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'Even going to the gynaecologist might be seen as cheating': Changing how one country views its women

“Did he control his wife in the past? Soza pauses for a second. “Yes,” he says.”

Michael Sheils McNamee reports from Nicaragua. 

ESTELÍ IS NICARAGUA’S third largest city, and its multitude of tobacco factories and sparse street lighting give it a harsh edge after dark.

In a community centre across the road from the newly developed Chilincoco Skate Park – still swarming with children and teenagers at 8pm – a group of men who have gathered to talk about gender-based violence are reflecting on the past.

“The story of Nicaragua is something difficult. Women traditionally had certain roles looking after children. For us, women would have been under control of our fathers and our grandfathers.” says Diomedes Soza, a 60-year-old firefighter.

And did he control his wife in the past?

Soza pauses for a second.

“Yes,” he says.

“For example, I worked outside so she had to be at home. She wasn’t allowed to leave. She had to do everything there. Had to have the clothes ready, had to have the food ready. She wasn’t allowed to leave. To let her be free? No way.

“It’s all just appearance. When the people can see you it’s ‘my love’, but when they cannot you hit her.
“This was a normal situation.”

Some of the men in the group nod in agreement while others are quick to point out that this is the past he is talking about.

“Of course, I mean in the past,” Soza adds.

The group are here meeting as part of a programme run by community group FunArte (meaning ‘Fun Art’), which works in partnership with Trócaire to deliver gender-based violence programmes.

Group of men The group of men from FunArte's gender-based violence programme

These types of gender-based violence workshops – commonly referred to as ‘masculinity workshops’ – are not directly aimed at stopping men from committing acts of violence, although that is obviously a desired effect, but rather to get them to think about how they have been socialised by Nicaragua’s machismo culture.

Techniques vary depending on the ages of those involved and the types of work they’re doing, but an average workshop might include hug therapy, practising domestic chores, or even something like analysing the lyrics of a pop song.

The idea of working with would-be perpetrators or men whose pasts include incidents of violence might seem like a radical idea, but Nicaragua is a country that has a drastic problem.

In 2007, three years before Trócaire launched this innovative type of gender-based violence programme, a survey by the government showed that 48% of women who were married or in a common-law relationship had experienced verbal or psychological violence; 27% said they had experienced physical violence; and 13% said they had experienced sexual violence.

What underlies much of this violence is the type of toxic masculinity promoted by machismo culture in Nicaragua, something that Trócaire’s guidance document on the subject describes as being linked to “dominance, honour and aggression”.

‘Things like they cannot go to the gynaecologist because men may feel that this is like cheating on him’

The people responsible for overseeing Trócaire’s work on this are Martin Larrecochea, the NGO’s director for Nicaragua, and Marielos Carías, who is responsible for its gender programme.

While gender-based violence is certainly not a uniquely Latin American problem, particular expressions of it might be more common here than in other parts of the world.

20170220_101122_hdr.jpg-w=723 Trócaire's Managua-based headquarters

“What seems normal here is something that you don’t see at the beginning,” says Larrecochea, “things like women have to ask for permission to go out. Things like they cannot go to the gynaecologist because men may feel that this is like cheating on them. Showing her parts to someone else.”

“Maybe you can say that this expression is common to Latin America, even if there are differences,” Carias adds, “Sometimes you find more differences between more rural areas and urban areas. But in urban areas you find machismo also, but expressed in other ways.”

‘The culture is more oppressive to men than it is to women’

A particular expression of this urban machismo comes in the form of street gangs that populate neighbourhoods around the capital city of Managua.

CEPREV (the Centre for the Prevention of Violence) is an organisation that reaches out to young men and boys involved in this lifestyle by making direct approaches and inviting them to get involved in a programme that focuses on their emotional growth.

The group’s director is Monica Zalaquett. She speaks with the directness of someone who doesn’t want to be misunderstood and occasionally breaks into English to emphasise a point.

She explains that in the 20 years that it has been doing this type of work CEPREV has broken up around 180 street gangs and has seen their work spread into neighbouring Honduras.

20170224_094732.jpg-w=723 Monica Zalaquett with a book showing the techniques used by her organisation

According to Zalaquett there are three basic tenets to machismo: acting out violently, being sexually promiscuous and being a financial success.

“The way for men to meet these things is to show no emotions. And to start early with this… be strong, be reserved, be quiet, be successful. It is learning to be a zombie.”

When asked if more organisations prefer to focus on women when working in this area, Zalaquett’s facial expression shows that she thinks this is an obvious question.

“Well, most of them do,” she says.

“Machismo doesn’t give any ability to the men to be free. The culture is more oppressive to the men than it is to the women. But, what you always see is that it is women that suffer more as a result of machismo.

“Of course, men kill women and destroy their children. They commit acts of violence against women. But the person that is also affected is the man because they destroy themselves.

“It is incredible how the machismo manages to keep the status that it does, because it damages the men.”

This is a part of the impact of machismo that some groups would rather not focus on, but this hasn’t stopped Zalaquett from promoting her organisation’s work in the area to a wider audience.

In 2014 she delivered a TEDx talk on the subject, in which she outlined that 80% of the world’s homicides are committed by men on men, and that men are more likely to be incarcerated and to die by suicide.

“Men are victims of machismo,” she says in the talk, “but many don’t know it.”

After speaking with Zalaquett we asked if it would be possible to speak with one of the former gang members who had participated in the scheme, to see what the experience of the organisation was like from the other side.

In a testament to the regard that CEPREV seemed to be held in the community, within 15 minutes of Zalaquett making a few phone calls former gang leader Luis Guevara arrived at the office, happy to take time out of his day’s work as a mechanic to talk about the project.

Guevara, now 35, used to be the leader of a gang called Los Pichuches, a group that were involved in the local drug trade, feuding with rival gangs and even once acquiring grenades from a local army base with the help of a friend who had enlisted.

“In the beginning when ‘la Senora’ (referring to Zalaquett) came here, she came speaking our language,” Guevara explains, although he also adds that the first time she came to his neighbourhood even the tyres on her truck were stolen.

20170224_133231.jpg-w=723 Luis Guevara

It was a prompt from an activity in one of the CEPREV workshops he attended that made him decide to express himself emotionally for the first time, and now 20 years later Guevara seems almost shocked at the suggestion that this is something he wouldn’t remember.

“Of course I remember the first time I showed my feelings!” he says, explaining that he chose to tell his mother he loved her on Mother’s Day, although at the time he wasn’t sure how it would go over.

“I was very shy about what I was doing. I went to speak to her while she was cooking, and she asked me, ‘what do you want, son?’

“I didn’t tell her about the task,” he says, “I was stammering. I said, ‘I want to tell you how much I love you, and I want you to forgive me for all of the bad things that I have done. And for this day, I want to give you a new son.

“I always dreamed of having the love of my mother. For the first time I asked for a hug from my mother, and she hugged me and gave me a kiss. And I felt strong. I felt happy.”

‘Yeah, my life will probably be different because of these workshops’

Guevara became fully immersed in machismo culture before finding a way out of it.

The second gender-based violence programme we visit was run by Cesesma, another one of Trócaire’s partner organisations, a group that focuses on prevention as much as remedy, with some of its participants getting involved much younger than Guevara was when he joined up with CEPREV.

Their facility is just outside of the town of San Ramón and made up of two colonial-style buildings used for classrooms, separated by a long stretch of land used to cultivate different vegetable patches.

This group is made up of Felix, Carlos, Becker, Manuel and Javier, all aged 15 to 17, along with 63-year-old Julio and 74-year-old Pedro.

20170221_111305.jpg-w=723 The men and boys that take part in Cesesma's gender-based violence programme

While Julio and Pedro are able to share stories of their own enlightenment after being shaped by machismo culture earlier in life, the teenagers involved have been raised learning about gender – all of them having participated in the programme for between five and seven years – and they all seem aware that, as Zalaquett had said, machismo was a dangerous trap to fall into.

“Yeah, my life will probably be different because of these workshops,” says 17-year-old Javier when asked to reflect on the impact the workshops will have on his future.

“Because women are participating more in society now, and I know about that because of being in this process. Probably if I hadn’t come here, it might have been more difficult for me to accept it in the future when I see women being more involved in society.”

Focusing too closely on the work being carried out by FunArte, Cesesma and CEPREV might give the impression that Nicaragua is well on its way to ridding itself of negative and harmful behaviour and attitudes.

This would give the wrong impression in a country that is still plagued by alarming incidents of femicide, a practice defined as the killing of a girl or woman on account of her gender – something that most people see as directly linked to machismo culture.

Last year 49 cases were recorded by Catholics for the Right to Choose, a non-governmental group that keeps track of the incidents.

In January of this year 24-year-old Yessenia Suyen Montenegro Moran was shot dead in a petrol station by her boyfriend who had reportedly collected her from her job in a casino less than an hour beforehand.

In February a 25-year-old woman was burnt at the stake by religious fanatics on the Caribbean coast who believed they were carrying out a religious ‘cleansing’. She died in hospital after sustaining burns to 80% of her body.

In another incident last month mother-of-five Ángela Herrera who lived in the Jinotega region – a rural coffee growing part of the country – was beheaded by her ex-husband who she had been married to for more than 20 years.

‘I can make tortilla’

By comparison to how extreme these incidents are, getting men to reconsider their masculinity seems almost pedestrian – but it is a method that is changing attitudes and improving conditions.

After the meeting in Estelí – the first group that we visited – we were able to visit the home of Pedro, one of the men who had taken part in the group who was a political leader in the local community.

He and his wife Ana Lily and their daughter Cindy wake up at 3am each day to prepare tortillas that are sold to the local community, and Pablo is quite happy taking on parts of the process that might traditionally have been done by women.

The house in a residential part of a city is built with facilities for cooking, preparing the corn and making tortillas incorporated into the kitchen and outside areas.

20170220_201702.jpg-w=723 Pablo demonstrating how corn is turned into tortilla

Pablo’s wife Ana Lily explains that some women at another community group she attends think that she is lucky to have a husband like Pablo who is willing to help out with the domestic tasks.
.
“I’m very proud of him,” she says, “everybody says to me, ‘take care of that man, because not everyone is like that’.”

Pablo also seems proud of his own attitude, and explains that recently at one of the workshops in Estelí a group of men were set the task of being self-sufficient, something that involved dividing up a number of domestic chores.

While some of the others struggled to get to grips with basic tasks like cleaning up, Pablo was happy he could apply skills he uses at home in the workshop.

“So I told the group, ‘don’t worry’,” Pablo explains, “because if we have the corn we can have tortilla. I can make tortilla.”

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

All photographs by Michael Sheils McNamee

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