Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 478 | Mayo 2021



“I don’t want candies in Hell”: A 20-year look at violence against women

This is the story of groundbreaking research that changed many women’s lives in Nicaragua. Interwoven in the narration of this story are snippets from the lives of two women: its author, who led the research in 1995, and Ana Cristina, pseudonym of the woman who gave the study its title “Candies in Hell.”

Mary Ellsberg

The woman who sat facing me was still recognizable after more than twenty years. When I first met Ana Cristina in 1995, she was a young law student at León campus of the National Autonomous University (UNAN) and a participant in a study I led on domestic violence in Nicaragua—one of the first population-based prevalence studies examining violence against women and girls in Latin America. Time had passed for her, me and also Nicaragua…

Ana Cristina’s escape from a violent marriage and her journey to rebuild her life was one of the most remarkable and moving narratives in our study. Its title, “Candies in Hell,” was taken from her story of how her grandmother convinced her to leave her husband. After years of watching Ana Cristina accept his apologies and gifts following the savage beatings, she finally said to her in exasperation, “Child what will you do with candies in Hell?’ This incident helped Ana Cristina strengthen her resolve to break free from the danger she and her daughters had lived with. Ana Cristina’s inspiring story, seasoned with her grandmother’s memorable sayings, became the centerpiece of our research.

My father’s rebellious genes

I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by courageous people all my life, starting with my father, Daniel Ellsberg, who risked going to prison for 115 years for copying the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and releasing them to The New York Times. For so doing, Henry Kissinger, then Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, referred to him as “the most dangerous man in America.” My father taught me that courage is contagious—he was inspired to do what he did after meeting some determined young draft resisters who were on their way to jail for trying to end the Vietnam War.

My rebellious genes come from him. I grew up in a household of activists and by the time I entered college I was already tired of studying. What I really wanted to do was to go out into the world and make a difference. That’s why, in 1979, when I learned that a dictator had been overthrown by a revolutionary movement in Nicaragua, I dropped out of college in my senior year to join the Sandinista Revolution and be part of that story.

I arrived in Nicaragua in 1980, and went first to Bluefields, in the Southern Caribbean region, where I taught in the Literacy Crusade in Native Languages. Afterwards, I stayed in Bluefields and worked for the Ministry of Health, training health brigade workers and midwives and also organizing vaccination campaigns, malaria prevention and environmental sanitation. It was a crucial stage in my life and in my own education. We eradicated polio and drastically reduced illiteracy. We felt we were changing history.

It also changed my own story because I fell in love, got married and had my son and daughter in Nicaragua.

In the 1980s, feminism was
viewed as an “ideological deviation”

During those years I don’t remember anyone mentioning violence against women as a common problem, let alone a public health issue. I came of age in the United States in the 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement was emerging and I considered myself a feminist. Upon arriving in Nicaragua, I soon realized that feminism was considered as harmful an “ideological deviation” as machismo, and I learned to keep quiet. I also remained quiet when I heard jokes about a man who beat his wife. Nobody thought it was something to criticize, much less a crime.

The revolution had offered women education, health care and political participation, but as the eighties progressed, I heard every day and at all hours that the country’s priorities were military defense and production, never the interests of one group, even when that group was more than half the country’s population.

In 1989, when my husband was mobilized in Nueva Guinea—the war was not yet over—I moved to Managua with my son. My daughter was born that same year.

In 1990, when the war ended and so did the revolution, I began to work with the Swedish International Development Agency on gender programs. It was only then that I realized that domestic violence was much more common than I had imagined. I first understood this when I visited a center for battered women in Managua and heard their stories. It was also only then that I began to realize that there were feminists in Nicaragua. Many of them had kept silent during the war years for the same reasons I had. Others had spoken out, but weren’t listened to.

The auto-convocadas of 1993

It was after the electoral defeat of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1990 that the women’s movement began to grow. I got to know many feminist groups through my work: women’s collectives in Managua, Masaya and Matagalpa; NGOs such as Puntos de Encuentro (Meeting Points), which trained and empowered women and published La Boletina; and the Women’s Centers that flourished in both big cities and small towns, offering medical, legal and psychological services to prevent violence. I got to know the Acción Ya (Action Now) shelter, which started in Estelí and later became part of a network of 13 shelters providing refuge to women who had endured violence. I learned about shelters that offered comprehensive health services, such as Ixchen and SI Mujer. I learned about the work of the Women’s Affairs Offices of the Rural Workers’ Association, National Union of Farmers and Ranchers and Sandinista Workers’ Confederation. The vast majority of the feminist women I was meeting throughout the country had been active in the FSLN. Some still maintained their party ties; others felt there was no space for feminists inside the party and had left.

In 1992 the first Meeting of Diverse Women in Unity was held and from there women’s networks dedicated to different issues were organized. The Network of Women against Violence was born at that time.

I joined a group, led by Leticia Herrera, whose goal was to promote women’s political participation. One of our first actions was to push for a quota of women at all FSLN leadership levels to be approved at the upcoming FSLN Congress. We presented our “Manifesto on Democracy in Development” to several members of the FSLN National Directorate. With a smile, they told us our request was “a nice dream” but that now was “not the time.” We were undaunted. Dubbing ourselves the auto-convocadas (self-convened), we publicized the proposal widely and it worked. A groundswell of women joined us and the Congress established a 30% quota of women in all the party’s structures.

One question and the first discovery

Through my work with Swedish development aid, I met a group of Nicaraguan researchers from the Department of Preventive Medicine at UNAN-León who were collaborating with researchers from the University of Umea in Sweden. They were investigating maternal and infant health. Among other things, they were measuring, the causes of maternal and infant mortality, teenage pregnancies and low birth weight.

Without knowing much about the subject, I suggested they include a question in the surveys about violence against women and girls, as an issue that could be affecting the health of both. Although my colleagues thought it was an odd question, they were curious and agreed to include it. To everyone’s surprise, domestic violence turned out to be one of the most important factors in explaining infant mortality, a finding that had never appeared in global academic research. Subsequently, we did more studies in León that showed gender-based violence to have a bearing on many other problems: depression and suicides, teenage pregnancies, even low birth weight and neonatal death.

My professional path and
my activist path become one

After that first discovery, the researchers invited me to continue working with them as part of my graduate studies. I decided to stop working with Swedish aid so as to enroll at the Swedish University of Umeå and get a doctorate in epidemiology, focusing my studies on violence against women and its impact on public health in Nicaragua.

At the same time, I started to get involved with the Network of Women against Violence. That year the Network, made up of more than 200 organizations and individual women, held the first 16 Days of Activism Campaign against Gender-based Violence to ever take place in Nicaragua, with the demand that the government ratify the Belem do Pará Convention (1994). This gave us international-level protocols to punish and eliminate violence against women.

We also held a national meeting with more than 500 participants who identified the urgency of getting a law criminalizing domestic violence approved in Nicaragua. A group of feminist lawyers associated with the Network drafted the bill, one of the first of its kind in Latin America. We consulted with National Assembly representatives and all of them, even those from the FSLN bench, concurred that no political party would ever support such a law. They suggested we present “hard numbers,” not just the stories of a few feminists, showing that domestic violence was a real problem. The legislative Commission for Women pledged to study the bill and present it, while we undertook the task of gathering evidence so it would become law.

International oxygen for work
on violence against women

While this was happening in Nicaragua, international events were taking place around the world that also prioritized women’s demands. The first, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (1994), was where activists first proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights.” During the same year the historic Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, committed all the world’s countries to defend women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and in Latin America, the groundbreaking Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (also known as the Belém do Pará Convention), was passed.

This process culminated in 1995 with the World Conference on Women, held in Beijing. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action prioritized the issue of violence against women and stressed that more evidence was needed about its prevalence, causes and consequences.

Many Nicaraguan women participated in these three international events, both in governmental delegations and in civil society forums. All the national, regional and global networks of women’s movements from around the world, including those in Nicaragua, received enormous injections of oxygen from these events.

“I know about this, I’ve experienced it”

We began our research in León, Nicaragua, in the year of the Beijing Conference, 1995, in a partnership between UNAN-León, the University of Umeå and the Network of Women against Violence. It was then that I met Ana Cristina.

We interviewed 500 women in their homes and asked them to tell us about their personal experiences of violence. At the beginning, we had no idea whether women would be willing to talk to us about such a personal, sensitive topic, but we quickly found that many women were eager and actually grateful to be able to share their stories with someone who would listen respectfully and not judge them. For most of the women, it was the first time they had ever told anyone about the violence they had suffered and it was often a very emotional experience.

We were moved by such a warm and trusting reception. We also realized that, precisely because of the violence they were still experiencing, it could be dangerous for them to talk to us, so we devised strategies to protect them. The most frequent was to change the subject if a man entered the house while we were talking to his wife. If he asked what the interview was about, we would use a dummy questionnaire and ask the woman about immunizations or breastfeeding or anything else, until he lost interest and left. In addition to the information the women gave us, we gave them information about their rights and referrals to counseling, medical care, or legal advice if they needed it.

We soon realized that many of the interviewers had also experienced violence in their intimate partner relationships or in their families. They often found it extremely painful to hear daily stories of beatings, humiliations and other brutal acts that reminded them of their own experiences.

In response, we held meetings for “emotional debriefing” where the interviewers could unburden themselves by sharing stories they had heard, or occasionally their own. The debriefings and the research itself helped ease their shame and their pain, as they realized they weren’t alone, that many other women had the same experiences. It was in one of these sessions that one of the young interviewers, Ana Cristina, told us, “I know what these women are going through because I’ve experienced it.” And what she told us became our study’s emblematic story.

Ana Cristina: Five years in Hell

Ana Cristina had been married at 15 to a man in his 30s who soon began to beat her and kept on doing it for the next five years they lived together.

My story is the story of many women… We get married hoping for a happy home and what we find is sadness, dreams turned into nightmares… because we grew up hearing that we have to put up with everything from the man because that’s the way things are…

She told us how she learned to wait for his arrival at night, always poised to run away from the house with her daughters.

I had to sleep in another house to prevent him from hitting me when he arrived. I had to jump over garden walls and he would shoot after me. I dodged those bullets many times and slept with my daughters in someone else’s yard. I don’t know why I’m alive…

Often the violence was accompanied by sexual and emotional abuse.

When he came home drunk, I didn’t want to have sex with him because he would grab me savagely… He told me, ‘You are an animal, you’re stupid, you’re good for nothing!’ That made me more stupid. I didn’t look up. I think I’m still affected by that... I used to ask myself, ‘Is that really what I am?’ My grandmother told me… ‘that man is going to put that thing on you they put on horses to tame them.’ Because I really couldn’t turn to look at anyone, I couldn’t have women or men friends. I couldn’t say hello to anyone. If a man turned to look at me, I’d get a slap from my husband right there on the street....

Ana Cristina tried to get help on a few occasions, and once even went to the police, but her failure only convinced her there was no escape. She told her mother and mother-in-law what was happening, but received no support.

My mother told me, ‘Do you think you’re the only one this happens to?’ She told me not to leave him. My mother-in-law also said, ‘You have to maintain the marriage, remember that you’re his wife and have to put up with him because he’s the father of your daughters.’ Then I’d go back
Every time she tried to leave him, he won her back with apologies, flowers and chocolates. And she would accept it until one day her grandmother begged her to leave him. She sat down with her and said, ‘Child, what are you going to do with candies in Hell?’ Her grandmother’s support gave her the courage to leave that man and put an end to so much violence.

If I had had help, I think I would have left him sooner. I wouldn’t have put up with him for five years, but I didn’t know where to go and didn’t have anyone to tell me what I could do, because my family is so set in traditional ways, and I was raised that way too, but with time I became more modern….

Surprise, scandal, indignation

The “Candies in Hell” findings, presented in 1996, were surprising, even shocking. Our research found that one in every two women in Nicaragua had experienced physical or sexual violence with her partner during her lifetime and one in every four had experienced this violence in the last 12 months. These figures were much higher than we had imagined.

According to police records, only some 3,000 women had reported violence by their partner to the police in the year prior to the study. That showed us that violence was vastly under-reported, since, according to our calculations, close to 250,000 women were living with violence in the country.

With these figures in hand, we succeeded in presenting the bill against domestic violence (Law 230) in the National Assembly. Members of the Network also presented the study’s findings on the radio, television and in La Boletina. We mobilized throughout the country, talking with mayors, health personnel and community activists to explain the seriousness of domestic violence to them. The study’s findings were revelatory, sparking a wave of nationwide indignation.

The silence that had always surrounded
this issue began to shatter for good

We published the study’s findings in the daily newspapers as well, and encouraged women to clip the information and sign a petition demanding that their representatives pass the law. In just two weeks we collected 50,000 signatures from all over the country. We filled each National Assembly representative’s mailbox with these petitions and reminded them that women were half the electorate and, in the next elections they would remember who voted in favor or against the law. “I don’t want candies in Hell” became a rallying cry for women demanding passage of the law.

One of the arguments most often used against the law’s contents was that it wasn’t technically feasible to criminalize psychological injuries. We introduced this clause into the bill in order to establish that not only physical blows cause injuries and that emotional abuse is also violence. To reassure the lawmakers, we held focus groups with psychologists, judges, police officers and both male and female community workers to learn their opinions about the law’s contents. There was a great deal of consensus that emotional and sexual violence is as harmful as physical violence.

In the consultations we heard opinions such as: “Psychological abuse is more serious because bruises go away but psychological damage is permanent and unsettles the mind” (young women); “Psychological abuse should be punished because it generates insecurity and makes you feel like an old shoe” (grassroots defenders); “He never hits me, but the insinuations offend me, humiliate me, make me feel that I’m worthless, like garbage” (young women).

The most convincing proof of the need to reform the Penal Code was provided by a group of rural men who explained that they generally tried to avoid leaving marks when they beat their women, showing that they knew the Penal Code and were clearly trying to avoid punishment for a crime. One said, “When hitting a woman, you have to know where to hit.” Another said, “You hit a woman where it can’t be seen, on the buttocks. You quietly tell her: Look now, little girl, bare your buttocks. And you hit her there with the belt... This isn’t serious because you can’t see it, but if I hit her in the eye, it’s a problem.”

When we presented the results of these consultations to the National Assembly, representatives and Cabinet ministers were moved by the testimonies they heard. The Assembly’s vice president related how he had witnessed violence against his mother when he was a child and the health minister acknowledged in a broken voice that she had also suffered violence from her husband when she was young. With the testimonies of these high-ranking officials, the silence that had always surrounded this issue, considered private and shameful, began to shatter for good.

Law 230: for the first time in Nicaragua…

It thus wasn’t a total surprise to us that, weeks later, Law 230 was passed unanimously.

For the first time in Nicaragua’s history, there would be judicial measures whereby a judge could tell the abusive man, “You are forbidden from entering this house.” For the first time psychological violence was recognized as a crime. At last, the crime of adultery, for which women were punished but men were not, was eliminated from the laws. And, for the first time the State of Nicaragua was committed to protecting women’s emotional wellbeing.

Of course, the story didn’t end there—in fact it was still early days for the movement to end violence against women, but having the new law made a powerful statement that the tide was turning.

Ana Cristina’s story provided inspiration

One of the means we used to publicize the findings of “Candies in Hell” and Ana Cristina’s story was in photo novella format, a book for women to read and discuss in groups or alone. One day an activist went to a police station and saw a woman sitting there, reading the story of Ana Cristina over and over. The activist asked her why she was there. She said, “I’ve been here so many times to report my husband after he beats me and each time I end up giving up and not going through with it. But I think this time will be different. I brought Ana Cristina’s story with me to give me strength, because if she lived through this and got out, maybe I can too.”

“Candies in Hell” arrived in Nicaragua in the global springtime of women’s rights and it coincided with the years when Nicaragua was experiencing a complex, but real, transition to democracy. This global and national context made it possible.

For our daughters and granddaughters

I left Nicaragua in 1998 with my children, remembering the words of two women from the “Candies” interviews. One woman complained about our questions and asked us why she should tell her story; it had been such a sad stage in her life that she preferred not to remember it. The other, an interviewer, also a violence survivor, told her: “Perhaps you’re right. Your story probably won’t help you or me but by telling it, maybe our daughters and granddaughters will have a better life and won’t have to suffer the way we have.”

My memory of that conversation stayed with me, as I continued to do similar research on gender-based violence in other countries. In the meantime, I maintained my ties to family and friends in Nicaragua, and kept an eye out for an opportunity to find out what had happened to the daughters and granddaughters of the women we interviewed in 1995.

That opportunity came in 2015, when women around the world commemorated the anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, calling it Beijing+20. I contacted my colleagues in Nicaragua, and we all agreed that it would be a great time to repeat our earlier study, and to title it “Candies+20.”

2016: “Candies+20”

This time the survey was conducted in partnership with UNAN-León, the Nicaraguan NGO InterCambios and the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, which I head, with constant support from the Network of Women against Violence. Our goal was to interview 1,400 women from the urban and rural areas of León. We looked for those aged between 15 and 64 so as to include some who might have participated in our earlier research. We used a questionnaire created by the World Health Organization (WHO), with very similar questions to those we had used before. It asked about physical, sexual, emotional and economic violence by either an intimate partner or another person.

We also asked women if they had sought help and about their views on violence and gender equity. We added specific questions for Nicaragua: whether they were aware of Law 779 (Comprehensive Law against Violence against Women, passed in 2012, which expanded the protections in Law 230) and if they thought it was helping women. In addition, we asked if they recalled campaign messages against violence and if they had seen any episode of Sexto Sentido, Contracorriente, Loma Verde or Tita Ternura,the Nicaraguan-made “edutainment” programs that addressed the issue.

As we had done in 1995, we conducted focus groups and spoke with different social actors, in addition to the interviews with the women. We held workshops with community-based men and women, as well as feminist activists. Unlike in the first study, we weren’t able to contact any state authorities, the police, the Ministry of the Family, or any community level authorities. They informed us that no one could respond to any interview without prior authorization from the Coordinator of the Communication and Citizenship Council, Rosario Murillo, who is also the First Lady and more recently Vice President.

1995-2016: relevant, encouraging results

As we compared the data from the new survey to the 1995 survey, it was obvious that physical violence by intimate partners had declined substantially. The proportion of women who reported physical violence by their partner in their lifetime, which had totaled 55% in 1995, had fallen to 28% in 2016. Physical violence in the 12 months prior to each study declined from 28% to 8%. There were similar reductions in lifetime emotional violence by a partner (from 71% to 42%), and in the 12 months prior to each study (from 43% to 23%). We also noted a slight, but not statistically significant, decrease in sexual violence, from 20% to 15%. Among the youngest women (15-19 years old) the reduction in lifetime prevalence of physical violence was even more striking, from 45% in 1995 down to 10% in 2016. Overall, we found that lifetime physical violence experienced by women decreased by 60% over the 20-year period and 12-month prevalence declined by 70%. (Those interested in studying the figures in greater detail can refer to https://gh.bmj.com/content/5/4/e002339)

These results are important, not only for Nicaragua, but for the world. This was the first study to document such an enormous decrease over time in the levels of partner violence in a specific population, using comparable methods. They prove that violence is not an inevitable part of women's lives, and that it can be prevented through coordinated efforts.

How do we explain such changes?

After a deeper analysis of the data, we found that the most important factor explaining the decline in violence was the feminist organizations’ ongoing work.

We also saw many differences between the women of 1995 and those of 2016, one of the most important being the level of university education: 7% in 1995 and 25% in 2016. Education, specifically higher education, evidently protects women from violence, so the increase in college students in two decades had a major effect.

Another important difference was women’s rejection of violence over the years. In 1998, when these questions were asked in the government’s Demographic and Health Survey, just under 30% of women considered it acceptable for a man to beat his wife, most commonly for any of the following reasons: if she neglected her children or housework, left the house without permission or refused to have sex with him. In 2016, only 8% of women felt there was any acceptable reason for violence.

We achieved a profound transformation

In 1995 only one in five women sought help from the police or courts to escape violence. In 2016 one in three did so. Ninety percent of the women surveyed were aware of Law 779 and 80% considered it positive for women. In some questions about gender norms, we found differences of opinion between younger and older women: in the woman’s obligation to have sex with her husband or the obligation to obey him even when she disagrees with him.

A third of the women recalled having heard some message from the campaigns against violence. “I have the right to live without violence” was the most remembered message. More than 80% had seen at least some of the television series listed. The most mentioned (70%) was Sexto Sentido,followed by Loma Verde.

In the statistical models we found a correlation among those who had seen these programs, heard specific messages, were aware of Law 779 and had sought care services for women with violence problems, for example in the women’s police stations that existed then. The programs and campaigns had strongly affected women’s opinions on gender norms, on whether violence was justified and whether they sought help. As all the elements are interrelated, it’s difficult to separate the impact of one isolated variable from another.

What was clear to us was that the combination of actions promoted by the autonomous women’s movement, the passage of laws 230 and 779, the services provided by women’s centers and women’s police stations, and the ideas disseminated in campaigns and media programs had catalyzed a profound transformation in the Nicaraguan population.

There’s still machismo and sexual violence

In “Candies+20,” however, we found important risk factors that still have a bearing on intimate partner violence. Among them, physical and sexual abuse endured in childhood. Women who were abused as children are more likely to be abused by their intimate partner, perhaps because they don’t have the same sense of self-esteem as women who didn’t experience violence when they were young.

Multiple international studies, including those conducted in Nicaragua, indicate that men who experience abuse during their childhood are more likely to be violent in their intimate partner relationships. Moreover, men who use violence with their partners tend to adopt sexist behavior and attitudes in general: they fight with other men, drink to excess, have relationships with several women, control their partner’s life, frequently argue with her, don’t allow her to work or visit friends, read her messages… and their partners are afraid of them.

Although “Candies+20” found that men had also changed over these two decades, they’ve changed less than the women and machismo in all its expressions continues to be the most significant risk factor for violence in couples.

Another concerning finding from “Candies+20” was the extremely high prevalence of sexual violence, both within and outside of partner relationships. We discovered that almost half of Nicaraguan women had experienced some form of sexual violence, from harassment at work, in school or on the streets, to assaults.

Sexual harassment most commonly occurs in public spaces, with 26% of the women having experienced it on public transportation, while 14% have received unwanted sexual electronic texts, 11% experienced rape or attempted rape by someone other than an intimate partner, and 15% had been physically forced or psychologically pressured to have sex with their partner when they didn’t want to. In total, 46% of the women had experienced some form of sexual violence.

We have lost so much

Overall, the results of “Candies+20” were very encouraging, even though by then many of the achievements documented in our study were disappearing. In 2013, reforms to Law 779 and the regulations ordered by the executive branch meant decisive setbacks in guaranteeing women’s access to justice.

In addition to reinstating mediation for couples in which violence was involved—eliminating mediation had been a key part of Law 779—the reforms and the Executive Order created a new referral pathway for cases of violence: instead of being received in the women’s police stations, women had to go first to the community-based Family Councils under the Ministry of the Family. Coordination between public institutions and civil society organizations was also eliminated and women’s advocates were no longer allowed to accompany survivors to the courts or the women’s police stations.

The final blow to gender violence prevention policies occurred in 2016 when we were still collecting data for “Candies+20.” Without explanation, the government eliminated all the women’s police stations. We found out because one morning the sign for the Women’s Unit had been painted over in the León police station. An FSLN representative told us that the Unit’s functions were being transferred to the National Police’s Judicial Assistance Department. Shortly thereafter, the government terminated the employment of social workers and psychologists who attended to women in the women’s police stations. In this way, the comprehensive care model for women, achieved many years ago with so much effort, was completely dismantled.

Despite everything, we continued with the study, hoping that it would provide strong evidence to support the need for gender-based violence prevention and services. In April 2018, as we were preparing to present the results of “Candies+20” in Managua, the civic insurrection took place, contradicting the government’s constant refrain that Nicaragua was the safest country in Central America, with the greatest gender equity, where people lived “nicely.”

Times of setbacks and institutional violence

It wasn’t until two years later, in November 2020, that we were able to share the study’s findings with our friends and colleagues in Nicaragua. We did it in a global webinar with the participation of the study’s co-authors, representatives from the Women’s Network against Violence, and Dr. Claudia García Moreno, on behalf of the WHO. As the driving force behind the first multi-country study on this form of violence, she acknowledged that our study had been one of the first to document the prevalence of gender-based violence, contributing to the creation of methods and ethical standards that are still used internationally to research this problem.

Some participants were no longer in Nicaragua because, like tens of thousands of other Nicaraguans, they had had to go into exile. So, the screen was a space of joyful reunion. Everyone celebrated the results of their many years of work and all expressed sadness for everything that was lost.

“2018 was the last year in which the women’s movement was in the streets protesting about government policies,” explained one of the participants. “Today there’s unprecedented institutional violence in the country. The rights of women and girls continue to be violated with legal loopholes, making data on violence and femicides invisible and manipulating cases. We’ve lost all confidence in formal institutions, especially the police, who don’t respond to complaints. Many of our organizations have had to close due to economic problems or threats and pressure from the government. To this is added the pandemic, which forces women to spend more time at home with their abusers. Homes today are even less safe for many women and girls.”

Of course, the impact of the pandemic on women is not unique to Nicaragua. It’s no coincidence that women’s hotlines and domestic violence shelters worldwide are reporting a huge spike in requests for help amidst the current coronavirus pandemic. When nations are in crisis or conflict, we’re reminded how fragile the hard-won protections for women truly are.

“I felt important and today I still feel proud”

In 2016 I reconnected with Ana Cristina in León. During our conversation I caught up on her life in the twenty years that followed “Candies in Hell.”

Ana Cristina had to leave her law studies due to a lack of funds and did any work she could to support her daughters. By the time we met, she was selling nacatamales on Saturdays and during the week washed and ironed for other women. Twenty years later, she was still proud to have been the anonymous protagonist of our study.

I felt important and I still do, even though mine was a sad story… I feel proud because my story helped women break the silence.

Through her work, her two daughters thrived: one became a doctor, the other a lawyer. Ana Cristina is glad they won’t go through the same as she did.

I see that women today are more determined because if they see they are with someone who doesn’t suit them, they leave him… Also, the laws that support women have helped them be more decisive, less afraid. Before, violence was seen as taboo, something that shouldn’t be talked about. Now it is viewed as something that shouldn’t exist.

What I’ve learned

I’ve spent much of my life contributing to the efforts of the global women’s movement to understand and resist violence against women. I share Ana Cristina’s pride, together with many others: violence against women is now seen in Nicaragua and in the world as something that “shouldn’t exist.” And ending violence against women is now considered as a critical priority on the global development, human rights and public health agenda.

One thing I’ve learned in all these years as a researcher is that numbers matter and can make a difference. However, the faces and stories behind the numbers are equally important. So, the next time you hear a statistic about violence against women, or trafficking of women, or forced marriage of girls, I invite you to remember the thousands of Ana Cristinas who shared their pain so that, transformed into statistics, we could know the truth about what happens to women behind closed doors.

Throughout my life and my work, I have met many women who, with the simple act of saying NO to violence in their lives, unleash a shock wave that transforms entire communities, as Ana Cristin did with her NO. I have learned that when women organize, as they have in Nicaragua and in so many other places, the patriarchal world trembles.

I have also learned that the gains we make are fragile, and that patriarchal backlash is always poised to reverse them. But women are tremendously persistent. One Nicaraguan activist said with conviction after hearing the positive results from “Candies+20”: “Those numbers show that our work wasn’t in vain, and we will continue to work. We will win back what we have lost, and we will build back all that has been destroyed.”

Mary Ellsberg, still an activist, is the director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, where she is also professor of global health and international studies. www.globalwomensinstitute.gwu.edu

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