Nicaragua is among the first three countries in Latin America with the highest rate of pregnancy among teenagers, with increasing numbers of single parent homes, with an informal labour sector that is made up mostly of women, with aunts, grandmothers, women cousins, nieces and women neighbours being the support safety net for other women for childcare. This is a glimpse into the reality that the country’s mothers have to face on an everyday basis.

Being a mother is something all too frequently experienced in precarious conditions. The sociologist María Teresa Blandon explains that the inexistence of public policies to support care work means that this burden falls exclusively on women’s shoulders.

«For example, we don’t have centres for attending to children free of charge and that are adapted to fit with work schedules. We don’t have labour policies that take into account particular shifts for breast-feeding mothers, which means that many of them are forced to wean their babies too soon. We don’t have special policies that transfer resources or ensure support services for women who spent most of their time looking after their kids. There are so many barriers to women being able to get easy access to alimony from fathers to cover their children’s food, that is – there is whole plethora of problems» says Blandon.

Zoraida Torrez, a nurse by profession with more than 35 years working in the area of sexual and reproductive education with the Matagalpa Women’s Collective (Colectivo de Mujeres de Matagalpa), coincides with Blandon in emphasising the issue of alimony. The Collective- before being stripped of its legal status- worked on supporting women’s demands for alimony to feed their children, and gave guidance and follow-up to ensure judicial verdicts were accomplished in practice in these cases especially for women with scarce economic resources. Right now, many women have given up on the process because they’re sure that in the entities responsible for granting alimony «no one will pay attention to them».

The same data from the 2017 survey Measuring Household Poverty in Nicaragua published by the International Foundation for the Economic Challenge (Fundación Internacional para el Desafío Económico – Fideg) reveals that these women are managing parenthood on their own. 75.75% of women heads of household are the sole providers either because of separation, divorce, widowhood or because they are single. In contrast, 90.7% of male heads of household are accompanied or have a partner.

The report suggests «that in the majority of cases being the female head of household should not be interpreted as an advance in terms of gender equity». Even though in Nicaragua the mother’s family are usually there to support childcare, women still have difficulty balancing being mothers, workers or professionals and housewives. On top of this, a major factor intervening here is the reproduction of traditional patterns of child rearing, which submerge women in perpetual motherhood.

According to the study «Effects of Motherhood on the Insertion of Women into the Nicaraguan Labour Market», published by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (Fundación Nicaragüense para el Desarrollo Económico y Social – Funides), the younger the child, the fewer work alternatives women have. This means that they don’t enter the labour market until after they’re 30, when their children are older. This same phenomenon does not occur for men in these age ranges, the study affirms.

«For every child under 7 in the home, the probability that women participate in the labour market is reduce by 2.6 % in urban areas, but not in rural areas. In the case of men, there is no association between the presence of children under 7 and their participation on the workforce», the Funides study concludes.

This same study reveals that of women who leave the salaried workforce during this time, more than 50% are doing domestic work and caring for a child or children, and when they return to work are relocating in the informal market. The informal sector is the primary labour market in which women combine childcare with their economic income, thus situating women at a major disadvantage, as they have no access to Social Security or other basic labour rights.  

The poorer the family, the more women suffer

Blandon says that throughout society there are «distinct forms of families» but their function reaches breaking point when families live in conditions of poverty, and this requires specific public policies that address their needs.

«We don’t have those policies here. We have a law called the Family Code, which in reality does not establish the responsibilities of the State but leaves everything in the hands of mothers, fathers and other family members. This is serious, because this country has such high levels of poverty that it becomes more and more difficult to satisfy basic needs within the family itself and we know that women are taking on a heavy load because of this», Blandon adds.

The official media outlet 19 Digital Up reported that up to March 2020, there were 266 Child Development Centre (Centros de Desarrollo Infantil – CDI), registered on a national level giving childcare to 14,851 children from 1 to 5 years of age. This number of children in childcare represents around 2% of the national population in that age range, which means a significant percentage of children are cared for outside these vital childcare centres and rely on agreements made by their mothers.

Torrez tells us what women face: «we’re constantly searching for someone to look after our kids. We have work with daily timetables of more than 112 hours, we get home exhausted and sometimes we don’t even see our kids, or are able to be on top of their care».

Mothers face discrimination from the moment they ask for time off to attend to their children when they’re ill. Torrez reports that many are «reprimanded» at work in situations like these.  

«They tell you these are the conditions that you have to put up with. They don’t register you with Social Security. A large percentage of what they say is not in writing, and its just as well that women who have mums, a grandmother, an aunt, sister or someone to help resolve and from the little they earn they give some to that aunt or whoever to take care of their kids so they feel more secure in knowing that their kids are safe », she adds.

The maternity promoted by the dictatorship

The «idealised» family policy for the dictatorship was established from the moment the practice of therapeutic abortion was criminalised in 2006. Not having the freedom to decide whether or not to become a mother marked a clear directive that women «have to give birth», regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy might have arisen.

It’s alarming to observe that between 2015 and 2019, 24.55% of the total number of pregnancies involved teenagers between the ages of 14 and 19, according to the Compendium of Vital Statistics of the National Institute for Information on Development (Instituto Nacional de Información de Desarrollo INIDE). According to community educators this percentage may even be greater, as many cases are not registered. Torrez sustains that it is worrying to see there is no significant reduction in teen pregnancies and she relates it to the fact that even while teenage girls have information about contraception methods they lack access to them. The «fear of being judged» influences the girls at the moment when they seek help.

«It’s sad when you come across a girl of 13 who is pregnant. And when you ask her ‘are you happy to be pregnant?’, she answers ‘Yes. Because I want to be a mum’. Where is this coming from? From what she learns out there, from this society that has no conscience, from religion… I give these people a quota of responsibility when a child says: ‘I’m a mother, I’m going to be a mother, there’s nothing better than being a mother’. Or ‘a woman who is not a mother has not realised her potential’», Torrez emphasises.

On top of this situation must be added the ineffectiveness of the State faced with cases of sexual abuse against children. One piece of palpable evidence of this is that when pregnant girl children seek help from the Maternity Houses for high risk births (Casas Maternas) these cases are no investigated.

In 2005, fifty Maternity Houses existed in Nicaragua, but in 2020 this figure reached 178 with the inauguration of an average of 11 houses per year. While this has had a positive impact on maternal deaths, it does nothing to address the deep structural issues behind children and teenagers becoming mothers.  

«They open Maternity Houses here and there, and girls arrive to give birth who are 12, 13 y 14 years old. They get sent there so that they don’t die and so they are cared for during their pregnancies. However, the logic behind these pregnancies is that they’ve been abused. The State has a duty to investigate what has happened to these girls. If this were done, the situation would be very different. This kind of thing wouldn’t happen to young women and girls», Torrez says.

Early pregnancy has repercussions in girls’ lower levels of education, which limits their salaried work opportunities, reduces a heavy load of domestic labour, and results in 24% less income for girls and young women compared to those who had their first pregnancy as adults.  These are the findings of the report on Socioeconomic consequences of Adolescent Pregnancy in six Latin American countries.

Blandon considers that not much has changed in the perceptions around maternity, since very conservative and oppressive ideas continue to be promoted such as: «mothers stop being women when they have children»; «dedicate body and soul to care and leave behind any aspiration beyond this»; «to realise your potential as a woman you have to have a child». There are heavy social sanctions for women who don’t want children, along with innumerable stigmas. At the same time men are not asked to give up anything on becoming fathers, clearly evidencing existing gender inequalities.  

In addition, she adds, generating a change in this mentality about parental responsibilities requires a long-term process. Reflecting on, and listening to women about their lived experiences of being mothers helps break with the patriarchal schemas that have been reproduced through traditional ideas about maternity.

Feminism and maternity

In feminist spaces, Torrez tells us, there is a whole line of work for women who want to experience their maternity from a perspective based on being a subject of rights, rather than accepting it as a patriarchal imposition.  

Torrez reflects: «We women are women, and later if we want to become mothers we can also be mothers. We work on the right to decide. Feminists are seen as butches, as women who don’t have children, who aren’t catholic, that’s how we’re stereotyped. But its not like that, I also have my children and my partner, but I also have my own rights, I don’t want to be ordered around by a male supremacist machista who thinks he can tell me what to do. It’s about deciding if I want or don’t want to be a mother».

Self esteem, gender rights, children’s rights, sexual and reproductive health and male supremacist violence are key focuses of the feminist movement’s work on maternity. This work is done through workshops, theatre pieces and radio. Awareness-raising campaigns are developed from feminist spaces and are especially important on commemorative dates such as Mothers Day on May 30th, when commercial advertising campaigns and traditional media outlets promote the «idealization of self-sacrifice» .

«They don’t stop to think about how traditional ideas of maternity are riddled with oppressive mandates, by sexual violence, racism, misogyny and the justification of different forms of power that make women’s experience of maternity so difficult and traumatising. This issue of not critically analysing pregnancy and maternity in children and teenagers is clearly a violation of human rights», Blandon states.

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La Lupa Nicaragua