MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — The sounds of domestic abuse were as frequent in Norma Villalta's neighborhood as the tinkling bells of the ice-cream carts and the hawking cries of the food vendors. Threats, slaps, and cries could be heard, almost daily, and then there was silence. No one wanted to talk about it.
Until Mrs. Villalta opened her mouth. She decided that things were getting worse for women because of unemployment and family stresses. So, with the help of four other women, she stocked her home with documents on women's rights and created an impromptu center. She let the women know they weren't alone.
"I and the others who started this, we all had had bruises on our eyes from our spouses at one time," she says. "But we changed that, and we wanted to help other women change that too."
Domestic violence has long been a fact of life for many women in Central America. And though the statistics of abuse in Nicaragua remain high - 1 in 2 women has been a victim according to one study - a growing awareness of the problem among women like Villalta is breathing new life into its women's movement, resulting in the formation of such living-room centers at the rate of one or two a month.
The effort comes at a key time, some say. The move away from state subsidies toward capitalism and privatization has contributed to a 53 percent unemployment rate. Some authorities believe women are taking a literal beating over the financial stresses.
"It is not the root of domestic abuse, but it is one of the factors," says Violeta Delgado, director of the Network of Women Against Violence in Nicaragua, formed in 1992. "There is a lot more unemployment these days, and this can aggravate the problem, but so did the [civil war waged during the 1980s]. The fact is that even if the economy were good, men would not stop hitting their wives, because it goes deeper than that."
This election year, women's advocates say they hope to address those deeper cultural issues on a political level. The National Coalition of Women, with members from various political parties, presented in March a platform stressing women's rights. They are requesting all parties to adopt it. About 30 to 40 percent of the candidates for the national and local elections are women, more than ever before, activists say.
The task, however, remains daunting. "Though this is a very strong movement, this continues to be a very patriarchal society that puts the brakes on such demands," says Maria Teresa Blandon, a member of the coalition.
Despite the challenges, Nicaragua has been in the forefront of most women's issues in Central America, according to Ms. Blandon, who also is part of an organization of Central American feminists called "LaCorriente."
This, she and others say, is because Nicaragua's revolution empowered women to participate in the social changes. During the 1980s, the government created a network of women's centers providing legal and health assistance, and foreigners who came here out of solidarity or curiosity further fueled the movement.
The original women's centers, which are now mostly independent, have since been joined by a slew of other groups that provide services to abused women, with the majority of financial aid coming from European countries. These groups grew from 62 to 90 between 1993 and 1995 and include the country's first and only battered women's shelter.
The government of President Violeta Chamorro addressed the issue by creating four domestic-abuse units within the police department in 1993. The units are partially funded by nongovernmental organizations; two more are set to open this year.
Those measures haven't satisfied many activists, who are requesting that domestic violence be classified as its own crime with a set of stiffer penalties than those for general assault. This has met with little reaction from the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, inside a domestic-abuse unit office one afternoon, a female police officer clacked at a manual typewriter, filling out a document that requests the presence of an accused abuser to meet with his wife at the police station. Three women waited for their turn to receive such a document.
"I feel better now about things," says Maria Esperanza Reyes Rizo, who washes clothes and whose employer brought her to the office. She had a copy of the summons in her hand and finger scratches on her neck, from her husband, she says.
But the system has distinct limitations. Only about 12 percent of the cases here will be referred to court, according to a study by the Nicaraguan Center of Human Rights.
Advocates say many women simply don't want to prosecute out of shame or fear. And even when presented with overwhelming physical evidence, judges are often hesitant to impose a stiff penalty, critics say.
"The seriousness of domestic violence simply isn't there on a legislative level," says Lt. Isabel Largaespada.
That's the same for most countries in Central America. But the movement continues to gain steady momentum in the living rooms and porches of neighborhoods such as Villalta's.
"There was a lot of violence in this neighborhood, and we felt women needed some knowledge about their rights, but when we started out in 1991, we had no resources," says Villalta. "We investigated how other women's centers worked, started to hold seminars with experts we met, and we talked to the women here about what they wanted to have for a center."
These days, the center has a home of its own, funded by contributions from the French Embassy, though it still doesn't have a phone, and salaries come and go with the vagaries of grants.
It has a health clinic, however, and 25 workers are promoting women's rights to the streets of this community of about 14,000.
Still, domestic violence is a hard habit to crack in a society where machismo runs deep, and where the influential Roman Catholic church has been slow to respond to requests from the Network of Women Against Violence that it talk about the issue with their congregations.
To educate women on domestic abuse, the Network to Fight Domestic Abuse has held workshops over the past four years, which has spawned the formation of other women's groups to spread the awareness.
And a small cadre of males, Men Against Violence, is fighting the battle on the other side of the trenches.
"We discuss themes such as our identity, and how we can still be men without the machismo, and ways to express ourselves without using violence," said Ruben Reyes, a founding member of the group of about 30 men in Managua, one of at least three such groups in the country.
"There are some who make fun of us, but I think we're winning some acceptance," he adds.
And, in some unheralded cases, the message is hitting home among families such as Villalta's. During the Sandinista years, Villalta started stretching her activist wings, taking a more active role in her clothing-factory union, and attending functions of the then-Sandinista affiliated women's group AMNLAE.
Her husband objected. But, she says, "I was able to convince him that I wasn't here to heed his every command, and that as a person I needed to participate in these things, and, finally, that I would leave him if he continued to abuse me.
Her message got through. "He listened, and he changed," she says.