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.


Trees of life: come bask in the glow of irony

There’s something you can’t miss as you make your way through Managua. They hover tall, like an amusement park spectacle on the streets and roundabouts. At night their yellow glow can be seen through the traffic miles away. They are called the Trees of life. As one commentator put it, it’s as if we’ve walked into the chocolate factory and are now in Willy Wonka’s world.


Trees of life on Bolivar Avenue in Managua, Nicaragua.

It is said that these trees of life are an initiative of the country’s first lady, Rosario Murillo, who sees them as representative of Nicaragua’s happiness and prosperity. In one of Murillo’s speeches she announced that the trees are a way to celebrate the “…really happy feeling inside, as we convert the city into a celebration of its great blessing, prosperity and victory”. 

It’s obvious that the government is using this spectacle of lights as a political strategy. The trees are big, flashy and opulent. So look, citizens of ours, Nicaragua is booming! See how happy we have made you! They have underestimated their citizens though, who see right into the heart of the irony of it all. These trees of life have become a running joke around the country. Most meetings and workshops I attend include at least one sardonic reference to them. The government’s attempt at using light installations to construct a reality that does not exist has failed.

Critics have pointed out it would have been more appropriate to have planted real, living trees if you´re going to call them the trees of life after all. To me they only serve as a reminder of how industrial and sterile the world has become. We forgo nature in favour of the artificial. We create that which is supposed to celebrate the very thing we have destroyed – the earth’s natural resources.

And what about the cost? There has been an unsurprising lack of transparency from the government, but the newspaper Confidencial has calculated that each tree likely costs more than $20 000 US. This doesn’t include the costs associated with energy consumption and security – they are guarded by watchmen 24 hours a day.

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America. Nearly half of it’s population lives in rural areas and 68% of them are surviving on just over $1 US a day. By my count there are about 25 of these trees in Managua. It’s shameful that $500 000 then was spent on something so frivolous. Why not invest that money in education or in social services such as women’s shelters or healthcare? In Esquipulas there is just one small health centre – closed at night. If you have an emergency outside of opening hours, you either wait or you drive the 2 hours to the nearest big city (if you have a car). Half of a million dollars could go a long way in this country, and would have been better spent investing in the welfare of the people than creating an eye sore in the capital.

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: 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.