By Lizzie Phelan
The recent passing of the Comprehensive Violence Against Women Act, or law 799, marks a fundamental victory for Nicaraguan women and society.
As well as all forms of psychological and physical violence against women, economic violence will also be outlawed. The latter is of great importance to challenging the patriarchal system whereby women are kept in submission through economic power being concentrated in the hands of men. On a domestic level this plays out through abusive partners dictating where and when women can work, and controlling the material products of their labour.
But the struggle against such economic violence has also been launched in other forums. For example, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government’s micro-credit programs, which target the countries poorest communities, are directed specifically at women, practically and symbolically empowering them.
Misogyny can be found in various manifestations across the world. The Latin American cultural manifestations of misogyny are described as “machismo”. Not only does Law 799 specifically seek to target psychological, economic and physical manifestations of misogyny, through giving legal support to women who suffer from abuse, but also the root causes of them. The Maria Elena Cuadra Movement, which essentially instigated the law, stressed that it is not designed to throw more men into jail, but instead to promote the teaching of a gender perspective from a pre-school to a post-graduate level. Psychologist Enelvia Ballesteros who works at the MEC said: “A lot of men are misinterpreting the law because the law is as much as anything a tool of reeducation for them.”
And in that spirit, last year the government held a forum for men as part of their education around the new law. Ballesteros said: “Many of the men came to recognize that what they previously regarded as normal behavior did in fact constitute various forms of violence against their families.”
Soon another such forum will be held on a larger scale, in order to ensure that men understand the new law and can explain it to others, thereby instigating a multiplier effect of re-education. To support this process the government is also creating a commission that will develop training programs to ensure the law’s effectiveness.
These are just some of the measures that indicate the seriousness with which the FSLN government is responding to the calls of women in Nicaragua to address this problem - the scale of which is dwarfed by neighbouring countries.
Femicide, the murder of women for gender-based reasons, is the tip of the iceberg. In Nicaragua, the MEC puts the number of such murders last year at 89. Ballesteros said: “Femicide is not an isolated event but it’s the culmination of a history of violence against the woman,” indicating that in Nicaragua, the perpetrator of the murder is more likely to be known to the woman.
In nearby Guatemala and Mexico for example, all staunch US allies, the femicide rate is vastly higher. In just one city, Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, known as the homicide capital of the world, 465 women were murdered in 2010. The Central American Women’s Network (CAWN) has reported that many of those murders are carried out at the hands of men unknown to the victim.
CAWN has also linked the year on year rise of such murders to western aid conditions which has forced the relentless liberalisation of these countries' economies, pushing women into more informal and unstable work, for example, in Mexico especially in maquilladores (manufacturing plants in “free trade” zones), which are often situated in inaccessible locations where the journey to and from work is extremely dangerous for women. The research of CAWN exposes the direct link between imperialist economic aggression and the wellbeing of women and so it is not just Law 799 that is fundamental for Nicaragua’s women, but also the FSLN's reorientation of the Nicaraguan economy, from dependence on western aid, to trade and cooperation relations with the Latin American alliance ALBA and the BRIC nations.
Through such relations huge energy and infrastructure development is underway that is making possible the creation of long-term stable jobs, in addition to the micro-credit programmes already mentioned and encouragement of cooperatives that enable Nicaraguan women, particularly in rural areas where the vast majority of the population live, to become self-sufficient.