Women in Power in Nicaragua: “We’re Not Fighting for Space Anymore”

Becca Renk
Women make up 50% of the members of the National Assembly. Here Assembly Deputy Flor Avellán (with microphone) speaks in a hearing. Photo: Becca Renk

“Women are not fighting for space anymore,” declares Nicaraguan National Assembly Deputy Flor Avellán. “Now we have that space and we are empowered every day.”

In recent years, Nicaragua has emerged as the most gender equal country in Latin America, and is currently number seven worldwide, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report. Nicaragua has managed to create an historically equal government ranked number five in the world for women’s political empowerment. But perhaps unique to Nicaragua, the women in positions of power are overwhelmingly worker and peasant women – many of whom are Indigenous and Afro-descendant.

The 50-50 Mandate

“In another government, in another time, that was impossible,” says Avellán, a street vendor working at a stoplight in Managua who today is also a member of the self-employed workers union, a leader of the trade union federation’s Women’s Secretariat, and a member of the legislature.

“I was there [at the stoplight thinking] that was my life, that was as far as I was going to get,” says Avellán. Then, on International Women’s Day in 2012, Nicaragua passed a law requiring that 50% of elected positions be held by women. Since then, half of all candidates must be women – if the mayor is a man, the deputy mayor must be a woman and so forth, right up to the President and Vice-Presidential positions. This gender parity mandate has had its intended effect across the board.

Today, women represent more than 50% of both the judiciary and executive branches of government, of the National Assembly, of mayors, deputy mayors and municipal counsellors and they occupy many of the most important positions of power including the Vice President of the country, President of the Supreme Court, President of the Supreme Electoral Counsel, Attorney General, Minister of Defense, and Minister of the Interior and represent more than half of the leadership of the National Assembly and the Central Bank.

Particularly of note is the participation of Indigenous and Afro-descendant women at all levels of national, regional and local government – including the fact that currently both regional autonomous governments are led by Indigenous women: a Miskito woman in the northern Caribbean coast and an Ulwa woman in the southern Caribbean coast.

“These statistics underscore the fact that women are firmly in leadership,” states Shaira Downs Morgan, an Afro-descendant member of the National Assembly elected to represent the Southern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. “We are investing our talents, creativity, knowledge, and ability in the construction of a better and brighter future for all our Nicaraguan people.”

Today, the Nicaraguan National Assembly is not only the most gender-equal legislature in the world with 50.6% women, but it is also composed of a cross-section representative of Nicaraguan society.

“Union leaders in the health sector and education sector, artisans, peasants, workers, self-employed,” says Avellán, are all represented there. “That is something historic, it really fills one with pride because…when our affiliates, our sisters and brothers look at us they say, ‘Wow, now we have a [National Assembly] deputy; now it’s us in there; we are really included.’”

Real Achievements for Women

“We are empowered women; we are not afraid,” says peasant farmer Eloisa García of the Gloria Quintanilla Women’s Coffee Cooperative, located in the mountains outside Managua. “We have houses; we have titles to our land; we have a school; we are heard; we are respected.”

Over the past 15 years, women in positions of power in Nicaragua have made possible real change in the lives of working and peasant women, reducing the gender gap by 81%. According to the WEF Report, Nicaragua has achieved equal or near-equal rights in access to justice, financial services, and land and non-land assets:

  • 185 women’s police stations have been opened around the country where only female police officers (40% of Nicaragua’s national police force) attend women and children exclusively. Nicaragua has passed laws against femicide and violence against women, allowing for stricter sentencing and swifter justice. Today, rape carries a 20-year sentence and it’s not uncommon for an aggressor to be charged, tried and sentenced within a matter of weeks.
  • $18 million dollars per year is loaned exclusively to women in low-interest business loans through the Zero Usury program.
  • Over 23,400 micro and small businesses have been formalized, the majority owned by women.
  • Over 500 new women’s co-ops have been formed.
  • The Zero Hunger program furnishes pigs, a pregnant cow, chickens, seeds, fertilizers, and building materials to women in rural areas, benefitting one in every six families in the country and contributing to the nation’s food sovereignty – Nicaragua now produces 90% of the food it consumes.
  • Legal title has been given to more than half a million property owners, the majority of whom are women heads of household.
  • Hundreds of thousands of low-income homes have been built, mostly for women.
  • Improved access to basic services has vastly improved women’s lives. Washing machines, once rare in all but the wealthiest homes, are now common, thanks to installation of electricity and running water.
  • With free universal health care, women’s health overall has improved drastically. A network of maternity waiting homes around the country decreased home births, dropping the maternal mortality by 66%. Cervical cancer mortality is down by more than 25%, and this year the government will begin vaccinating girls against HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer. With free access to family planning, the mean age for a woman to have her first child is now 27 years old, and the total fertility rate is 2.38.

Now that women are occupying positions of power in all branches of government, a full 57% of the national budget is destined for social projects, making possible these real improvements in the quality of life.

Better quality of life leads to increased women’s participation

“I am a self-employed worker at the traffic lights,” says Maribel Baldizón, a member of the workers’ union. “Like me, my mother was a street vendor. Unfortunately, she never went to school and she wasn’t able to send me to school. I am the mother of eight children, and I have helped all my children through school.”

Mothers like Baldizón were once forced to make a decision between sending their children to school or sending them to work at the stoplights to eat. Older daughters were almost never sent to school and instead were left home to look after the youngest children while their parents worked.

“Free education, together with important programs that provide students with daily food, backpacks, shoes and eyeglasses, have allowed more children to remain in school and have created more opportunities for mothers to participate in the workforce and participate in political activities,” explains Downs. Now, women like Baldizón can now make the choice to send their kids to school.

In fact, Nicaragua has gone from a country where nearly a quarter of the population had no schooling** to being the number one country in Latin America in educational attainment for women. Nicaragua is also first in Latin America for women’s literacy, women’s enrolment in third-level education, and women professional and technical workers.

“Now we have the right to organize ourselves, we have our own union,” says Baldizón.
“We work in peace; we are listened to by the institutions. We are given training; we are sent to study.”

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics come from Nicaragua’s Plan Nacional de Lucha Contra La Pobreza Para el Desarrollo Humano 2022-2026.

**United Nations Development Program 2003

Becca Renk is originally from the U.S. but has lived and worked in Nicaragua since 2001 with the Jubilee House Community and its project the Center for Development in Central America.


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