Our caravan left Matagalpa for Managua at 6:30 a.m., four sunny orange school buses filled with women from northern Nicaragua. The marcha nacional for International Women’s Day was set to begin at 9 a.m.
But after an hour traffic came to standstill and riot police in shiny black armor lined the roadside—veterans of the revolution had blockaded the entire Panamerican Highway in protest, and were letting vehicles through only every six hours.
But we had a plan: talk to the dissident leaders and convince them we were united in struggle—they were demanding medical attention and remuneration, and we were demanding justice for women. Our buses continued past the police barricades, purple banners flying.
But the veterans were unpersuaded, basically saying “f—off,” then firing a loud firework into the sky in warning. (While they do have legitimate demands, the war veterans are unpredictable, and armed. When I started to approach the barricade to take photos, my bus driver told me it was dangerous, so I kept my distance).
So, Plan B: a police escort led us down dusty back roads, through a river, and finally past the roadblock.
We arrived in Managua at 10 a.m. and joined the march mid-route. Hundreds of women were already marching. The feminist drum corps, a.k.a. Batucada Feminista, rolled out in carnaval-themed garb.
I interviewed some women (and a couple men) for the radio program I’m working on here. I asked them what they thought was the most important challenge facing Nicaraguan women today. Several women said access to abortion—Nicaragua is one of three Latin American countries with a total abortion ban.
There is no legal abortion in Nicaragua, even in cases of rape, incest, or if a woman’s health is endangered. This despite several high-profile stories in the last couple years: last November a 12 year-old indigenous girl who was raped was forced to carry the pregnancy to term, and in 2010 a 27 year-old woman was denied cancer treatment because she was pregnant.
Other women I interviewed said domestic violence was the most critical issue facing women—while Nicaragua has a low overall crime rate, domestic violence is extremely prevalent. And that includes the murder of women by their partners and ex-partners: in 2011 76 women were killed, a crime that has recently been codified as “femicide” in Nicaragua to distinguish it from so-called “crimes of passion” and to impose longer prison sentences. This year 18 women have been murdered, seven of them just last week.
The organization I’m working with, Grupo Venancia, is just one of many addressing violence against women. They have an amazing array of projects and services, from therapeutic groups for abused girls to campaigns for self-empowerment for young women to accompaniment for women to press charges against abusers.
Yet despite the alarming statistics, the spirit of the march was positive. There were many young women with creative slogans and style.
And at the end of the march, the feminist drummers and marchers and neighborhood kids all threw around giant painted beach balls that read “freedom” and “equality.” And everyone smiled.