First Lady Rosario Murillo smiles down on a couple and their baby in Malacatoya, a fishing town in southern Nicaragua. Image by Eleanor Klibanoff. Nicaragua, 2013.

On the anniversary of Nicaragua’s revolution, a national holiday akin to the 4th of July, First Lady Rosario Murillo delivered an impassioned address to the swarms of party supporters bused in from the countryside. Swathed in scarves and dripping with expensive jewelry, she captivated the crowd with her slogan-heavy speech, applauding Nicaragua’s impressive freedom “for all, and for the good of all.” Those watching at home were captivated: no other television channels were allowed to air during the speeches.

In Nicaragua, Murillo’s popularity is second only to the female Chief of Police, according to a 2012 poll, with Murillo's husband, President Daniel Ortega, ranking a humble third. The power of the First Lady is a national inside joke on par with Bill and Hillary in the United States.

“Nicaragua has the strongest feminist movement in Latin America,” says Magaly Quintana, director of Catholics for the Right to Choose, a pro-life organization. “There are many, many women’s rights organizations and women can have immense political power, but we also have many more issues to combat.”

Ortega’s own Sandinista party encourages the narrative that women, “Sandino’s Daughters,” played a large part in the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. And under an Ortega-approved law, 50 percent of all party and government positions must go to women.

On paper, and in the eyes of the government, Nicaragua is progressive when it comes to women’s rights. But despite these superficial solutions, most women in Nicaragua find themselves no better off.

According to a report published in July 2013 by Catholics for the Right to Choose, there have been 50 cases of “femicide” so far this year in Nicaragua. Femicide is understood to mean a man killing a woman that he considers to be his property, such as his wife, daughter or girlfriend.

The organization’s monthly newsletter keeps a running tally of the women who fall victim to femicide, detailing the ages, locations and cause of death. It reads, “these women had bodies, these women had ideas, these women had dreams and femicide snatched them away.”

“Nicaragua has a domestic abuse problem,” says Diana Aguilar, a psychiatrist working with Casa Alianza, a safe house for street children and child prostitutes. “We have a sexual abuse problem. We have a child abuse problem.”

Nicaragua has the second highest rate of domestic violence in Latin America (after Guatemala), with one in three women reporting physical abuse, according to Casa Alianza.

A study published in 2000 in Social Sciences and Medicine claims that over 50 percent of married women in Leon, a city in the north, have experienced sexual, emotional or physical abuse. Of those women, 80 percent did not seek help, citing shame or fear of societal reprisal as the main reasons behind their silence.

“Men abuse their wives, maybe because they drink too much, or maybe they don’t have a job,” explains Luciana Reyes, 29. She seems unperturbed while she watches her three children play on an indoor jungle gym at Metro Center mall. “I know women that have been abused. Everyone does. It’s not good, but men do it anyway.”

Later in the conversation, she muses that perhaps it’s for the best that she is no longer with the father of her children, although she is adamant that he never abused her. “I live with my mother. I know that my children are safe.”

“I know women who have been abused, but, no, I don’t know any men who have gotten in trouble. I don’t think that happens very often.” Luciana shrugs, almost apologetically, before departing to break up an argument between her sons.

In 1998, President Ortega himself was accused of sexual abuse by his stepdaughter. Nicaraguan courts dismissed her accusations, though the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights later declared the case to be legitimate. While at her request legal action went no further, she recently brought the issue back into the spotlight, publically reaffirming her testimony.

On International Women’s Day 2011, First Lady Murillo spoke on behalf of the women in her country, saying “we see ourselves in the mirrors of women the world over who stand up today to fight against…the sex trade, racism and the terrible domestic and sexual violence so loaded with crimes and abuses against our human condition.”

Meanwhile, the study in Social Sciences and Medicine tells of a Nicaraguan nursery rhyme that indicates just how far the feminist movement has to go:

Chico Perico killed his wife
He chopped her into pieces and cooked her up
Everyone who passed by could smell the stench
But no one wanted her because she was a woman.

Women may be making strides in government positions, and they may hold place of pride in the retelling of the revolution. But for the average Nicaraguan woman, the fate of Chico Perico’s wife is far more common than the empowerment that Murillo promises.

Project

Image by Eleanor Klibanoff. Nicaragua, 2013.
In Nicaragua and El Salvador, a complete abortion ban has led to unsafe abortions and turned doctors into informants. The number of girls under 14 who give birth has increased by 48 percent.

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