Women Under Chamorro’s Regime

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

Barbara Seitz

IN JANUARY 1991 it was apparent in Nicaragua that certain people were quickly becoming wealthier, while the vast majority were becoming poorer.

By August, when I made my eighth trip to Nicaragua since 1987, the difference had evolved dramatically: Masses of Nicaraguans are experiencing serious hunger or are close to it. Poorer nutrition is leading to poorer health. The sagging economy has meant a deterioration in basic services, and the availability of both water and electricity has eroded for lack of money to complete repairs as old equipment fails. Telephone service has worsened also.

Combined rates of unemployment and underemployment, estimated at about 50% in November (New York Times, Nov. 22,1991:A4), have more than doubled since the change of government At least 35% of professionals are without work, including the majority of doctors.

Strikes are common. About 1000 employees, members of the CUS syndicate at the Sugar Mill San Antonio, went out on strike for higher pay on July 24 and remained on strike when I left on August 31. (The Sugar Mill at San Antonio processes 70% of the sugar production and is the nation’s largest sugar mill.) The switchboards at the mill were not working and the lack of sugar processing was beginning to be felt at the nearby Ron de Cana rum factory, another major Nicaraguan export industry.

Many teachers in the area, members of ANDEN, the teachers union, had finished a month long strike demanding a pay raise and were having to work on Saturdays to make up the time lost.

Fighting for the Land

Meanwhile, the situation of small farmers was dismal due to lack of access to credit, a long dry spell and the threat of impending land confiscation. Earlier in the 1991 growing season, which began in May, the banks refused credit to most of the small agriculturalists.

Some farmers I met were among those who, afraid of losing their land, home and/or animals, decided to let the land sit idle or only to cultivate a small section of it Perhaps they were wise, because after the eclipse of July 10 the rains stopped in Region II.

On August 28 UNAG (National Union of Farmers and Cattle-Ranchers), beseeched the government to declare a state of emergency there because the extended thy spell had affected more than 12,000 manzanas of cotton.

Farmers around Posoltega pointed to barren fields where they had planted rice that never grew, and the corn crops were dwarfed. Those who might survive were carrying pail after pail of water to sustain their crops. In many areas where water is not convenient, that is not a possibility. It had rained a few times in the last week and a half before I left. Two of those rainfalls were violent and actually washed away the seeds where some farmers, anticipating the return of the rainy season, had tried to put in a second crop after the first failed. For those farmers across Nicaragua who lost their bean crops to slugs last year, this season was especially important.

Meanwhile the struggle for land control continues, with mounting tensions concentrated in the highest levels of government and reaching to the most remote corners of the countryside. The executive and legislative branches of government face off in bitter disagreement over the issue.

Supposedly the judicial branch will support the President, who maintains she will veto the Law of Cesar (head of the National Assembly) which calls for the return to former owners of houses and properties, private and commercial.(1)

Nevertheless, the fact that such a law would be approved by 100% of the UNO (the governing anti-Sandinista coalition) representatives shows a tremendous movement in conflict with the spirit and agreements of reconciliation It also indicates a sharp confrontation between the president (with Minister L.acayo) and the rest of the UNO coalition.

Where this will lead is uncertain and very unnerving. The U.S. Embassy is supporting the Godoy-Cesar, right-wing element. Many mayors, including Alemán in Managua and the mayors of Chinandega and Chichigalpa, are supporting the Godoy-Cesar position, allowing former owners to reclaim properties and evict people who allow themselves to be removed. In the case of refusal to move, the most stubborn seems to win, at least for the time being.

Women Facing the Crisis

The present economic program of the Nicaraguan government is affecting especially forcefully the lives of women.

Results of a recent survey by the FIDEG released in March 1991 reveal that 48.1% of households are headed by women, 51.9% by men. In 96.5% of homes headed by men a “mate” is also present. In contrast, in homes headed by women, 75.6% are composed of women alone with their children, bearing full responsibility for both income and domestic labor. Whereas 94% of the male heads of household are married, 75% of women interviewed are either widowed, separated or single.

Although 76.9% of women heads of household have entered the job market, poverty rates for households headed by women are significantly higher than for those headed by men-81.8% versus 64.8%, with 37.5% of the female headed households in extreme poverty, unable to meet two or more basic necessities.

In Region II Martha Irene Hernandez, a sixth grade teacher, local director of ANDEN and former superintendent of schools for eight years before the change of government, told me that by means of the economic plan the government is forcing women back into the traditional role of housewife.

Because women realize they will be among the first to be laid off, they feel they have no option except to accept the Plan for Occupational Conversion. According to this plan a person must agree to stay out of the workforce for four years; for doing this she is compensated with a fixed sum of money.

“…the woman, in order not to be laid off without a single penny, takes up the plan with this little bit of money. But it does not suffice to live for four years. Thus the woman, in an indirect way, is made to go back to her traditional work as a housewife.”

Cristma Picada, social science teacher and mother, explained that another reason why women are the first to opt for the plan is lack of childcare to allow them freedom to work. She pointed to the dosing of child care centers, established by the revolution for working mothers, as a clear message from the government to women to return to their homes.

In Managua I interviewed Amanda Lirios, Secretary General of the organization CIPRES (Center for Social and Rural Advancement, Research and Development), who affirmed that the government apparatus does not favor women remaining in the labor market but instead is antagonistic towards popular interests and wishes that women return to their homes.

Women’s participation in social organizations has decreased due to the present economic crisis, and women feel their progress towards equality has eroded. Teacher Martha Irene decried the loss of the gains made by women under the Sandinista government.

“Now we feel that our role as women which we had gained in these ten years of hard work, to be able to participate in all the activities, they have cut off from us.”

After having experienced an improved and more equitable status in society during the period of the revolutionary government, women are now feeling threatened. They are frustrated and frightened by the erosion of their ability to influence events and ultimately the course of their own lives.

Education Access Denied

Besides the problems created by the exhausting pressures of survival, women’s role (and men’s) in government will reflect their educational experience or lack of it. People denied access to education cannot easily involve themselves in the workings of government. Inability to read and write well handicaps them. At the same time, the quality of education shapes attitudes and motivations.

Whereas one year ago children often worked before and/or after school to contribute to the family’s income, today many of these same children work full time, and others simply stay home. Increased costs of education, decreased family resources, loss of access to free transport to and from school, and the closing of small village schools barred many children from the classroom this school year (ending in Nov/Dec. 1991).

Others dropped out when they could no longer participate without the textbooks their parents could not afford to purchase. Many families cannot afford the increased costs of education. During visits to villages in August of 1991, interviews with parents and teachers convinced me that a significant percentage of children are not attending school.

In one community I interviewed twenty mothers from a collective of sixty-five families. Of these moms, nearly 80% of their school-age children, all of whom attended school last year, now do not because the parents cannot afford the costs of books, notebooks and pencils. Last year the Sandinista government donated the texts and they were free.

Mothers with children in school described how the children from poor families are suffering embarrassment and frustration because of newly introduced pressure to wear uniforms and to purchase new clothes for special events like the Independence Day Parade.

Prior to the change of government, children travelled free on public transportation to and from school. In rural areas children may live miles from the nearest school, typically a one- or two-room school offering classes up to the second, third or fourth grade. Then the child must travel perhaps five miles to complete the sixth grade.

In the municipality I visited, equivalent to a U.S. county, there is only one site for middle and high school classes. Eliminating access to free transportation virtually places a wall between the child and potential educational development, upward mobility and empowerment.

In several villages of the municipality parents of young children hesitate to allow them to walk many miles in the tropical sun, crossing rivers, highways or causeways that become impassable in heavy rains, to attend kindergarten or elementary school.

Government budget cuts have closed schools in Nicaragua, including two in the municipality I visit. The director of a school system that encompasses one large primary school with about 600 students, and six small lower elementary schools, sadly recounted how about twenty parents wanting to enroll their children in the first grade at a small village school were asked to “come back next year” because of the lack of desks and the unsanitary condition of the dirt floor where pigs, cattle, and oxen enter during non-school hours.

From Revolution to Reproduction

Cristina Picada felt that by making education more difficult to obtain the government is telling young girls to prepare themselves instead for the “mission” of reproduction. She contrasted the gains of the revolution, which advocated education for women to enable them to play an important role in Nicaraguan society, with current developments.

“We think that as women, well, during the period of the Revolution we were achieving a summit in the education of the woman that she could be an important factor in Nicaraguan society. Then we see, well, complete, complete retrogression in education.

Initially Cristina’s education had ended in elementary school. Later on, a wife and mother, she became motivated by the revolution and increased opportunities to complete middle school, high school and earn a bachelor’s degree. Prior to the change of government she was director of a middle and high school.

Higher education—which in the ‘80s had become an option for every person with the appropriate motivation and preparation—is moving beyond the reach of most, because of the rising cost of tuition, the loss of scholarship opportunities and cutbacks in admissions. The low number of university places available for 1992 to incoming students has created a national uproar as aspiring students realize the opportunity for higher education will most likely be denied them.(2)

Textbooks from Minnesota

Another important factor affecting Nicaraguan society, especially women’s role in government and social development, is the character and quality of education. With the change of government came a radical change in teaching methodology and the content of texts.

Texts were brought in through the United States Agency for International Development, published in Venezuela, Colombia and the United States. These texts not only have no relevance to the reality of Nicaragua, but they present a totally different view of women and society than that presented in the texts used under the Sandinista government.

Elementary and secondary school teachers complained to me that their texts have nothing to do with the reality of Nicaragua, for example the English class texts were written for use in Minnesota.

According to a sixth grade teacher, the local director of the teacher’s union and former superintendent of her school system for eight years prior to the change of government, the message promoted by the current government in its texts, media and through the Catholic Church is that a woman may elect to be a fulltime mother, staying at home with her children, or a fulltime nurse or teacher.

The Morality of Subordination

In the school texts anew and Catholic moral code is emphasized. The ten commandments are presented and interpreted for a code of behavior and students are instructed to give first allegiance to God.

“Love God above all things. . . Nothing should be more important to us than that.., not our interests, not our parents not our country. (sixth grade civics book, Morai Civica y Urbanidad)

A proper marriage is one that is realized in two ceremonies, civil and religious. And, the text continues, although the laws in many countries, including Nicaraguan laws, permit the legal dissolution of a marriage, “it is always a disgrace.” Finally, the text warns the young girls in the class that usually divorce brings much suffering, “above all” for the mother and her children.

According to the texts it is mainly the man’s responsibility to support the household, and a “family” is composed of a mother, father and children. Finally, abortion is described as murder. This moral message does not support married couples choosing not to have children, single parenthood, married mothers working, divorce as an alternative to an unhappy marriage, or abortion as an alternative to an unwanted pregnancy.

Sex education in the schools has undergone radical transformation. Dora Zeledón, director of International Relations for AMNLAE, the Nicaraguan women’s organization, described to me the effect the new “regressive” educational system is having on boys’ and girls’ perceptions of women, teaching them that women should be submissive and that ideally women should assume their traditional role.

This contrasts sharply with sex education provided under the former government, which addressed the special problems and issues faced by women in their struggle for respect, equal treatment and access to treatment, regular medical check-ups, and consultations for family planning.

Zeledón emphasized that this situation is creating confusion for children because they receive one education at school, another at home, and yet another in the street. They are left, she said, to try to decide, “who is right.” While many of their mothers have been strongly influenced by the consciousness-raising achieved through the experience of the Sandinista Revolution, their children are confronted with conflicting views between home and school.

Church, State and Soaps

Another issue is the close alignment of the Catholic Church with the government. A teacher pointed out the permeation of religious doctrine in the school texts, and pointed out that in their Masses the priests in her locale preach in a ‘very politicized manner.” Indeed the messages of the Catholic sermons seem to can consistently for women to return to their homes and serve others’ needs.

The two sermons I heard during two different visits to Nicaragua in 1991 both held strong messages for women. In the first, in January, 1991, the priest praised as exemplary the mother who rises at 4 a.m. to cook and clean her house so that by the time her family wakes the house is spotless and fragrant with the aromas of fresh bread and the food she is cooking.

In August the local bishop lauded the model set by the mother of Jesus who, he said, did not go to sit with the guests at the wedding, but instead went to the kitchen where she was content to cook and act as a servant to the rest.

Another permeating influence is the media, especially soap operas. Nicaraguan lifestyle has been radically altered by the introduction during the past six months of a series of soap operas televised from 1 to 9 p.m. on weekdays, significant both for their didactic messages about women and for their mesmerizing effect In the community where I stay. Community meetings and the rhythm of life in general had been transformed, to revolve around the times of the novelas.

Cristina Picada calls the soap operas, which she compares to a contagious infection affecting all Nicaragua, a clever means by which the government is distracting people from thinking about politics and their problems.

“Those [soap operas], how they fill your head! You have no time to think, “Ai! How is the economic situation? Ai! What shall I do?” The woman is absorbed in the soap opera… So that [watching the novelas] is a form of submission, and very gentle, well-done with much tact; because we like to watch, yes, we like to watch.”

Oppression and Resistance

Given the loss of governmental support for the emancipation of women, plus the simultaneous media commercialization of women, it is more than coincidental that Nicaragua seems to be experiencing a rise in prostitution.

An article by Felix Thomas recently documented the appearance of “a small army of adolescent prostitutes,” hundreds of young thirteen- and fourteen-year-old girls working as prostitutes in Corinto (La Barricada, 26 August 1991).

With the recent influx of illegal drugs and increased prostitution many new threats to health and well-being need to be addressed. In the current Nicaraguan context of poor hygiene and lack of access to medical care and medicines, the dangers of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are no less than terrifying. Among the seventy-six young prostitutes tested for STDs in Corinto, twenty were found to have gonorrhea and twenty, syphilis.

Despite all these obstacles, many women are continuing to engage in activities intended to influence the formation of policy on the local, departmental and national levels. Amanda Lirios, Secretary of CIPRES, explained that in a way, the path is dearer today for concentration by women on the problems of women than it was under the Sandinista government, when the focus was on defense against U.S.-backed aggression and everything else was secondary. She told me that today the situation of the Nicaraguan woman has been unveiled:

“Really the situation of women has been laid bare … the abuse, the discriminations, the mistreatment, the violence…. Well, they have removed the mask and everyone knows what that means in this society.”

Institutional responses to women’s situation, however, differ widely. Lirios draws hope from an apparent blossoming of nongovernmental social organizations in Nicaragua at this time. Organizations such as AMNLAE and the Movimiento Comunal are championing the cause of women together with more general social issues like land reform.

Despite the barriers that make it increasingly difficult, many women leaders are making demands and mobilizing actions which they hope will result in legislative and social reform.
In addition to the concerns shared by men and women teachers, ANDEN defends the rights of its female members. Actually most teachers are women, the majority unmarried, separated or abandoned women with children. For these women the obligation to teach on Saturdays, to make up for time lost during their recent strike, has made household maintenance difficult and created a hardship for the women and their children.

For these and other working women the closing of day care centers where their children were cared for while they worked represents a major loss. And they argue the need for understanding when a teacher arrives late or stays home because her child is ill.

AMNLAE has set up commissions to deal with the areas of health, nutrition, education, work, and the environment Also, at their most recent Congress (March 4, 1991) a special plenary session was held on women in political parties.

During the years 1991-1993, AMNLAE has pledged to advance the interests of women in the following areas: unemployment, maltreatment, sexual abuse and sexual blackmail, abandonment, paternal irresponsibility, the proliferation of juvenile delinquency, the introduction from abroad of drug trafficking which affects equally men, women and children, prostitution in all of its forms—in all cases as these themes relate to the women and the family.

AMNLAE is also working today in conjunction with other social agencies to defend the gains of the revolution, e.g. with CIPRES and the Movimiento Cornunal to oppose the confiscations of land and houses. In coordination with the Movimiento Comunal, AMNLAE is lobbying for legislation that would enable women to have the title to property owned jointly with a man put in her name or in both of their names. This would give a woman a degree of security in circumstances where her husband or companion rejects her (and her/their children) for another woman.

Women continue to manage Nicaragua’s markets today as they did in the days prior to and following the Conquest In Managua a group of women including Ritha Fletes Z., a member of the directorate of AMNLAE, head the Negotiating Commission of the Federation of Small Merchants of the Markets of Managua. Recently they took a full page ad in the newspaper La Barricada stating their demands for legislation and policy changes to protect their rights.

UNO Ladies vs. Women

With regard to women’s participation in political parties, women with offices in the UNO coalition come from the wealthier families in their communities. In fact the political program of the UNO government is pushing the masses of Nicaraguans deeper into poverty, curtailing educational opportunities, divesting them of land and housing, in essence distancing them from the arena of political dialogue and decision-making.

Women are very visible in the UNO organization, but they are upper-class women whose polities encourage women to take on their traditional roles, leaving only upper-class women with time to pursue political careers.

The women in UNO have not concerned themselves with the problems facing women in the lower socioeconomic strata nor with women’s issues in general. They have not proposed legislation that would protect women’s rights on the contrary, they have moved to restrict their rights.

Whereas under the Sandinista government a woman who already had a certain number of children could elect to be sterilized in order to prevent un wanted pregnancies, now she must have the signed consent of her husband.

The platform of the Sandinista Front addresses the issue of women’s rights. In the Sandinista Assembly 18% of its members are women, among them are many organizational leaders including representatives to the National Assembly, Managua City Council members and regional leaders of the FSLN.

In Nicaragua during the overthrow of Somoza there was a dramatic movement towards the involvement of women from all socio-political spheres in the Revolution and afterwards in the business of government, a movement of women towards equality on the job, in politics and at home, and a movement towards independence in controlling their reproductive rights.

During the years of the Sandinista government the women’s movement achieved legislation guaranteeing child support and mandating that men and young boys accept, at least in principle, shared responsibility for household chores; sex education and the image of woman presented in school texts was reformed. Now women have been told to return to the home. Poor women have been forced to occupy themselves with the struggle to survive. The UNO government has excluded all but the wealthiest of them from politics.

This government has embraced the Catholic Church and all of its moral teachings which deny women the right to an abortion, to a dignified divorce, to equal authority with their husbands. The image of women in the school, the press, and the television has returned to that of the submissive wife and mother.

In this atmosphere Nicaraguan women face a tremendous challenge in their struggle to proceed with their participation in the formation of national policy and the transformation of their society. Today they continue their struggle—under very difficult circumstances, but they continue.


  1. This law was approved 52-39 on the 20th of August, whereupon the Sandinista representatives walked out of the Assembly, unwilling to participate in the job of elaborating and defining a law which they hold to be totally unconstitutional. Once completed it will pass to the president who says she’ll veto it, and from there it would pass to the judicial Tribunal which, it is expected, would declare the law unconstitutional.
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  2. The man responsible for attending to applicants at the Universidad Centroamericana, Deyanira López described the situation in La Barricada as “terribly dramatic:; of 3,552 applicants, only 80 would be admitted. He predicted that before more career opportunities become available, the future of thousands of young people will be sacrificed (Malespin, August-13,1991).
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  3. January-February 1992, ATC 36