Collectively, the lives of Nicaraguan women are shaped by traditional Hispanic values regarding appropriate sex roles and high fertility, the prevalence of female-headed households, and an increasing rate of participation in the labor force. Although the Sandinista revolution drew thousands of women into public life, encouraged females to work outside the home, spawned a national women's movement, and enshrined gender equality in the national constitution, it left largely intact the values, beliefs, and social customs that traditionally had regulated relations between the sexes.
Virility, sexual prowess, independence, protectiveness, assertiveness, and a drive to dominate have traditionally been expected of the male. Dependence, devotion, submissiveness, and faithfulness are attributes that the female ideally reflected. From adolescence, men are encouraged to demonstrate their machismo (masculinity) through acts of sexual conquest. Married men commonly have regular extramarital relations and even maintain more than one household. However, premarital and extramarital relations, more or less expected from men, are stigmatized in women. The ideal female role, glorified in the culture, is that of mother. Her place is in the home, and her duty is to raise her children.
The ideal expectations of the culture do not prevent most Nicaraguan women from becoming sexually active early in life: 38 percent by age sixteen and 73 percent by age nineteen, according to one study. This phenomenon contributes to the high birth rates noted earlier, as does a lack of use of contraceptives. In 1986 the Ministry of Health estimated that because of lack of knowledge and the limited availability of contraceptives only 26 percent of sexually active women practiced contraception. An informal poll of 200 Nicaraguan women of diverse educational and class backgrounds revealed that only ten were aware that women are most fertile at the midpoint of the menstrual cycle. The Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church has publicly condemned contraception other than the rhythm method. Although most Nicaraguans are probably not even aware of the church's position, it appears to have influenced government policy.
In most cases, abortion is illegal but not uncommon in Nicaragua. Although affluent women have access to medical abortions, poorer women generally depend on more dangerous alternatives. During the 1980s, when lax enforcement expanded access to medical abortion, studies conducted at a large maternity hospital in Managua determined that illicit abortions accounted for 45 percent of admissions and were the leading cause of maternal deaths. Relatively few of the victims of botched abortions are single women, and the majority have had pregnancies earlier in life. The most common reasons for seeking abortion are abandonment by the father and strained family budgets.
Many Nicaraguan women spend at least part of their lives as single mothers. Early initiation of sexual activity and limited practice of contraception contribute to this phenomenon, as does the very character of the Nicaraguan economy. The key agro-export sector requires a large migrant labor force. The long months that agricultural workers spend away from home harvesting coffee and cotton greatly disrupt family life and often lead to abandonment.
The steadily growing proportion of women in the labor force results, for the most part, from their being single heads of households. The vast majority of female heads of households work, and they are twice as likely to be employed as married women. Women's share of the labor force rose from 14 percent in 1950 to 29 percent in 1977 and to 45 percent in 1989. By the 1980s, women predominated in petty commerce, personal services, and certain low-wage sectors such as the garment industry. Peasant women traditionally have performed agricultural labor as unpaid family workers; their economic significance thus probably has been underestimated by official labor statistics. By the 1980s, however, they formed a large and growing part of the salaried harvest labor force in cotton and coffee. Because men assume little of the domestic workload, the growth in female labor force participation has meant a double workday for many Nicaraguan women. Middle- and upper-class women have a good chance of escaping this trap as they are much less likely to work outside the home and can depend on domestic help for household duties.
|Country Studies main page | Nicaragua Country Studies main page|