Main image: Carlos Herrera
Sandra Ramos the co-founder and director of The Movement of Working and Unemployed Women ‘Maria Elena Cuadra’ (MEC) visited the UK in early November. Ramos has long been a central figure in the Nicaraguan Women’s Movement, she was one of the founders of the Sandinista Workers Union and helped to set up the Regional Committee of Central American and Caribbean Women Union Activists before going on to found MEC in 1994.
Ramos fears that due to funding restrictions for Nicaraguan organisations, this may have been her last visit to the UK to campaign for women’s rights.
What are the main issues Nicaraguan women are facing currently?
Women in Nicaragua face the same problems and challenges as in all of Central America. Even in the 21st century women continue to have precarious jobs and earn 30% less than men, for the same work, when they have the same qualifications.
In the case of Nicaragua and the Central American region, more than 70% of women work in the informal sector, due to high unemployment. The large scale migration of women and young men to look for better opportunities is one of the biggest challenges we face.
We’re working to close the gap [in equality] but we have encountered obstacles, with the patriarchal vision about the economic empowerment of women.
There’s the issue of violence – this is one of the most serious concerns of the Nicaraguan women’s movement. We have promoted together the passing of the Law 779, which for the first time recognised all forms of violence against women – including femicide. However, we have many religious and political fundamentalists who didn’t want to believe in this discrimination which threatens women’s lives and the law has been reformed. It now incorporates mediation, which invisibilises the women’s role – now the main aim is to reunite the family.
How do these issues impact women’s working conditions in particular?
In the factories women are discriminated against for their gender, there is sexual abuse, they are paid less than the men, there is discrimination against pregnant women. In Central America the list of women’s demands would be interminable to improve their conditions and their status in life.
But the thing that produces this division in work is that women are in precarious employment – washing, ironing, looking after the children when they are sick – and the patriarchal and capitalist system continues to segregate in this type of work, so that we can never really leave a state of poverty. We can simply leave destitution but not poverty.
How does MEC support these women?
MEC supports women in the free trade zone . We support small producers who weren’t organised, and also a small group of workers who are in the informal sector – but we can’t reach them all because we are not superwomen. MEC provides them with access to a law firm, completely free of charge, so they can make their demands for workers’ rights but also to make sure that they receive child support from the fathers of their children who have left them. The law firm also attends to cases of economic or domestic violence – both physical and psychological – and this is a form of helping them. Also we have a leadership programme within the sector so that they can learn their rights and how to defend them and help their active political participation as citizens.
To change the status of women is not solely the responsibility of the feminist and women’s movement – it’s the responsibility of the State, of society and all citizens in Nicaragua and the rest of the region.
How do you feel that the relationship of the women’s movement to the government has changed in the last ten years?
It has never changed – no government has ever been on good terms with the Nicaraguan women’s movement because it was rebellious and there has never been a government which has applauded our agenda or arranged our rights . With many sacrifices, with many marches and much political activism, we have achieved some laws in favour of women – but in the case of therapeutic abortion it is clear that an alliance has formed between the political classes (not only the government) to prevent access to abortion. People say, fine, well we were revolutionaries so you would expect a better attitude from them but people change, the world changes. You cannot deposit your hopes in any government – the hope for my organisation resides in the women, in the citizens because they are the only ones who will make the changes.
In January 2014, a law was passed to ensure that at least 50% of people standing as candidates for public office and political posts were women. Has this been successfully implemented and do you think it will help improve women’s position in the public sphere?
This was a victory for the movement. Many years ago we raised this to 30% of positions, now this has risen to 50%. The FSLN who are in office and have the majority of seats in parliament, also have a large number of women. The court of supreme justice similarly has a large number of women active and its president is a woman, the head of the police is a woman. I think it will continue to advance on this route but there is no improvement in the quality of our participation.
We had a female president in the 90s but this didn’t mean that the gap in inequality was transformed. I think that the women in government, or in institutions or municipal office make a great effort because they always face inequality. They continually face misogynists and they have to live with it.
Since September Ortega informed the diplomatic corps and representatives of international organizations that civil society organizations will not be able to receive funds directly from abroad, they will instead be channeled through government institutions – how has this affected MEC?
There has been a shift in international cooperation. The funds which come from the EU and from the north, are destined to the capital in my country. The money now is not for the struggle for women’s rights, there is no money for civic participation, there is no money for the struggle against violence. What the money is now for is to promote corporate social responsibility, so they are taking money that citizens contribute to with their taxes which the government says is helping the poor. Well this isn’t certain, it helps support the businesses, because they believe that the businesses are the ones who can liberate the people from poverty. But if you are in a business you maintain poverty so you can exploit it.
In this case there is a movement that is taking cooperation out of Nicaragua because Nicaragua was declared a country of middle income, and it is supposed that countries of middle income are not in need of donations because they are not poor. There is a deficit of cooperation to promote women’s rights. I have understood that a lot of countries have stopped supporting Nicaragua. So this has been a change – our organisation has not been able to secure funding. Many organisations have had to close, but we will stay fighting with volunteers and we will continue working with women. The movement never stops.