I was back in Nicaragua this summer and on my first day there I ended up at a street protest in Managua with the women’s collective I used to work with. It felt a bit like a homecoming of sorts, standing there with these women and young people, many of them my friends, under the hot sun, with cars whizzing past us and street vendors staring, as we protested for our rights and for an end to violence against women. We shoved leaflets in car windows and held up signs demanding justice for all the women who had been killed in Nicaragua in the last year – a waive of femicides met with impunity. At one point a large truck rolled to a stop at a red light in front of me. I leaned forward, off the curb, to hand the two men inside one of the leaflets I was holding. They started shouting profanities at me, about my body, about my appearance, going so far as to open the door to look me up and down and tell me to get into the truck with them, since they liked me so much, laughing and leering at me the whole time. In that moment, in the midst of being objectified while protesting my objectification, I felt acutely how much work is left to be done and how far away we are from real gender equality.
Violence against women and our treatment as objects, as beings or commodities of lesser value than men, has insidious consequences. It begins in ways that seem benign – being cat called on the street, being silenced when expressing opinions, being pressured to fit into narrowly defined gender roles. But these behaviours are malignant, spreading through society and culiminating in misogynistic rage and the taking of our lives. According to the Directorate General of the National Police Force’s Commission on Women, 79 women suffer some form of physical attack every single day in Nicaragua. The majority of these victims are attacked in their homes by their husbands, boyfriends or male relatives. In 2014, there were 65 registered femicides in Nicaragua, though local NGOs believe the amount to be much higher. At what point does it end? How many more women need to die? How do we teach young boys and men that violence against women is never the answer and that we deserve to be treated with respect as fully equal human beings? I so desperately want to live in a world where we don’t have to ask these questions.
Today is International Women’s Day – a time to celebrate all that has been achieved for women’s rights in the last century and a time to pause and reflect on all that still needs to be done. We don’t live in a world where women have lives free from violence or where gender equality is the norm. I’ve been back in Canada now for a few weeks. In the conversations I’ve had with others, especially women, about my experiences in Nicaragua they often remark how fortunate we are to live in a country where women have recognized reproductive health rights and access to government funded women’s shelters. It’s true – while it’s not a perfect system we do have options.
One of the most important aspects of CM8M’s work in Managua is running a women’s shelter as a vital response to the overwhelming problem of domestic violence in Nicaragua. The State provides no services for women who are in urgent need of refuge and help. In the last seventeen years the Colectivo has safeguarded the lives of 5 120 women and their 15 360 children. Of this number nearly 11% (1 659) girls were victims of rape. These women have experienced horrific abuse, have often been threatened with death by their partners and have experienced psychological, economic, emotional and sexual violence. Most have very low educational levels and no formal jobs.
The Colectivo’s women’s shelter provides a safe space where up to 35 people (13 women and roughly 22 children and teenagers) are housed and fed for a period of up to three months. The women receive support on moving forward with their lives and in dealing with the trauma they’ve been subjected to. The Colectivo coordinates with public officials and justice centers to ensure that the women’s legal cases are properly dealt with and that their children continue to receive formal education.
Currently there is no such shelter in Esquipulas, though the Colectivo is one day hoping to build a shelter on the top floor of their office. There is nowhere for women in the town and surrounding communities to go when they are in danger or in need. During my last week in Esquipulas a young fifteen year old girl visited us with her baby, desperate for help. She was from Costa Rica and had met her boyfriend, a twenty-two year old from Esquipulas, while he was living and working there. The year before, when she was just fourteen, they had a daughter. The relationship itself is illegal – a child of that age is not in a position to give consent. Her boyfriend convinced her to return to Nicaragua with him, but not long after arriving he began to beat her. When she threatened to report him to the police he fled, leaving her and their child alone with nowhere to go and not even enough money for a bus ticket back to Costa Rica. All of us at the Colectivo that day so badly wanted to be able to offer her and her daughter refuge and be able to ease her burden. We need women’s shelters so that we can protect the lives of women and children in danger. We need them so that when there are no other options, we are there. We need women’s shelters so that we don’t have to turn young, vulnerable woman like that girl away.
This year the Colectivo in Managua only has 18% of the annual cost of the shelter covered out of a budget of $140 000 needed to cover all the costs. The Colectivo in Esquipulas doesn’t have any money yet for such a service. On International Women’s Day we need to remember that women’s rights organizations need us for support in the pursuit of economic resources. We are privileged to be in a position where we can afford to help. If any of you would live to give to the women’s shelter initiative in Nicaragua please let me know and I can put you in touch with the Colectivo. Your donation will go directly to the shelter and I can promise you your support will matter and will make a difference.