Racism and discrimination: The violence suffered by indigenous and afrodescendent women
Hundreds of women from the Caribbean Coast migrate to the Pacific region looking for work, but are rejected and excluded.
For «Carmen», being a Miskito woman is the «main obstacle» she has to finding work in Managua. She says this situation is the same for hundreds of other indigenous and afrodescendent women from the Caribbean Coast, who migrate to the Pacific region in order to improve their quality of life and that of their family.
The first time Carmen travelled from her birthplace Waspam to Managua was in 2014, when she was only 17. She did so with the promise of finding work in the capital city and the hope of improving the educational and economic opportunities of her one-year-old daughter. But when she arrived the reality she faced was very different from her expectations.
Discrimination and racism against her ethnicity were the main reasons she was denied employment, in both the formal and informal sectors. As soon as the employers learned of her origins they referred to stereotypes about Miskito people and they refused her applications without any justification.
«They told me that Miskito women are the worst, that we’re thieves, that we don’t know how to work. I’ve looked for jobs as a domestic worker, but it’s the same. I worked for three years in a bar and after that I never got any other employment», Carmen tells us.
The only work that Carmen managed to find in Managua was as a waitress at a small bar. But this cost her dearly as she was subjected to bullying. The woman bar owner constantly insulted her, said she was useless and often shouted at her in front of the other employees. Carmen says, “I don’t know if she treated me like that because I’m Miskita, but she didn’t treat the others like that”. Her workmates also insulted her and called her a “mosca” (literally a fly), a racist term used to put down indigenous people. “I don’t know what the word mosca or mosco means, but they always said it. My workmates would say to the customers “just look at that mosca” so they didn’t give me tips” she explained.
On top of the abuse, Carmen found herself trapped in conditions of exploitation. She worked 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. Her timetable was from 10am to 2am the next morning with only one day free. Her monthly salary was less than minimum wage at 4 thousand cordobas (USD$112.00 approx).
“I remember I always cried in the toilet at the bar, until one day I couldn’t stand it any”, she says. When the abuse and working conditions became unbearable Carmen decided in 2017 to quit and return to Waspam with her daughter, after having spent three years in Managua.
Precarious employment and low salaries are the only things that Carla Vargas found in the capital city. Vargas, a 34-year-old originally from Bilwi, has lived in Managua for 12 years, but has only has three opportunities for work in more than a decade; all as a home assistant.
In all three jobs, her monthly salary has not exceeded C$3,500 cordobas (USD$97.00 approx) despite a working day of more than 9 hours. And even though she lasted years in this employment she never received a pay rise.
“In the first place that I did domestic work I lasted seven years, in the second two years and in the third, seven months because I got pregnant. In all three they paid me the same the whole time and it never changed”, she said.
Although Vargas applied for other jobs beyond domestic work, such as sales, customer service or dispatcher, the employers discriminated against her because her accent and appearance made it evident that she was an indigenous woman.
This Miskita woman says that the main reason she was given for not being hired was because “ she spoke Spanish badly”, yet when Vargas speaks she does so fluidly and without mistakes, and it’s hard to tell she has a different mother tongue.
«They always treated me badly, with a bad attitude. People’s behaviour changed as soon as they discovered I was a Miskita. They call me «mosco». I say I’m Miskita and proud of it», she says.
Vargas tells us that she’s been unemployed for more than a year and although she has insisted on searching for work to maintain her five-year-old and five month old kids, she has faced only rejection.
Thanks to her partner she has stayed afloat, but she says she urgently needs her own income and to be able to contribute to the family economy.
Indigenous activist Virginia Tathum, founder of the indigenous Women’s Movement Yapti Prana indicates that the migration of indigenous women from the Caribbean to the Pacific region is a historical phenomenon.
Tathum points out that the main reason for this migration within the country is the lack of employment and the poverty prevalent in the Autonomous Caribbean Regions. For this reason women decide to go the departments of the Pacific side of the country where there is more economic movement in comparison to the Caribbean.
«The Caribbean Coast is a forgotten place. There is no support from state institutions, there’s no economic development in indigenous communities and no spaces that generate employment. This has forced women to migrate to improve their living conditions», she says.
The Caribbean Coast is the poorest area of the country according to the Survey of Homes for Measuring Poverty in Nicaragua of the International Foundation for the Economic Challenge (Fundación Internacional para el Desafío Económico Global – FIDEG).
According to their report on results from 2019, generalized poverty affects 58.7% of the Caribbean population and extreme poverty affects 18.7%, revealing the depth of poverty in comparison to other regions of Nicaragua.
This is also manifest in the figure revealing that at least 63.8% of homes on the Caribbean have one or two basic needs unmet.
According to FIDEG, «the labour market is par excellence an irrefutable tool for the eradication of poverty». The labour market on the Caribbean had low availability and a low quality of employment, sub-employment and informal sector work.
The survey shows that 84.5% of people with work are part of the informal sector; they are those least likely to be earning regular salaries and work the most without any remuneration. This differs from the Pacific where the indicators show the opposite tendency.
With this situation affecting the Caribbean, women, in their majority mothers, often decide to travel to the Pacific regions, especially the capital Managua, in order to improve their income and send money back to their families, Tathum affirms.
Despite the lack of official statistics on how many indigenous and afrodescendent people there are in Managua and other cities it is recognised as being “large and considerable”.
Nevertheless, when indigenous and black women travel to the Pacific they face constant violence during the job search. The discrimination also occurs in their living spaces, in the institutions where they seek services and anywhere they go.
According to Tathum, this discrimination focuses on their ethnic origin, skin colour and level of poverty and they face violence based on stereotypes and prejudices about people from the Caribbean.
“The majority of women don’t have employment because whenever they look for jobs they’re asked where they are from and are then refused. People say they do witchcraft or that they’re thieves”, Tathum points out.
This activist says that the jobs that indigenous and black women manage to get in the Pacific region are generally precarious, with wages well below the minimum and with long working hours beyond what is officially allowed by law.
“The majority of the women of our collective work in the free trade zone factories and the rest are domestic workers. The ones who don’t find work sell products on an independent basis. Some women sell coconut bread and go out on the streets to sell their wares”, she explains.
This makes living conditions in the Pacific complicated for them and they have difficulty achieving the goals they set for themselves before migrating. On the contrary, often they situation of poverty deepens says Tathum.
Another form of violence suffered by indigenous and black women is the refusal of services by public institutions. This was the case of “Carmen”, who after having returned to Waspam in 2017, decided to go back to Managua this year to try her luck once more. She tells us that in June she took her one-year-old child to a health centre because he was ill. But the nurse there ignored her completely and refused to attend to her. Due to this situation, she had to take her son to another health centre so they would examine him. The 25-year-old Mum says «after that I never went back to any hospital. I prefer not to go so they don’t treat me like that again. For example, right now I’m self-medicating my son who has flu».
The refusal of medical attention to indigenous and black internal migrants in state institutions is common “Juana” tells us. She is a 49-year-old Miskita woman who is also originally from Waspam. She says when an indigenous woman requests something in the institutions, the state functionaries tend to ask «if they’re thinking of staying in Managua » and «if they have papers» otherwise they won’t attend to her.
Juana lived in Managua for the first time at the end of the 1980s and assures us that the discriminatory treatment from those times has not changed at all today. She says indigenous women are treated as foreigners in the capital city.
During the 14 years she lived in Managua at that time, she was subjected to constant insults about her skin colour and ethnicity. She worked as a street vendor in the Oriental Market for 6 years, selling trinkets, snacks and fizzy drinks, but she says working there meant fighting and defending herself from other vendors who wanted to expel her from the market because she was a Miskita. Juana tells us about her experiences in the 1990s: «afterwards there was a time when I didn’t sell anything, not a cent. I had to go back to my town in the 2000s. But they were market women who had ruined my sales».
Because of the low sales, Juana returned to Waspam to her mother’s house, because she couldn’t afford to rent the room where she was living and caring for her four children.
She came back to Managua in 2020 when her children also migrated. When she returned to the capital the panorama for indigenous people continued to be violent. The discrimination against people from the Caribbean region of the country got to the point that finding housing to live in was a major challenge. According to Juana her family was often refused rented houses just because they were Miskitus.
“They tell us they’re not going to rent to us because Miskitus like to bring their whole family, or we’ll do this or that to them”, she says. Speaking in her mother tongue is another reason for experiencing exclusion she says. Each time she speaks Miskitu with her family in a public space its seen as a problem, and negative comments are soon made.
Juana tells us that one of the landlords was even ordering her not to speak to her children in Miskitu, because “he didn’t know what was being said and they could be saying bad things about him”.
“If it’s my language, then I must speak to my children this way. I don’t have to speak only in Spanish because people don’t understand what I’m saying. I can speak however I like to my children I told him”, Juana says.
Her decades of living in the Pacific have shown her that there is no space outside the Caribbean where being an indigenous woman doesn’t mean facing marginalisation and segregation. But she points out that “not everyone is like that” even if the majority of people in this part of the country seem to almost immediately reject people who are not mestizo (or mixed-race).
Patriarchal or male supremacist (machista) violence against indigenous and afrodescendent women is experienced everywhere, as much in the Caribbean region as in the Pacific.
“Valeria” doesn’t let her 10 year old girl go our to play since the Miskita little sisters’ murder that occurred in a Managua neighbourhood on September 2nd this year. She says that since then she doesn’t trust her neighbours or people nearby as if constantly afraid for her daughter’s life.
“All of us (Miskita women) are worried. We were talking and all of us are afraid that this might happen to one of our daughters or to ourselves. Now we suspect our neighbours. That’s why I’m not letting my daughter out to play with her friends, just in case”, Valeria, a 55-year-old Miskita woman says.
The month of September this year began with the news of two sisters, seven and ten years old respectively, were victims of femicide and one of them also of sexual abuse by a group of neighbours where they lived. The accused were three young men aged 19, 18 and 16.
The sisters’ family is Miskitu and originally from the Caribbean. They had migrated to Managua three months before seeking work and opportunities for their daughters. The girls’ bodies were found in a sack on some waste ground a few metres from their home.
Since then, Valeria, who has lived in Managua since the 1980s is on constant alert in the neighbourhood where she lives, and assures us she can’t sleep peacefully because of her fears.
According to activist Virginia Tathum, being indigenous women and poor were factors that influenced the murder of the girls. Tathum indicates that the factor of gender has a major influence on how greater violence is unleashed against indigenous and black women, as indigenous men don’t experience the same levels of violence.
“People think twice about being violent against a Miskito man, because they know he will defend himself with blows or words, but they think they can trample a Miskita woman underfoot, do what they like and nothing will happen. We saw this with the murder of those poor girls”, she says.
Indigenous women are the main victims of male supremacist violence according to the feminist observatory organisation Catholics for the Right t Decide, who indicate that a large number of mortal victims are from the Caribbean Coast. Migrating internally to the Pacific regions makes them no less vulnerable to this violence, due to the conditions they face in the city, and the negligence they experience from the institutions, according to Tathum.
This problem gets worse with the lack of specialised state programmes to support indigenous internal migrants coming to the Pacific, give them follow up and support during their relocation.
The same can be said about the lack of programme to generate employment or combat poverty in the Caribbean so that women and their families aren’t forced to migrate to other regions of the country in order to survive. Another factor is the lack of indigenous and black organisations in the region that can attend to the demands of women.
While unemployment and precarious living conditions stay the same in the Caribbean, women will continue to arrive in Managua and other departments, looking for a better future for the children.