On January 1, 2021, “Karla” was forced by her ex-partner to leave their home in Somoto, Madriz, Nicaragua. If she refused, he would take their eight- and nine-year-old daughters. The terrified woman agreed. Upon arriving at the new home, the man grabbed her from behind and put a dagger to her neck in front of their screaming daughters. She fled because her eldest son, a 17-year-old teenager, turned up and facilitated the escape.
With fear running through her body, accompanied by her daughters, she arrived at the police station and after a five-hour wait to denounce her aggressor, she left the station shaking and with the promise that he will be captured, but after a year, that promise remains unfulfilled. She slept a few days at a friend’s house, who arranged to take her to a feminist organization in the north of the country, which welcomed her as family and sheltered her for nine months.
However, she was left without a shelter when the people in charge of the place told her that they had to move her as a precaution, before the place was raided at dawn by the Police, as had already happened with other NGOs.
“Karla,” 36, asked not to reveal her name because her life “is in danger.” She knew that “she was going to die” on that January 1, she assures.
She arrived at the women organization’s shelter at night, furtively. “It makes me very sad that they are going to close that place. I received words of encouragement there,” she regrets.
The NGO in charge of the shelter has not been cancelled by the regime, however, as a precaution, the administrators decided to close the shelter to prevent the Police from arriving, or to have their legal status annulled.
267 NGOs closed in four years in Nicaragua
At the end of 2018, the regime closed nine civil society organizations: it annulled their legal status and confiscated their assets. During the following three years, the Ortega’s scythe reached more NGOs and now total 267 organizations, foundations and associations annulled, as of May 19, 2022.
The regime has used the Law to Regulate Foreign Agents passed at the end of 2020, which forced organizations to register as “foreign agents” and complicates the process to remain legal before the Ministry of the Interior (MIGOB).
The great bulk of the projects affected are social, educational, and of development. However, several of them had a gender component, focused on women’s empowerment from different angles. With the disappearance of these organizations, the beneficiaries are the most affected, being left with unfinished programs, without access to training and in complete vulnerability.
Of the total of NGOs outlawed, 24 organizations were working directly in defense of women’s rights and their empowerment in Managua, Matagalpa, Nueva Segovia, Masaya, Granada, León, and Chinandega, according to a count by Confidencial.
Eight were annulled out of a group of 50 organizations cancelled in a single session of the Sandinista Front-dominated National Assembly on May 4.
There is no consolidated data on how many women’s rights organizations were registered with the Ministry of the Interior. However, a data that allows an approximation is found in the Women’s Network Against Violence, which before 2018 brought together 120 feminist and human rights NGOs, and currently there are about 40, Confidencial confirmed.
The reasons for their dismantling are several: a more hostile environment for human rights defenders, who endure intimidation, abuses and raids by government operators and the Police, lack of funding, repressive laws, migration and finally, the guillotine of the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
The NGOs, some with more than 30 years of work in Nicaragua, had shelters for women victims of violence, provided medical assistance, psychological care and legal advice to victims of abuse in a country where the State has remained absent, according to the human rights defenders.
Prior to 2018, there were 13 shelters in Nicaragua, which were run by feminist organizations. Since then, the NGOs faced problems accessing funds to defray the cost of operation. However, they continued to exist.
With the social outbreak of 2018 and the repression unleashed by Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship, the shelters were reduced to ten and gradually closed until there were none left, a process accelerated by the guillotine placed on feminist groups. The disappearance of these shelters directly affects cases such as “Karla,” one of 135 survivors of machista violence in 2021, according to Catholics for the Right to Decide.
Matagalpa Women’s Collective
Eva Molina is a member of the Matagalpa Women’s Collective, an organization banned nine months ago. The Collective was born in the context of the Sandinista Revolution. When its founders identified violent acts in the ranks of the party, they sought their own spaces for feminist reflection. They began working with women in the cooperatives of Matiguas, Mulukuku and Muy Muy, who suffered violence from the Contra —attempting to overthrow Ortega and the Sandinistas by force— Molina narrates.
In 1990, when Nicaragua opened up to democracy and Ortega was defeated by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the Collective began to consolidate its history through an education program aimed at children, women and youngsters in rural and urban communities. It supported 17 women’s community organizations, responsible for a network of 14 “women’s homes,” through which they coordinated projects benefitting the community.
The Collective consolidated itself as a key NGO in the north of the country, one of the areas hardest hit by male violence, which in 2021 registered 71 femicides nationwide, seven of these were in Jinotega, five in Matagalpa and four in Nueva Segovia, according to Catholics for the Right to Decide. In was in this context that human rights defenders like Molina were working, seeking to expand the assistance program against violence, which included emotional attention, sexual and reproductive health care, and accompaniment in situations of risk.
In numbers, the NGO assisted some 10,000 people annually, at an average rate of 25 women daily, who sought care as victims of abuse at the hands of their partners or former partners. With the closure of the organizations ordered by the Government, the beneficiaries were left high and dry because, precisely, they attended these associations looking for answers that they could not find in the Police.
Molina explains that “people do not have faith in Nicaragua’s justice system,” neither do women. “They do not feel listened to, they feel blamed, (they are told in the police station) to go back to their aggressor, that nothing more can be done there… they are also in danger.”
“We are defenseless. We do not have any type of protection; we have no one to accompany us. We have nowhere to hold on, people tell you,” she warns.
The March 8th Collective
Last March the legal status of the March 8th Women Collective, an organization with Sandinista roots, was annulled. It became legal 26 years ago and focused its work on Districts Six and Seven of Managua and in seven communities of Esquipulas, Matagalpa.
Its signature program was the struggle against violence, which was summarized in attention, prevention and shelter for women at risk, along with a sexual and reproductive health program. The shelter had a capacity for about 20 people every three months, including women, children and girls, explains one of its members that we will call “Lidia” for fear of reprisals. Over the past five years, it is estimated that 600 people were protected.
“That is why we say that we also prevent femicides,” said the human rights defender.
The shelter was specifically for women in danger. For three months the women received psychological and medical care and psychosocial work to help them build their life plans. At the same time, the human rights defenders tried to weave solidarity networks around the victim so that when they left the shelter, they would not be without any kind of support.
The Collective assisted 10,800 women and 934 girls who experienced violence, and some were victims of attempted femicide in the last five years.
“The vacuum is that since the March 8th Collective does not exist, they know that there is no house where they will be attended as a woman in a situation of violence must be attended, where she will not be re-victimized, where she will not be blamed, where she has all the freedom to speak whatever she wants and her information will remain confidential,” “Lidia” regrets.
The House for Bocana de Paiwas’ Women
By the end of the 1980s, Bocana de Paiwas, a municipality imbedded in the southern Caribbean region, had become a refugee camp from the armed conflict. The founders of the Casa de la Mujer de Paiwas’ Women House came from Sandinismo. Jamileth Chavarria is a pioneering feminist within the NGO, who supported peasant women in the area and devoted herself to the defense of their sexual and reproductive rights, and the fight against machista violence.
Over time, the Women’s House became a reference in the area, educating the population through the first cultural center and the “Palabra de Mujer” radio station, which stood out by its program, “The Messenger Witch” —interpreted by Jamileth— in which aggressors were denounced. The radio stopped being listened to since 2014, when the regulatory body (TELCOR) blocked a request to broadcast on frequency modulation (FM).
Previously, the NGO had been the target of aggressions by sympathizers of the Sandinista Front, after it questioned Ortega during a visit he made to Paiwas in 2002. The organization was just cancelled on May 4th.
The NGO’s work had declined in recent years, but human rights defenders still continued to accompany other women, says Chavarria from Spain, where she has lived since 2011, without cutting ties with Paiwas.
The women’s organizations were not born just for the sake of it. “They were born out of abandonment, legal and judicial neglect, because the State has never prioritized the situation in which each woman lives. That is why we were born, to have an autonomous, independent response to this adverse situation,” says Chavarria.