The Nicaraguan Teen Teaching Young Girls Their Reproductive Rights

Maria Fernanda Pineda Calero is only 16, but she already wants to tear down her country's 'machismo culture.'

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Nov 12 2015, 11:30am

All photos by Benedicte Desrus for Global Fund for Women

"Women never stop being minors because men always control us," Maria Fernanda Pineda Calero tells me from her home in Condega, Nicaragua. "They never let us live our lives."

Her words jolt me. I have to remind myself that I'm speaking to a minor: A 16-year-old who enjoys playing soccer, loves to dance, and is happiest when reading books by Mexican feminist writer Marcela Lagarde. She is also coming of age in a country witnessing a frightening and accelerated withdrawal of human rights for women and girls. A place where declaring yourself a 'feminist' is a dangerous act—and a courageous one.

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Historically, Nicaragua has one of the most vibrant feminist movements in Latin America. The seed was planted during the Sandinista revolution, which rose up against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. Women didn't just make up 30 percent of the revolutionary army—they took key leadership roles in the overthrowing of the regime. But women's organizations are floundering in modern Nicaragua, struggling to cope with the rise in poverty and violence, and a government weakening the laws that protect their rights.

Calero is leading a small but vocal minority of Nicaraguan women who are refusing to stay quiet about it. She is the teenage coordinator for Women Constructors of Condega, a non-profit organization that promotes economic, political, and ideological empowerment for young women in northern Nicaragua. The teen feminist leads the Born to Fly program, which runs workshops in Condega, a small rural community in the Esteli region of Nicaragua. Her job consists of educating and training girls on their sexual, reproductive, and citizenship rights. The hope is that these young women can then counsel other women, sharing knowledge through youth camps and forums. It's a baton-passing initiative.

Maria Fernanda Pineda Calero. Photo by Benedicte Desrus for Global Fund for Women

Calero joined Born to Fly when she was just 12 and, in her own words, "realized what I could have lost [by not going], and my life changed...I sometimes wonder how many kids I would have had by now, if I didn't take these workshops."

She believes that the "machismo culture" in Nicaragua holds back women, especially young girls who want more from their life than marriage and children. Women are expected "to reproduce, to be submissive, subordinated, compliant and weak," she says. They are simply "caregivers" in a society that views them as "an object of pleasure for men."

Machismo culture permeates every facet of Calero's life in Condega—it even caused friction at home with her mother and stepfather, who wouldn't allow her to play soccer because they thought it was inappropriate for girls. "Why can a boy play football and girls cannot?" she says. "They felt that boys were better than girls, and I was made to feel that I was too weak to play football."

Right now, Nicaragua is a battlefield for women's and human rights in Latin America.

She says that girls growing up in Nicaragua are born into a patriarchal society and schooled in domesticity. "I receieved a sexist education at home," Calero tells me. "The woman's role is to wash, iron, cook, and have the role of caregiver." School is no better: "We're taught to [be subordinate] from the seating arrangements, with whom we walk in recess, how to play, how to act—in physical education, if exercises require strength they don't let us girls do them."

When I ask if she's ever felt threatened or bullied in her quest to break these gender stereotypes, the answer is a resounding yes. "All the time: from society, at my home, school..." Calero tells me how, on the street, "some men look at me obscenely."

The 16-year-old is just one woman out of thousands in her country fighting to breathe. "Right now, Nicaragua is a battlefield for women's and human rights in Latin America," Global Fund for Women spokesperson Valeria Brabata tells me from their office in San Francisco.

Photo by Benedicte Desrus for Global Fund for Women

The women of Nicaragua are fighting an urgent battle for autonomy over their own bodies. In October 2006, the Nicaraguan government banned abortion in all circumstances, even if the woman or girl is the victim of rape or if her life is endangered. According to international development organisation, Plan International, 6,069 cases of sexual violence were recorded in 2013, with young girls making up 88 percent of victims. Despite this, the ban continues.

Valeria Brabata tells me that women's rights advocates have been subject to "official investigations" into their work ever since they started campaigning against the ban in 2006. "Sadly, we're seeing a rapid deterioration of human rights in the country and a backlash against anyone who wants to stand up for their rights," she says. "Since women are at the forefront of these movements, women's rights are being heavily attacked and the use of sexual violence as a weapon of intimidation is on the rise."

All women should agree that we want to control our minds, bodies, and reproductive system since knowledge that empowers us also makes us free.

The situation for women is worsening every day. A recent weakening of Law 779, which criminalizes violence against women, was approved by Nicaragua's National Assembly in 2013. It means that state attorneys can now recommend face-to-face mediation between victims and their abusers. The consequences can be deadly. According to an Amnesty International Submission to the UN, "of 85 women killed in 2012, 13 had been through a process of mediation prior to their murder."

It isn't easy for women to speak up against these issues. "Over the last few years, women's human rights defenders in Nicaragua have reported being subjected to acts of intimidation, including threatening calls and acts of vandalism by unknown assailants," Brabata explains. In March 2014, a traditional International Women's Day march in Nicaragua was blocked by riot police, making the papers for all the wrong reasons.

Sexual and reproductive rights remains key to Calero's agenda as an activist. Nicaragua has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America: 28 percent of Nicaraguan girls give birth before the age of 18. Sex education is seen as taboo; for young women like Calero, outreach projects are the only way to provide the knowledge necessary to take back control of their own bodies.

"Sexual health is important for women's empowerment as women should be free to decide on our bodies, and women should not let men manipulate, control, or subject us," Calero explains. "As women we should agree on this. All women should agree that we want to control our minds, bodies, and reproductive system since knowledge that empowers us also makes us free."

Despite the abhorrent state of women's rights in Nicaragua, young women like Calero are continuing their fight at the forefront of countless strong movements, such as Born to Fly. "Thanks to feminism, and [the] courageous women who gave their lives in the fight for gender equality," she says, "today I understand that as a woman I have a right to political participation, to work, to study, to decide on my body and my life, to build my identity independently and without impositions from any man or formal institutions that dominated society in the past—like the church—or who still dominate today, like the state."