While normally being a woman in my town causes me to confront harassment in the form of piropos, hissing noises, unwanted blown kisses and other loving phrases (“WILL YOU SEX ME??”), March 8th was dramatically different. While the usual greetings resumed to some degree, their impact on me was much less profound because for once, I was being congratulated on being a woman instead of degraded. Everywhere I turned, myself and other women throughout my town were being greeted “Feliz Dia” with warm smiles.
International Women’s Day is an important holiday that is unfortunately not highly marketed in the United States and Hallmark definitely drops the ball. Seriously, where have all my congratulatory greeting cards and flowers been all these years?? Asides from a few mentions in the media, the day goes mostly unnoticed. Not here though, and it was great to have a day to bask in all my feminine pride. I love being a woman and being an XX chromosome is pretty great…..except when it’s not. International Women’s Day is about celebrating the achievements women have made towards gaining equality but it is also an important time to reflect on the harsh realities that afflict women in the world today and discuss strategies of action. So in honor of International Women’s Day, I am dedicating this post to my reflections on gender equality and sentiments about being a female in Nicaragua.
Prior to living in Nicaragua, my ideals of womanhood were not frequently challenged, but now the image I envision for myself and my gender is quite different than that of many of the people with whom I closely interact here.
I envision myself being a mother someday, but not someday soon. I also do not desire being a “mother” as my sole identity. I believe that having children is important and beautiful but that specific role does not have to define being a woman. In rural Nicaragua, being a woman is synonymous with motherhood. Most people mistake me to be a teenager, but when they discover that I am 23, they ask if I am married and have any children. I get asked these questions during every introduction, but I am almost never asked if I am a “licenciada” (college graduate) or what my aspirations are for the future. Even close acquaintances express their continued bewilderment about my lack of immediate desire to start a family.
Their intrigue is completely warranted because it is hard to find a woman my age in Nicaragua that does not have at least one child. In fact, most of my closest Nicaraguan girlfriends in my town are mothers. My Nicaraguan friends who chose to pursue their careers instead of starting families are also met with the same repetitive questions and pressure to consider motherhood. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, girls under the age of 19 account for 25% of pregnancies in Nicaragua. This alarming statistic is the result of many factors including the ingrained expectation that motherhood is an inevitable and highly esteemed destiny even if it means that early motherhood will drastically limit the opportunities for young women and contribute to an interminable cycle of poverty.
I envision myself as having a successful and fulfilling career. Normally being a woman here means that your work forces you to be confined in the house and limited to domestic responsibilities. When I stumble in the kitchen or wash my clothes in a mediocre way, it is as though I am less of a woman in their eyes. “What are you going to do when your husband asks you for rice and you can’t make it? You are going to be so ashamed!” I wish that phrase was said to me sarcastically. While housewives in the U.S. are responsible for maintaining their homes, they are not generally “confined” in their homes. Unfortunately, rural Nicaragua does not have a realm of extra-curricular activities for women to balance with their household responsibilities. If a woman is seen out and about in town too frequently, she could be labeled as “vaga” and criticized for not properly maintaining her home. Her husband may also worry that other men will start paying too much attention to her.
I envision myself as being able to express my femininity and youthfulness in any way I choose without having to worry about attracting unwanted attention or consequences. Maybe that means wearing more makeup than usual on some occasions. Maybe that means choosing to wear short shorts or an attractive dress. Maybe that means enjoying a nice cold beer while at a party. I cannot believe I am even writing this, but drinking just a single beer has somehow come to feel extremely rebellious. The drinking age in Nicaragua is 18, so I am not breaking the law. Beer is widely sold in my town, especially for town holidays, so it is not as though I am smuggling beer into a dry zone. It is rebellion because socially, beer and alcohol consumption is only acceptable for men. These are simple joys that I am occasionally criticized for by chismosa women in my town who smile to my face, but behind my back judge me for wearing my denim shorts to walk to the corner store on a 90 degree day or having just a single beer with my male site mate at the town’s annual festival.
I personally find it hard to be a female in rural Nicaragua. I spend a lot of time being frustrated and saddened about the lack of female empowerment here, but I also feel guilty that I have an escape. I am an American female living in Nicaragua for a little more than two years, and I can leave for an occasional weekend to find sanctuary in an urban area that holds more Western gender norms. I know that one day I will be moving back to the U.S. and living the life I envision for myself and being the woman I want to be, but where is the escape for the women here?
Just as I was starting to count my blessings, a friend of mine referred me to the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum. According to this report, Nicaragua enjoys the ranking of #9 for gender equality while the United States trails embarrassingly behind at #22. You mean to tell me that Nicaraguan women enjoy more equality than American women? The United States is far from being a great role model for gender equity, but I never would have thought Nicaragua could outrank the U.S. and shine among the enviable Scandinavian countries in the Top 10! It’s even harder for me to wrap my head around this ranking after blogging for several paragraphs about the challenges of coping with the traditional gender roles enveloped in rural Nicaraguan culture.
Perplexed by the results of this study, I was inspired to read the full report.
The Global Gender Gap Report determines its rankings through several indicators based on four different pillars, which include:
Economic Participation and Opportunity: Within this category, Nicaragua actually ranked 88th. For a country declared the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it would be miraculous if a gender gap was not present within this category. After discussing the traditional gender norms in rural Nicaragua, it comes as no surprise that Nicaragua ranked 118th for wage equality and 98th for labor force participation. On the other hand, the females that have made it into the labor force fill many positions as legislators, senior officials and managers, ranking 13th in this category respectively. Based on my personal observations, these findings are very relevant. The majority of the Nicaraguan women I interact with are unemployed, but the ones in the work force are thriving. Almost all of the directors and administrators of institutions throughout my municipality are female. I think it is also worth mentioning how insignificant it is for a health center to be composed of more female than male doctors, and more male than female nurses.
Educational Attainment: With an extensive national literacy campaign and broadening accessibility of public education, Nicaragua is just short of closing its educational gap. Although Nicaragua is ranked 23rd in this category, the first twenty ranked countries have no existing gap. There is currently a higher enrollment of females than males in primary, secondary and tertiary schools in Nicaragua. While this achievement is significant, it’s still important to note that only 56% of Nicaraguans complete primary school. Although the gap may be marginal that does not necessarily mean that education enrollment in general is high.
Health and Survival: The outcomes of this category are calculated by using only two indicators; sex ratio at birth and life expectancy. Like most countries, Nicaraguan females have a higher life expectancy than their male counterparts, which is 66 and 63 respectively. The life expectancy rate is supposed to be an appropriate measure of how violence, disease and other determining factors could influence the lifespan. From what I have observed personally, the Nicaraguan health system does a good job reaching out to women.
The Ministry of Health provides universal access with a strong emphasis on prevention education. It makes a substantial effort to reach its most remote populations through a network of community health promoters. Nicaragua has also been a model for its efforts in reducing maternal mortality with its establishment of Casa Materna’s, which are hospices for rural pregnant women to receive pre-labor and postpartum care that guarantee an institutionalized birth. The government also aggressively promotes family planning; however, it lacks the same momentum for abortion rights. There are only six countries in the world (including the Vatican) where abortion is illegal under all circumstances, and Nicaragua is one of them.
Political Empowerment: While Nicaragua does not display significantly high outcomes for the previous indicators, it is evident that the overall ranking of #5 for this particular category is what makes Nicaragua one of the top countries for gender equality. Nicaragua is ranked 6th for women representation in parliament and 6thfor women in ministerial positions. Women hold 40% of the seats in parliament and 46% of ministerial positions. For comparison, women only make up 17% of Congress in the United States. This category also takes into consideration how many years a female was the head of state. President Violeta Chomorro was Nicaragua’s head of state for seven years from 1990-1997. Of the 135 countries surveyed, Nicaragua was among only 46 that have had a female head of state. The US still hasn’t had even one female president…just sayin’.
I am really glad that I sat down and read the recent report. One of the most important things I have learned is that there is no perfect methodology or quantitative analysis for measuring gender gap. The calculation in this metric allows for a high ranking in one category to drastically outweigh the outcomes in the others and give the perception that a country may overall have lower gender-based disparities, when in fact, it does not.
Regardless of what Nicaragua’s specific ranking is in this report, it is worth celebrating the victories this country has made in gender equality. Too frequently, I get caught up in what I perceive to be inequity and injustice, which makes me fail to recognize what Nicaragua is doing well, or as I recently learned from the report, even better in some areas than the United States.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have devoted much of the past year of my service to working with my local counterparts on various activities to empower Nicaraguans to challenge behaviors and cultural beliefs that serve as barriers to gender equality. Although facing these barriers is challenging, it has been rewarding and a pleasure to collaborate with Nicaraguans on these efforts. The women in this country have truly inspired me, and that can also be said of the ones who may not necessarily embrace my previously mentioned “ideals or visions of womanhood”.
Nicas tienen sexo a temprana edad, La Prensa
Global Gender Gap Report 2012: The Best And Worst Countries For Women, The Huffington Post
The Global Gender Gap Report 2012, World Economic Forum
At a glance: Nicaragua Statistics, UNICEF
World Abortion Policies 2011, United Nations
Click here to download a copy of the 2013 report and see how it compares.