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Nicaragua: Women’s struggle in Nicaragua: from liberation fighters to building an alternative society

By Erika Takeo and Rohan Rice

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 two 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 public 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 the following:

“My experience has been unique because, truthfully, I never thought I’d say, ‘I’m going to 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 it 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 certificate 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 Waiting 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 Waiting Homes and in 2018, 61,648 pregnant women were housed in 178 of these homes. According to the Nicaraguan Ministry of 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 dispensed. 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 Evangelical 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, for example.

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 their own terms and according to their 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 voted in their national elections. The USA has begun a campaign to try to oust the incumbent socialist FLSN government. This article is part of a year-long series that seeks to present the truth of Nicaragua under the Sandinista government.