It was barely 8 AM, but the sun was already blazing in northeastern Managua, Nicaragua where I had joined several dozen women for a demonstration in front of the airport in the summer of 2013. Holding colorful handmade signs and banging drums, women of all ages barricaded the highway, chanting: “Ya es hora, ya es tiempo, que las mujeres vivamos sin violencia!” [It’s about time that women live without violence!]
Studies estimate that one out of every two women in Nicaragua has experienced some form of violence in her lifetime. Like many countries, the Nicaraguan government’s steps to address such violence have often been frustratingly slow. In 2012, local feminists found reason to celebrate when, after an arduous two-year grassroots campaign, a comprehensive new law addressing gender-based violence (Ley Integral Contra la Violencia Hacia Las Mujeres, or Ley 779) finally passed. For the first time, Ley 779 acknowledged that violence against women stems from “unequal relations of power” between men and women. It defined femicide as a specific crime, and expanded the legal definition of gender-based violence to include economic and psychological violence against women, among other provisions for stronger protective measures.
Their moment of victory was short-lived, however. Within two years, most of the major advances contained in Ley 779 were overturned. Not long afterwards, women’s organizations were stunned when the police units charged with handling gender violence cases—the comisarías de la mujer —were shut down altogether in early 2016. Despite a resurgence of feminist activism to demand state accountability for rampant femicide rates, like the Ni Una Menos campaign, over the past few years in Nicaragua, protections against gender-based violence have been diluted and undermined.
Since 2012, I have closely watched the contentious political battle over gender violence law in Nicaragua as it has unfolded in the streets and in the press. My research has led me from the grassroots work of local women’s organizations to the crowded waiting room of a comisaría to the homes of dozens of Nicaraguan women who sought legal help to escape situations of violence. Established in 1993, comisarías are a special type of Nicaraguan police station exclusively run by women, designed to provide women victims of violence with more specialized attention. At the time, the creation of comisarías represented a significant step forward because, with the exception of rape, Nicaragua had no specific laws on the books outlawing violence against women.
Initially funded as a pilot project with support from the Netherlands, comisarías were the first state institution charged specifically with investigating cases of violence against women and providing women with legal and psychological support. Within three years, comisarías were officially integrated into the Nicaraguan police budget, a process which also coincided with a regional push for Latin American governments to ratify the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará).
By 2015, there were 162 comisarías in Nicaragua. However, women’s police stations and the women who work there have occupied a relatively marginalized position within Nicaragua’s police force. This was immediately evident the first time I set foot in the comisaría in District 6 of Managua. There was no functioning bathroom. Police typed reports on aging computers with no Internet access. Ten women police shared one official vehicle, meaning only one investigation could be conducted at a time. Even pens were rationed carefully.
Given their extreme lack of resources, the comisarías’ failure to meet the needs and expectations of particular women is perhaps unsurprising. It was not ineffectiveness that led to the comisarias’ recent closure, however, but rather a constellation of broader political dynamics. Shutting the doors of the comisarías is the latest manifestation of the ongoing institutional and political erasure of women in Nicaragua, as well as the subsuming of women’s identities and rights into a pervasive state discourse that exalts “family unity” above all else.
The state’s expectation that women subordinate their needs to others—whether to the family, the nation, or both—is nothing new in Nicaragua. Even under the post-revolutionary government during the 1980s, Daniel Ortega and the leadership of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) frequently prioritized policies aimed at reducing class-based inequalities (such as land reform) over women’s concerns related to the household division of labor, reproductive health care, or gender-based violence. Most of the laws benefitting women passed during that period strengthened women’s rights within the context of marriage or the workplace: equal custody rights, the right to alimony, the right to equal salaries, and a prohibition on discrimination against pregnant women. With the onset of the U.S.-backed Contra War, however, women were called upon first and foremost as reproducers of the nation—their “patriotic wombs” deemed vital to bringing forth the next generation of soldiers.
Violeta Chamorro defeated Ortega in Nicaragua’s 1990 presidential election, after his first term as president. For the next fifteen years, the Unión Nacional Opositora (National Opposition Union, UNO) and Partido Liberal Constitucional (Liberal Constitutional Party, PLC) led governments implemented neoliberal economic policies prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, including market deregulation, debt control and repayment, trade liberalization, and privatization of both industry and government-supplied social services. As a result of these policies, women were increasingly pushed into the informal employment sector, while simultaneously forced to assume greater responsibility for meeting household needs (childcare, for example). By slashing state-provided services, the state thus shifted the burden of maintaining the family onto women.
Despite these obstacles, during this period the autonomous feminist movement successfully advocated for important reforms to the penal code to address violence against women. The reforms, passed in 1992 and 1996, penalized intra-family violence occurring inside the home, and introduced new protective measures for women. Two major issues the reforms did not address, however, were violence against women committed by ex-partners, and economic violence, such as the destruction of women’s property.
The failure of neoliberal policies to resolve Nicaragua’s pressing social and economic problems, and the pervasive corruption of opposition leaders like former president Arnoldo Alemán (2001-2006), opened the door for the Sandinistas’ return to power. After a 16-year hiatus, Daniel Ortega was re-elected to the presidency in 2006 – this time by forging a strategic alliance with powerful conservative religious leaders. To win over this voting bloc, Ortega and his longtime partner Rosario Murillo got married in the Catholic Church, and Ortega promised to uphold the total ban on abortion passed by the Nicaraguan legislature shortly before he took office—a promise he has kept, to the detriment of women. In 2011, Ortega adopted the re-election campaign slogan: “Cristiana, Socialista, Solidaria” (Christian, Socialist, Solidarity). Speeches by both Ortega and Murillo (now Vice-President) have repeatedly emphasized the government’s goal of “strengthening the unity of the Nicaraguan family through Christian and solidarity practices.” In practice, this focus on the family unit has sidelined women’s needs and interests by embracing the idea that women should sacrifice their own well-being for the supposedly higher purpose of “unity.”
The prioritization of “family” over women specifically within Nicaraguan political discourse meant that even the passage of Ley 779 in 2012 did not lead to any notable reallocation of resources to fund the comisarías or other enforcement institutions. In fact, just weeks before Ley 779 was scheduled to go into effect, there was no budget to fund most of its major mandates, such as additional state prosecutors and courts specializing in gender violence. “Law 779 without a budget is like rice and beans without the beans!” proclaimed a banner sponsored by local feminist groups in Managua. Others called it a “dead law.”
Even so, the year after the law was passed, women reported more than 6,000 cases of psychological violence (threats and/or intimidation) to the Nicaraguan police, which, under prior law, was not classified as abuse. By including psychological violence as a criminal offense for the first time, Ley 779 shed light on a serious dimension of violence against women, the scope of which had previously been invisible to much of society.
One of the law’s most controversial measures was a prohibition on extra-judicial agreements (also known as mediation). Prior to Ley 779, police had frequently resorted to mediation as an informal strategy for resolving domestic violence cases rather than conduct a formal investigation; however, this practice was dangerous for women because of the lack of formal records or consequences for breaking such agreements. Nevertheless, conservative religious leaders were outraged by the law’s prohibition of mediation. Pastors described the law “an attack on evangelical values” and “discriminatory against men.” An association of attorneys filed a constitutional challenge to the law, charging that it violated the principle of equal protection under the law.
The Supreme Court upheld Ley 779 in 2013, but also ruled that the legislature should remove the total ban on mediation. Despite fierce opposition from local women’s organizations, the National Assembly passed a reform of Ley 779, which once again allowed mediation in first-time and misdemeanor cases. Because gender violence is rarely if ever a one-time occurrence, allowing mediation even in seemingly “minor” cases is likely to put more women’s lives at risk.
And in 2014, the law was further weakened when President Ortega issued a special decree (Decree 42-2014) containing new regulations for Law 779. The decree redefined the objective of Law 779 as “to strengthen Nicaraguan families...[and] a culture of familial harmony” and shifted the responsibility for implementing Law 779 from an interinstitutional commission to the Ministry of the Family. The decree also mandated the establishment of neighborhood-based counseling (led by religious and political leaders) as a first step to resolving “family conflict” prior to placing a legal complaint. These changes diluted the power of the law and made it even harder for women to access legal justice in cases of domestic abuse.
A rise in reporting and lack of resources exacerbated the pre-existing problems facing the beleaguered comisarías, and in turn, the women who came to them for help. In 2014, I met Liza, who was back at the comisaría for the second time in two weeks to see if her forensic exam results had arrived from the Office of Legal Medicine. Twenty minutes passed as we sat together in the waiting room. Liza looked at her watch worriedly. “I left while he was sleeping, without making lunch,” she explained, referring to the partner she had reported abuse against. When the comisaría’s captain emerged from her office, Liza asked about her forensic report, which included both a physical and psychological evaluation following her assault. But the captain addressed Liza ruefully: “The women come on Sunday, when it hurts, and then they forget and don't come back,” she said.
Liza insisted that she hadn’t been able to come in earlier because of work obligations. “If he knew I was here, he would kill me,” she said. The captain went back to her office and returned a few minutes later carrying a bulging manila folder. “It's not here,” she told Liza. Liza stood up to leave, eyes watering.
Women like Liza risked their jobs—and potential retaliation from their partners—to make repeated visits to the comisarías and other state agencies to follow up on their cases. Another woman, Magda, told me she used to work regular hours at the cafeteria of a local university, but after placing a claim against her husband, she had to quit and get by washing or ironing clothes instead. “For two and a half years I haven't been able to get a stable job because I have to be ready at any moment,” she explained. “The lawyer could call me at any time, or the prosecutor, or the police, so I can't get a stable job because I can't be asking for time off all the time.”
In October 2014, I attended the inauguration ceremony for the Ministry of the Family's new counseling office at a comisaría in Managua. When I arrived that morning, the formerly tall grass surrounding the building had been freshly mowed and colorful banners such as “In love there is no fear” hung under a small white tent nearby. One official welcomed everyone to the “comisaría of the family and the community”. After a short series of speeches, the captain invited attendees to come inside and tour the comisaría’s updated facilities, which had been freshly painted with bright green and peach hues and decorated with balloons. One wall featured a series of posters celebrating the family; one said: “A family united in the love of Christ lasts forever. Give God control of your family today and always.”
Although certain religious ideas about the family have long held sway among some sectors of the population, including some elected officials, these ideas are now being explicitly promoted by the country’s legal and political institutions as a justification for weakening laws against gender violence. The reforms of Ley 779 were clearly intended to discourage women from seeking help from the comisaría. Although many factors influence reporting rates, it is no coincidence that in 2015, reports of intra-family and sexual violence dropped by 29% from 2014, according to data from the Nicaraguan National Police. Women’s reports of psychological violence in 2015 dropped by 42%.
The under-resourcing of women’s police stations is perhaps to be expected in a country like Nicaragua, which remains one of the most impoverished in Latin America. Over the last few years, however, the Ortega government has made a series of strategic decisions that undermine—if not sabotage—the role of comisarías to investigate crimes of gender violence. The recent closure of the comisarías is just one part of a broader erosion of women’s rights in Nicaragua. While President Ortega and his allies may continue to herald Nicaragua’s status as “the safest country in Central America,” women in situations of violence have been left to fend for themselves.
Pamela Neumann earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently a Zemurray-Stone Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University. Her research examines the politics of gender violence law and women’s experiences with legal institutions in Nicaragua.