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Nicaragua: We won't go back into our cages: Celebrating Women's Day in Nicaragua

By  Becca Renk

 “We have painful stories, stories of marginalization, a history of being trampled because we are women and even more because we are rural peasant women, campesinas,” says Rosibel Ramos, bright eyes belying her age. “What were women’s spaces?” She asks. “The kitchen, taking care of kids, taking care of everyone else.

We were supposed to just sit quietly in a corner.” Rosibel, now in her 60s, is telling the story of the founding of the Rural Feminist Ecological Cooperative “Las Diosas”* which means The Goddesses. The co-op is made up of hundreds of women from northern Nicaragua who grow, process and sell organic and fair-trade certified coffee, hibiscus and honey.   “We were illiterate women. When I first started organizing, I could barely sign my name.” Much has changed for women in Nicaragua since Rosibel first learned to read and write 30 years ago. From being ranked 90th in 2007, Nicaragua has jumped to rank 7th in the world for overall gender equity according to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2023, closing the gender gap by 80% in 17 years.

What has made such dramatic change possible in such a short time?

Neoliberal Nightmare In 2006 Nicaragua was suffering under 16 years of neo-liberal governments whose structural readjustment policies had effectively privatized education and health care, creating one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. When the Sandinista government was voted back into power, taking office in 2007, it immediately made poverty reduction its top priority and the situation for Nicaraguan women has completely turned around, particularly for campesina women like Rosibel. New Maternity During the neoliberal years, most women in rural Nicaragua gave birth at home to “as many children as God would give us.” Today, thanks to free universal health care, sexual health education and access to free family planning, maternity rates in Nicaragua have now dropped to 2.38 per woman, and many women are choosing to space their babies five or even 10 years apart.

With the installation of 181 public mother wait homes where rural women spend the last two weeks of their pregnancies, maternal mortality has dropped by 67.7% and child mortality by 58.6% in 17 years. Women leading food sovereignty One of the first poverty-reduction programs to be implemented in 2007 was the Zero Hunger program, which gives women heads of family a pregnant cow, sow, chickens, feed and seeds. Over 17 years, 198,693 families have benefitted from Zero Hunger. Other government programs support 520,000 kitchen gardens and give low-interest financing to 250,552 farms to grow basic grains. The result of these programs is that production of basic grains in the country is up by 39% and Nicaragua is now 90% food sovereign.

“Now we’re proud to say we are campesinas,” declares Rosibel. Their co-op members not only grow cash crops, but also the majority of their families’ food and their co-op is pioneering native seed saving programs. “We’re where the food comes from.”  #1 in Women’s Education In 2006, illiteracy in the country was at 23%. When families couldn’t afford the fees to send all their children to school, they often prioritized boys’ education, leaving the girls at home to look after their younger siblings.  Today, education is free from preschool right through university education. Around the country, there are programs at all levels to catch up students who have fallen behind there are and 77 vocational training programs which in 2023 trained 520,000 students, 68% of whom were women.  Increasingly, women are now also able to attend university: this year, women make up 52% of new university enrollment, for a total of 93,714 women enrolled in their first year.  After graduating from high school, Rosibel decided to continue her education, despite being in her 50s. “When I went to sign up for university, they asked me if I was there to enroll my granddaughter,” she laughs. “The taxi drivers who brought me to classes always thought I was the cleaning lady.”

Today, Rosibel holds a university degree in alternative medicine and overall, Nicaragua ranks number one in the world for women's enrollment in third-level education, women's educational attainment and women professional & technical workers. #1 in Political Participation Women’s participation in the political sphere has blossomed in recent years: Nicaragua’s gender parity law requires that 50% of all elected positions be held by women. Since the law was passed in 2012, Nicaragua has become the number one country in the world for women in parliament - 50.6% of members are women, many of whom are Indigenous and Afro-Descendant women. Nicaragua currently also ranks number one in the world for women in ministerial positions.  #

More women active in political spaces has led the country developing a legal framework to give women more security –668,000 land titles have been given to families over 17 years and the majority of these properties are registered in the name of women heads of household. There are now laws that require fathers to pay child support and laws to process cases of violence against women quickly. Suspects in felony cases are immediately taken into custody and convictions are swift and serious – offenders are often tried and convicted within a matter of weeks and rape carries a sentence of 30 years. Nicaragua has a specific law against femicide and has the lowest rate of femicides in Central America in addition to being the safest country in the region according to the United Nations.  #1 in Women’s Safety Rosibel and her fellow co-op members didn’t find it easy to escape their submissive roles in the home and many were subjected to violence from male family members when they decided to organize a women’s cooperative. “They pulled our hair, they shouted at us to get us to stay quietly at home,” says Rosibel. For women who are victims of violence like this today, there is a now network of resources available to help them.

 Women now make up 33% of Nicaragua's police force and there are 285 women’s police stations around the country. These are spaces where female officers attend women and children exclusively. Additionally, a woman can file a police report online from her phone, at a police station electronic kiosk, or by calling a free hotline. Every day around the country, policewomen go door-to-door, systematically visiting homes to file reports, educate and make well checks.

 “At a home visit, we identify cases that need referral to another institution,” explains General Commissioner Johanna Plata, Head of Women and Children’s Police Stations. “For example, right now we have a case of a woman whose husband is kicking her out of the house, along with their two children. We’re investigating the case, but at the same time we’ve brought in the Ministry of the Family to give them food and the Ministry of Women is helping the mother learn skills to become economically independent. We do not leave women to face these issues on their own.”

Emerging Economic Independence

“They put fear in us from a young age: ‘Don’t touch money, you can’t do that; you can’t work outside the home,’” says Rosibel. Members of the Las Diosas Co-op own small plots of land where they grow coffee using organic and agroecological methods. Co-op members have diversified to grow hibiscus which they process into tea, jam and wine. They have also learned beekeeping, a task which for many years was exclusively male.

 “The patriarchy mocked us and said, ‘Who says women can do men’s work? These bees are aggressive.’ But we said, ‘We’ll give it a go, we are women, we can do this.’ I was scared the first time I put on the beekeeping suit, but I got over it.”

 Las Diosas aren't alone in viewing cooperativism as a way forward for women - since 2007 more than 4,872 new co-ops have been created in Nicaragua, benefitting 131,730 new co-op members, 46% of whom are women.

 “Economic independence is something every woman should aspire to, because many times that is what keeps us from spreading our wings to fly,” says Senior Commissioner Vilma Rosa Gonzalez, head of Public Relations for Nicaragua’s National Police.

 “Our government has any number of projects where women are the protagonists.  We want to give alternatives to women who hesitate to report violence because they depend on a man economically. We want to guarantee her legal security and economic security so that she can face any situation that comes her way.”

 The Zero Usury program, exclusively for women, makes loans of up to $1,400 through women’s solidarity groups at 5% annual interest. To date, 1.7 million loans have been made to 548,000 women, representing a $423 million investment in women-owned businesses.

 “These are the achievements of the Revolution,” says Vilma. “It's like when you keep a bird in a cage: once it leaves, it never wants to go back. Nicaraguan women don't want to go back in our cages.”

Rosibel believes that the gains of the past 17 years for women are so great that it would be impossible to reverse them. “Now we have voices, now we have faces because we are visible. We are recognized as valuable, empowered women,” she says. “I think only death can stop us now.”

[Sources: Government of Reconciliation and National Unity 2024 unless otherwise noted].

 Becca Renk has lived in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, for more than 20 years, working in sustainable development with the Jubilee House Community and our project, the Center for Development in Central America. Becca and the JHC-CDCA recently hosted the Power & Protagonism Women in Nicaragua Brigade, find out how you can visit Nicaragua through our Casa Benjamin Linder solidarity project.