Throughout Central America, women are actively mobilizing for their rights; the crucial difference in Nicaragua is that the new government has a commitment to support them. The challenges they face are similar to those faced by each of the neighboring republics–but only in Nicaragua have concrete opportunities for change arisen.
– Helen Collinson et al., ‘Women and Revolution in Nicaragua’ (1990)
According to the Global Gender Gap Index, the Central American country of Nicaragua currently places twelfth in the world for gender parity, above the likes of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Since the 1979 Sandinista revolution, the living conditions for women have drastically improved, successes which even the period of neoliberal rule from 1990 to 2006 couldn’t completely overturn. Throughout the second Sandinista period—from 2007 until today—the material and social position of women has continued to strengthen. Recently, new laws protecting the political and economic rights of women have been ratified after organized campaigns from the Nicaraguan women’s movement, while women’s organizations are receiving unprecedented investment and interest from the socialist government.
What can we learn from the Nicaraguan women’s movement about the global struggle for women’s rights and gender parity? This is the central question we will answer, by first giving a general overview of the conditions for women under the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FLSN) before, during, and in-between both revolutionary periods.
Firstly, it must be said that it is impossible to separate the women’s movement in Nicaragua from the Sandinista revolution. They are mutually interdependent. The reason is quite simple: women’s lives are dramatically better under Sandinista governance. During the Somoza dictatorship, supported by the U.S. and its allies, many women lived in slave-like conditions. They were prevented from owning property, accessing health care, directly receiving salaries, or attending formal education. Reproductive rights and information on sexual health were non-existent. Rape was extraordinarily common, particularly on the plantations. Under Somoza’s tyranny, women existed for expropriation and nothing more. Lola del Carmen Esquivel Gonzales, today a member of the Gloria Quintanilla Co-operative in Santa Julia, shared reflections on her life under Somoza:
At the very young age of 11 years (during the Somoza dictatorship), I worked in the fields, the campesino life. I didn’t have land; I was an agricultural worker. It was hard because there was no education, no protection for children. There were no rights for women. There was no healthcare. My mother and I were nomads, moving through various departments looking for work, harvesting cane sugar. We didn’t have a home. I became a woman: I learned to walk with a machete, cut coffee and cotton and cane, sell fruit, and clean rooms in Corinto, Chinandega.
Much of this changed after 1979: women were instrumental in the overthrow of Somoza, both as combatants and in supporting roles. Throughout the 1980s women fought for all the basic human rights, many of which were immediately granted by the socialist FSLN. In Nicaragua’s first democratic elections in 1984, 67 percent of the women who voted in that election voted for the FSLN.
Following the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990 after a decade of the US-Contra war, Nicaragua entered a period of three neoliberal governments (1991–2006) whose policies had little interest in improving the qualities of life for women. Neoliberal policies in Nicaragua were harsh on women, especially for working class and rural women, who were made invisible despite being key actors in Nicaraguan production. Public education was privatized and public healthcare was left without funding. The informal job sector boomed, dramatically worsening labor conditions. The burden of this increasing poverty fell disproportionately on women.
The Sandinistas were voted back into power in 2007. During this second revolutionary period, women’s rights have again returned to the fore. Many of the laws enacted in the 1980s were put into better practice and the women’s movement found a new lease of life. Women’s working conditions have become a priority of the government. The advances have positively impacted urban and rural women-led households as different social programs have focused specifically on them. Yet international attention, notably that of Western middle-class feminist groups, have often ignored these advances, instead focusing on one issue: abortion rights. Both deserve equal attention, inseparable as they are, and will be covered below. Let us initially make a sweeping pass through the history and praxis of the organizations involved in the women’s movement, including the victories and the problems they faced.
The women’s movement–history and praxis
The women’s movement began in earnest with the guerrilla war against Somoza in 1979. Thirty percent of guerilla combatants were women. Some militias were made up exclusively of women, while others took up leadership of mixed units and entire battalions. A handful of these same women went on to senior military positions in Sandinista society and have worked tirelessly to progress the revolution ever since, like Doris Tijerino, who led the Sandinista Police, or Leticia Herrera, who directed the Sandinista Defense Committees.
This composition of all-women militias and women in mixed formations came to inform the women’s movement as it progressed. The Luisa Amanda Espinosa Association of Nicaraguan Women, or AMNLAE, the first group dedicated solely to women’s rights, emerged around 1978. AMNLAE, “sees itself as an umbrella organization incorporating women from all the different sectors, including the trade unions”, although by 1985 registered as an official non-profit (Collinson et al, 1990). In its early years, one can think of AMNLAE as reflecting the all-women militias that emerged during the revolutionary war. Alongside AMNLAE, women were also setting up initiatives within their mixed institutions to give a voice to their struggle.
The most notable of these latter groups was the Women’s Secretariat of the Rural Workers’ Association, or ATC to use the Spanish acronym. The approach of women in the ATC was that forming a separate women’s organizations would only serve to ghettoize the women’s struggle. In other words, it would remain an issue only for women rather than for both men and women.
This mentality was also informed by the widespread skepticism of the feminist movement at the time. For broad sections of the Nicaraguan population, suggests Lea Guido of AMNLAE, feminism was seen as a Western ideology that only further divided men and women in their journey to “mutual liberation”. For the women’s movement of past and present, it is “capitalism [that] has divided men and women so that we couldn’t join together and change things,” remarked former AMNLAE worker, Heliette Ehlers. As it was the Western imperialists who imposed capitalism, who aided Somoza during his dictatorship, and who still fund armed conflict in Nicaragua today (see: 2018 coup attempt), Western ideologies are treated with a healthy distrust, to the extent that even in this second Sandinista period some women prefer to use the term ‘women’s movement’ rather than ‘feminist movement’.
The tactical split in the women’s movement has not got in the way of it making tremendous gains. The first major victory was the Agrarian Reform and Co-operatives laws of 1981 whereby Nicaragua became the first country in Latin America to recognize women’s rights to wages, land, and co-operative organizing as equal to that of men. This was soon followed by, “the Law Regulating Relations Between Mothers, Fathers and Children  . . . which created equal rights over children for both parents; and the Law of Nurturing  which obliged all men to contribute to their children’s upkeep and to do their share of household tasks” (Collinson et al, 1990). Both of these latter laws were won after campaigning by AMNLAE. In these early revolutionary years, single women also won the right to legally adopt; the trafficking of Nicaraguan children was banned; and women began to fill various positions in the National Assembly.
One of the most significant moments in the 1980s for the women’s movement came in 1987 with the Proclama. The Proclama was the result of seven years of lobbying and agitation by the movement. Numerous open meetings had been held during this time discussing the plight of women, namely their dual role as unpaid careers for the family and poorly paid salaried workers. Popular Sandinista newspaper Barricada ran dozens of articles on the matter, as well as on questions of reproductive rights and sexual liberation. The Proclama, a policy published by the FSLN, acknowledged for the first time that, “women suffer additional exploitation specific to their sex and that struggles within the revolutionary process were legitimate; it also roundly condemned machismo. Most importantly, it argued that women’s issues could not be ‘put off’ till after the war” (Collinson et al, 1990).
Machismo no longer had anywhere to hide. A huge societal shift emerged in Nicaragua and the discussion of women’s rights, as well as the attitude of men, went mainstream. Extensive education programs challenging domestic violence were rolled out, with harsher punishments for repeat offenders. The first TV show on sexual education, ‘Sex & Youth’, aired on the Sandinista channel SSTV, discussing everything from masturbation to homosexuality. Following the Proclama, the salient Divorce Law of 1988 was passed, permitting women to leave their toxic and/or abusive relationships.
Of course, no policy can force attitudes to change, so machismo still remains an issue in 2021. Yet the difference between the women’s movement under the FSLN and the movement under neoliberal governments, is that the FSLN has provided important support to the fight for gender equality, and since the return of the FSLN government in 2007, a number of laws have been passed in this vein.
The Gender Policy and Law No. 648: Equal Rights and Opportunities Law (2007)—quickly passed after FLSN re-assumed power—are based on the premise of working for gender equality, strengthening women’s protagonism, and the construction of more humane, equitable, and complementary gender relations as both a human right and a strategic necessity for the country’s development.
Later came the approval of Law 779: the Integral Law against Violence against Women (2014), a policy first proposed in the 1980s and finally ratified, despite strong counter-opposition by the religious sector, with the return of the FSLN government. It gives Nicaraguan women a legal framework for the protection and defense of their lives which is implemented with the assistance of 85 all-women police stations, comisarias, whose main focus is on protecting women and children from abuse.
In 2021, the government additionally passed a law enshrining women’s representation at parliamentary level, which was vehemently condemned by the opposition. All electoral lists, from local councils to the National Assembly, must now comprise 50 percent women. The percentage of congresswomen now stands at 48.4. For comparison, Canada is only at 28.9 percent. Today, Nicaragua ranks fourth in the world for women in parliamentary positions and first in the world for women in ministerial positions. It is one significant indicator of the FSLN’s attempts to eradicate gender disparity and make it easier for the women’s movement to have both a voice and enact law.
In the 21st century, the women’s movement has undoubtedly made huge gains at parliamentary level, yet it has also made a big impact in other areas of society. One of the most important actors in this regard is the aforementioned, ATC.
Working for liberation
The most essential component of Nicaragua’s economy has for centuries been its agricultural sector. Prior to the revolution, all available fertile land was forcibly converted into vast monocultural cash-crop plantations and worked by the local population, be that slaves, Indigenous people, or mestizos. From the moment William Walker’s men invaded in 1855 up until 1979, Nicaragua was a victim of this agro-imperialism. However, when the Sandinistas launched a comprehensive agrarian reform in the 1980s, land was democratized and given to peasant families, creating the base for Nicaragua’s food sovereign model today. Moreover, when men went to fight in the mountains during the US-funded counter-revolution in the 1980s, women took on agricultural jobs that had been traditionally held by men—carrying out the field work, driving tractors, applying inputs, tending to the animals—in addition to all of the traditional housework and childrearing. This was an important moment that showed that women too could carry out agricultural activities other than harvesting, breaking off from traditional machista ideas about the division of agricultural labor.
In the build-up to the Sandinista revolution, the ATC was founded with the goal of organizing peasants and farm workers in defense of their rights as well as to improve living conditions in the countryside. Shortly after the historical triumph, they made the decision to found the ATC’s Women’s Secretariat (later adding the ‘Movimiento de Mujeres del Campo’/MMC or Rural Women’s Movement). This space was perhaps the first in a Nicaraguan organization specifically created to address women’s issues, and in this case, to meet the demands of peasant and working-class women. The Secretariat and MMC have since their inception struggled for better wages, access to education, respect for women’s physical and moral integrity, and equal opportunities. This union has continually played a crucial role in defending the needs of both male and female land workers, especially during the first phase of the revolution when many workers left bondage for the first time in their lives to then define a new form of workplace that would transform society.
With the arrival of the neoliberal period in 1990 and the concomitant decline in workers’ rights, women’s organizing became even stronger as a response. ATC women led shutdowns of main roads in Managua to ensure that the land they had obtained during the 1980s agrarian reform was respected. They also spearheaded the creation of new autonomous zones in northern regions of the country, especially the department of Jinotega.
Today, the ATC has 18,000 women members in different social sectors. Both women and men are trained by the likes of the Francisco Morazán Peasant Worker School in gender relations and eliminating violence against women. These programs also work on fostering women’s leadership for rural movements; in the ATC itself the majority of both national and departmental leaders are women, not just the Women’s Secretariat.
Government social programs such as those organized by the Ministry for Family, Cooperative, Communal, and Associative Economy/MEFCCA, have a particular focus on women heads of households, providing them with the productive resources they need to run their own small business and contribute to the country’s economy. One such notable initiative is the Zero Usury program, that provides financing at an annual interest rate of 2 percent to women entrepreneurs, farmers, and producers. Women are also given quick access to credit and without the risk of being dispossessed of their land or belongings. This is in sharp contrast to the neoliberal system that, through private microfinance companies, charged rates of up to 11 percent per month, snatching from women the little they had because they did not provide support or training for the development of their businesses. Since 2007, the Zero Usury program has provided one or more loans to over a half million women in Nicaragua.
Another notable MEFCCA program is the Hunger Zero program (modeled on the one in Brazil), whereby all agricultural assets are put in the woman’s name, including livestock, inputs, and technology. This model, not seen anywhere else in Central America, has empowered economically rural women to be self-sufficient. These initiatives are crucial because they allow women to break the dependency on male breadwinners, giving them more autonomy and stopping the cycles of violence that have historically existed in the Nicaraguan countryside.
One example of where this has all come into action is the Gloria Quintanilla Cooperative in El Crucero, a nationally-recognized women’s coffee farmer cooperative. The 22 women members are leaders in their community that is made up of 79 families. With assistance from both the ATC and the Sandinista government, the women have organized to build an elementary school in the community, inaugurate a well for potable water, and all of the women farmers are trained in agroecological techniques that they implement in their plots, contributing to the national food sovereignty and security campaigns.
As shown by the Gloria Quintanilla Co-operative, raising employment for women cannot happen without increasing participation and standards of education. Before 1979, there were no educational provisions for children of any gender under six years old. Schooling post-13 was rare. Illiteracy was at 50 percent with women forming a majority of the illiterate (Collinson et al, 1990). Responding to the successes seen in Cuba—over a thousand Cuban teachers came to Nicaragua in 1981 to assist in the education sector—the FSLN embarked on a ‘Literacy Crusade’. Within only a year, illiteracy was reduced to 12 percent, with women being the primary beneficiaries. This is reflected in the mass training of ‘popular teachers’ after the crusade, 95 percent of whom were women. Education thereafter became another key source of employment for women, especially in rural areas. As of 2017, 78 percent of the teachers are women. Starting in 2012, the government has promoted a program of specialization and professionalization of school teachers to improve the quality of the education system across the country.
This is an education system that under the FSLN has always been rooted in the popular pedagogy of Marxist thinker, Paulo Freire. In the second revolutionary period, his teachings are embodied in the creation of the Latin American Institute for Agroecology/IALA, an education centre established with the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina, and former Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. The IALAs, including the IALA campus in Nicaragua called IALA Ixim Ulew (meaning “land of corn” in Maya Quiche) are training centers for youth that come from social movements and rural areas providing political, ideological, and technical training in agroecology. Part of this training is about dismantling patriarchal systems that have acutely affected rural areas and replacing them with a model that not only acknowledges women as the cornerstone of agriculture, but values seed saving, fights machismo, builds shared responsibilities between women and men, and boosts food production. These concepts are included in the ‘popular peasant feminism‘ modules that are imparted at the IALAs.
Bertha Sanchez is an 18-year-old young woman from the department of Masaya. She is a single mother and is currently studying to be a specialized technician in Agroecology at IALA. In her testimony as an IALA student, she shared:
My experience has been unique because, truthfully, I never thought I’d say, ‘I’m going keep studying’. I am a single mother of a three-year-old child, I thought I’d just get a job and struggle from paycheck to paycheck. But by the grace of God, I now have the opportunity to continue studying. I like to work the fields. I have a plot where I grow vegetables… I have to think about the fact that I have someone who comes after me, in this case my son. I need him to feel proud of me, to be an example of discipline and show him what is means to be from the countryside
While there are IALA campuses throughout Latin America, the IALA campuses in Nicaragua and Venezuela are unique in that their training programs are state-accredited, meaning that the students receive a valuable title in acknowledgment of the studies they have carried out.
Reproductive rights and healthcare
Women’s healthcare and reproductive rights are a major priority of the FSLN. With the reinstatement of the universal right to healthcare after 2006, a series of impressive achievements have been made that mean that women, and consequently their families too, are living healthier lives.
Through Nicaragua’s extensive public healthcare system, women receive access to free, high-quality, and culturally-appropriate healthcare from the Pacific to the Caribbean Coast. This includes a whole fleet of mobile clinics that tour the country to perform regular cervical and breast cancer screenings, along with the opening of a women’s hospital in 2015 to specifically treat women’s health issues.
The Maternal Homes program, that covers women from rural areas or with high-risk pregnancies, ensures accommodation, food, and prenatal training for pregnant women. In 2015, 51,189 pregnant women were housed in 174 Maternal Homes and in 2018, 61,648 pregnant women were housed in 178 Maternal Homes. According to the Nicaraguan Ministry for Health, these types of programs have contributed to the 60 percent reduction of maternal mortality rates, going from 78.2 deaths in 2007 to 47 deaths per 100,000 live births registered in 2018.
Family-planning methods are widely available in the Nicaraguan public healthcare system, where five types of contraception are freely available. The Ministry of Health also connects with local community health promoters to ensure that women can access their preferred birth control method without even having to leave their communities, helping to reduce teenage pregnancies.
Internationally, there is much attention around the case of abortion in Nicaragua. In order to understand why abortion has not been nationally legalized, it is important to understand some cultural components of Nicaragua. The large majority of Nicaraguans are Catholics or Protestants, which combined with traditional peasant cultures, means public support for abortion is low. At all levels, but particularly at a governmental level, there is a greater focus on family planning (rare in other Catholic countries) and avoiding unwanted pregnancies, as well as ending and criminalizing violence against women. For example, rape is heavily criminalized, with average sentences of 25 to 30 years in prison, significantly more than the average 5-year-sentence rarely handed out in England.
That all said, abortions can be carried out for medical reasons and so far there has not been a case of imprisonment nor a legal case brought against a woman who had practiced abortion.
The right to live in peace
Owing to the Sandinista Revolution, women in Nicaragua now have the political power and organization to struggle for their demands, whether it be land, education, potable water, or community health programs. These in turn support the working class and all Nicaraguans in improving their quality of life, on its own terms and according to its own needs and culture.
What should also be obvious from the above is that the Nicaraguan women’s movement is deeply engaged with the country’s political future and with women’s everyday lives. Whether fighting on a local, national, or international level, it is evidently an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement with a clear sense of identity and autonomy.
In this regard, the last word ought to go to Lea Moncada, secretary of the Gloria Quintanilla Co-operative:
Now we are prepared for anything. The advice I could give is that we unite more, that we look out for the well-being of our country, of our nation, of our world. We are all human beings and we have to love each other because the big businessmen only look out for their stock market; they don’t look out for the proletarian class, the poor people, the working people, the peasant people.
The authors would like to thank the Women’s Secretariat of the ATC, the Rural Women’s Movement, Magda Lanuza, Ada Farrach, and Jenny Bekenstein for their invaluable contributions, without which this piece would not have been possible.
This article was written in collaboration with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign UK. On 7 November 2021, Nicaraguans will vote in their national elections. The USA has already begun a campaign to try to oust the incumbent socialist FLSN government at the voting booth. This article is part of a year-long series that seeks to present the truth of Nicaragua under the Sandinista government.
Erika Takeo is a member of the International Relations Secretariat of the Rural Workers Association (ATC) and Coordinator of the Friends of the ATC.
Rohan Rice is a writer, photographer, and translator from London.