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"Well, in our factory, if a woman is good looking she gets treated differently"

A generation of women in Nicaragua are working to improve their lives in a society that isn’t always friendly to women.

Michael Sheils McNamee reports from Nicaragua on some of the difficulties facing women there – and what they’re doing about them. 

THE CONFERENCE HALL and adjoining courtyard of the Holiday Inn in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua is teeming with 700 women who have travelled to the city to attend a gathering of factory workers.

The attendees are waiting for the evening session of talks and discussions to begin, and in a departure from anything you might see at a union event in Ireland, a band playing traditional Nicaraguan music takes to the stage and some conference attendees launch into impromptu dancing.

The event has been organised by women’s rights group Maria Elena Cuadra (MEC), which although not strictly a workers’ union, hosts this event to bring together female workers from the country’s maquilas (the word used to describe the foreign-owned factories based in Central America that often exist in areas with tax exemptions) on the first Sunday of March each year.

20170305_094030.jpg-w=723 The Maria Elena Cuadra conference in Managua's Holiday Inn The Maria Elena Cuadra conference in Managua's Holiday Inn

Nicaragua’s government seeks out foreign direct investment and promotes the large amounts of unskilled or semi-skilled workers available in the country – but once these factories are established, the country’s officialdom is much less concerned with the treatment of these workers.

During the morning sessions the workers attended workshops and shared their experiences of the conditions they have to endure, including having phones confiscated, only being allowed to use the toilet during prescribed times and even being given a limited amount of toilet paper by their managers.

With a lack of support from the Nicaraguan government, groups like Maria Elena Cuadra have taken on a responsibility for the empowerment and advancement of female workers, who – in a country where a third of all children are raised by single-parent families – find themselves facing a unique set of challenges.

‘If a woman is good looking she gets treated differently’

Gathered in the courtyard next to the conference hall during the break for lunch, the women are keen to share their experiences.

“They want the same amount of production, but a production line that might have had 14 women working on it previously now only has seven. They’ve gotten rid of a lot of staff,” says Katie, a factory worker in her 30s from the Tipitapa region in the north of the country. She says that some of her coworkers have fallen sick from stress and that in her factory they also had issues with using the toilets.

“Well in our factory, if a woman is good looking she gets treated differently. They’re allowed to do different things. They’re not equal to everyone else,” says Ivania, who works in a factory in Managua.

20170305_111226.jpg-w=723 One of the discussion groups at the conference

Next a middle-aged woman called Olga explains that the South Korean company that owns the factory she works in outmanoeuvred staff when a change in legislation meant it would have had to give them an increase of 200 cordobas a month (around €6).

“So in January of this year there was a change that meant that we should receive the increase in pay,” she says, “So what happened was, we used to receive an allowance that we would use for transport and things like that for about the same amount.

“So they put the extra money into the salary – and got rid of the allowance.”

On average, most women said they were earning between 5,000 and 7,000 cordobas a month (€160 – €220).

The majority of workers in the maquila factories are female, and three years ago at the same conference organised by Maria Elena Cuadra a document endorsed by 11 women’s organisations and two national trade unions outlined a list of demands that included the right of a woman not to lose her job for taking time off for maternity leave; companies to be prevented from forcing women to take a pregnancy or HIV test as a condition of employment; and the establishment of better mechanisms for reporting sexual harassment and violence.

‘What’s the social result of all of this?’

The mistreatment of the maquiladoras that staff the internationally-owned factories is happening against a backdrop of an economic upsurge for Nicaragua. In 2005 the country’s GDP was $6.3 billion, a figure that more than doubled to $12.7 billion by 2015.

“But what is the social result of all of this? A lot of cheap labour,” says Sandra Ramos, the founder and director of Maria Elena Cuadra.

20170222_110723.jpg-w=723 Sandra Ramos at Maria Elena Cuadra's offices in Managua

“A lot of women are working like slaves for transnational textiles companies. And that is the thing that we want to change. The economy base in this country is the thing that we have to change.”

More than 20 years ago Ramos was involved with the trade union affiliated with the government Sandinista party, but these days she has no faith that the party – led since the 1970s by Daniel Ortega, whose second spell as president started in 2007 – will make any meaningful advances for women.

Nowhere is Ramos’s pessimism more justifiable than with the case of Law 779.

This piece of legislation was the result of campaigning by her organisation and came into effect in June 2012. For the first time, the law criminalised violence against women – something that had previously been legislated for in other parts of Nicaraguan law – while simplifying and strengthening the process for a woman to report violence.

Sensing a threat to the traditional family unit, conservative religious and political groups fought back, and in September 2013 the country’s legislature stripped key protections out of the law – meaning that mediation between victim and attacker was a possibility for crimes that included psychological violence, sexual harassment and assault either at home or in the workplace.

Although participation in mediation is voluntary, financial pressure – like that piled on maquila workers struggling to cover basic living costs – could push women towards accepting mediation.

In 2012, the year that Law 779 was introduced, there were 85 women killed in cases of femicide, which is defined as the murder of a woman when the motivation is gender based.

Of these, 13 had agreed to mediation with the men who eventually murdered them.

‘It is not something you can achieve in two or three years’

“The life in Managua is more difficult, more than here,” says Fatima Ismael, the head of SOPPEXCCA, an group of coffee cooperatives based around the rural outpost of Jinotega in the north of the country.

Like Maria Elena Cuadra, SOPPEXCCA is a female-headed organisation that is pushing for gender equality and has policies that aim to empower women.

j Fatima Ismael

“Life in Managua is getting harder and there is more risk – in the rural community things are quieter,” she says.

Sitting in the coffee shop next door to her organisation’s offices, she explains that the baristas working behind the counter are the sons and daughters of the farmers that grow the coffee in the surrounding areas.

SOPPEXCCA was the first coffee organisation in the country to introduce a gender policy where members attended workshops on the subject, and currently 195 of the 650 farmers involved are women. It even funds primary schools in the local area, and children in these schools go through their education learning about gender equality.

“The gender programme started because the coffee-growing sector in Nicaragua was in the hands of men. The land was in the hands of men. And there were so many problems with violence and discrimination against women,” explains Ismael.

Coffee is Nicaragua’s biggest agricultural export, generating more than $400 million a year, (€376 million) and while women do around 70% of the labour involved in its harvest and cultivation, they only own 23% of the land, facilities and products.

“The work to have gender equality is a long road. It is not something that you can achieve in two or three years,” says Ismael.

“Really you are talking about a life’s work. We’ve had two centuries of oppression against women and it is not something that we can get rid of in 20 years. It’s a process.”

‘Sometimes with this gender-based work with the co-op that focuses on gender there can be a lot of pain’

The clearest example of SOPPEXCCA going beyond its remit of helping coffee farmers and working to empower women is with the health centre that it provided the funding for that serves the local community.

“Up to this point we’ve had 4,000 women who have had smear tests with the doctor, but to put it that way it sounds so cold. It is more than just that. It is the story that we have with these women. We have have to advise them, we have to accompany them,” says Ismael.

“Even when some of them are sitting outside of the office of the doctor, some of them get so nervous that they start crying.”

Ismael tells us that once they started to administer the tests there were five women they found with cancer at too advanced a stage to be prevented; she pauses and tears come into her eyes.

“Sometimes with this gender-based work with the co-op that focuses on gender there can be a lot of pain. Sometimes we feel a lot of pain when we think that we started so late with this programme.”

‘So we keep on working’

Most of what the SOPPEXCCA leader had to say reflected on the big strides that her organisations had made for farmers, and with 32 other cooperatives around Nicaragua following their example and implementing similar gender policies, it seems that their message is spreading.

This attitude of self-empowerment was also evident at the San Expedito Cooperative, a group of female entrepreneurs who produce a type of black pottery distinct to the region that is sold in SOPPEXCCA’s coffee shop in Jinotega.

Situated around thirty minutes outside of the town, the facility has two pottery wheels, an oven where they can fire the products, and an area where they process the clay brought down from the surrounding mountains.

A style of pottery production unique to the area means that the products have a distinctive glossy black colour that is achieved without chemicals or paint.

Sazayda Kania Herra and Ana Herrera are two of the co-op’s 11 female members, and Herrera explains that most of the women have kilns in their homes so they are able to alternate the days that they come in and do work on the wheels.

20170227_113301.jpg-w=723 Ana Herrera (left) demonstrating how their pottery is made

The idea of making pottery for a living in such an idyllic setting seems quite appealing, and both women find it amusing when asked if they think the men in the local area are jealous.

“Probably! But they keep it to themselves,” says Kania Herra.

She explains that her husband is a farm worker, and works in the field all day while she is responsible for the domestic chores.

“No, my husband doesn’t help in the house because he is out working in the field all day and I don’t want to bother him doing domestic chores,” she says, “but he helps me with the other things, like with the pottery.”

This didn’t seem to bother her, explaining that it worked well with them only having one child, and her having free time during the day.

Herrera’s situation is different. She’s a single mother that lives with her parents. She has a pretty simple explanation about where the father of her child is.

“I only have his child, he went away with another woman,” she says.

“Everybody here has their own experience and different experiences. So, she is married,” she says, pointing to her colleague, “but I am a single parent and I live with my parents. My father works in agriculture in the field and my mother does domestic chores. Everybody has their role. My role is doing domestic chores, working here and also spending time with my kids.”

“I am a single mother, but it’s up to me to continue to raise my children doing dignified work.
“So we keep on working.”

This article was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund

All photographs by Michael Sheils McNamee

Read more from Michael’s reporting in Nicaragua:

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

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