For a democracy to thrive, it must ensure the protection of all its citizens. Governments across Latin America, however, fail to recognize what it means to protect all people. Women’s voices are constantly silenced and as a result, the rights of half of the population are snatched away. In a region where issues like gender-based violence and reproductive health care are highly contested, anti-woman ideologies rooted in the abuse of power and sexist norms jeopardize democracy in both the present and the future.
Latin America has the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. Violence against women is incredibly normalized in society, leading to its perpetuation and sending many women fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border. Anti-woman ideologies pose a threat to democracy in Nicaragua especially, where forces like the police, the judicial system, and organized religion allow politicians such as Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Aléman to spew out harmful rhetoric and create discriminatory laws from the president’s office.
When certain individuals or groups are given protection against the law, they are no longer held accountable for their actions. As a result, what they do or say is seen as acceptable by the entire society, perpetuating a norm. In Nicaragua, men are often let off scot-free for physically abusing their partners. The police, a largely male demographic, either engage in domestic violence themselves (and thus don’t treat reports from other offenders with the proper gravity) or relegate the matter to the private sphere, stating that such an occurrence is an issue solely between the pair and they need to sort it out themselves. This builds a hierarchy within the home, where women are consequently subject to abuse throughout their lives. Threats of further violence make it difficult for women to escape such households.
In order to overcome these biases in the policing system, an overhaul of the current training is needed. This could look like a program (overseen by a non-political organization) educating the police force on violence towards women and the impacts of not responding. In addition, a consequence-based system should be implemented, meaning if one does not act according to the training after a certain number of times, they will be placed on leave, for example. Such reforms might allow police to actually help women, rather than their abusers.
However, there have already been efforts to implement better practices in Nicaraguan policing. In 1993, comisarías were established: “a special type of Nicaraguan police station exclusively run by women, designed to provide women victims of violence with more specialized attention.” However, although comisarías were integrated into the police budget, they were not given the same resources as “normal” police stations. Bathrooms did not function, old computers did not have sufficient internet access, and ten women shared one police vehicle, making the whole process incredibly inefficient. It should be no surprise that in early 2016, President Ortega shut down all 162 comisarías across Nicaragua, erasing the little hope women did have for justice.
The government will not change the police’s behavior, because the regime expects them to behave this way. The purpose of police is to enforce the government’s laws. By neglecting to bring domestic violence cases to justice, the police are fulfilling their duty.
From the start of their campaigns for office, politicians are encouraged to adhere to a sexist party line. Religion is a vital factor for many Nicaraguans when choosing who to vote for, meaning the Catholic Church possesses a great deal of influence on politicians’ stances before they get elected. In 2006, presidential candidate Daniel Ortega used a strategy similar to former president Arnoldo Aléman’s, purposely creating a strategic alliance with powerful conservative religious leaders to gain the support necessary to get elected. In order to gain these votes, Ortega married Rosario Murillo in the Catholic Church, and during his campaign, Ortega vowed to maintain the country’s ban on abortion. When he ran for re-election in 2011, Ortega’s campaign slogan was “Christiana, Socialista, Solidaria,” meaning Christian, Socialist, Solidarity.
Church continues to be inextricably interwoven with State after election. Both Ortega and Murillo (who serves as her husband’s vice president) are staunch supporters of using Christian and solidarity practices to strengthen the unity of the family. This focus on the family, vehicled by Christianity, pushes women to the side by “embrac[ing] the idea that women should sacrifice their own well-being for the supposedly higher purpose of unity.” As one message, found on the wall of a comisaría, said, “A family united in the love of Christ lasts forever. Give God control of your family today and always.”
This conflation – professing a desire to protect women, while suggesting that help can come from misogynistic organizations like the Church – is incredibly jarring, but pervasive in Nicaragua. The more legal and political institutions explicitly promote strong religious beliefs about the family and a woman’s role within it, the more justification is provided for their constant weakening of laws and establishments protecting women’s rights.
Church and state urgently need to be separated for crucial women’s rights to be secured. This separation can begin within the education system. Although Nicaragua had specific laws requiring that public schools be kept secular, in 2013, it passed the “Live Beautiful Plan,” which requires an obligatory education based on socialist – and specifically, Christian – values. The government trained 45,000 public school teachers on the goals and techniques of the new law.
In addition, according to the Nicaragua 2013 International Religious Freedom Report, Nicaragua’s government “demonstrated partisan favoritism for religious groups supporting its socio-political agenda, and religious groups critical of the government’s policies reported government harassment.”
Religion provides an easy justification for many Nicaraguan lawmakers’ and politicians’ anti-women ideologies, but it isn’t the only excuse. The Nicaraguan judicial system has upheld harmful gender norms without need to call on the Church. In 2012, for example, feminists were overjoyed with the passing of “Ley 779,” a law which stated that gender-based violence stems from “unequal relations of power” between men and women. Ley 779 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. However, a mere two years later, the Court overturned a majority of Ley 779’s leading advances.
This wasn’t unpredicted; many had already called 779 a “dead law” since it did not have most of the funding needed for its mandates before it went into effect. There were opportunities to funnel in resources rather than shutting down the law completely, but due to the law’s attempts to both define and break down the hierarchy, it went unprioritized compared to other areas. Ley 779 was consequently struck down on no other basis than the fact that it was aiding women.
Education goes beyond the classroom. Nicaragua can seek to educate its adult citizens on women’s rights through public workshops or online information sessions. As Nicaraguans become better informed about women’s issues, hopefully their votes will lead to more democratic ideologies spreading through elected parties and, consequently, to the Supreme Court. Another solution could be for Supreme Court nominations to come from an independent third party instead, to eliminate any political biases from serving on what should be an impartial body of judges.
Equality is the core of democracy. When the government singles out certain people to neglect, cracks start to appear. That democracy is weakened and, eventually, destroyed. “Gender equality,” the Council of Europe says, “entails equal rights for people of all genders, as well as equal visibility, and equal opportunities for empowerment, taking responsibility and participating in all spheres of public and private life.” As political bodies in Nicaragua disrespect their female constituents, female candidates for office struggle to be given the same consideration as their male counterparts; as women fail to be represented in politics, men continue to dominate society. In other Latin American countries, however, like Honduras, for example, women have begun to claim powerful political roles. It will be exciting to see if Nicaragua, too, will begin to make strides towards women’s rights.
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