“Nicaragua, accustomed to kidnappings, tortures, murders of its peasants, border patrols, union leaders and members, children and teachers, coffee pickers, brave youth… our people, for whom heroism has turned into an everyday reality, and suffering the price we pay daily,” Ser madre en Nicaragua (Being a Mother in Nicaragua) 23.
The Sandinista Revolution was marked by an unprecedented level of women’s participation. By 1987, it was reported that 67% of ‘active members’ in the popular militia and 80% of guards – an estimated 50,000 nationwide – were women.
Many of these Nicaraguan women recorded their testimonies as guerrilla soldiers, producing a subaltern literary genre known as testimonial literature. Roads of the Polar Star is the everyday testimony of a Sandinista woman that walks with her battalion through rural towns, relating what she sees: “there they go, they are going to step in mud, sticky, like gum; they are going to be bitten by mosquitoes and some will get malaria… this is the reality of the peasant farmer, the reality that he lives each day, the reality that needs to change.. where there is mud, roads, highways must be opened; where there is malaria, health centers must be opened; where there is suffering, beauty must be created” (xii).
Outside military circles, Nicaraguan women, particularly mothers, formed the backbone of the Sandinista support network. They set up safe houses to feed, clothe and shelter guerrilla soldiers and political activists, organized shipments of first aid and medical supplies, built bombs and hid ammunition, carried messages and food to refugees hiding in the mountains, and rallied for the release of political prisoners.
Being a Mother in Nicaragua is a collection of forty-two testimonies of women activists, who lost their children to the Sandinista revolution and testify to the injustices wrought by U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza and his National Guard. One mother draws strength from her son’s death for her work in community service and activism: “on account of my child that has fallen, much help has come to us mothers. In truth, my child, now that he has fallen, helps me in the life that he gives me” (24).
Opinion varies whether women penetrated the male-dominated leadership circles of the Sandinista military. In “Women Challenge the Myth,” Patricia Flynn argues that “(Nicaraguan) women held important leadership positions, commanding everything from small units to full battalions.” As evidence, she points to the key final battle of León, where four of the seven high-ranking commanders were women. In addition, Glenda Monterrey, Chief of the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women (AMNLAE) estimated that women comprised 50% of the Sandinista leadership by 1984.
Others argue that male leaders in the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) held sterotypical views of women as irrational and unmotivated, discouraged women from joining the army, and segregated them into separate training camps – lacking confidence in their capabilities. Sandinista commander, Tomás Borge admits, “we are aware of compañeros that are revolutionaries in the street, in the workplace, in all parts, but are feudal lords of the gallows and the knife in the home” (cited in Mujer en Nicaragua, 15). He continues, “economic development on its own is not enough to achieve the liberation of women, and neither is the mere fact that women are organising. There must be a struggle against the habits, traditions, and prejudices of men and women. We must launch a difficult and prolonged ideological struggle, a struggle equally undertaken by men and women” (cited in Molyneux 128).
Nicaraguan Women’s Political Participation (1970s-1980s)
“Everything that we did was for our children so that they could learn to read, so they could have a better life, then we, with this idea, participated in the Revolution. With the idea that they were going to learn to read, that they were going to learn many things that they didn’t know, with this we integrated in the process of the Revolution,” Ser madre en Nicaragua (Being a Mother in Nicaragua) 22.
What accounted for the unprecedented numbers of women political activists and revolutionary soldiers in Nicaragua in the late 1970s to 1980s?
During the 1970s and 80s, Nicaragua suffered a severe economic crisis due to government overspending, a blossoming foreign debt, and a worldwide hike in interest rates. International lending institutions intervened, pressuring the Nicaraguan government to cut social programs in education and health care and subsidies to such basic services as water and electricity. In addition, hyperinflation, rising food prices, and a devalued currency made it increasingly difficult for women to provide for their families and perform their domestic duties. Therefore, many housewives and mothers entered the political arena, lobbying the government to meet basic needs, combat inflation, and provide social services.
Many women bore the double burden of mother and breadwinner as their male partners migrated in search of work. By 1984, an estimated 50% of Nicaraguan households were female-headed. To meet their family and community needs, women mobilized, building their own self-help and community service organizations such as soup kitchens, child care and health centers, and services for distributing potable water, electricity and transportation. The Association of Women Confronting the National Problem (AMPRONAC) was formed to help women meet traditional gender needs, which has elicited severe criticism, particularly among feminist organizations. AMPRONAC, however, has offered women professional development and educational training, has created day care centers for working mothers, and has led hunger strikes and demonstrations, demanding an end to gender discrimination and unequal pay for female workers.
Furthermore, many Nicaraguan women supported the Sandinista Revolution because of their role as mothers. Following the uprising against Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza – orchestrated by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) – many mothers frequented the public jails and penitentiary offices, demanding that their children, Sandinista prisoners, be released. As a result of this movement, Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs, the Nicaraguan mothers were politicized and in 1988, formed a political organization, Mothers of the Kidnapped. Peter Rosset and John Vandermeer argue that: “the political activities of these women now are completely bound up with their identity as mothers” (161).
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