Femicide in Nicaragua: They had a right to life.

IMG_8549I 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.

NicaraguaViolence 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.

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CM8M: Providing shelter when the government won’t

womens-dayToday 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.

domestic-violence-victim-007The 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.

holding_sunThis 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.

I want to be like the air

Last week I took part in the last of a series of workshops on gender equality with representatives from different organizations around Nicaragua. The last evening I finally had a chance to see the Colectivo’s theatre group perform their feminist play ‘Ser como el aire quisiera´or in English, ‘I want to be like the air’.  All of the plays the group performs are written by the actresses themselves in extensive consultation with the feminist movement and survivors of domestic violence. The group’s mission is to generate critical reflection on the subordinate status of women in society and in the process they hope to transform this reality.

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Actresses: Sandra Arceda, Migdalia Tórrez, Martha Meneses and Cristina Arévalo Contreras.

‘I want to be like the air’ focuses on a woman named Shante who is being abused by her husband. She comes into contact with three women at a studio, where they are rehearsing for their own play. She shares with them the story of her life, her dreams and her fears. Through the process all their lives are transformed. Shante spends most of the play with her leg attached to a stool, representing her captivity to her abuser and her own internalized sense of worthlessness and objectification. She feels as if she is just another piece of furniture in the house.

The play unmasks the excuses many abused women make to defend their abusers and to  justify the violence they are being subjected to. It makes you feel the difficulty victims face in admitting the abuse to close family and friends and even to their own selves.

Shante protests:

¨I  know he loves me¨

¨He is not a bad person¨

¨He says he won’t do it again¨

¨No one else will love  me¨

¨It was an accident¨

¨I deserved it. He was right. I hadn’t done the dishes. I hadn’t cleaned the house¨

¨He wasn’t always like this. Maybe he will return to be the man he once was¨

As the play continues, and with the help of the other characters, Shante confronts her situation and sees her husband for who he really is – a violent man who doesn’t deserve her love and who has no right to dominion over her body. She sees the freedom, joy and lightness in leaving him – in being like the air. She unties the rope binding her to the stool. She dances and sings and smiles. She is free.

This play, and theatre more broadly, is a powerful way to explore gender discrimination and violence against women in a way that is accessible to a wide audience. ‘I want to be like the air’ balances the gravity of the issue of domestic abuse with humour and the musical elements of song and dance. It is sobering and entertaining, a difficult combination to achieve. It is hard to get men and boys interested in feminism and women’s rights. Many young women these days are also distancing themselves from the label ‘feminist’, believing the myth that the word signifies angry, man-hating, extremist, no fun activists.  The arts is a creative tool to help people see that this is their issue too. If you believe in equality between men and women, you are a feminist. Feminism and the equality of the sexes belongs to all of us.

The Colectivo theatre group has performed all over Nicaragua and in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. I would love to see their show brought to the United States and Canada one day.

Look, gentlemen judges. What I most want is my freedom. I want to laugh, write, read, shine, reach for the stars, fly.

Because of stories like this one.

I met a woman at the local park near our house in Managua the other night. My four year old Nicaraguan niece (as I affectionately call her) and I set off with her aunt’s chocolate brown puppy tugging ahead in front. The woman was there with her two sons, a bubbly and chatty seven year old and a more reserved four year old with a melt your heart smile. We chatted about the dog and the weather. She asked me about Canada. The kids bounced around on the rusty playground and chased the puppy around in the grass. I told her I was in Nicaragua working with the feminist movement, defending women’s rights and taking part in the struggle to end violence against women. She got quiet for a moment and seemed hesitant to speak. I sat there patiently, not sure of what she wanted to say. Then she spoke softly, “I too am a victim of violence.” Her story flooded out.

imagesA few years ago her husband began beating her. He would push her and slap her, punch her and leave welts and bruises over her body. He would hit their two boys. She divorced him, but he would not leave the house. He simply refused. She was given a state appointed lawyer, who did little to help and neglected her case. The police ignored her. Not long ago she walked in on him raping her younger son. Outraged and desperate she tried again to have him convicted. The boy wept that he was ashamed of what happened. One psychologist confirmed the rape, another claimed it was inconclusive. The judge decided there wasn’t enough evidence. Her ex-husband continues to live with them. She won’t leave her children alone with him, so if she needs to buy food, go to the bank or any other necessity she must do it when they are at school. With a deep sigh she said at least he pays for their food, though he won´t pay for his sons’ clothes, school supplies or anything else. She lives in constant fear and has nowhere else to go but the street.

She seemed unburdened by the telling, by the safety of sharing her pain with a stranger who believed her and who was on her side. The story is horrifying, both for its content and for its commonness. Stories such as these are all too familiar in Nicaragua. There is an epidemic of violence against women and the sexual abuse of children. It was difficult to hear, to bear witness to her suffering and to watch her boy who seemed so happy playing there in the park. I felt nauseous when I thought of what they were going back to. I urged her to visit the Colectivo’s office in Managua. I explained there are lawyers and psychologists there who can help her. There is a women’s shelter that can offer temporary refuge. I wanted to be able to do more, but what? The world can seem like a heart breaking place, a cesspool of hurt, ugliness and injustice. At times it threatens to overwhelm me. At least there is comfort in knowing that there are people like my Colectivo colleagues who wade through the muck of it all, fiercely believing something better is possible. It is because of stories like this one that I am in Nicaragua, away from my family and my husband, living off a stipend. It is because of stories like this one that I am making a career out of being a human rights activist. It is because of stories like this one that I persist.

Protesting the reform of Law 779

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The Colectivo protesting outside the Supreme Court.

A lot of the work the Colectivo does centers on Law 779, formally known as the Integral Law against Violence against Women. This landmark law came into effect last year and marked a significant advancement for women’s rights and feminist groups, which had collectively been fighting for its existence for nearly two decades.

Law 779 defines violence against women in its many forms and works to reduce and prevent its occurrence. The law provides women a means to access justice and to hold their abusers to account for their crimes. It stipulates that the State and its institutions have a responsibility to protect women and to punish all forms of gender-based discrimination.

Currently Law 779 prohibits any mediation between victims and their abusers. However, in May of this year the Supreme Court, backed by religious leaders, asked the single chamber legislature to reform the law, to effectively force women to negotiate with their attackers in cases where the perpetrator receives a sentence of five years or less.

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This reform would put women’s lives at greater risk. Last year 85 women were killed in Nicaragua as a direct result of gender-based violence. Out of those victims, 13 went to the police to file a complaint against their partner for the abuse before they were killed. Telling women the solution to the abuse they are suffering is to talk things through with their attacker is not an option.

The Colectivo, along with other women’s groups, has been gathering to protest this reform outside the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and in different neighbourhoods across the city. These women and men spend their whole day protesting under the hot sun.  They hold signs reading, “No more girls killed and raped. No to mediation” and “The State is the executioner of women. No to the reform of Law 779”. They march and sing and yell and beat drums. Members of our Colectivo speak with media, giving interviews about why this reform must not be allowed to move forward. The passing of Law 779 in Nicaragua was a great victory, but the battle for women’s rights continues.