Nicaraguan Women Under Attack

Against the Current, No. 28, September/October 1990

Marie De Santis

ON JUNE 4 the Nicaraguan Minister of Education, Ernesto Salmeron, issued the first official declaration of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) government on family planning and sex education. In a radio broadcast, Salmeron stated that the purpose of the sex act is to encourage procreation, thus signaling what many women’s groups had feared: that the new government would seek to reverse many of the reproductive rights gains made by Nicaraguan women in the past decade.

The Minister of Education also announced that current materials used for sex education in the schools would be replaced by a new text in line with the government’s stance, including the orientation that rhythm is the only acceptable method of birth control In the same radio broadcast he added that all school texts provided by the former Sandinista government are now being replaced.

Nicaraguan women have an average of 5.5 children (an average of seven children in some rural areas) and Nicaragua has one of the highest rates of population growth in Central America. Infant mortality and maternal deaths are also high.

While women’s reproductive rights were never officially codified in law during the decade of Sandinista rule, women were nonetheless able to make certain advances. Following the overthrow of Somoza in 1979, legal equality of men and women was written into the new constitution. However, the efforts of women’s rights groups to also include a woman’s right to decide the number and liming of her children was rejected.

Despite the lack of official recognition of reproductive freedom, the women’s groups were able to continue their struggle and succeeded in establishing a broad program of sex education. In addition to sex education in the schools, there were regular TV and radio programs on government media directed at sex education. Feminist groups also had regular access to the media so that they could give their perspective.

The government-run women’s hospital, Berta Calderon, instituted many new policies liberating women from patriarchal medical abuses. It was here that a woman gynecologist undertook a long-term study of women dying from the infections and hemorrhaging of illegally induced abortions — thereby demonstrating conclusively that illegal abortions were the leading cause of matern,al death in Nicaragua.

Before the revolution, women arriving at the hospital from botched abortions were often allowed to die without treatment on account of the punitive attitude of doctors and staff. Along with the study came a more compassionate attitude, and programs were instituted to insure that these women were treated equally to other patients.

In addition, the study expanded the terms of the abortion debate in Nicaragua. The hospital itself was able to broaden the conditions under which legal abortions were done.

The possible privatization of hospital care – which would condition access to treatment to those able to pay — is raising concern that such programs will not survive. The hospital and all medical facilities are already operating under crisis conditions due to a recently instituted 50 percent cut in the public health budget.

Organizers Under Fire

In 1958 the first feminist women’s clinic opened in Nicaragua. Today the clinic, IXCHEN, serves more than 200 women per day, the majority of whom are campesinas. In addition to the full range of birth control services, the clinic offers numerous educational workshops on women’s health and provides legal counseling for women on divorce, domestic violence and rape.

Just weeks before the Nicaraguan elections, the clinic opened a branch in the barrio Sandino, one of the poorest barrios in Managua. Although the clinic continues to operate, Violeta Chamorro, the new U.S.-backed president of Nicaragua, said on a radio broadcast during her campaign that she would close the clinic herself.

In response to these attacks, the Association of Nicaraguan Women/Luisa Amanda Espinosa (AMNLAE), the Sandinista women’s organization – which many women’s rights groups accused of dragging its feet on women’s issues throughout much of the last decade — has recently begun taking a stronger position.

In preparation for the hoped-for February 25 Sandinista victory, AMNLAE had drafted two pieces of legislation covering domestic violence and rape. Throughout Nicaraguan history – including the last ten years – what a husband does to his wife has been considered to be outside the jurisdiction of the courts and police, leaving women with no recourse from domestic violence or spousal rape.

The proposed laws would have begun to rectify that situation. It’s uncertain at this time if these laws will be introduced and even more uncertain if they would pass.

According to Catherine Clark, spokesperson for Worldwide Women’s Rights and a nurse practitioner working in women’s health, “We are very concerned both by the declaration of Nicaragua’s Minister of Education and the reduction of the public health budget If a woman cannot exercise her reproductive rights she cannot enjoy any rights. With a repression of sex education and the threats to women’s health care, we fear that all maternal deaths, and deaths from abortion in particular, could soar.

“For women who fought so hard to bring about the revolution and then had to fight again to gain rights under the revolution, the direction being taken by the new government is a real tragedy.”

Although the Education Minister’s declaration made clear that women’s rights – particularly their reproductive rights—will be rolled back in Nicaragua, it remains to be seen how far the new government will go. But one thing is evident Women who only a few months ago spoke freely of their hopes and goals no longer want to be named.

September-October 1990, ATC 28

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