereignty, the National Assembly passed Law 717, the Law Creating the Fund for Buying Land with Gender Equity for Rural Women. Its purpose is to help rural women with limited resources to buy land. Article 1 establishes that the State must create a fund to buy lands it will later sell to women to “improve the nuclear family’s quality of life and access to financial resources, prioritizing those women with limited economic resources who are heads of household.”

Law 717 establishes that the initial capital with which the fund for purchasing land with gender equity will operate must come from the country’s general budget and be administered through BancoProduzcamos [the recently created state development bank]. Nonetheless, despite advocacy work by organizations such as the Rural Women’s Coordinating Body, the Northwest Women’s Committee and the Federation of Rural Women Agricultural Producers (Femuprocan), allied with other organizations, the government has still not earmarked funds for creating the land bank as of 2014, four years after the law was passed.

The backyard bond now doesn’t
include the main thing: the cow

The lack of access to land came out very forcibly in the fieldwork we did. A program that aims to empower women in the countryside must necessarily address this issue.

In our first investigation we noted that, given its requirements and characteristics, Zero Hunger hadn’t responded to the needs of the poorest women, who have no land in their name or access to it. We stated that the program hadn’t been used to encourage women beneficiaries to get land titles in their own name or jointly with their partners.

Changes to the PPA in recent years have responded to this criticism. In order to include women with no access to land and, therefore, at a greater disadvantage, a new kind of bond was introduced that doesn’t include the cow. It has been given to women who don’t have land, just a yard or small plot. In the three municipalities we analyzed last year, the bond didn’t include a cow and was given to landless women. Although this kind of bond makes the program more inclusive it’s achieved at the expense of giving up the symbolically and materially most valuable component, the cow, which contributes most to the family’s nutrition. Furthermore, this change doesn’t touch on the root of the problem, which is the lack of land.

Despite the adoption of Law 717, Mefcca sources confirmed to us that the government hasn’t implemented any action that effectively addresses this problem. Lack of access to land, or property with very little land, has been a serious limitation to reproducing the bond, especially the one with the cow. Seven years after Zero Hunger was launched this is becoming increasingly more evident. Some women, who have very little or no land but managed to become bonus beneficiaries in the first handouts by renting pastureland, ended up selling the cow because it was too hard to keep and the rent was too expensive. For many of them this caused frustration, anxiety, sadness and a feeling of failure.

They feel they had the opportunity to have “something” but couldn’t take advantage of it: “I told the president of the cell that if I can’t afford that cow it would be better to give it to someone else who needs it. It’s true that I have needs but I don’t have anywhere for the cow to eat... I have the cow but I feel I’ve failed.”

“Selling the cow affected me a lot”

Another woman said she met the goal of saving 20%, but ended up selling the cow because it was too hard to keep: “We were thinking like children, we weren’t thinking that we had to have resources. I didn’t have land, I had to rent it for the little cow and it didn’t work out. I paid C$200 (US$8) a month for the pastureland and that was very expensive for me. I had to work to find a way to keep the cow.” This woman paid for the pastureland from what her husband, a health leader for an NGO, earned, and with money her daughters sent. But, five years after they gave her the cow, she had to sell it: “I was very upset because it’s not easy for a poor person to see opportunities coming into your hands and you can’t fight to improve them. Yes, it’s upsetting, you feel it.”

Other women with very little land have managed to keep and reproduce their cow, but not to increase the number of animals because they don’t have enough land. A Mefcca source said its own internal study showed that the number of cows has barely increased since 2007 due to a lack of land, which leads the women to sell their calves.

“We want to advance”

In one of the cells where two women sold their cows because paying to pasture them didn’t work out, the group organized, made a collective demand to the government to help them buy land, did the paperwork, spoke to Mefcca staff and even went to Matagalpa to present their case. Nonetheless, they got no response: “We went round and round and saw how hard it was. The government didn’t want anything to do with it, maybe because it doesn’t think we’ll be able to pay back the money but we’re not asking them to give it to us; on the contrary, we’re asking to pay it back little by little.”

Another woman explained: “It’s very sad that the government gave us these animals and we’re having to sell them because of a lack of land. We want them to provide us more land, but not as a gift. We want to pay for it, under lease, with what we harvest, with the eggs we sell... We want to raise the calves. We want to advance, not to do worse.” In another cell they proposed having even one or two manzanas: “It would be good if the government bought a plot of land, two or three manzanas, and we paid it back over time. We could work the land and from it earn money and keep on paying for it.”

Without knowing it, what many of the Zero Hunger beneficiaries are demanding is the implementation of Law 717, which would enable poor rural women to buy land. The development of the PPA has shown that without addressing this issue the animals’ reproductive capacity is limited and a significant proportion of the most disadvantaged women is excluded.

Is Zero Hunger “even-handed”?

In our earlier study we ended by arguing that the PPA is an aid program that grants “benefits without rights” and that it’s been implemented in a clientelistic manner. We mentioned evidence of how the PPA has used party and neo-party structures as key players at both the municipal and community level, especially in the beneficiary selection process. Mefcca’s change of language from “beneficiaries” to “protagonists” seems to be a response to this kind of accusation. But has it introduced real changes to transform the patronage dynamics in Zero Hunger and other government policies?

The women’s general perception is that the main factor determining who benefits from a program or policy is the real need for help or the service provided. The idea is very widespread that these benefits reach the community without discrimination of any kind, regardless of political party: Everything is even-handed, whatever one may be, whether evangelical, Catholic, Sandinista, Liberal or whatever; everything is the same for whoever needs it. Such statements that the aid is given “evenly,” however, contrasts with the reality we found in the field.

First, the Cabinets of the Family, Community and Life (previously CPCs), the FSLN political secretary, the Sandinista Youth and the political delegate are still key figures in the beneficiary selection process and are mentioned in all interviews and focus groups for their active role in implementing the government’s different social policies. In the fieldwork we couldn’t locate a single Zero Hunger beneficiary who didn’t identify herself as a Sandinista.

This may be for various reasons. On the one hand, based on previous studies, we hold to the hypothesis that Sandinista sympathizers have been the most benefited with the government’s social policies, whether Zero Hunger, Zero Usury or Plan Roof. But on the other hand, we suggest that people, regardless of their party of choice, decide to publicly identify themselves as Sandinistas to ensure access to social policies.

A promoter told us in a focus group: “People are smart, it isn’t that they have to be Sandinistas, but they use their brains and say: Now that they’re in power I’m going to be Sandinista so they’ll give me stuff.” In another focus group a beneficiary explained the difference between being “legitimate” or not: “In the community you know who’s legitimate and who isn’t. In order to achieve something they become Sandinista just for that purpose, but at the moment of truth, they aren’t.” And another woman: “It seems like there are no Liberals here now. Nobody wants to be Liberal now; we all want to be Sandinista.”

“The damage the political secretaries do”

In some interviews and focus groups there were complaints about the beneficiary selection process in various government policies, although not Zero Hunger. Some people criticized “cronyism” and corrupt practices in the processes, but it is seen as a problem of the local leaders and not a widespread corrupt practice intrinsic to the government’s model. There’s a disassociation between what happens in the municipalities and what the government does. Daniel and Rosario—names used as synonymous with the government—aren’t defined as responsible for the bad practices that occur in the municipalities.

The idea that problems of corruption and cronyism are local was repeated in several interviews. In one focus group, a woman spoke negatively about the Sandinista Youth’s practices in granting scholarships to young people: “They give scholarships to their friends, better yet to their own family. It isn’t what the government orders, you see. The government does wonders in the municipalities and the departments. It gives preference to poor people, children and women. The government is doing a lot and across the board, without any distinction. Those who make a distinction are the branches in the municipalities.” The idea that the problem is local is repeated in another community: “The government doesn’t know about the politicians it has in the countryside; it doesn’t realize the bad things they’re doing. We want the government to take a hard line and remove those political secretaries who aren’t working well. That’s what we want, for our government and Rosario Murillo to look and remove those political secretaries because you should see the damage they’re doing in the communities.”

It’s not a right, it’s “a gift”

The way the beneficiaries talk about the BPA demonstrates the clientelism that accompanies it. The women don’t talk about a “right” but about a “gift”: “I’m very grateful for the gift the President gave us. I also feel we should thank God for everything. He came to improve the life of the forgotten families that live in the countryside, poor people, we who were the most despised. The government tries to care for all of us in the countryside and we’ve been awarded by being given a bond.”

Another woman said: “The government, Compañera Rosario, still remembers us despite all the many things in this Nicaragua—as poor as it is with so many poor people—but he (Daniel Ortega) is always helping each one of us with the little he can.” And another: “I feel very grateful because this government is the only one that has helped us. Therefore we also have to help it by voting for it so it can continue helping and also so it remembers us.”

According to this logic, to have received the bonus creates an obligation to the ruling party, which must be paid for with a vote. This logic already appeared in our first investigation. There are obvious traits in the interviews and focus groups that political scientist Andrés Pérez-Baltodano identifies as characteristics of Nicaragua’s political culture: providentialism and resigned pragmatism.

He explains that providentialism “expresses a vision of history as a process governed by God.” This vision of national politics appears in several of the interviews. One woman said: “God determines the governments. No government has done things like this government we have and we thank the Lord that God put it there. And may the same one continue winning.” And another: We thank the Lord and then the President because it’s God who puts in and changes Presidents, because God disposes. But the Lord saw and put in a good President, and I hope he continues winning so he can continue helping us.”

A strategic pragmatism

Pérez-Baltodano defined as resigned pragmatism, “assuming that what is politically desirable must always be subordinated to what is circumstantially possible.” In the interviews the idea is repeated that “we have to be with the party that’s there” and provides the greatest benefits, demonstrating a pragmatic view of politics. One woman who said in the interview that she voted for the FSLN, but was defined by others as a Liberal, argued it like this: “I tell them that you have to be as one with the government that works with this thing.” Another put it this way: “We have to be with the party that’s there, because the same government’s not going to be there all the time. The time will come when he’ll lose his election. Therefore, you aren’t certain who’s going to belong to the same party all the time.”

We think these examples of pragmatism are strategic, which has a more favorable and less passive connotation than resigned pragmatism, since it reveals that the women have some ability to be active subjects deciding and managing their lives.

These and other testimonies of complaint and denunciation, of strategic pragmatism, of “smarts” and forms of resistance towards these clientelistic practices, make us believe that under the women’s apparent acceptance are new forms of awareness corresponding to active citizenship.

It will be a matter of monitoring these development processes to see if, over time, our still incipient findings are confirmed.

General summary of research by Group Venancia titled “Hambre Cero cuatroañosdespués. Cómo les ha ido a mujeres de Matiguás, MuyMuy and Río Blanco en Matagalpa” (Zero Hunger four years on: How the women of Matiguás, MuyMuy and Río Blanco in Matagalpa are doing), conducted by researcher EdurneLarracochea, with collaboration by Geni Gómez and Fernanda Siles, and presented in November, 2014. Thisarticlewaseditedbyenvío.

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