By: Malva Izquierdo
Three decades after Nicaragua launched the first of many reforms aimed at giving women equal land rights, experts say rural women remain exploited and open to disinheritance, violence and abuse.
Many women are locked out of land – first by a father then by a husband – while others say they are treated worse than the animals they tend. Yet all this was supposed to end decades ago.
The first promised wave of reform to property law began in the 1980s, a new drive followed in the 1990s and the latest big attempt to give women fair treatment came just six years ago.
All have failed, according to the experts, creating fresh opportunities for men to use ‘asset violence’ and blackmail to control both wife and land.
Rene Rodriguez, author of a study by the Managua-based research institute, Nitlapan, says a major problem lies with inheritance customs in rural areas.
Either no will is written or men fear that bequeathing any land to a woman will signal a loss of their male authority.
“To share or will the land to your wife or daughter is considered a threat,” he said in an interview. “Besides that, creating a will is not common in rural zones” .
“So women just inherit animals from the farm or are often (sidelined by) other men’s decisions: it could be a family member, a partner or even a representative in the legal system”.
María Teresa Fernández, president of the advocacy group, Coordinating Committee of Rural Women, says in rare cases when property is left to women, it is usually the least productive.
“Women receive the smallest land, the less fertile. People believe that once they get married, daughters are someone else’s property, so they’d rather give sons the land.”
Fernandez described the inheritance process as the first step in the cycle of ‘asset violence’.
The Sandinista-led regime first attempted to reform land laws in the 1980s after it ousted the Somoza dictatorship that had been in control throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
In a bid to embrace equal gender rights, the leftist government re-defined a ‘head of family’ concept that was key to land ownership law and replaced it with the ‘family unit’.
Women – who had been pivotal in the Sandinista revolution – formed cooperatives and, during the 1990s, a new programme was launched encouraging rural women to seek joint ownership rights to the land they worked with their husbands.
A woman inspects a poultry farm in the outskirts of Managua city January 21, 2013, in this file photo. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
Roll on 2010, and yet another effort was made to modernise land laws, this time by more than 14 big women’s organisations. The group won approval for the creation of what is known as Law 717 to help rural women apply for credit so as to buy their land and re-pay the loans from the profits of their harvests.
The 717 Law has yet to be implemented, and Fernandez said the loan money never materialised.
“The funds do not exist yet, they are not part of the budget. So the government itself is being violent to rural women as well” she said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization says the biggest obstacle to reform has been that most men “resisted the idea”.
“It (2010) was a moment for the government to take into consideration women’s presence in agriculture, but women were not the protagonists,” says Conny Báez, a lawyer involved in defending rural women’s rights.
Rosa, a corn farmer from the Muy Muy area near Matagalpa, said her husband was violent and unfaithful, but had threatened to strip Rosa of her share of the land if she left him.
“Since we are little, our parents tell us that women´s place is inside the home, so I did not know anything about taking care of a farm, only feeding the animals,” Rosa, who was too scared to disclose her real name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Then when I got married he owned me too with the farm animals I inherited from my family. I was being exploited.
“He told me if you leave, forget about the land. He hits me and cheats on me. I do not want to leave because we got the land together, it is mine too, but it is in his name,”
A woman works in Nicaragua. Malva Izquierdo/Thomson Reuters Foundation
According to the most recent report by Cenagro, the national agricultural census of 2011, 23 percent of land in Nicaragua is worked by women.
Nitlapan’s director, Selmira Flores, said the census did not ask about ownership so actual ownership rates could be lower.
Abandonment and expulsion is also a problem, with experts saying many women are left landless as well as loveless.
“I have seen cases where they get kicked out of their own land because their partners found someone else,” says Maritza Dormus, member of the advocacy group, Women’s Network of the North, in Muy Muy, Matagalpa.
“Women then have to leave their harvest which is just about to be gathered – thanks to their hard work – and start over.”
Juana, who lives in the city of Chinandega near the Honduras border, says her husband forced her out of the home and she now lives on land he has given to their children.
“I do not have anything here, just some clothes. He sold my animals that I inherited from my father and then he forced me to abandon the land even though we had been together since 1983,” said Juana, who did not want to give her real name for fear of reprisal.