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.

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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.

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.

UDHR in Cartoons

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UDHR in Cartoons – Royston

Amnesty and Waterstones have published a book called “Know Your Rights” – a series of cartoons illustrating the rights found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some are funny, some are serious. I think it’s an innovative way of expressing the shared values that bind us all together.

Check out this article from Amnesty with more details.

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.