Jinotepe, Nicaragua – Watching nervously for paramilitaries on motorcycles that stalk the street outside her door, Juana Lesage said she has lived “months of terror” since all three of her sons were imprisoned in Nicaragua‘s violent crackdown last year on anti-government protests.
Plunged into poverty with loss of incomes, her husband unable to find carpentry work in a crippled economy, Lesage also faces intimidation by Sandinista supporters. That’s left the 48-year-old afraid to venture far from home, except to bring food to her sons languishing in prison.
Lesage, her eyes narrowing as she spoke near portraits of her jailed sons propped on a shelf in her home, said she believes “the dictator” should be ousted “for all the crimes he’s committed”.
In the year since President Daniel Ortega‘s crackdown on demonstrations sparked a political and economic crisis that left more than 300 dead, put over 700 in jail and sent 62,000 into exile, Nicaragua’s women have faced “dramatic consequences”, helping fuel the opposition, analysts and activists say.
The crisis affected women in a myriad ways. Some lost their children, others endured financial struggles after their husbands were forced to flee, and some were fired from teaching or healthcare jobs as a result of the protests.
Women are also playing a key roles in the opposition movement, said Ana Lucia Alvarez, 31, an economics and gender academic researcher at Nicaragua’s Center for Educational Research and Social Action.
|A Nicaraguan woman shouts anti-government slogans during a protest on March 16 in Managua. The government effectively banned such demonstrations last fall [Chris Kenning/Al Jazeera]|
That ranges from Azalea Solis, a top figure in the Civic Alliance opposition group, to 21-year-old Madelaine Caracas, known for grabbing a mic to read the names of the dead last year in talks with Ortega after he denied student killings.
“Women’s movements are a big part of this. We were in the barricades (during the height of the protests last year), we are in national dialogues, in politics,” Caracas told Al Jazeera, whose actions led to threats of death and rape, and an order for her arrest before she fled to Costa Rica.
‘I want justice’
One high-profile group is the “Mothers of April,” those with lost, missing or jailed children. They have banded together to demand investigations and support opposition demands such ending repression, disbanding paramilitary groups and elections before those planned in 2021.
Yardira Cordoba’s 15-year-old son, Orlando, was shot during a Mother’s Day march in May, 2018, when snipers killed 19 people. “Orlandito”, as she calls him, played drums at church and was in high school, she said, and decided to attend the march alone.
The 45-year-old recalled that after she heard he was wounded, she rushed d to hospital where he died. “I fell on the floor, crying,” she told Al Jazeera.
Harassed by pro-government supporters, she decided it was unsafe to stay in her tiny home, which is filled with Orlando’s trophies, photos and teddy bears. She has moved to a dirt-floored house across town. Another of her sons lost his government job as a result of publicity and had to flee to Costa Rica, she said.
Initially scared to speak out, Cordoba has since joined the mother’s group, worked with human rights lawyer and spoken out about her case. “I want justice, for my son and all the others,” she said.
|Yardira Cordoba’s 15-year-old son was killed in the protests last year [Daylife]|
Margarita Mendoza, 49, knows that feeling too well. Recently, she and her husband, Vidal Reyes, laboured under the later afternoon sun, weeding and cleaning her son’s grave in Managua. Killed at 19 years old, Javier Alexander Munguia Mendoza is buried near others who died during the crackdown.
They wanted to shut down the voices of our kids, and we need to continue for them.
Margarita Mendoza, whose son was killed in the government crackdown
After her son disappeared in May, she gathered with other parents outside Managua’s Chipote prison to search for him. His body eventually turned up in a morgue. Since then, she has worked to piece together what happened, discounting a police account that he died in a robbery. She believes evidence suggests he went to a protest and was strangled, likely by paramilitaries or in an interrogation.
|Margarita Mendoza and her husband stand beside the grave of their son who was killed last year during the crackdown [Chris Kenning/Al Jazeera]|
“I always imagine the last moments of his life, all that torture and pain,” she said. “I wish I could have taken his place.”
Mendoza, who wears a shirt with her son’s likeness and carries grisly photos of his body after an autopsy in a folder, said her husband’s unemployment has compounded their grief.
“They wanted to shut down the voices of our kids, and we need to continue for them,” she said.
Other women vow to continue for different reasons, such as feminist opposition figure Marlen Chow, a 69-year-old sociologist who wielded AK-47 in the Sandinista revolution that overthrew US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
When she was first arrested in October last year for protesting, she turned her lipstick into a symbol of opposition. Police interrogators asked which group she belonged to, and she blurted out, “Pico Rojo”, a reference to lipstick. It sparked a social media meme of men and women posting photos with red lipstick under the hashtag #SoyPicoRojo.
Speaking at her home in a rocking chair, sore from her latest arrest by police in a March protest, Chow said the crackdown touched off long-simmering anger over allegations of government corruption and Ortega’s moves to consolidate power.
Ortega’s crackdown, she said, has come to resemble that of the dictator he helped replace.
|Marlen Chow has turned her lipstick into a symbol of opposition [Chris Kenning/Al Jazeera]|
Chow said that she too is under surveillance by pro-government supporters who follow her and take photos of her home and those entering it, and post them on social media with threatening messages, she said. “There’s not any night I can sleep,” she said.
Across the border in neighbouring Costa Rica, Nicaraguan women who are among the tens of thousands are still afraid to return despite Ortega’s recent agreement to allow them to return with promises of safety.
“There are so many people living on floors, in refugee centres or with 20 people packed into a room,” Caracas said, speaking from San Jose, a base from which she has travelled to Europe to highlight human rights abuses.
Some Nicaraguan women, however, support Ortega or blame opposition groups for the clashes affecting their lives.
Ingrid Gaitan, a resident of Monimbo where clashes between protesters and police and government supporters left bullet holes on the front of her house, said barricades kept her from getting to work or to buy food. She said she feared protesters would target Sandinista supporters.
|Ingrid Gaitan supports Ortega and fears protesters will target Sandinista supporters [Chris Kenning/Al Jazeera]|
In an empty building in a quiet Managua neighbourhood being used as a temporary safehouse in late March, Yaritza Rosran was hunkered down and hiding from the police, friends keeping watch for paramilitary members. Her eyes were tired from a lack of sleep.
The student activist turned 25 while serving spent more than six months in Esperanza prison, where she was taken after being arrested and beaten for protesting in Leon last year. After a hunger strike, she’d been released along with 50 others to help bring opposition leaders back to the talks, but she was put on house arrest and still facing charges that could bring years in prison.
She nonetheless decided to slip out of the house and attend a March 16 protest, the first since they were outlawed last fall. After police swept in and shut down with force, arresting another 100 people, she decided it was not safe to go back home.
Since then, Ortega agreed to release prisoners and respect freedom of expression including that of shuttered independent media but recently again clamped down and arrested protesters. United Nations human rights officials say Ortega hasn’t followed through on all of its promises.
Earlier this week, the government said it had released 636 prisoners to house arrest who had been detained for “various reasons”, but the opposition group the Civic Alliance said only a small fraction of those were on a list of those they consider political prisoners.
Rosran said she plans to keep pushing for change. “In Nicaragua, all of our revolutions have been with guns,” she said, “So it’s different, and it’s difficult.”