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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Nicaragua – I can’t escape you

I left Nicaragua six months ago knowing the experience had marked me, but not knowing when or if I would return. A few months later, while at a friend’s house party for a lil’ show my musician husband was playing at, word got out that I’d recently come back from the country of gallo pinto, poets, lakes and volcanoes and that two of the guys there were in the throws of a start-up international health development project in Nicaragua. Sitting in that crowded living room, serenaded by the music and over plastic cups of red wine, the founder of the project – a recent grad from Chiropractic College and all around brilliant guy – convinced me to join their adventure. It was a serendipitous night. I don’t believe in destiny, but I do believe that life has a way of taking us back to the people and places we feel called to.

The project is called Doctors for Doctors & Nurses for Nurses. We provide full scholarships for young, impoverished, rural people to fulfill their dream of being a doctor or nurse. We are working towards increasing access to and the quality of rural healthcare in Nicaragua. We are empowering young people to be the agents of change in their own communities. I’m working on grant applications now with the hope of opening a clinic in Esquipulas next year with El Colectivo de Mujeres el 8 de Marzo, focusing on women’s reproductive health and other female specific health issues. We are life-long, local and life-saving.

Myself and Andrew, DFD & NFN Founder, with sponsored medical student Bryan and his family.

Myself and Andrew, DFD & NFN Founder, with sponsored medical student Bryan and his family.

In July the team and I headed down to Nicaragua for 2 weeks to meet with our local partner organizations, check in with our sponsored medical student, develop new connections and produce some exciting documentaries and short promotional videos for our work. It was an intense and rewarding trip – 18 hour working days were not uncommon. Beach days got tossed aside in favour of visits to rural communities and hospitals. We met some truly incredible people. I interviewed a woman who told me she has given birth 11 times – alone, holding on to a rope suspended by the roof of her house, kneeling over a bucket to catch the babies. They all survived. When I asked how, she laughed and said “Luck!”. I interviewed a gynecologist who is leading the fight for the legalization of therapeutic abortion – the right to have an abortion when the woman’s life is at risk.  She told me about a 15 year old girl with leukemia who was pregnant. Doctors were forbidden from treating her because it could compromise the life of the fetus. Both the girl and the baby died. I interviewed a doctor in a small, sweltering room at a small healthcare centre. He apologised for being so exhausted, but he had seen 300 patients that day and it was only 4pm. All of these stories illustrate to me just how vital the work is we are doing. There is a deficit of resources in the country. A lack of adequate care for people living in rural communities. A battle being waged over women’s bodies. So much needs to be done, and I am proud to be involved with an initiative that is trying to be part of the solution.

Our website just went live. Please check it out at http://www.doctorsfordoctors.ca or http://www.nursesfornurses.ca. We’re looking for more talented people to join our team. We’re looking for people to help us with publishing cutting-edge research reports. We’re looking for sponsors for some of the incredible and inspiring candidates we have lined up for our scholarship fund. Join me – join us – in saving lives and making people’s dreams come true.

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.

My first few days

Feria de Aprendizajes Género y Gobernabilidad

I arrived in Nicaragua last week and have begun to settle into my new home – a friendly and lively house on a shady and quiet street in Managua. My new family for the next 6 months has been incredibly welcoming and I’ve quickly become friends with their sweet 3 year old daughter who calls me “Auntie Sarah” and their two dogs and two cats. The heat is sweltering, but there is reprieve in the evening with cool breezes and tropical rainstorms. I have been reminded of how much I have missed Latin America – the colours, the sounds, the food, the music, the people, the language. It feels like being reunited with an old friend.

On my first day with the Colectivo I attended a national conference on gender equality and governance. Women’s rights organizations from around Nicaragua came together to discuss and share best practices on their work in areas such as ending violence against women, reproductive health rights and the economic empowerment of women. It was powerful to see these groups come together to champion the rights of women and to speak passionately about the absolute necessity to continue in the fight for true gender equality. These organizations work with little resources and receive no funding from the government. Despite these limitations it seems they are having an impact – their voices are being heard. In the few days I have been here I have seen the Colectivo present a powerful workshop at the conference, give an hour long radio interview on their work and host a workshop on human rights and systems of oppression attended by nearly twenty young people.

Today begins my first official day on the job. I am excited to get to work and to myself be a part of the women’s rights movement in this country.

The next adventure – Nicaragua & Women’s Rights

Life is about to change (again) – in a few weeks I will be moving to Nicaragua to take part in a six-month internship program working with a grass roots women’s rights organization. My passion for social justice and love for Latin America first took root more than ten years ago when, at sixteen years of age, I spent a week volunteering at an orphanage in Venezuela. A lot has happened in the intervening years and I am excited to be at a place in my career where I have the opportunity to work directly in the field for a cause I deeply believe in.

I will be working as a Gender Equality Outreach Worker with the organization el Colectivo de Mujeres el 8 de Marzo (CM8M), which in English translates to the Women’s Collective – March 8th (International Women’s Day). CM8M is based in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, and provides educational and social intervention programs for marginalized young girls, teenagers and women in the area of sexual and reproductive health, gender equality, women’s rights, domestic violence and citizenship participation. Through their work CM8M helps empower local women and youth to become aware of their rights and to fully take part in the democratic life of their community.

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Central America and many people there, particularly women, do not enjoy the same freedoms, equality, social assistance or opportunities that we do here in Canada. The work of CM8M is essential to helping create a more equal, prosperous and peaceful Nicaragua.

My internship is fully funded through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and is coordinated by the Quebec international development organization CS/TR, which has worked in partnership with CM8M for nearly a decade. In order to help support the project I have been asked to fundraise $1000. All money raised goes directly to CM8M and their work. I would like to ask you to please consider giving to this important organization.

Tax receipts can be issued for any donation made above $20. You can make a donation online on CS/TR’s website here: https://www.jedonneenligne.org/cs3r/frm_detail.php?FrmUID=10 Please make sure to choose my name (Sarah Topa) from the list when it asks you: Quel est le nom du ou de la stagiaire qui vous a parlé de notre programme de stages.

International development and the global promotion of human rights really is a collective effort, so thank you for your support and solidarity.