Machismo Under Threat: The Rise of Feminism in Nicaragua

by Megan Bridges


Members of an all-women’s bee keeping cooperative from El Caracol, Telica.

A revolution is underway in Nicaragua, and it is more prominent than ever: Machista cultural attitudes are coming under fire as feminists take the stage and negotiate their rights with influential state actors.

In the small Central American nation, womanhood condemns half its population to a host of social and political injustices. According to the World Health Organization, violence against women in Nicaragua is beyond epidemic proportions–in 2011, 37,000 women reported being victims of domestic or sexual violence. That means that every 20 minutes a Nicaraguan woman or girl is assaulted. The situation is grave. Furthermore, the state continues to enforce draconian laws that forbid women from undergoing therapeutic abortions and criminalize doctors who perform them. In other words, the ruling Sandinista party maintains a no-exception stance in which it denies women the right to terminate a pregnancy in cases of rape or incest, or when it is medically necessary to save the expecting mother’s life.

To further drive the point home, violence against women dominates in a country that upholds patriarchal policies and has an extensive record of impunity. Over the past few years, a number of absurd Supreme Court rulings have surfaced. In the case of rape victim Fatima Hernández, her aggressor’s eight-year sentence was reduced by half, and later suspended altogether. Why? He was “drunk and horny.” Essentially, the court believed that Hernández asked for the brutal rape and beating that landed her in the hospital for 43 days. There was also the appalling sentencing of a mother who was deemed “complicit in the crime of sexual violence” after filing a police report when she discovered that her daughter had been repeatedly raped by her step father. She received 12 years in prison, while he remains at large.

To a lesser extent, I have confronted machismo during my short stint in León. Walking home alone at night is an invitation for men to call piropos in your direction, which include honking, explicit sexual remarks, and the all-to-familiar tsst tsst. And god help you if you wear a dress during your night on the town! A semester in Cuba has fortunately toughened my skin to endure daily objectification. Additionally, machista cultural attitudes dictate women’s behavior at work. I was told by a female coworker that she cannot smoke cigarettes when she visits the countryside because she may be perceived as a corrupting influence on the women that live there. Her male coworkers, however, can smoke scott free.

While systemic sexism is replete with disadvantages, the same coworker told me that it can sometimes work in her favor. For background, she serves as the principal beekeeping specialist for Nuevas Esperanzas’ apicultural project, which uses Africanized honey bees to harvest their honey for sale. When the project was first introduced on the Telica volcano, it seemed like it was going to be a flop; male community members initially feared nearing the bees due to their widespread reputation for aggression. They watched in awe, however, as my coworker fluidly (and fearlessly) worked in the apiary, and they rationalized that if a woman could keep bees, they could, too. The men now fully embrace the project, leading to its success. Apiculture has since expanded to other communities in the area.

In spite of the current status of Nicaraguan women described above, feminists won (what seemed like) a major victory in 2012 with the passage of Law 779, which aims to protect women from all forms of violence by criminalizing perpetrators. Theoretically, the law is a step in the right direction; however, many women believe that its enactment is premature. They argue that its efficacy relies on a cultural shift that as of yet has failed to come to fruition. Resultantly, they worry that the law will lead to increased rates of femicide by men who elect to permanently silence those victims who threaten to report their abuse to law enforcement. Furthermore, the law favors family mediation to resolve cases of domestic abuse, instead of harsh jail sentencing. If the law were carried out as written on paper, it would be among the most progressive of its kind. Instead, it leaves feminists yearning for greater pushback against machismo.

All hope is not lost. I have had the opportunity to meet several strong women who break societal norms. They include women in their 30s who challenge traditional ideas of marriage by choosing to remain single and childless, and others who reject complacency by divorcing abusive or adulterous husbands. Moreover, popular Nicaraguan icons have publicly decried violence against women. Katia Cardenal of the famous musical group Duo Guardabarranco, for example, recently held a benefit concert in the name of feminism. Change is not just happening in urban centers, though. Several women in the rural communities with which Nuevas Esperanzas works have taken over the reigns in historically male-dominated work. El Caracol, for instance, boasts all-female bee keeping and agricultural cooperatives, and women in other parts of Telica serve on the leadership boards of their community organizations. It is these horse-riding, machete-wielding, and financially-independent women that will change machista attitudes in the countryside while their city-dwelling sisters make waves elsewhere.