AFTER years of revolution, war, and change, Nicaragua's women still face stubborn obstacles to social progress. Some have even taken up arms in protest.
Angered by the government's refusal to fund a maternity ward, day-care centers, and other social programs, a group of armed women blocked roads and occupied the city hall in the northern town of Ocotal in early April. After a two-week standoff, a government delegation pledged to help and the women put down their guns.
The episode was a compelling example of the struggle Nicaraguan women face. Despite some advances for women, Nicaragua remains a fiercely "macho" society and women continue to be held back by poverty, family violence, and discrimination, observers say.
The election of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990 marked the first time a woman has ruled a Central American nation. But her government is dominated by men, particularly Chief of Staff Antonio Lacayo. There are no women in top Cabinet posts and Mrs. Chamorro has little contact with women's groups.
"I feel proud that a woman is our president," says Luisa Larios, one of 16 women deputies in the 92-member National Assembly. "But it is more important that the president represent women.... Instead, women have become her strongest adversaries."
Women are concerned about the government's economic reform plan, which has meant rising unemployment and cuts in social programs. Hospitals lack medicine. Students are being charged tuition to attend public schools. The monthly pension for war widows is just $14. Police say economic misery has provoked an increase in prostitution.
During the 1979 insurrection that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, thousands of women fought with the Sandinistas. Once in power, the Sandinistas named women to top posts in state ministries, the police, and foreign embassies. They built clinics, sent brigades to rural areas to teach women to read, and passed laws giving women broader property rights.
As the war against United States-backed contra rebels heated up and men were drafted into the Army, women took factory jobs, farmed, and enrolled in the universities. They also made up about 10 percent of the Sandinista Army at a time when most Latin American militaries were all-male forces.
"The traditional roles for women were broken by the revolution and by the circumstances," says Dora Maria Tellez, a former rebel commander who later became health minister in the Sandinista government. But women were still excluded. The Sandinistas' National Directorate, led by Daniel Ortega Saavedra and eight other male comandantes, made all key decisions.
Now that the country is at peace, feminist leaders say the movement is getting back on track and is one of the strongest in Central America.
The parliament is considering bills to outlaw wage discrimination and impose longer jail terms for rapists. In April, Chamorro signed a bill requiring fathers to provide for children born out of wedlock, a benchmark victory in a country where most live-in couples are unwed.
But women in marginalized areas have made few concrete gains under either the Sandinistas or Chamorro, says Azucena Ferrey, a deputy with the Social Christian Party. Women across the country identified with the grievances raised in Ocotal, and voiced solidarity.
"If [the Ocotal protest] calls the government's attention to these problems, it's a good idea," says Ms. Larios. "Their demands are just."