Constitutional Reform and Women’s Rights in Nicaragua

by Friday Files | | Association for Women's Rights in Development
Friday, 11 April 2014 16:22 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

FRIDAY FILE: A Constitutional reform was passed in Nicaragua on January 27, 2014 and entered into force on February 10th, which will allow consecutive presidential re-election as well military personnel to hold government posts. AWID spoke to Azahalea Solís, from Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres de Nicaragua (MAM- Autonomous Women’s Movement) about the reform, women´s rights and the recent repression during the International Women’s Day (March 8th) demonstration.

By Gabby De Cicco

Daniel Ortega, leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN - National Liberation Sandinista Front) has been Nicaragua’s president since 2007. When the Front came to power in 1979 after defeating the Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled the country since 1934, Ortega was already one of its leaders. He was President from 1985-1990 after which the FSLN lost elections to Unión Nacional Opositora (UNO - National Opposition Union), a 14-party coalition that made Violeta Chamorro President. The FSLN lost the following two elections (in 1996 and 2001) but Ortega was re-elected as President in the November 5, 2006 elections.

That same year during the disputed presidential campaign and with the purpose of attracting the Evangelist and Catholic electorate, the National Assembly enacted a general prohibition of abortion. This meant women and girls could no longer seek abortion for therapeutic purposes – a measure that had existed in the Nicaraguan Penal Code for over a hundred years. In September 2007 the National Assembly adopted a new Penal Code that kept the prohibition of abortion under all circumstances. The Code provides sentences of one to three years of for the person who performs the abortion and up to two years for women who try to have an abortion procedure. The Code does not allow exceptions, even when the life of the pregnant woman is threatened. With these precedents, the current constitutional reform marks a turn towards Christian values ​​and the idea of ​​traditional family.

On the political side, the Constitutional reform has removed Article 147, which forbids consecutive presidential re-election, and restricts Presidential candidates to two terms. The reform further opens the possibility for the president to be elected in a single round, and with a simple majority of votes, while also enabling him to issue executive decrees, equivalent to laws. The reform also confers greater powers to the Army and the Police, allowing the President to appoint military personnel in government posts “for security reasons”; those appointees can continue to perform their military tasks while also holding public office. Other concerns with the reform, is that it grants the Army control over the radio-electric and satellite spectrum in coordination with civil authorities, which constitutes a serious risk for freedom of expression.

AWID: Who is Daniel Ortega for the women’s movement and for feminists in Nicaragua?

Azahalea Solís (AS): During 2006 electoral year, the feminist movement assessed that given that he is a social and cultural fundamentalist, an authoritarian in politics and a neoliberal in the economy, the worst thing that could happen to the country was that Daniel Ortega would win. Some feminists who were creating the Red de Mujeres contra la Violencia (Women Against Violence Network) believed that an Ortega victory would result in harassment against the women’s movement, feminists, poets and journalists. We must now say that all those predictions have become realities.

AWID: What does the latest Constitutional reform mean for the country’s democratic process?

AS: Since Nicaragua became a Republic, those in power have been introducing changes to “adjust” the legal framework to their own political needs. Different Constitutions have prohibited re-election but they usually also include final or transitory dispositions that allow a re-election “just for this one time”. We consider this latest Constitutional reform to be illegitimate because the majority Ortega holds in the National Assembly, which allowed him to amend the Constitution, was the result of electoral fraud perpetrated in 2011. It is illegitimate because a political regime has been changed through a partial Constitutional reform, when it can only be done through a Constitutional Assembly.

Ortega is trying to establish a political regime that is tailor-made to his dynastic and dictatorial interests. As in the past there were Constitutional monarchies, he is now creating a “Constitutional dictatorship”.

AWID: How do you think this will affect women’s rights in Nicaragua?

AS: Women are always disproportionately affected by extreme political situations – repression, harassment, imprisonment – and to make it worse, they are also the forgotten ones (never the heroines). Women are demanding justice and we can’t have it in a State that belongs to a single individual, where impunity prevails and the enjoyment of your rights depends on who you are.

This reform has also turned Nicaragua into a Christian State without altering the law that says that there is no State religion. Now the Constitution says that our country is “under the inspiration of Christian values”. Individual rights are also affected, as now the community and the traditional family values prevail upon them. New structures known as “family cabinets”[1] can make decisions about your private life, for instance, harassing women to stop them from filing for divorce, leaving their husbands or reporting violence. Also women’s police stations are now instructed to protect the “cohesiveness of the family” above women’s right to integrity.

There are no more boundaries for those in power, no barriers, and this is extremely serious for a society that is already unequal in a way that damages women. How the law will be implemented for women as political subjects, as rights-bearers, the perspectives are not very promising.

AWID: What is the current situation is in terms of women’s rights? What advances and setbacks have taken place in Nicaragua in recent years?

AS: In Nicaragua a 50% quota was formally established for women, but we don’t consider this an effective achievement for conceptual and practical reasons[2].  The quota was first established as part of the Municipal Government Law (2012), which prescribed that there had to be equal numbers of male and female candidates on the lists for municipal elections in 2012. The reform incorporated this same requirement to the Constitution. But again we question the legitimacy of the Constitutional reform and as such the quota as well.

A law on violence against women (Act 779), that was generally adequate, was passed in 2012. But less than a year later the Supreme Court of Justice requested that it be amended. The amendment allows for mediation between, men accused of minor threats and physical violence, among other crimes, which are covered by the Act 779 and whose sentence is less than five years in prison, and their victim, to avoid conviction. As we have said, to accept that there are minor offenses with regard to violence against women "is a fallacy," and this view ignores the power imbalance between men and women.

AWID: What can the women’s movement and feminists do to confront the possibility that President Ortega perpetuates himself in power?

AS: Acting as citizens, turning women into visible citizen-leaders, and forging alliances with other sectors that are fighting to regain a democratic continuity in Nicaragua. No advances can be made in the country for as long as the rule of law is not re-established, and there is genuine political openness and credible electoral processes.

One of the main contributions of the Sandinista revolution - the revolutionary process that defeated Somoza - was to make voting credible. This has radically changed since Ortega came to power, particularly since the first elections celebrated during his first term (2007-2011), an election that has been disputed for fraud.

This is why for us at MAM no project is more important right now than that of removing the dictatorship. We think that with Ortega holding power, there can be no advances in women’s rights.

AWID: How is the women’s movement planning to react after the police repression against the March 8th demonstrations?

AS: On March 8th, several movements, networks and organizations that make up the broader women’s and feminist movements in Nicaragua, self-organized to celebrate International Women’s Day in the capital of the country., Mangua We did a “political carnival”, offering all women – young, rural, maquila workers, students, professionals, media workers – the opportunity to voice their claims, to share their achievements and to express their desire to live in a society free from violence, discrimination, and all forms of injustice. But at the Rotonda Ruben Darío the FSLN government used force to suppress the march, forming line ups of anti riot groups. In our statement read on March 11, as part of our demonstration in front of police station, we say, “State abuse went as far as arming policewomen with weapons that shoot rubber bullets and tear gas against other women claiming their rights”.

Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights) immediately sent a communication to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expressionof the Inter American Human Rights Court (IAHRC). On March 11, we organized the demonstration mentioned above, and from 4-12 April we will be in Geneva lobbying during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). During the previous UPR, Nicaragua had to answer for a series of attacks that took place during 2007 and 2009. When we produced our alternative UPR report in late 2013, we explained that the recommendations issued to Nicaragua on this matter had not been followed-up. Now we will report on the aggression that occurred this year.

[1] One of the aims of the family cabinets is to apply on the community and family lives the Christian, socialist and solidarity values.

[2] A quota for women should be established through the reform of Law 331 (known as the Electoral Act) and not, as proposed by the government, Law 40 (Municipal Law) and