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‘We’re not from Mars’ Nicaraguan men against violence assert

Accusations of sexual abuse laid at the door of the Sandinista contender for president left many in Nicaragua in a quandary over who they should vote for.

In the back room of a village hall, a workshop participant confesses that he hit his wife and son, despite a pledge to renounce the most brutal form of traditional male power.

"How do I stop?" he asks members of the Nicaraguan Association of Men Against Violence (Asociación de Hombres Contra la Violencia, or AHCV). "How do I prove myself a man without violence?"

His compatriots do not excuse him or offer easy answers. Instead, they struggle together to "unlearn machismo" through honest and painful self-reflection.

The emergence of a vigorous, pro-feminist men's movement in Nicaragua dedicated to eradicating gender and family violence -at the personal and political level -has surprised many.

More than 30 years of civil war, political upheaval, a World Bank and IMF-imposed structural adjustment programme and a string of natural disasters have turned this Central American country into one of the poorest in the western hemisphere.

In particular, the insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s -and atrocities committed in the 1980s by United States-backed Contras to destabilise the government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) – devastated the economy and brutalised the population.

Over three quarters of families live in poverty, according latest census figures, and sharp rises in unemployment during the past decade of right-wing government have been accompanied by violent crime – especially against women.

A 1998 survey by the state Statistics and Census Institute found 29 per cent of women from all classes and backgrounds have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner.

Other studies suggest that levels of gender violence may be even higher. 'Candies in Hell', a 1995 study of 488 women in the city of León, found that 60 per cent of women interviewed had been the victim of either physical, sexual or psychological violence. Thirty-one per cent of abused women suffered physical violence during pregnancy.

The provocative title came from one León woman, Ana Cristina, who told interviewers that after her husband, a Sandinista soldier, beat her, "…he would try to court me … he would buy me clothes… and then my grandmother would say to me: 'Child, what are you going to do with candies in hell?'"

The study was conducted in association with the Nicaraguan Women's Network Against Violence (WNAV), one of the region's most vibrant women's organisations. It has wrested significant victories from the last two conservative governments, such as the 1996 legislation (Law 230) which prohibits all forms of violence in families, including psychological violence, and the establishment of women's offices which counsel abused women in 13 police stations.

Shocked by the scale of male violence -and with encouragement and pressure from WNAV that men must change their private behaviour -a small but influential group of men came together in 1993 to address the issue of women's social justice.

In the process, the Managua Men's Group Against Violence (GHCV) also responded to men's concerns. "Many of us were unhappy with a socially imposed model that encouraged us to drink, fight, dominate, and sexually conquer women," explains group member Oswaldo Montoya.

The group's first slogan was: "Violence also impoverishes men's lives."

By 1999 the group had organised over 360 men in all-male workshops and two national conventions, leading to the founding of the AHCV in 2000.

Evidence suggests that working with men does have an impact on their behaviour. A survey of 112 male workshop participants -and their partners -found significant changes in self-reported incidence and frequency of domestic violence after such courses.

Unlearning machismo takes a lifetime, acknowledges Juan Jiménez Vásquez, executive coordinator of AHCV. "I'm not rid of all my baggage," he admits.

Patrick Welsh, author of the recent publication Men Aren't From Mars: Unlearning Machismo in Nicaragua, says the dynamic partnership between women's and men's groups flows from the country's 10-year (1979-1990) revolutionary FSLN experiment. Although the male-controlled movement worked to improve women's lives, it was reluctant to share power with women. Nonetheless, the revolution had a lasting impact on women's sense of their rights.

For a minority of FSLN men, the Sandinista vision of social justice also led to the creation of the Managua Men's Group Against Violence.

In 1998 its commitment to gender equity was profoundly tested when Zoilamérica Narváez publicly accused her step-father, former FSLN President Daniel Ortega, of sexually abusing her from the age of eleven.

Ortega, a member of the National Assembly, claimed parliamentary immunity and refused to stand trial. Other male National Assembly members rallied behind Ortega, claiming the Zoilamérica affair was a "private matter" and her petition for justice has been shelved.

The accusation shook GHCV members, many of whom were strongly identified with the Sandinistas. "Ortega had been our hero," Jiménez recalls. The group went public in its support of Zoilamérica, escorting her to court to give evidence, guarding her against threats and demanding that Ortega take responsibility and waive immunity.

Ortega's unsuccessful FSLN presidential bid against the right wing Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) in the November elections posed a painful dilemma for AHCV members. They hoped for a FSLN victory, but they wanted justice for Zoilamérica.

"I continue to be a Sandinista," Jiménez explains, "but I don't want to see Ortega become president."

Some leading feminists argued that abstention was the only option between the PLC and the opposition FSLN party, which is unable or unwilling to deal with the serious accusations of sexual abuse against its leader.

Many fear the PLC victory will reverse pro-women legislation of the past 20 years by using its creation, the Ministry of the Family – widely seen as a concession to the Catholic Church -to rollback women's rights. 

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Panos London

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