Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 34 | Abril 1984



The Nicaraguan Family In A Time Of Transition

Envío team

Nicaraguan society is undergoing substantial changes that are reflected in new political structures, in new laws, and in new economic plans.

These changes have entered the home, challenging traditional attitudes. Five years is not sufficient time to create new family structures, but it is enough to see the emergence of certain changes reflect the present conflict and uncertainty.


In its structure, in the role played by the various members, and in the way the members see themselves, the Nicaraguan family is a blending of the colonial (feudal patriarchal) model and the indigenous (tribal-matriarchal) model. Many of the family structures throughout Latin America, especially among the poorest sectors of society, reflect this meeting of two cultural traditions.

According to a report by the office of Family Protection and Counseling, which was set up 15 days after the 1979 victory, the father is absent in 34% of urban homes (60% in Managua). In these homes, the mother is economically responsible for the children , and she is the most influential force in their upbringing . Statistics such as these tend to support a matriarchal picture of the Nicaraguan family.

However, even in families in which the father is absent, his presence is felt. The mother tends to foster respect and affection for the father, whom the children see only occasionally but frequently speak of. The father's presence, which is felt in various ways even though he does not live in the home, reinforces the classical patriarchal pattern: the woman “suffers” because of the man, is helpless without him, is his “property”, etc. These tendencies, deeply ingrained in Nicaraguan thinking, are the basis for a variety of veiled patriarchy that is reinforced by other clearly “machista” aspects of the society. In Managua, to which large numbers of campesinos migrate, it is possible to observe the causes and consequences of this matriarchal-patriarchal conflict.

According to the 1977 study, Matriarchy-Patriarchy, by Nicaraguan J.G. Moncada, in spite of everything, the man dominates the home in the poor sectors of Managua. His findings indicate that the father usually decides matters regarding the behavior of the children, the number of children, or a move to another house. In General, the role of the father is even stronger in the middle and upper classes, where economic dependence seems to be the determining factor. In poorer families, the father compensates for his absence and lack of economic support with strong machista behavior. The strong authoritarian-patriarchal structures under Somoza encouraged this type of behavior.

The phenomenon of the extended family is also prevalent in Nicaragua. Few homes consist only of the parents and children; much more often one finds the presence of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives. Again, economic factors play an important role. The housing shortage and the large number of women who have to support or contribute to the support of their families are two factors that determine the presence of other adults in the home. Thus the extended family becomes a small and efficient nucleus whose members are all interdependent and share responsibility for each other's well-being.

The extended family exist both in rural areas and the cities. In the country, however, it is better described as a family clan. Frequently the campesino father strives to purchase, bit by bit, parcels of land near his own where each one of his children can establish his or her own family. Thus, large families often live in the same vicinity and maintain very close relations.

The situation is somewhat different among the middle and upper classes, in which improved economic conditions and urban advantages allow newly married children to establish their own homes. Nevertheless, this separation does not signify a break with the family. The affective ties, and even dependence, are very strong between children, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. However, economic factors reinforce these ties even in the wealthier classes. Nicaragua is presently incapable of satisfying the societal needs of its population to the same extent as a developed nation. Therefore the search for security and for mutual support among family members runs very deep.

Nicaraguans tend to have large families, and Nicaragua is a young country: 40% of the population is under 15 years of age. Family size varies slightly in various sectors of the country. In Managua, where 29.4% of the population resides, the average woman has five children during her child-bearing years; in other cities of the pacific coast, the average is between five and six; on the Atlantic coast, the figure is between six and seven.

Generally, the Nicaraguan woman begins her sexual life very early. According to the “Family and Fertility Bulletin,” 38.28% of women become sexually active between 14 and 16 years of age, and 72.72% between and 19.

It some ways, the Nicaraguan family is unstable and disintegrated. The misery that has existed for centuries in the rural areas, a primary cause of the migration of campesinos toward urban areas or toward areas where cotton and coffee crops provide them with seasonal work, has meant that men usually establish unions with a second or even third woman in the area of the seasonal work.

The structural poverty of the cities, both large and small, where housing is scarce and services are poor, also contributes to this disintegration of the family. In poor neighborhoods of Managua, 65% of the houses have only one bedroom, where as many as six or seven persons sleep. This contributes to tension between parents, jealousy, alcoholism, increased desperation from unemployment or underemployment, fatigue from overwork and coping with a salary that will not stretch far enough, and promiscuity.

Despite all these difficulties that affect family stability, the Nicaraguan family sees itself as a monogamous unit. This is the ideal to be striven for, a sign that things are getting better, a life style in which people will be happier. There is a certainty that it will mean greater emotional stability for both couples and their children, as well as a way to achieve greater economic stability. In spite of all the present ruptures in family life produced by the revolution—that has also entailed a revolution in morals, in cultural patterns, and in collective ideals—the goal continues to be a united family.


This Nicaraguan family was deeply affected by the revolution, which not only brought out contradictions between social classes but also contradictions in relations between husband and wife or between parents and children. The resulting tensions occurred as much in families that were supportive of the revolution as in those that had reservations about it. However, the tensions tended to be slightly different, although they all signified a sense of change.

The upheaval began with the insurrection. Men, women, and children participated in the struggle in a variety of ways at a time when the hope of victory was barely a dream. These commitments –which at times involved risking one' s life—caused serious conflicts within the family. How many poor families felt their dreams of a better life had been shattered when their sons left home to join an idealist struggle that was to cost them their lives? How many middle and upper-class families had to try to hide the social stigma of a son or daughter who had left the university to become mixed up with “subversives”? During this time, in spite of all the social taboos, the “mother-accomplices” became key figures in the clandestine struggle, giving logistical support to the FSLN in the cities and in the country. David, a lawyer and father of four, explains:

“I was just a housewife for 20 years. After the victory, listening to other women talk about their participation in various tasks, I began to feel useless. I could only talk about the price of rice and vegetables. I was just the wife of so-and-so. My husband encouraged me to get involved in the literacy crusade. That was my school and the school for many women like me. It made me realize my capabilities and helped me to overcome a mountain of complexes and inhibitions.”

The Crusade was, in a very real sense, a learning experience for all Nicaraguans. In one way or another, it touched everyone. 200,000 young people left their homes to go to the most remote sectors of the country. This produced a crisis of obedience and authority within the Nicaraguan family. On one hand, young people wanted to participate; on the other, parents were afraid of the risks and were reluctant to give them permission. Mariana says:

“We asked ourselves why, if we were their parents, we couldn't refuse to let them go. We didn’t realize it then, but that was when the real crisis of traditional parental authority occurred- the challenge to the idea that parents have the “power” to decide what their children can or cannot do.”

The disobedience-rebellion-maturing process at times brought young people into confrontation with their parents. They began to decide for themselves about things that they never would have before. The idea of traditional authority crumbled, and a new set of values emerged, with the common good taking precedence over the family. Daniel, a member of a Christian Base Community in a lower-class neighborhood of Managua, says:

“We can no longer say to our children, “ You can’t go there. I won’t give you permission. The young people, who have become aware of so much in so little time, answer us, 'well, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry but I’m going to do it anyway because Nicaragua needs it. And we don’t know what to say.”

The break in the total dependence on their parents has been solidified as young people have continued leaving home to cut coffee, pick cotton, participate in militia training, or join the reserve battalions. The challenge is there: children should respect their parents from their new-found autonomy; parents should respect those decisions of their children that are based on new criteria. Both are in a process of learning.

Not only are relations between parents and children undergoing profound changes, but so are those between men and women. Ramón, head of personnel in a Managua factory and the father of a large family, explains:

“My wife has changed a lot in these years. I see her as much more confident. Before she never had men friends, only women. Now she does. I have to admit that it has been difficult for me to accept this. I am jealous. But sometimes I am delighted that my wife is a woman and not a little girl, dependent on me. In the neighborhood, she has many responsibilities that even I am not fully aware of.”

Zoraida, a mother of four who is in charge of health in her neighborhood, comments on her relationship with her husband:

“My husband can’t stand it if I’m not home when he comes in. He uses revolutionary phrases, but in his house it’s a different thing. Meals have to be served when he wants them served, and they have to be hot, and I have to serve them. It is difficult to make him understand. He also criticizes me, saying that I have abandoned the children.”

Comments like these are very common. They suggest a certain instability in the family nucleus and, at the same time, the beginning of a new stability based on new values. Factors that have always caused disintegration and family breakups, but which were often ignored, are now being looked at in a new way. Andrês, CDS (Sandinista Defense Committee) coordinator in his barrio and father of several children, all committed to various tasks in the revolutionary process, points out:

“I never studied anything. I was an ignorant slob who drank all the time. I was destroying my family, but no one criticized me for that. Now that I don’t drink and am involved in the affairs of the barrio, people say I neglect my family.”

Family unity, among families that are assuming the values of the revolution, is taking on new aspects. The unity is not for personal happiness but is at the service of collective task that need to be carried out “for the common good”. The four walls of the family home crumble and “our” home takes on a much broader meaning in accordance with the needs of the country. Says a woman in charge of a small eating place, who is also a mother of six children, all in the militia, reserve, or health brigades:

“ I think that now we care more for each other. But it is a love that has broken many old images and overcome them. We learn from each other, we forget about ourselves, and we cry or laugh over things that go beyond our family circle.
For families who cannot accept these new values, each day brings new conflicts, as Moisês, the owner of a small business in a residential neighborhood, points out:

“My daughter is no longer my daughter. This was not what I dreamed of. But as long as she remains “married” to the Sandinista Youth, there is no way we can understand each other.”

During the last year, Nicaragua’s need to emphasize military defense in response to the war waged by counterrevolutionaries has had serious repercussions in almost every family. The absence of husbands and sons who are fighting on the borders, the kidnapping and assassinations of campesinos, the military—service law for all young men have touched everyone. It is estimated that there are 100,000 displaced persons throughout the country because of the war. Although there are no exact figures available, many middle and upper-class fathers could not reconcile themselves to the demands of the obligatory military-service law and so chose to send their sons out of the country.


The revolution is creating new material, economic, and social bases that are having a positive impact on family life. It is clear that the government’s social programs do not always reflect the image that the Nicaragua family has of itself nor the often deep-rooted patterns of family life. It is also evident that, in the poor barrios of the city and in the country, the very fact of having potable water for the first time, electricity, a paved street, access to a telephone or public transportation, a health center close by, etc. can produce great changes in the perspective of a family. Having light for the first time can, in a very real way, be a sign of hope for one’s children and their future. The poor family, which has suffered the most over the centuries, is also the most affected by these changes. The closed circle of the “hell of poverty” has been broken, and it is now possible to see a way out.

Housing, a basic element in the improvement of family life, is still one of the most serious problems at a national level. It is estimated that Nicaragua needs 260,000 new houses. As of 1983, only 4955 had been built, while another 719 were under construction. Current reurbanization plans will eventually benefit some 60,000 persons.

Accomplishments in health and education have been notable and have reached a greater number of families. Health campaigns are now underway in an attempt to transform eating habits, develop preventive medicine and environmental hygiene, and carry out immunization against preventable diseases. The program of maternal infant care is a very significant one. The number of medical consultations in this area increased by 263.3% between 1977 and 1983. This program includes comprehensive attention for both mother and child, with emphasis on breast feeding, postnatal care, and the participation of fathers in the process of pregnancy and birth.

In education, estimates are that more that one million people, or 40% of the population, participate in one or another of the educational programs. 53% of these students are women. All educational programs, beginning with the Literacy Crusade, have tried to foster closer relations between parents and children, as well as between adults any young people, and to create a greater sense of parental responsibility. Toward this objective, in 1981 the Ministry of Education began to establish Parental Guidance Programs based on recognition of the vital role that the family plays in a child’s education. The programs are aimed at raising the parent’s cultural levels in the areas of pedagogy and child psychology and are to be implemented in every school. 422 centers opened in 1983 in primary and intermediate schools throughout the country.

Plans of the Social Security and Welfare Institute also have great impact on the family. Social security benefits (for death, old age, and occupational or other disability)provide a certain security to the working class. These benefits will be extended to farm workers in May of 1984. Women also enjoy a three-month pre and post natal leave from work, with full pay and the guarantee that they can return to their previous position.

In order to provide adequate protection for children, INSSBI began a program called “Protection of Minors”, which includes four types of services: community centers, centers for early childhood development, rural infant services, and urban nutrition centers. These services guarantee children and adolescents a balanced diet, as well as a place to study, do their homework, and participate in cultural and recreational activities. These facilities also aid working mothers so that they can better the economic situation of the family without leaving their children unattended.

Others programs are being implemented for street children, those who live either by begging or by doing jobs such as shinning shoes, washing or “guarding” cars, or selling newspapers or food items. These centers will try to offer these youngsters at least some minimal technical skills, as well as family guidance, so that they do not become delinquents. Both these centers and the Centers of Protection serve young people who have been orphaned, abandoned, or mistreated. The first objective is to reintegrate them into their families, whenever this is possible.

There are numerous programs that we have not mentioned. In a sense, the entire Nicaraguan revolutionary process can be seen as a giant social plan at the service of the poor majority of the population. The effectiveness of all these initiatives, most of which began from zero, is hindered to an extent by the limitations and the human and material imperfections that exist in Nicaragua. It is a job that requires both moral and material reconstruction.


Family structures are the result of a complex process of learning to which men and women are subjected from birth. Attitudes, values, rules of relationships, and awareness of rights and obligations are all transmitted through the family. It is life’s most important school.

The revolution understands this and values the socializing character of the family unit. It encourages educational that foster values of equality, mutual respect, responsibility, and participation in political, economic, and social activities among family members. This policy was first delineated in 1979 in the Statute of Rights and Guarantees of Nicaraguans.

Based on these principles, the Nicaraguan Women’s Association, AMNLAE, has been drafting new family legislation to replace the antiquated Family Code of 1904, which was based on absolute male authority and discrimination against woman, non legal marriages, and children born outside of legal marriages.

In drawing up the different bills, AMNLAE promoted meetings among different sectors of the country (professionals, workers, campesinos, housewives, students, etc.). The subsequent discussion in the Council of State reinforced the broad-based participation that had taken place in preparatory stages. This public discussion was itself a teaching instrument with which the new ideas and proposals were given ample publicity and public attention. Is some ways, the consciousness-raising aspects of the discussion had more impact than the laws themselves.

The spirit of all new laws and bills resides in the value of unity. Family unity is undermined daily by the machismo that exists in Nicaragua, as well as in other Latin American Societies. These laws call into question this mentality. Nevertheless calling the devil by his name does not necessarily exorcise him. At present, only the first step has been taken: concern over these issues has been raised within both the family and society.

Consolidation of Family Unity

The regulation of rights and obligations between parents and their minor children has been one of the primary objectives attempted by the new legal reforms. Historically, legislation made distinctions between children born within and outside legal marriages. The situation has been changed through new legislation. In its broadest sense, the law is intended to consolidate family unity, end discrimination against women, and guarantee equality of rights for all children. It stipulates that mother and father are jointly responsible for the education of minor children and that children have the obligation to protect and care for their parents; in this way, family unity is supported.

This same spirit of unity underlies what is called the Nuturing Law. In a legal sense, “nuturing” is understood to mean whatever is necessary for the development of the persons, including culture and recreation. Parents, brothers and sisters, and grandparents, in that order, are responsible to provide for children under 21 years of age and sick family members. The discussion of this law caused a national polemic. Rosa María Zelaya, who is in charge of the office of Family Protection, describes one of the most controversial aspects of the law, namely the help that a man ought to give his wife in domestic chores:

“This was very conflictive. But by introducing the issue, by discussing it, we tried to help men see that domestic work has economic repercussions. In addition, we tried to call attention to the problem of women’s participation in economic development. The objective is to include both men and women in productive work. The conflict between the home and production is still being resolved by the woman in very primitive ways: the grandmother or the aunt takes care of the house and the children.”

The Nuturing Law, already debated in the Council of State, it still awaiting ratification by the Government Junta. According to Junta Coordinator, Daniel Ortega, conditions “are not yet sufficiently ripe” for its approval . however, laws regarding relations between mother, father, and children as well as the Adoption Law, have been approved. Adoption is infrequent in Nicaragua, except in cases of couples who are unable to have children. The new law favors the minor and prevents the “exploitation” of children. Adoptive parents must be Nicaraguans or foreigners who will reside in the country until the child reaches adulthood.

The Stability of the Couple

The majority of Nicaraguan couples have not formalized their union, either civilly or through the church. Civil and church marriages have more importance among the middle and upper classes, whereas poor urban and campesino couples have de facto marriages. Only one-sixth of Nicaraguan couples are civilly married. The new legislation recognizes this situation and classes it as “common-law” marriage or a state of companionship. When this type of union takes on permanent characteristics and stability, it is granted the same legal standing as a civil marriage in terms of the couple’s rights and obligations, the situation of the children, and the use of material belongings.

Although statistics in Nicaragua are difficult to obtain, it appears that the stability of this type of unions is relatively high. From interviews with couple living under these circumstances, it seems that faithfulness and responsibility are not always related to legal contracts. Contrary to what occurs in some other societies, economic and social security in Nicaragua are not tightly tied to a marriage contract. Considering the economic and social difficulties that confront a monogamous relationship, many couples live together on a trial basis for several years, remaining open to the possibility of legalizing their union in the future.

Some church pronouncements regarding “family unity” are clearly unrealistic, especially in a sacramental context. Even some youthful sectors of the middle class have begun to regard church marriage as a empty formality. From a Christian perspective family unity is in a state of crisis today.

There are no accurate statistics regarding divorce and separation. It would be risky to speculate with respect to the influence that the revolution has had on the stability of couples, although it is a frequently discussed topic at an informal level.

The growing awareness of women has influenced relationships between couples, especially in those least admirable aspects of a predominately machista society: physical mistreatment of women, complete irresponsibility of the father toward his children, and the man’s “right” to have extramarital affairs.

AMNLAE has criticized the Divorce Law precisely because it feels that, if there is not a rigorous reform of the law, it will still have characteristics that reinforce machismo. The law determines the criteria of mutual consent as a condition for obtaining a divorce; if mutual consent is not provide, six justifications for divorce, three of which are discriminatory against women, may be used. For example, a man’s accusation that his wife has committed adultery is considered sufficient proof of such, whereas the validity of a similar charge by a wife is only accepted is she can prove that the man was living with another woman under the same roof or if it is public knowledge. Presently, decisions regarding divorce or separation depend on the generosity of the court. However, within the framework of Nicaragua’s family legislation, divorce is far from being a main concern.

The office of Legal Assistance for women, founded in 1983, ahs been inundated with cases: 55% relate to problems of alimony for women whose husbands have abandoned them, 15% are divorce cases, and 6% have to do with child custody. In only six months, the office has provided legal services to 2,223 women, and the demand has grown during this time by 500%. The office offers free legal assistance to both men and women, as well as family counseling.

In a similar vein, INSSBI’s office of Family Protection and Counseling helps to resolve family conflicts of various types: mistreatment of women, psychological problems in children, pensions, etc. usually it is women who seek legal and family assistance, although men are certainly not excluded, Feminism in today’s Nicaragua is based on support for the just demands of women but does not promote radical confrontations between men and women. As Rosa María Zelaya explains:

“All our efforts are directed toward society as a whole. What happens is that women have more interest in these matters and assume them as their own. It’s logical. The revolution favors those who have been marginalized. The same is true in relations between me and women. Women have suffered from the effects of machismo and, because of that are more sensitive to these matters.”

Family Planning.

From another perspective, but with implications for the family, the Ministry of Education is promoting awareness of the interdependency between the home and population development. With this object in mind, the Ministry worked out a plan called, “Education on Population, which encompasses three areas: population and environment, population and economic development, sex education and education for family living. The plan, through mass communications media and at primary and intermediate educational levels, seeks to foster learning that will contribute to improving family relations through a recognition of the functions of each family member and his or her specific responsibilities. It is also intended to promote the creation of new values, understanding, attitudes, and behavior with respect to sexuality in an attempt to overcome eventually the double standard that dominates male-female relationships and to develop sexual responsibility in individuals and in society. A less far-reaching but nevertheless significant plan in this context has been the introduction of sex education into the 1983 school curriculum.

For now, until new attitudes emerge in the collective consciousness, matters as intimate as family planning will continue to be dealt with privately. There is no advertising campaign in Nicaragua regarding birth control methods; however, statistics of the Ministry of Health indicate a growing interest in family planning. The government regulates the sale of contraceptives in pharmacies and recommends that people not buy these products in the markets because of the risks involved. Despite these recommendations, some markets continue to sell contraceptives including some, such as depo-Povera, which have been know to cause birth defects. Although abortion is seldom discussed in Nicaragua, it does occur, although it is illegal. Because of this illegality, reliable statistics concerning it are not available.
In general, family planning is seldom mentioned at an official level. In a sense, this is an attempt to reject economic theories of the first world that tend to explain the economic crisis of underdeveloped countries in demographic terms as a justification for implementing birth control programs that use such slogans as, “It is cheaper to prevent the birth of guerrillas than to fight them.” In Nicaragua, fertility is considered one of the natural resources of the country and a key element in its potential development. In the opinion of Miguel Ernesto Vigil, Minister of Housing and the father of a large family:

“In spite of all this. I believe that each husband and wife have the right to decide on the number of children that they are going to have, and they should be free to choose the scientific methods that will allow them to control the size of their family. Excessive population growth is not good, for the state does not have the capacity to provide all necessary services. The population pyramid in Nicaragua has an excessively wide base. The economically active population cannot assume responsibility for the health, housing, education, etc. of an increasing number of minors.”

Our findings have given us many reasons to believe that there is an urgent need in Nicaragua for an integrated policy regarding family and population, in January 1984, Managua hosted the First Encounter on the Nicaraguan Family. During that conference, the enormous difficulties that have hindered planning and interinstitutional cooperation were examined clearly. These factors are essential if broad research is to be carried out to create adequate programs.


Miracles cannot be expected in just five years. Improvement has been achieved in the basic conditions of family life, while all indications point toward more long lasting and profound changes. In this area, as in so many others, there is no lack of programs, plans, or ideas. However, as is also true in so many other areas of national life, much energy is lost due to continual military attacks, and many plans stagnate because of the limitations imposed by the economic blockade. The present war of attrition, now in its third year, does not permit institutions that deal with family welfare to move beyond emergency measures.

At the end March, INSSBI made public the following graphic data describing what this institution could do with the $21 million requested by the Reagan administration for the contra and for “covert operations” against the people of Nicaragua.

A country undergoing these serious pressures and challenged by the difficulties of reconstruction must demand that each family assume new attitudes of responsibility and unity. This implies a level of sharing, devotion and commitment whit and for one brothers and sisters that goes beyond normal family ties. The response to the challenge in this and other areas depends more on acceptance and understanding of the revolutionary process that on social class.

There are many unanswered question regarding the family issue, but it remains one of the priorities in the ideological struggle that accompanies the present process of change. Family week, celebrated by the Managua Archdiocese in October of 1983, had as its slogan, “The Family: A Way to Reconciliation.” In this context, the word “reconciliation” was intended to indicate that the conflicts between the revolution and the counterrevolution are nothing more than family antagonism and that the Catholic hierarchy is assuming the role of mediator between Cain and Abel.

Furthermore, the counterrevolutionary groups try to portray their armed struggle as a way to achieve “integral family development.” (Communique released by ARDE and UDN-FARN, in March, 1984). In spite of attempts to discredit the political, social, and ideological aims of the revolution, those involved in the struggle to build a new Nicaragua are well aware of the challenge at these levels. In the words of Rosa María Zelaya:

“Nicaragua has to learn from other revolutions not to commit the same mistakes. The problems of divorce and misunderstanding in the USSR, where women account for 52% of the labor force, are all too wall know. In Cuba, it has been impossible to change the family’s patriarchal structure. What will the Nicaraguan family look like in twenty years? We have to be very careful to protect family relationships. We are involved in a thousand activities, and we have to apply what it says in the Bible: there is a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time for everything. If we don’t have a good understanding of this, relationships between couples will deteriorate rapidly and the children will suffer. We have to cultivate our human relationships in order to strengthen the family. We have to find space.”

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