Nicaragua: The perception of Children and Contraception
...and how Nicaraguan women are transforming their status in society
In the morning they wake up to cook breakfast for their family. Then after washing the dishes and saying goodbye to husbands and children, they wash clothes- by hand, of course. Then the house must be cleaned, lunch prepared, and any children who did not go to school tended to. Then dinner must be made, and the children must be bathed. As the number of children increases, so too does the amount of work- more clothes must be washed, more food prepared, and more money made to feed them and send them to school.
In Nicaragua, who does all of this work? The women. Mothers, older daughters and sisters perform much of the day-to-day housework while husbands and brothers and little sisters go to work and school. In the rural areas, none of the children go to school, either because there is no school or because the parents need their children to earn their keep by shining shoes or begging.
In spite of their workload, women in the second-poorest country in Central America are also activists for the rights of women, often in conjunction with other issues: some fight for indigenous rights, some work primarily in rural areas, some defend victims of abuse, and some help women who have had more children than they ever really wanted. Interestingly, Nicaraguan women appear to be more politically active than women from other countries (Richards 167), and some speculate that this might be due to the extreme hardships they have faced. After the Sandinista war and Hurricane Mitch, the status of women in Nicaragua was finally given some attention, with a particular focus on domestic violence and on family planning. Today Nicaragua has a birth rate of 26.29 (out of 1000), and combined with a relatively low death rate of 4.69 (out of 1000), the growth rate is 2.03%.
What does this look like for people living in Nicaragua? Although the fertility rate is 3 children per women, this average differs by region and socioeconomic status, according to the women I spoke with in Nicaragua. In the rural areas where most indigenous people live, or among the less educated poor in urban areas, the average number of children per woman is 8 to 10, with some women having 14 children. It was with this knowledge that I decided to conduct some research while in Nicaragua, in order to discover why women are having this many children, and what if anything could be done to help change this.
This study examines the impact of cultural mores and economic realities on Nicaraguan women’s perception of child-bearing and contraception. In addition, this study will explore the steps that Nicaraguan women of the Atlantic (or Miskitu) Coast are taking in their communities to improve the status of women and their quality of life. Research was conducted over a 2-week period in the town of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua with 13 women of various professions. The interviews were conducted with open-ended questions in various locations, such as a prison, a family health clinic, and a home for female victims of domestic abuse. Going into the interviews, I theorized that the high birth rate in Nicaragua was due to a lack of knowledge about contraceptives and the high value that the Latino-indigenous culture places on children, as well as the influence of the Catholic Church.
As the interviews began, I noticed an important bias that I had: that high birth rates are bad for the economy and for the quality of life for individuals. This point of view is a reflection of my North American cultural values, and as John Isbister points out in Promises Not Kept, not all feel that population growth is a threat to human welfare, and some think that over time birth rates will only decline as the economy gets better (Isbister 154). However, others suggest that economic growth is hampered by high population growth, although Isbister points out that the effects of demographic change (such as a lowered death rate, resulting in high growth rate) have not been adequately analyzed by statisticians due to poor methodology (Isbister 156). Of course, in talking with Nicaraguan women, this was not what I heard- instead, women spoke of the security and joy that children bring them.
The Value of Children and the Status of Women
Children in Nicaragua are valued highly for many reasons. For some, the presence of children demonstrates their masculinity or femininity, with men proving their virility and potency by first having many sexual encounters and then having many children:
"Although some young men may want to change traditional gender roles, the influence of machismo and the `Virgin Mary syndrome’ (Bergland et al. 1997) is overwhelming. Traditionally, men are supposed to show their virility through multiple and early sexual relations, and later to prove their virility by having a respectable number of children" (Kalk et al., 2001, 478).
On the other hand, women are "imprisoned in the image
masculine society has imposed on them" (Paz, 1994, 2273), with their sexuality reduced "to be an instrument of procreation
or to simply be an object of desire
for men... we are denied the right to make decisions... like, for example, to be or not be a mother, how many boys and girls to have" (Hernández, 2003, 5-6). In many Latin American countries, motherhood
is the assumed role for all women: "People are so accustomed to believe that women are born in order to be mothers, that it is difficult to accept that this is not the law" (Acuña, 2001, 33). This limited view of femininity
restricts what a woman can do without threatening the masculinity of men around her. How then does this low status affect birth rates and the use of contraceptives? According to Goldstein in International Relations,
"Perhaps most important, birthrates are influenced by the status of women in society. In cultures that traditionally see women as valuable only in producing babies, great pressures exist against women who stop doing so. Many women do not use birth control because their husbands will not allow them to. These husbands may think that having many children is proof of their manliness" (443).
Additional effects on society due to the low status of women
are graphically illustrated in the statistics provided by the director of the Police Commission for Women in Puerto Cabezas
, Anna Almanza. She wrote that last year in Puerto Cabezas, a city of 31,000, "there were 480 cases that were brought before a judge involving interfamilial violence
. Of those, 40 were of sexual abuse
, which were all brought before the public minister."
Alongside the low status of women in society is the desire for security in one’s old age. Various women mentioned that by having more children, they were more likely to be taken care of when they grew too old to work. A large part of this issue is that in a country of low economic status, there is no social security
or anything else to support people who can no longer work
, while it is culturally expected that children will take their parents in
when their parents can no longer support themselves. Additionally, the inborn fear that most of their children will not survive
keeps many from controlling the number of children they have: "One reason poor people tend to have many children is that under harsh poverty
a child’s survival is not assured... leaving parents with no one to look after them in their old age. Having many children helps ensure that some survive" (Goldstein, 2003, 440).
Others explain that the concept of numeracy
(a clear notion of what size a family should be) is simply different in some countries (Stark, 519), as I found in interviewing several women. When talking with Merla, a single mother of one boy, she mentioned that for a family, "four is a good number." This was reaffirmed by the 24 year old Rebecca, in jail for drug possession, who vehemently argued that two children were not enough and that four was the perfect number. However, upon talking with Lillian, a mother of 10 and also in jail for drug possession
(with her husband), she said that she did not really want to have 10 children and that if she could have done it over again, she would have had two. While it was difficult to discover why she had not stopped at two, I suspect that a lack of education and her husband’s insistence were the main factors.
On the other hand, the director of "La Casa Materna," a maternity home that combats the high mortality
rate of pregnant women
, states that many women who do go to a health clinic to obtain contraceptives
experience first-hand the disparity between policy and reality
- supplies are often out. According to Joyce, this is a particular problem in the more rural areas, where women do not have access to education or to health clinics with enough birth control or facilities to care for pregnant women: "It has much to do with the culture. They are accustomed to have many children, and also many are Christians
... sometimes they come and there are no contraceptives. I don’t understand how one can talk of family planning..." (J. Hodgson, personal interview, March 2004). Stark also notes this obstacle to controlling population growth: "...people in the less developed countries are ending up with more children than they would like... the major reason for unwanted births in the less developed nations
has been the difficulty in obtaining contraceptives
" (Stark, 2001, 519).
Again, this problem can be attributed to the economic problems that plague Nicaragua, although one would think that the government would want to encourage and aid Nicaraguan women in controlling the number of children they have. However, even increased government funding would not solve the entire problem, as some still do not know about contraceptives
or they do not know where they can obtain them. This is where education and various grassroots organizations come into the picture in a fight against ignorance
, gender inequality
and socio-historical norms.
The women of Nicaragua have many hopes for their children. Through education, many think that contraceptive use will increase and that quality life will improve. However, the head nurse at the family health clinic in Puerto Cabezas
spoke extensively of the current problems with sex education
in the schools. She explained that the government programs do not provide enough information, and that even nurses
in training did not like to talk in the schools about contraceptives or other reproductive issues. She explained that it was difficult to understand why they did not like to talk about it, although she did note that nurses seem to prefer to speak one-on-one as opposed to speaking to a group. Taylor also agreed that comprehensive sex education was a great need, especially for the poor (S. Taylor, personal interview, March 2004).
Others have hope that bettering the status of women will effect change in birth rates
, domestic violence
and property rights
. The "Casa de las Mujeres" (House of Women) was established in Puerto Cabezas
by an indigenous woman named Nidia White
in the 60s to help victims of domestic violence
. They provide literature and a place to talk, but women cannot stay there, although they have hopes for renovating the house and building a women’s clinic upstairs. Last year, the local police opened the Commission for Women, which is still lacking sufficient personnel and supplies, although they do have a wing of the station and some vehicles which they use to patrol and answer calls. There is work being done, although most is at a small local or regional scale, and much of it is not coordinated very well.
"Enormous problems arise when social arrangements change quickly and belief systems
lag behind... this, in my view, is the heart of the debate over population... in present circumstances, morality
must quickly shift to support low fertility... the shift is uneven, painful, and conflict ridden" (Isbister, 2003, 158-159). In the case of Nicaragua, the shift to low fertility is at a strange place, with religious
and cultural factors often contradicting the new socioeconomic reality of a low death rate and an economy that is struggling to support the people. However, the hope of Nicaragua appears to be education
activism and economic stability
"it may be impossible to convince poor people in poor countries, living constantly on the brink of economic disaster that their ultimate welfare does not depend on having a large family" (157).
Therefore, even as globalization
and free trade
increase the overall wealth of Nicaragua, special attention must be paid to the poor- specifically those living in rural areas, where the "trickle down effect
" is rarely felt. It is only when money is rerouted to those living in extreme poverty
to enable them to start a business or form an agricultural co-op
that people will feel economically secure, which will then lead to a natural decline in the desire for large families. Combined with the resources needed to consistently use safe methods of birth control
and improved sexual education
that is culturally appropriate, birth rates will probably naturally decline without the drastic measures that China imposed
, and the effects will be long-term.
However, this does not satisfactorily address the gender inequalities
inherent in Nicaraguan society, or the low social status of indigenous people
. At the end of their study, Kalk et al. recommend that an "optimal age" be found at which reproductive issues are addressed for adolescent males and females, suggesting that "as sought after behavioural changes are dependent on successful sexual negotiation
, ways to improve sexual communication
between young people have to be identified" (Kalk et al., 2001, 478). Ironically, there are structures in place, such as the NGO "Red
de Jóvenes Nicaraguenses por los Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos
," which is a group of young people between the ages of 13 and 23 who defend and promote sexual and reproductive rights (González, 95). This illustrates the need for increased communication between organizations within Nicaragua as well as between these groups and outside aid groups
In terms of indigenous rights
, Deere and León acknowledge the obstacles that indigenous women specifically face, which are both within their cultural worldview and their societal ideals of complementary gender roles as well as in the race-class structure of Nicaraguan society, and they note that a change would require indigenous women to "balance collective and individual claims in a way that is not required of nonindigenous women
" (Richards, 2003, 169). The combined effort to achieve fully recognized property rights
for rural and indigenous women, universal education
with more attention to reproductive health
, together with the natural cultural shift with regards to the status of women and the ideal numeracy
will make a difference in Nicaragua.
However, more studies should be conducted to find the most effective way to apply these lessons, with careful attention paid to the methods in which both rural and urban children can receive sufficient information about contraceptive options
that can be followed through with clinics that have enough supplies. In the meantime, specific issues need to be addressed, such as the ideal woman that Nicaraguan women identify with or aspire to in life or in the media
, as well as more general questions, such as the importance for immediate action in order to facilitate economic development
, the possibility for policies on birth control and fertility, and the "morally acceptable" forms of fertility control
(Isbister, 2003, 155). These will need to be answered in order to respond appropriately to those who argue that "the burden of dependency
is a myth... large families provide status
for parents in the present and security for them in their old age" (156). Whether this is true for Nicaragua or not should really be answered by the women who bear the brunt of this burden, as they have proven to be more than capable of speaking for themselves.
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Lillian. Personal interview, March 2004.
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