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.

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.

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.

My name is not white girl, princess or baby

no me llamo

A good friend recently shared an article with me about Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh who started the art project “Stop Telling Women to Smile” in protest of men harassing her and invading her personal space on the street. The project features portraits of different women, including Fazlalizadeh herself, along with short, concise statements that capture each woman’s experience with street harassment. The posters are plastered across Brooklyn and she’s now taking the project on the road.

I love this project. It’s important that these posters are on the street, confronting these men and (hopefully) forcing them to take notice. I think all women, at some point in their lives, have experienced some form of street harassment. I have many stories to tell. In London, late one night while walking home from Brick Lane, a group of men shouted aggressive sexual remarks at me and after yelling back “no, not interested” was then told I was a “fat bitch”. In Marrakesh, on my way out to celebrate New Years Eve with my girlfriends, had a man on the street literally reach out and grab my breast – as if it were there for his taking. In Esquipulas, where I am living now, I deal with street harassment on a daily basis. I am whistled at like a dog and called white girl, princess and baby. There’s one guy who is particularly fond of practicing his English on me, which involves him yelling sweetie and honey at me, and telling me to “come here, I like you”. He gets upset when I don’t respond positively to his harassment and likes to ask me what my problem is. These are just a few examples.

As Fazlalizadeh rightly points out women are treated as if we are “there for consumption by men” and the streets, for many of us, do not feel like safe spaces. I can relate to this project and to the primal need to rebel against the harassment, to want to force the man to stop objectifying me and to look at and treat me as a person. Many men think that women “like” being treated this way and that they are “just being friendly”. These attitudes make the behaviour all the more difficult to combat, because street harassment, especially in its milder forms, is not taken seriously. It should be. It needs to be, because we have a right to be able to walk the streets free from the hassle, fear and injustice of this type of treatment. I would love to see Fazlalizadeh’s posters crop up in more places – with those words and faces staring down the men who walk by them.

A small glimpse of life in Esquipulas

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It has been quite the experience living in a small, Northern mountain town in Nicaragua for the past three months. It has been both challenging and rewarding. I joke that the one internet café in town has become my new office, because we are still waiting for the internet connection at the Colectivo to be fixed after two months. I’m used to sharing the roads and even buses with chickens and pigs and I have almost mastered the technique of the bucket shower. Every day I stop to take in the views here of the sprawling mountain ranges. I’ve picked up the local phrases and have learned to laugh when people can’t understand my Spanish, despite my best efforts at a Nica accent. Most importantly, perhaps, has been the people I have met – my colleagues and the local women who attend our workshops and come to us for help. They have taught me more about this country than I would ever learn as just a tourist. They have shown me the strength and resilience of the women’s rights movement, as well as the difficulty and obstacles faced here in the fight against patriarchy and machismo. I’ve included some photos to give you a small glimpse of what daily life is like here. As I come to the half way mark of my time in Nicaragua I would also like to thank you – my friends, family and supporters – for your encouragement on this journey of mine.

A step backwards for women’s rights in Nicaragua

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The Colectivo protesting the reform of Law 779 outside the National Assembly.

At the end of September the two parliamentary commissions responsible for reviewing the section of Law 779 that deals with mediation between victims and their abusers announced that the reform was approved. The commissions did not consult with women, communities or any NGOs in the country. The official approval of the reform occurred after a wider parliamentary vote in which only four out of eight-eight members of the Assembly voted against it.

This reform is a huge setback for the women’s rights movement in Nicaragua and for the safety of thousands of women. Mediation is now allowed for crimes with penalties of less than five years; this includes bodily harm, the abduction of children, psychological abuse, sexual assault and harassment both in the workplace and in the home.  The head of the supreme court has stated that mediation will not be obligatory and can be requested or denied by either party. However, many women in Nicaragua are in vulnerable positions – dependent on their partners for economic stability and often shunned by communities and family members when they denounce their abusers. Women are likely to feel pressured to agree to mediation even when their very lives are in danger. Mediation does not protect women; it often results in re-victimization and ongoing abuse.

The strength, passion and determination of the Colectivo and the women’s rights movement in this country amazes me. They tirelessly fight to have their voices heard and to demand real change and progress, yet the passing of this reform reminds me what we are up against – a powerful patriarchal society, a Catholic church in bed with the government and a long history of inequality and oppression. Those in power never want to release their hold of it, but the grip is weakening. So we have taken a step backwards, but we will continue to march forward.