NICARAGUA: Karla Jacobs: Interview with Marcia Saavedra

Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Central America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

In this interview Marcia talks about achievements and set backs of the Nicaraguan women's movement over the last few years and explains why she feels a bit disillusioned with the direction the movement has taken recently. She also analyses the different effects - negative and positive - the two development models (capitalist and socialist) currently fighting for predominance in Nicaragua provoke in terms of the position of women within the country.

* * *
Karla Jacobs: Tell me about the development of the defence and protection of women's rights during the last few years in Nicaragua?

Marcia Saavedra: The last few years have been very important for [Nicaraguan women] in terms of the amount that has been achieved through the signing of different conventions and agreements. The different governments have signed and ratified many conventions that favour women's human rights.

There has been important development in this sense. We cannot deny it. But this progress has been made above all within a legal sphere. So now we have a legal basis. But the difficult part is turning that legal basis into concrete progress on the ground.

We have a complete legal framework that favours women's rights

Today we can say that in Nicaragua we have a full conceptual framework, a legal framework that protects and defends women's rights.

Over the last few years, though, there have been certain set backs to the achievements of the women's movement - and when I talk about the women's movement I am talking about a movement that includes the Feminist Movement, the Autonomous Movement and all the women involved in different activities in their communities.

The women's movement knows that this sort of legal protection of our rights exist, but we are also aware that it is necessary for the government to carry out actions [to effectively put this legislation into practise] and to bring the plans on which they based their signing of the international conventions up to date.

Above all, it is essential that there is less manipulation of women's rights as a result of adverse political situations relating to different political parties or election processes. That is where we feel, or should I say, personally I feel, that women's rights are manipulated.

A clear example of this sort of manipulation was the overturning of the Penal Code article that permitted therapeutic abortion. Everyone knows how polemical that issue has become. And that is one of the set backs we have suffered in terms of women's rights.

KJ: You talk about laws, legislation and conventions - and of course all that is very relevant, because without the legal framework you mentioned there wouldn't be anything to work from. But it seems to me that one must also focus on the day to day reality of Nicaraguan women. In general terms, how do you view the process of female empowerment in Nicaragua over the last few years - if indeed you consider that such a process exists - ?

Women's day to day life doesn't reflect the protection and defence required by the laws that favour our rights

MS: ... Yes I do think things have progressed, but there are certain things that limit that progress, like the economic situation. Often, as women, we acknowledge that we have the right to live without violence, but, if we aren't able to defend ourselves financially in our everyday lives, then old cultural patterns prevail over the legal base [that establishes our rights].

So even if women acknowledge they have the right to live without violence and the right to report violence they are subjected to, a lot of the time their day to day reality obliges them to keep quiet, not to claim their rights.

This happens largely because of the lack of support from the State for women in vulnerable situations - because the legislation is all there, but it is administered by the patriarchy. ...

The women's movement has facilitated a certain amount of progress [in terms of female empowerment], something which has been achieved above all with support from civil society organizations and, during the last few years, with significant support, I would say, from the government. Personally I acknowledge the support the government is offering to women with the Zero Usury program.

I do think, however, that there is a lack of critical consciousness in this sort of empowerment [model]. As women we should be asking ourselves "what are our basic needs?" We should be saying, "on its own, the provision of a loan through Zero Usury isn't enough to resolve the different problems we experience." An integral solution has to take into account other aspects of our everyday lives.

Sometimes when a women is financially independent she is at greater risk of domestic violence at home

KJ: But, it seems to me that the situation becomes even more complicated, because, what you say is true - if a woman has no financial power, she is unlikely to conquer other forms of power within the home.

But this logic is contradicted by another reality. Because in Nicaragua women have come to make up a significant percentage of the national work force. Compared to ten or fifteen years ago a lot more women work outside the home today. But there are sociologists and other experts who say that, sometimes when women work they become even more vulnerable at home. These experts have found that, as a result of women's new financial power, their partners become more violent.

This is linked to the fact that, while the number of female workers has increased, the numbers of male workers has decreased. The unemployment crisis affects men more than women. And unemployment often provokes men to be more violent.

MS: You are right. From my experience working with women in the barrios I know that there are more opportunities for women than for men in terms of access to micro credit or work in the Free Trade Zones.

Money is another form of power and when men feel they are losing the power they have always had, the power that being the breadwinner gives them, then they are likely to become even more violent. This is why [domestic] violence is being carried out in the most brutal form - atrocious sexual violence and feminicide.

It's ironic to see that often what happens with micro credit projects benefiting women is that the men are actually the ones who control how the money is spent and on what. This is a palpable trend in the barrios.

So it is not enough to have a legal base [guaranteeing women's rights] and for women to have access to paid work and credit - these things complement each other, but what is also necessary is transversal education to allow society to develop critical consciousness [regarding these issues].

The new approach to gender equality in the national curriculum

KJ: What, then, do you think of the recent changes to the national curriculum? I am not familiar with the new curriculum but I know that there have been significant changes that involve the inclusion of transversal themes like gender equality.

MS: I am familiar with the new curriculum because I have children studying both in primary and secondary school. Also, I recently took part in a scientific forum about formal and informal education during which [the new curriculum] was discussed.

And yes, gender equality is included as a transversal theme within the curriculum. The intention is valid and I hope that [this emphasis on gender equality] goes on to become a State policy within the Education Ministry so that it covers all the different materials and texts used within the education system.

At the same time, though, there is a tendency within schools for teachers to talk about the different male and female roles - "what does your mum do? what does your dad do?" I have seen those questions used in homework.

So, this revolution within the Education Ministry has to be complete, it has to be integral. Most of the teachers were educated within the logic of the former ideology, the former culture. So they have to unlearn that and be educated in the new approach, the new curriculum, the new culture the Education Ministry is trying to implement.

KJ: The sort of transformation process we are talking about is something that takes years. I am from a country where, about 100 years ago, there was a feminist revolution which triumphed. Women took to the streets to demand the right to vote and as well as other political and civic rights. And some were killed because of their struggle. But they achieved their objective, they triumphed.

And, in a way, I have always felt like Nicaragua hasn't experienced this sort of cultural transformation process. This has a lot to do with imperialist intervention in Nicaragua which, apart from the oppression of struggles for popular liberation which themselves bring significant benefits for women, certain Western feminist ideas have been imposed on countries like Nicaragua where they are out of context and often provoke division or setbacks.

I don't know if a movement for the true empowerment of women has yet been born in Nicaragua. I don't know if it will emerge at some point in the future. I am interested to hear if you believe a true social and cultural transformation favouring the position of women within Nicaraguan society is possible and how it should be encouraged.

MS: Of course change takes places as part of a process. All transformation processes take time. However, I don't think it is correct to say that we have not started yet, that [this process] hasn't yet been born.

Women have played key roles in Nicaragua's recent history

I accept that female participation in certain contexts of Nicaragua's recent past has been contextual, but it has also been significant. As part of those contexts and without the principal objective of being protagonists or of demanding respect for their rights, women have demonstrated they are [every bit as capable as men].

In the 1970s [during the popular insurrection] women were in charge of many things - women were also used, in that sense, during those years of conflict, but it was clear to all that women were a necessary [part of that struggle]. Women played a very important role in the 80s [during the revolution and Contra war] as well. But it was not until the 90s that we achieved some form of public acknowledgement [of women] which is when women's rights organizations begin to emerge.

I feel like we have emerged in Nicaragua. Because unlike many countries in Latin America we have experienced a true revolution during which society was forced to allow women to take on equal importance as men in many different ways. ...

So yes, I think we have made a certain amount of progress. But I do feel disillusioned about the fact that a lot of the time NGOs and women's organizations get caught up in party political issues and forget about the day to day reality of most Nicaraguan women. Often [organizations] forget about the real needs that exist. It is as a result of its involvement in political contradictions, in political banter, that the Nicaraguan women's movement has lost its way a bit.

Certain leaders' political protagonism has weakened the Nicaraguan women's movement

I can't say we haven't started at all. We have, but sometimes it's a bit like one step forward and two steps back. And right now I think we have taken several steps back. [This has happened] mainly as a result of the political alliance the Autonomous Women's Movement signed with the MRS party.

Because the ones that signed the alliance were almost all leaders of the Women's Network Against Violence. And effectively, they signed the alliance in name of all the women who belong to that network. After the alliance was signed the Network changed, it practically became a space to discuss MRS' political campaign. In doing this they carried out an abuse [of power] in my opinion.

And I believe that this has come to weaken the movement. The movement lost credibility at a grass roots level because many women, myself included, have very strong political views. And freedom of thought, freedom to believe in who we want to believe in, is all part of our empowerment. But a situation where a group of women who believe themselves to be better educated and more intellectual is trying to tell us who we should vote for - that goes against a process of empowerment.

I think that the women's movement has lost momentum as a result of this sort of action. And so now, the [transformation process] will take longer.

Additionally I think [the signing of this alliance] has created a situation in which the government views the demands of the movement as political provocations. Because now if the movement demands something specific that the government doesn't want to give, then the government justifies itself saying [the demand] is not based on a grass roots reality but is part of the political opposition's attempts to undermine the government.

The capitalist development model

KJ: I would like to talk a bit about the different development models that exist here in Nicaragua. Up until 2007 the model that existed was the capitalist development model promoted by the financially rich nations. Now, since the FSLN took power in 2007 there are two models fighting to dominate the country's development, because now we also have the socialist development model promoted by ALBA.

Talking about the first model, the capitalist model, to what extent do you think that this model negatively or positively affects the position of women in a country like Nicaragua?

MS: It is totally clear that this model negatively affects us. We know well that capitalism is based on a logic which consistently benefits the most powerful. So, of course, within the capitalist system, women are the vulnerable ones, the ones with less opportunities.

The capitalist system doesn't benefit women at all. And the more extreme version - the neo liberal system in which all the basic services are privatized - is much worse. Because who is the one ultimately responsible for ensuring her family benefits from basic services? The woman.

Free Trade Agreements form an important part of the neoliberal capitalist model. And who are the ones in powerful positions within companies, within everything to do with industry and production? Men.

So yes, this model affects the majority of women terribly. Of course a small number of women will always succeed within a capitalist context. But we are well aware that the capitalist development model puts women at a disadvantage.

KJ: And culturally, in what way do you think that this model negatively or positively affects women?

MS: I think this model is double edged in terms of its cultural impact. In certain ways it has favoured women because media, internet and other new technologies form an important part of consumer culture within a globalized context. [Access to those technologies] favours women because we are able to keep ourselves informed, we are able to learn about other parts of the world where different development experiences have taken place and where there are different attitudes and approaches to women's rights.

But to what extent does this represent a real benefit? In Nicaragua the technological revolution has only just begun. Saying that though, here you often find that in very poor homes, the house might be falling down, but, thanks to consumerism, there is the brand new TV.

So yes it benefits us in certain ways, but at the same time there are a lot of negative effects. Because a lot of the time we end up getting addicted to forms of media that stigmatize women, that make us believe women should be a certain way. Because even in developed countries like yours women are made to feel they should conform to a certain prototype in order to be acceptable to the patriarchy, to fulfil male ideals. This is why I talk about the capitalist model being double edged.

The ALBA development model

KJ: Now let's talk about the other development model, the ALBA model. To what extent do you think this model negatively or positively affects the position of women here?

MS: Personally, I want to acknowledge this government['s efforts in this sense]. In the last study I carried out, details emerged about the benefits felt by women as a result of government programs like Zero Usury and others.

Like I said earlier, however, more work needs to be done in terms of broadening the educative scope of these programs. For example with the Zero Usury program - and I know this because my mother was benefited by Zero Usury - they give you the money but they don't teach you how to make good use of it.

This program could represent an opportunity to discuss what gender equality is about, to talk about why the program exclusively benefits women. Because gender equality isn't just about being able to say "we gave 50 loans to men and 50 loans to women."

So I do think the educational side of this model is lacking, and education represents the most important part of the beginning of any transformation process.

Yes, this new model is benefiting a lot of women but I think it is necessary that the government also invests in training programs, gender awareness programs, programs that follow up and measure the extent to which these government programs effectively facilitate progress in terms of gender equality.

The position of women in Nicaragua since the FSLN came to power

KJ: Looking beyond the specific programs that you mention, which of course are very important, and which the government talks about a lot. Taking into account social, cultural and economic realities, have you observed a significant change in the position of women within Nicaragua during the last three years since the alternative ALBA development model began being implemented here?

MS: There are more opportunities for women now. Now one sees more women setting up small businesses. One sees more women involved in social programs. In the health system there are more benefits for women. Now, within the health system, women are not seen only as a mother-child binomy like before. Now women have greater access to sexual and reproductive health care.

It is premature, though, to evaluate whether or not there has been a significant change. I acknowledge the government's intention [to bring about that sort of change]. I like the discourse used by Rosario Murillo [first lady and the government's main spokesperson] concerning gender issues. It is very specific.

I just hope the positive policies, the legislation offering equal opportunities, the Institute for Women effectively reach the grass roots, that they ready the places where the penalization [of therapeutic abortion] has seriously affected trust [in the government].

This polemic [about therapeutic abortion] has created a sort of ongoing public showdown [between the government and] certain feminist leaders. And as a result, the government's collaboration [with the defence of women's rights] is not something that is particularly easy to find information about.

In order to do that you have to work at a truly grass roots level in order to listen directly to the female voices that say "I'm not Sandinista but I like what the government is doing for my neighbour," or "I like what the government is doing for me."

In my opinion, analysis of perception via grass roots transversal education within these government programs are vital.

I know the government has good intentions. For example the Health Ministry has just begun to implement a training program for all its staff which aims to increase the quality and humanity with which patients are treated.

I really believe in educational processes. I have worked for many years in educational processes and in fact I, myself, am proof that educational processes make you change for the better. [They provoke] positive changes involving your personal development, your family and your community. ...

Feminicide in Nicaragua - can an increase in this sort of murder be prevented?

KJ: A final question, Marcia, and it's about a very specific issue - feminicide. Feminicide has become pretty much an every day occurrence in other Central American countries like Guatemala and El Salvador, which of course represents a tragedy for women and for society as a whole in those countries. I think Nicaragua has the lowest feminicide rate in the region but there are several social, cultural and other factors that make it possible, if not probable, that the number of this sort of murders will increase in the future.

Do you think it will be possible to prevent feminicide becoming an everyday occurrence here in Nicaragua? And what should a strategy to prevent such an outcome involve?

MS: Of course I think that we can do something against this phenomenon in Nicaragua. Proof of that is the fact that on many occasions [the women's movement] has been able to mobilize large numbers of people against cases of such extreme violence - [feminicide represents] the maximum expression of violence against women.

I think that the strategy is to continue [doing what we have been doing]. I say continue because many organizations are already doing relevant work. I myself coordinated a project to increase awareness among media workers about how to cover this sort of news story, about how not to sensationalize this sort of story, about how to present the story in such a way that viewers are encouraged to reflect on and reject such atrocious violence against women, and to learn a new attitude [towards violence]. I think it is necessary to continue working with the media in this sense.

I think it is important for institutions to coordinate between and among themselves to continue this process. Often the law obliges government institutions to create inter-institutional commissions and carry out actions on issues like gender violence, but a lot of the time institutions don't actually do it.

Another important aspect of the strategy would be to work directly with key players like judges, prosecuting lawyers, the police, judicial aids, the women's commissariat - the individuals responsible for carrying forward criminal prosecutions relating to this sort of murder.

And when I talk about working with them, the first thing to do is to approach them on a personal level and ensure, or work towards ensuring, that these individuals actually acknowledge that feminicide is a reality. Let's not get complacent about this - I don't know if you remember last year when the Head of the Women's Commissariat in Diriomo was murdered by the partner.

So this is why I insist on transversal education, education inherent to all processes. Only with education will we be able to overcome this sort of situation.

I am not against male officials being placed in key positions, but the government or the entities responsible for electing family judges and juries should elect people who have a very high level of awareness about the issues involved, people who have been trained in these issues. This is especially important in remote places like Nueva Guinea and R�o Blanco where [feminicide] is becoming more common and where access to justice is a lot more difficult especially for the most vulnerable - the women.

So I think that with a strategy, with a plan, it is possible to prevent an increase of feminicide. But this type of plan will require financial resources in order to be carried out. It is necessary, therefore, for the government to invest in this sort of strategy.

A weak women's movement has meant less support for the real problems faced by Nicaraguan women

And that is where I think [the women's movement] has made mistakes, too much time and effort has been spent contradicting what the government says. This is why I feel a bit disillusioned with the women's movement in Nicaragua. I feel the movement has become too involved in opposing the government. They don't prioritize real problems enough.

Nowadays the movement's leaders don't talk about feminicide. They don't talk about sexual abuse. I don't hear them talk about these things any more. I feel that they are too involved in making political opposition to the government. I hope they forgive me for saying it, but this is the impression I get.

There is no real inventory of what the women's movement thinks should be forced onto the political agenda these days. The movement should be willing to sign specific conventions with whichever government is in power without becoming involved in party politics so that these conventions become institutionalized and can benefit all Nicaraguan women.

I think that the women's movement and the Women's Network Against Violence should put their loyalty to a specific party behind them and work towards greater political awareness of the day to day reality of ordinary Nicaraguan women.

We should get out onto the streets more, we should start to talk about the real problems faced by women again, like we used to do. It was in this way that we achieved so much in the past.

The fact that the women's movement has stopped regular accompaniment of victims is unjustifiable. Did you hear about the case of a women murdered by her husband in San Francisco Libre? He was a butcher. He was called Chacal.

The murder took place about four years ago. He dismembered her, he carved her up. And it was a struggle to get the justice system to categorize the crime as a brutal murder as opposed to ordinary homicide.

He was given 25 years. Then, last year his sentenced was reduced to 20 years. And very recently his defence lawyer appealed to the National Assembly for his client to be pardoned and the sentence to be reduced to six years.

But the victim's family found out he was on the list of convicts requesting sentence reduction. They protested and achieved sufficient pressure to prevent the Assembly voting in favour of the criminal.

But I remember seeing the family all alone in their protests - the women's movement wasn't there with them, the Women's Network Against Violence wasn't there.

So I think we need to return to the point when the movement showed greater solidarity in order to pressurize more on day to day issues, so that we are taken into account, so that we can say that what we are fighting for is real.

KJ: Thank you, Marcia. Is there anything else you would like to add?

The women's movement needs a change of leadership

MS: I'd like to thank you for taking my comments into account. Like I said I have been talking from my personal point of view, I have presented by own opinions.

For many years I have worked with organizations like Ixchen and the Women's Network Against Violence, and I still coordinate with them for certain things - if they call me for example, or if the women I work with in the barrios need help to arrange something.

And I should say that I felt optimistic that [the women's movement] will be united again. And that doesn't mean that [the movement] should become loyal to a certain party, to the FSLN - each individual is free to think as she wishes.

But I am in favour of a change of leadership within the movement so that it can be more inclusive, so that more women involved in the struggle can get involved in the movement, so that problems like feminicide, domestic abuse and sexual abuse are forced onto the national agenda, so that not only therapeutic abortion is mentioned as something necessary, something relevant to the current context. Because that has begun to feel like a manipulation of our rights.

KJ: Not including other issues feels like a manipulation?

MS: The fact that others issue aren't included and that those issues aren't seen as relevant [feels like a manipulation] - if the National Assembly talks about something then the women's movement talks about it, but the movement doesn't discuss it at a grass roots level, the leaders of the Women's Network Against Violence gets involved in political banter with different politicians.

This is why I think we have lost a lot of momentum, we have lost a lot of time, the movement has stopped fighting for other sorts of vindications, for other struggles that it should be supporting. We would have made progress of many issues if it wasn't for this situation.

I think that the movement should make a truce, sit down and talk with the government, we should make plans in relation to the real problems faced by Nicaraguan women.

According to an investigation I did [into sexual abuse in Nicaragua] during the time we have been sitting here talking, ten girls or teenagers might have been sexually abused in this country. So I think it is of utmost priority that we insist, on a daily basis, that these sorts of problems are acknowledged, that [people recognize] them as real.

Civil society and the State need to sit down together and talk [about these problems] because they are problems that involve society as a whole. This is not just a women's problem, nor is it just the government's problem, nor it is the women's movement's problem. This is a problem of society as a whole.