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.

The home stretch: Doctors for Doctors & Nurses for Nurses Crowdfunding Campaign

DFDNFNIt is not an easy thing to do – to build something from nothing. To take an idea, a dream and make it real. To dive into something and hope that, despite all the obstacles, it will be a success. To reach out and ask others for help and to believe in you and what you’re doing. Nearly two months ago we launched our Doctors for Doctors/Nurses for Nurses crowd-funding campaign. Short on resources, but overflowing with plans, ideas and ways to grow, we decided to reach out to all of you. If potato salad can raise $55 k, we can surely raise $20k to send rural students in Nicaragua to medical and nursing school.

The team put together a great video explaining our work and telling our story. Here it is in Spanish too. We went live. The donations started coming in – from friends, and family members and people we didn’t know, but who believed in the work that we do. Incredible volunteers came forward. People started talking about us. Our Facebook likes and Twitter followers grew and grew. It was humbling and reminded me how grateful I am to have so many people in my life who support what I am doing. It is through community and working collectively that we can make change happen and have the greatest impact.

We are in the home stretch now. Our crowd-funding campaign closes in 4 days, on Dec. 14th. We’re at just over 50% of our goal, but believe that in the final days we will see the rest come in. Please consider making a donation. We’ll be using a portion of this money to sponsor our next student, an incredible young woman I interviewed on our trip to Nicaragua in July. You can read her story here. Now you can also give a donation as a holiday gift – if you choose the Gift of Giving perk on our IndieGoGo campaign you’ll receive a printable gift card to put under the tree. For more information about who we are and what we do please visit our website.

A big thank you from me and the whole DFD & NFN team for everyone’s generosity and for allowing us to move forward with this project. We really could not do it without you.

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.

World Radio Day 2014

wrd2014Today is World Radio Day. The day was established by UNESCO as a means “to celebrate radio as a medium; to improve international cooperation between broadcasters; and to encourage major networks and community radio alike to promote access to information, freedom of expression and gender equality over the airwaves”.

The power of radio is indisputable. According to UNESCO you can find a radio in the homes of 75% of the world population. It is the medium that reaches the largest audience worldwide. Those living in rural areas in the developing world have limited access to computers and internet access – radio is often the only effective means available to reach them. Radios are inexpensive, portable, lightweight and run on batteries – important in places where electricity is unreliable.

Many women and men in Esquipulas and the surrounding rural communities are illiterate. The majority of the women who came to the Colectivo for help in the last two years have not studied beyond the second grade. One out of every five women in Nicaragua over the age of ten is unable to read or write. So you can’t get to them through newsletters, brochures, or books, but you can through the radio.

I was told that it was only within the last five years that mobile phones were being widely used in Esquipulas and internet arrived just within the last two years. There is one cyber cafe in town and I don’t know of any residents that have the internet in their homes. Many people here don’t have social media accounts or even an email address. Electricity comes and goes without warning.

radiostationCurrently the only radio stations in Esquipulas are run by the local churches. The Colectivo is hoping to step in to provide a much needed resource. They are in the process of developing a community radio station that will be run by women and young people whose content will not be dictated by religious beliefs.

The Colectivo’s radio station will serve five main purposes:

1) To produce an entertaining soap opera that will educate listeners on issues of importance to them, such as health, education and violence against women. Young people and women in Esquipulas and the surrounding rural communities will help produce the content – giving voice to marginalized populations.

2) To advance women’s knowledge of their rights. The radio station will provide a public forum for discussion and learning about ways to end violence against women and women’s access to justice and legal aid.

3) To provide vocational radio training and development programs for young people and women. Women are underrepresented in media roles in Latin America. The Colectivo wants to change this.

4) To report serious incidents of violence against women and to denounce organizations that do not comply with the law or that discriminate against women.

5) To rent airtime on the radio to local organizations as a means to generate much needed ongoing income for the Colectivo.

The Colectivo has already received a grant from the organization Hivos International for this project, but they need a lot more to make it a reality. The equipment must be purchased, the station must be licensed and personnel need to be trained. The biggest difficulty the Colectivo faces is their lack of financial resources. Most charities around the world deal with this challenge, but it feels more acute here in the developing world. The Colectivo used to receive considerable funding from Catholic organizations in North America, but this was pulled due to their pro-choice stance on abortion. I don’t know if the radio station will become a reality. I hope it does and soon, because it would do so much good.

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.

arboles

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.

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.

theatregroups

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.