By Pip Hinman
Women's problems in Nicaragua stem largely from the country's poverty. Fifty years of military dictatorship ensured that the majority of women were excluded from all aspects of public life. While the Sandinista government encouraged women in many spheres between 1979 and 1990, the Chamorro administration is now presiding over the erosion of many gains women made.
With high unemployment and underemployment, there is a traditionally high rate of broken families. Some 50% of women in cities and 38% of women in rural areas are heads of households. With large families, women have the double burden of caring for children and doing paid work.
After 1979, the Sandinista government encouraged women in many spheres. Many took part in the mass literacy campaign which reduced illiteracy from over 50% to 12%; health clinics were established around the country, and mass child vaccinations campaigns and clean-up programs reduced the incidence of disease and death.
Women were encouraged to join peasant cooperatives, which were set up throughout the countryside. Women now make up around 30% of the membership of cooperatives and have begun to develop new administrative and technical skills.
In 1991, the Committees in Solidarity with Latin America and the Caribbean are supporting the construction of five corn mills in Nueva Guinea, in south-west Nicaragua. They are to be run by women cooperative members in this poor farming region.
After years of contra war, many women have been left widows, increasing the overall number of families headed by women. In 1988, Hurricane Joan had a devastating effect on the local farms, and many plantation crops were wiped out.
In the face of increasing economic hardship, women are struggling to make ends meet. The construction of the mills in Nueva Guinea will not only bring about an immediate improvement in the diet of the cooperatives and provide a more stable economic base for the communities, but will, also encourage women to develop production, administration and marketing skills, which traditionally have been the preserve of men.
The Women's Section of the Union of Farmers and Ranchers is helping set up the corn mills, which will be used to grind the grain for tortillas and for nutritious drinks. They will be self-sufficient and the products will be sold in the local villages in exchange for oil, petrol and new blades. The grain will come mostly from the cooperatives and will therefore generate more farming activity and income.
The five corn mills will directly involve 106 cooperative families, 46 of them headed by women.
Contributions to the project can be sent to: CISLAC, PO Box A431 Sydney South 2000.