Working for a nonprofit in a developing country definitely isn’t glamorous. Budgets are tight, living spaces are crowded, and the work is sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes tedious. I knew when I traveled to Nicaragua that I would be working in very impoverished communities as well as traveling throughout the country. I knew that as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American, I’d stick out a bit. What I wasn’t prepared for was the nearly daily, unabashed harassment from men.
Nearly every time we, the female interns and program directors alike, walk down a street, we experience wolf whistles, shouts of “chela!” “hey baby!” and other things I won’t repeat. In Granada, I caught a man taking rudely angled photos of female interns. When I said something to him he laughed at me. Once, during a girl’s health class on anatomy, two grinning men leered in the window.
On paper, Nicaragua is a progressive country with a strong feminist movement. Nicaraguan law dictates that half of all party and government positions must be filled by women. The chief of police is a woman and the First Lady has made impassioned speeches about female empowerment. Despite this, machismo culture is strong. A study published in 2000 in Social Science and Medicine investigated violence against women in León. The researchers found that 52% of married women had experienced domestic violence. Amnesty International reported that between 1998 and 2008, there were over 14,000 cases of rape. Considering that most rapes go unreported, that number is staggering. A Nicaraguan nursery rhyme demonstrates the normalcy of violence against women: “Chico Perico mató a su mujer/La hizo pedazos y la puso a vender/Y nadia la quiso porque era mujer!” (Chico Perico killed his wife/He chopped her into pieces and made her for sale/But no one wanted her because she was a woman!)
I wanted to focus my time in Nicaragua on women because of attitudes such as these. I am grateful for the progress we have made towards gender equality in America and improved treatment of women, but I am also aware that many countries still have serious inequity. One of the ways Manna Project helps women is by employing them in their jewelry cooperative, called Camino Nuevo. Created four years ago in Villa Guadaloupe, Camino Nuevo gave the women in the community steady, fair work. This past Thursday the cooperative was invited to attend the First Congress of Women Leaders in Nicaragua, along with other enterprises that empower women. The event was attended by over 400 women, and promoted female leadership and empowerment as a national priority.
The work that Camino Nuevo is doing and events like the First Congress of Women Leaders in Nicaragua can change women’s lives. The money they earn from their work can help them leave abusive marriages and the confidence and sense of purpose gained through meaningful work is an important part of empowerment. It won’t solve the problem of machismo in Nicaragua, but I have seen the impact it has made on women in Villa Guadaloupe first hand and it gives me hope.
If you’re interested in learning more about Camino Nuevo, or in making purchases, please visit caminonuevonica.org.