Measuring Machismo

Posted on August 10, 2011.

By Eva Allen

Sandwiched in the middle of Central America, with a population of just under six million and a heavily agricultural economy, Nicaragua remains the poorest country in Latin American and the Caribbean after Haiti with a Human Development Index (HDI) ranking of 115. Yet, in the 2010 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap (GGG) Report, it ranks at 30 of 134 countries in terms of gender-based disparities, joining a top 30 club including equality champions Iceland and the Scandinavian states, and wealthy nations Australia, the US, and the UK. The report’s message is clear - bulging state coffers are not the sole prerequisite for establishing frameworks for fairness and gender equality.

The legacy of the 1979 socialist revolution in Nicaragua lives on. Female literacy rates equal those of male, girls enjoy equal enrollment in primary school, and female achievements in secondary and third level education outnumber those of boys and young men. Nicaraguan women also outnumber men in technical and professional positions. Moreover, the country has been making 20 place leaps every year for the past three years, from a dip to 90 in 2007, a spot occupied today by neighboring El Salvador. Guatemala comes in at 109 while Belize is at 93, Honduras at 54 and Panama at 38. Of the Central American family, only wealthy Costa Rica outranks Nicaragua, and only by two places.

Nicaragua’s strong ranking flows from significant equality in the formal education and employment sectors, and the fact that the country had relatively high proportion of female government ministers (although women’s representation in parliament is low at 19 out of 92 members). The latter measurement implies that women in positions of power are a Universal Good Thing, whereby feminists hope that female politicians will concern themselves with socially progressive policies, use their power to address gender disparities and provide positive role models for young women and girls. However, there is no guarantee that a woman in power will not reproduce, reinforce or even instate patriarchal structures and leave ‘soft’ issues such as gender equality to civil society organizations.

More significantly, little regard is given by the WEF Report to gender based violence (GBV). While it includes the existence (not the effectiveness) of legislation punishing acts of violence against women in Nicaragua as additional data, it in no way examines or captures the most fundamental sort of inequality, whereby women and girls are are not safe from assault, sexual attack and harassment at home or in the street.

Despite advances made under banners of revolution and progress in the past 30 years, Nicaraguan society remains steeped in machismo culture. Only last month, the Supreme Court downgraded a rape conviction to a ‘crime of passion’, thus reducing the sentence from eight to four years, in a high profile case where the assailant is known to have influential political connections. According to the Nicaraguan Network of Women against Violence, 89 women were murdered in 2010, and 51 in the year to date, while one in three Nicaraguan women and girls report having suffered some form of GBV. The vast majority of these crimes are committed by a spouse, ex-partner or other family member. Domestic violence is endemic, as is the rape and sexual abuse of young women and girls by relatives, evidenced by this 2010 Amnesty International report. The Amnesty report finds that rape and sexual abuse remain strictly taboo in the country, and that to report the crime often leads to humiliation for the victims, disbelief by authorities and rejection within their family and wider communities. A further attack on the rights of victims of sexual violence comes in the form of a 2006 ban on therapeutic abortion, so that women and girls pregnant as a result of rape must carry and give birth to their attacker’s child whether or not they want to. In a 2010 case outlined by Amnesty, the mother of a girl who was repeatedly raped by her stepfather was charged with complicity in the crime when she reported it to the police, while the suspect was allowed to remain in the community. The girl’s mother was sentenced to 12 years in prison and spent four months incarcerated before the sentenced was quashed.

While this case study is particularly shocking, it provides a grim snapshot of the dangerous attitudes that prevail in the country from the grassroots level to the president’s office, and and the battle that women and girls face to pursue justice, or just to stay safe. While Nicaragua has some of the most progressive gender-related legislation in Central American, few local or national level resources have been allocated to tackling the problem of GBV, and police are generally untrained and unprepared to deal with cases on the rare occasion that they are reported. This leaves prevention, counseling and the pursuit of justice for abused women and girls to an overworked and under-resourced network of human rights organizations.

The GGG is calculated across four broad themes - economic participation and opportunity, education attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. However, the health and survival rating is merely calculated by life expectancy at birth and sex ratio at birth. It seems unbalanced that a country would receive a major boost in ratings for having a decent number of women in government at ministerial level, but that the impact of living in a culture that accepts and facilitates casual brutality against women and girls is not considered a major public health issue. If the the list was compiled again with GBV prevalence properly examined, it is likely that Nicaragua would slide far down the rankings and show an enormous gender gap between those who feel safe and enjoy bodily integrity, and those who do not. Global rankings such as these give us only the merest hint of gender relations and equality - scratch the surface of many of the countries listed and no doubt a host of contradictions and anomalies will come tumbling out.