The offices of Maria Elena Cuadra
Is it better to never get the thing that you want? Or to get that thing and then quickly have it taken from you?
The Nicaraguan movement for women’s rights may have spent more than a few hours pondering that question, after scoring a major victory – only to then have it snatched from them.
In 2012, Law 779 was passed, drawing a line in the sand, and for the first time explicitly outlawing violence against women.
Prior to the introduction of the ‘Comprehensive Law Against Violence Towards Women’, protection existed, but was pulled together from other pieces of non-gender specific legislation. No special recognition was given to the crime of femicide or violence in the home.
In September 2012, just 14 short months after the legislation came into effect, the government bowed to pressure put on it by conservative groups from the political and religious spheres, and sandblasted away key protections afforded to women by the act.
Now, for crimes that come with a sentence of less than five years – which are limited to cases where a woman is hospitalised and femicide – victims are pushed into a situation where they may have to undergo mediation with their attacker, something they frequently acquiesce to due to economic and social pressure.
The offices of Maria Elena Cuadra – a women’s organisation named in tribute to a former Sandinista and women’s rights activist – sits at the side of a busy Managuan crossroads with a facade that hides a sprawling interior of offices focused on legal support, offices focused on industrial matters, facilities to host psychology sessions and even a colonial-style courtyard.
Sandra Ramos at the Maria Elena Cuadra offices
Maria Elena Cuadra presented the original Bill in 2012, and sitting in a side office on a warm Wednesday in February, the organisation’s executive director and founder Sandra Ramos is proud of what it has achieved, but doesn’t hide her dismay at the government’s capitulation.
“By changing the law,” she says, “it opened things up so that men can think they have the government on their side. They can think they have the government on their side when they are attacking women.”
About 40 minutes into the interview there is a pause as two well-dressed teenage girls knock on the door of the glass office and Ramos beckons them in. Speaking with the pair briefly, she hands them a few documents and sends them on their way.
The two girls had come from a local fee-paying school, she explains, and are involved in running activities and raising funds for the organisation.
Sitting back down in her chair, Sandra Ramos’s lowers her voice and says: “This is a good thing as well, because there are many upper class women that come here quietly to talk about their own problems with violence.”
“And of course we support them. If they come here, we receive them and we support them.”
The current dilemma around Law 779 had been caused by changes made by the Sandinista government, and I ask Ramos – who was a founding member of the Sandinista-affiliated trade union prior to starting Maria Elena Cuadra in 1994 – if she felt betrayed by a party that she used to be so closely connected to.
“I still am a Sandinista,” she says, smiling. “Not all the Sandinistas are in the government you know”.
After this we headed across Managua to meet with Ana Maria Rizo, a solicitor involved in helping with the administration of a Trócaire-affiliated gender-based violence programme.
A mural at the Bataholo North Cultural Centre where Ana Maria Rizo has her offices. The painting celebrates Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan Indian woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work on indigenous rights
As part of this programme, men are supported to rethink their masculinity, and women are given support to assert themselves within their families – with legal support given if women decide to push for legal action against their spouse.
Rizo’s role is to facilitate the groups and work with women at every stage of the legal process, which can include representation if something goes to court.
This can be an issue, she explains, and the programmes she has been involved in have been disparaged in some communities for the very fact that some prosecutions have been successful.
“Some men are angry, men that don’t work with us in the process,” she says, “‘this is the group that goes with the women trying to destroy the families’, they say. There are also government institutions that say that we are an organisation that are trying to destroy families and are trying to make it so that women are superior.”
Describing the rowing back of Law 779, Rizo describes it as ‘nothing more than a political strategy to keep power’.
Something that has happened as a result of the change in the law is the inclusion of local political leaders in the process for reporting domestic violence.
If a woman wants to bring her case to the police, one way to bypass mediation is to go to a local political leader – what might be the equivalent of a local councillor in Ireland – and argue that the abuse they had been a victim of was sufficient to justify legal action.
Tailing off her explanation of this, Rizo looks towards me and raises her eyebrows to check for my reaction.
“It’s crazy, no?”
Summer 2016 recipient, Michael Shiels McNamee, travelled to Nicaragua to report on the emergence of women in the workplace and in public life in Nicaragua. His article was published by thejournal.ie in April 2017. Read it here.