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Gender-based violence and the patrimonial state in Nicaragua: The rise and fall of Ley 779

La violence de genre et l’État patrimonial au Nicaragua : avancées et reculs de la Loi 779
La violencia de género y el Estado patrimonial en Nicaragua: El avance y retroceso de la Ley 779
Pamela Neumann
p. 69-90


Au cours des dernières décennies, les défenseurs des droits des femmes et les groupes conservateurs et religieux mobilisés au nom de ce qu’ils considèrent être des « valeurs familiales » s’affrontent un peu partout dans le monde. Cette confrontation s’est révélée au grand jour au Nicaragua autour de l’adoption, en 2012, de la Loi 779, initialement la loi la plus complète sur la violence de genre jamais adoptée dans le pays. Cependant, en réponse aux réactions négatives d’organisations religieuses locales, la plupart des éléments les plus progressifs de cette législation ont été atténués. Le soutien initial du président Daniel Ortega et de ses alliés à la Loi 779 s’est réduit suite aux critiques des groupes conservateurs. Ce recul s’inscrit dans un conflit historique entre Ortega et les mouvements féministes, et une alliance avec les groupes religieux conservateurs du pays. Les implications de cette alliance vont bien au-delà des particularités de la Loi 779. La suppression de la dissidence et l’intégration d’idéologies religieuses au sein des institutions étatiques contribuent à créer un État patrimonial-autoritaire caractérisé par la personnification de l’autorité patriarcale, limitant très sévèrement les droits des femmes au Nicaragua.

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Entrées d’index

Palabras claves :

ley, género, patrimonialismo, violencia
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Notes de la rédaction

Texte reçu le 7 juillet 2017, accepté le 2 mars 2018.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Femicidio refers to the killing of a woman on the basis of her gender. Feminicidio (a term coined b (...)

1Like many parts of the world, Latin America is characterized by profound political and ideological disputes over the meaning of “family” and the content of rights granted to women [Htun, 2003; Gonzalez, 2012; Viterna, 2012]. For decades, feminists across the region have decried the culture of impunity that has failed to take seriously femicide and other violent crimes against women [Fregoso and Bejerano, 2010; Staudt, 2008; Walsh and Menjívar, 2016]. Indeed, recent statistics show that the Latin American continent is one of the most dangerous for women: for example, of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide, 14 are in Latin America [Small Arms Survey, 2016]. In Nicaragua, it is estimated that one out of every two women has experienced some form of violence in her lifetime. Over the last ten years, however, more than a dozen Latin American countries have passed new legislation criminalizing femicidio or feminicidio1 and expanding legal protections for women [ECLAC, 2014; Friedman, 2009]. Yet these legal gains have at times been met with forceful opposition, often from conservative and religious groups.

2Such is the case in Nicaragua, where a new comprehensive law against gender-violence (Ley 779) was passed in 2012. The product of sustained demand-making by women’s movements in the country, Ley 779 included a number of important new provisions. It criminalized femicide, expanded the definition of violence toward women to include psychological violence and the destruction of women’s property, and established specialized courts for gender-based violence cases. Most controversially, the law eliminated informal/nonbinding mediation agreements (previously used regularly by police) as a legal option for dealing with domestic violence cases. Ley 779 triggered an immediate backlash from Catholic and evangelical leaders in Nicaragua, who argued that the law was an attack on family values and discriminatory against men. Within two years, Ley 779 was substantially weakened through a series of legislative reforms and presidential decrees.

3In this article, I analyze the trajectory of Ley 779 as an example of what Htun and Weldon [2015, p. 452] call the “political institutionalization of religious authority.” Over the last ten years, current President Daniel Ortega’s co-optation of Nicaragua’s institutions, his intentional courting of prominent religious figures, and his use of a religiously-inflected discourse that elevates “family” over women, have marginalized women’s rights while providing a state-sanctioned platform for antifeminist religious ideologies. Coupled with the broader suppression of political dissent, these trends point to the emergence of a patrimonial-authoritarian state in Nicaragua, one that is increasingly immune from international pressure and accountability.

Gender, panic, and patrimonialism: conceptual points of departure

4In 2007, a group of Catholic bishops met in Aparecida, Mexico to discuss issues facing the church in Latin America. In a report issued following the gathering, the bishops declared: “It is indispensable to promote genuine family policies that respond to the rights of the family as indispensable social subject (sujeto social imprescindible)… Among the assumptions that weaken and undermine family life, we encounter the ideology of gender (ideología de género), according to which each person can choose their sexual orientation, without taking into account the differences given by human nature. This has led to legal modifications which seriously damage the dignity of marriage, respect for life, and the identity of the family.”

5The meeting of these Catholic bishops is just one small part of a global struggle over the meaning of “gender” and “family” [Bob, 2011; Buss and Herman, 2003]. As women’s rights have gained traction around the world, including in Latin America, they have spurred counter movements among religious groups concerned about the implications of what the bishops above referred to as the “ideology of gender.” Such counter mobilization on the part of religious actors often emerge as part of local cycles of “moral panic” [Cohen, 1972; Herdt, 2009]. To succeed, moral panics require at least three elements: a “suitable enemy”, a “suitable victim”, and a “consensus that the beliefs or actions being denounced were not insulated entities,” but rather part of a larger societal trend deemed dangerous [Cohen, 2002]. Feminists’legal victories in Nicaragua (most recently in the form of Ley 779) presented just such a threat. More specifically, local religious actors perceived some of the key elements and language utilized in Ley 779 to be an existential challenge to traditional notions of masculinity, femininity, sexuality, and the structure of the family.

6To understand how and why a law addressing gender violence could be perceived as a threat to the family requires a brief discussion of the conceptual framework of gender itself. One of the foundational premises of this framework is that men and women’s identities and roles in society are not biologically inevitable, but rather socially constructed and normatively enforced in ways that value masculinity over femininity [Acker, 1990; Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005]. Adopting this perspective of gender necessarily calls into question the fundamental assumption of patriarchal rule: the absolute right of men to wield power over women. By extension, recognizing the social malleability of gender means questioning the presumed ideal structure and definition of “family” for conservative and religious groups who treat the (heterosexual) family as the bedrock of society and the privileged subject of social concern, this is a problematic, if not unacceptable, proposition. As the mainstreaming of gender has expanded within both human rights and international development circles [Friedman, 2009; Merry, 2012], we have also witnessed a reinvigoration of groups which have historically defended traditional notions of the heterosexual family.

7Ideologies of gender are closely tied to the concept of patrimonialism. In a recent article analyzing patrimonialism in Brazil, Pereira [2016] neatly laid out some of the main characteristics of patrimonial states. Describing the classic Weberian standpoint, he writes: “a patrimonial state is based at least partly on traditional rather than rational-legal authority… an outgrowth of patriarchal rule.” Other aspects of patrimonial states include “arbitrary rule making” and a lack of “separation of the public and the private” [Pereira 2016, p. 1]. As Tercero [2003, p. 30] points out, these attributes of patrimonialism have long been part and parcel of Nicaraguan governance, perhaps most vividly apparent during the forty-three year Somoza family dictatorship, in which there was absolutely “no separation between the public good and the private good.” Tercero [2003] also compares the Somoza’s rule to that of former President Alemán, arguing that there are substantial similarities between the two regimes, particular in terms of their use of pact-making and coalition-building to maintain power and legitimacy while simultaneously engaging in large-scale acts of corruption. In this regard, President Ortega arguably represents a certain kind of continuity with his predecessors. Nevertheless, his seemingly contradictory behavior on women’s rights and his embrace of religious discourse after decades of antagonism toward the church warrants closer examination.

8While prior research on patrimonialism is valuable in terms of identifying the bureaucratic, political, and economic configurations that might be considered “patrimonial states,” and their consequences for democratic governance, crime, and/or economic development [Collins, 2011; Mainwaring, 1999], it leaves several questions unanswered. Of particular interest in this article is how patriarchal ideologies that are reproduced through patrimonial state structures. Understanding how such ideological scaffolding is used to justify and maintain patriarchal relations of rule is essential to its undoing. The political struggle over gender violence law in Nicaragua reveals how, in response to moral panic over an advancing feminist ideology, Ortega strategically adopted religious beliefs about the family and incorporated them into state structures in order to advance and justify his own family’s patrimonial rule.

9This article is part of a larger project examining women’s experiences with the legal justice system in Nicaragua, which included ten months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2012 and 2014, in-depth interviews, and a content analysis of over 400 newspaper articles concerning gender-based violence (2010 to 2015). For the purposes of this article, I draw primarily upon the content analysis portion of my research, supplemented by relevant ethnographic material that provides additional context and evidence for the argument.

Feminist movements, pact-making and Ortega’s consolidation of power

10In Nicaragua, the struggle between feminist and antifeminist forces is of particular interest because of how it coalesces with figures associated with the historic revolutionary left such as Daniel Ortega of the FSLN. The current stance of Ortega and his allies on gender-related issues—including, but not limited to, his intervention to weaken Ley 779—cannot be understood without a broader discussion of two important and inter-related facets of Nicaragua’s political history: (1) the role of pact-making [Puig and Wright, 2010; Tercero, 2003] and (2) Ortega’s relationship with the country’s women’s movement [Heumann, 2014; Kampwirth, 2008].

11In the early years of the Sandinista Revolution, the FSLN government supported (albeit at times reluctantly) a number of policies that improved women’s social and economic status. These policies included: equal custody rights, the right to alimony, the right to equal salaries, and a prohibition on discrimination against pregnant women [Chinchilla, 1990; Molyneux, 1985; Randall, 1992].

12However, the urgency of defending the nation against the U.S.-backed Contras in the mid-to-late 1980s led the Sandinista government to call upon women to set aside their own needs in order to enact their traditional roles as reproducers of the nation [Bayard do Volo, 2001]. As Heumann [2014, p. 297] notes in a recent analysis of gender and sexual politics in revolutionary Nicaragua, FSLN leaders questioned feminists’ “commitment and loyalty to the revolution by associating them with lesbianism—an even more stigmatized identity.” This, according to Heumann, resulted in a great deal of self-disciplining and self-silencing of feminists during the revolution. Although the revolution took some official positions in favor of the liberation of women, they simultaneously engaged in a “devaluation and rejection of the feminine” [Bayard de Volo, 2012; Lancaster, 1992; but see Montoya, 2003]. Women’s rights were, in practice, little more than “residual social policy” [Maclure and Sotelo, 2003]. Women’s frustrations with the FSLN’s privileging of traditional Marxist concerns over gender equality, coupled with the party’s loss in the 1990 presidential election, subsequently gave birth to an autonomous women’s movement in Nicaragua in 1992 [Delgado, 2003; Solís, 2013].

13One of the key feminist organizations formed during the early 1990s was the Red de Mujeres contra la Violencia (RMCV). The RMCV was an instrumental part of the broader coalition that successfully advocated for the passage of Nicaragua’s first domestic violence law in 1992, as well as the later establishment of specialized women’s police stations known as comisarías de la mujer in 1997 [Delgado, 2003; Jubb et al., 2008]. Other prominent women’s organizations in Nicaragua include: Movimiento de Mujeres Maria Elena Cuadra, SI Mujer, Movimiento Feminista de Nicaragua, Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres, as well as a number of smaller neighborhood-based collectives throughout the country. Over the last twenty-five years, these organizations have maintained a critical stance toward both the FSLN and its historic opposition, the PLC. Many of these women’s organizations have received international funding to support their advocacy efforts on sexual and reproductive rights, leading both PLC and FSLN-led administrations to accuse feminists of promoting an interventionist agenda (injerencista) that is not truly representative of Nicaraguan women [Solís, 2013]. Over the last two decades, feminist leaders also have been subjected to political threats, intimidation, and even physical attacks by surrogates of the PLC and FSLN [Kampwirth, 2012].

  • 2 Translation from Spanish by the author.
  • 3 Alemán’s presidential successor Enrique Bolaños (2001-2006) sought to distance himself from el pact (...)

14A critical juncture in the relationship between the FSLN and the feminist movement took place in 1998, when Ortega’s step-daughter Zoilamérica Narvaez accused him of sexual abuse. Both Ortega and Narvaez’s mother, Rosario Murillo, denied the accusations. Ortega first claimed parliamentary immunity and later escaped prosecution on a technicality [Aznárez, 2008]. Shortly thereafter, Ortega and then-president Arnoldo Alemán entered into an agreement known as el pacto, in which the two parties divvied up control of Nicaragua’s major institutions. As Tercero [2003, p. 34] writes, “the pact of domination between Ortega and Alemán opened the doors to corruption, guaranteed impunity through the intensification of the presidential regime, and the electoral exclusion of third parties.”2 Although the country continued to hold elections, in practical terms, el pacto marked the end of real electoral competition in Nicaragua.3

15Outraged by these blatant abuses of power, many women left the FSLN. One prominent feminist group, the Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres, was so disturbed by the possibility of Ortega’s return to power that they later eschewed their autonomous political stance to form an alliance with a splinter Sandinista party, the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista to oppose Ortega in the 2006 election [Lacombe, 2013].

  • 4 Ortega is not the only political leader in Nicaragua to rely on the Catholic Church for legitimacy (...)

16Ortega made no effort to win the support of these women’s organizations in the 2006 campaign. Instead, he adopted a message of political and familial unity and sought the support of powerful religious leaders.4 To emphasize his commitment to political unity, Ortega selected Jaime Morales Carazo, a man previously affiliated with the Contras, as his running mate [Tobar, 2006]. In an attempt to soften its historically militant image (reflected in its stark colors, the rojinegro), Ortega’s campaign billboards utilized bright pink and yellow hues [Kampwirth, 2008]. Ortega’s campaign also emphasized family unity, most dramatically symbolized in the marriage of Ortega and his long-time partner Rosario Murillo at a 2005 ceremony presided over by Ortega’s longtime adversary, Cardinal Obando y Bravo [Medina and González, 2016].

17At the height of the 2006 campaign, Ortega and Murillo publicly expressed their support for a complete ban on abortion; at the time, only “therapeutic abortions,” abortions to save the life of the pregnant woman, were permitted. In a public statement in August 2006, Murillo commented: “No to abortion, yes to life. Yes to religious beliefs, yes to the faith, yes to the search for God, which strengthens us every day to take up the path” [Radio La Primerísima, 2006]. Just two weeks before the election, in a complete about-face from its historic position, the National Assembly voted to ban abortion under all circumstances, a law which Ortega pledged to support (a promise he has kept, as of this writing). As Kampwirth [2008] has noted, it is doubtful that these decisions actually increased the level of public support for Ortega, who received just 38% of the vote in the 2006 election, barely enough to avoid a runoff against a divided opposition. However, the tenor of the campaign foreshadowed Ortega’ subsequent approach to governance, particularly on women’s rights.

18Upon taking office in 2007, Ortega took several steps to consolidate power at different levels of government. Following his oft-repeated refrain “el pueblo presidente,” one of Ortega’s first moves was to establish Consejos de Poder Ciudadano (Councils of Citizen Power) [Decree No. 112-2007], which were intended to give local communities a greater say in political decision-making. Under the leadership of Rosario Murillo (later named spokesperson for the government), the CPCs rapidly became highly partisan instruments, supplanting the authority of mayors and other city officials [Cerda, 2015].

19Ortega further solidified local control by working through the FSLN-controlled Supreme Electoral Council to manipulate the results of the 2008 municipal elections to favor the FSLN. In the months leading up to the election, “rezadores contra el odio” (prayers against hate) affiliated with the FSLN occupied Managua’s rotundas, allegedly to pray for peace in the election; in fact, their purpose was to inhibit movement and discourage counter-mobilizations against the government [Galeano, 2008]. FSLN candidates unwilling to pledge loyalty to Ortega were forcibly unseated or pressured to leave the FSLN, converting the party into an even more powerful vehicle for Ortega’s ambitions. The FSLN subsequently assumed control of more than 90 mayoral offices, including the hotly contested cities of Managua and Leon [Envío, 2008].

20Ortega’s quest to weaken his opposition and quell dissent extended from electoral politics to feminist organizations as well [Murillo, 2008]. In January 2009, the Attorney General’s office charged the Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres (MAM) with money laundering and supposed subversion of the “constitutional order” for funding groups that support women’s access to abortion [Galeano, 2009]. Though the charges were legally baseless, they represented a clear attempt to jeopardize the legal status (persona jurídica) of MAM and silence the voices of women who had been critical of Ortega [Martínez, 2008]. By contrast, Ortega took clear steps to win the favor of evangelicals during his term, inaugurating a monument and a park in honor of the bible, and granting dozens of land titles to build new churches [Protestante Digital, 2008]. Later that year, a Sandinista-majority Supreme Court nullified the constitutional prohibition on presidential re-election, clearing the way for Ortega to run again in 2011.5

21Ortega’s 2011 presidential campaign was marked by a continued focus on religious rhetoric. In the summer of 2011, during the celebration of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution (July 19th), Rosario Murillo referred to the festivities as “revolutionary mass” [Chamorro, 2011]. Ortega later adopted the campaign slogan “Christian, Socialist, Solidarity,” placing its religious identity ahead of its historically socialist one. Ortega and Murillo’s message has not only targeted Catholics, but also evangelicals. Although most Nicaraguans still profess Catholicism, there are also now approximately two million evangelicals in the country, belonging to dozens of different protestant denominations [Silva, 2015]. Evangelical groups hold a spectrum of political views, but at least one prominent evangelical group issued a public statement in support of Ortega during the 2011 campaign [Radio La Primerisíma, 2011].

  • 6 El Digital, 23 February 2015, “Seguridad Soberana es Nicaragua Unida en Fe, Familia y Comunidad”. A (...)

22One of the most high-profile stories during the 2011 campaign was that of a twelve-year-old girl who was raped and forced to endure an extremely dangerous pregnancy due to Nicaragua’s abortion ban. After the girl gave birth to the baby, Murillo called it “a miracle, a sign from God” [Salinas, 2011]. Incidents like this led women’s organizations to denounce the administration’s blatant disregard for the separation of church and state codified in Article 14 of the Nicaraguan Constitution. Ortega went on to win the 2011 election with 62% of the vote, with the FSLN winning 2/3 of the seats in the National Assembly. However, the electoral process was again marked by serious irregularities [Carter Center, 2011]. Since the 2011 election, both Ortega and Murillo have continued to emphasize the government’s goal of “strengthening the unity of the Nicaraguan family through Christian and solidarity practices.”6

  • 7 It bears noting that as president, Ortega has also taken some steps that could be interpreted as “p (...)

23In the midst of this political maelstrom, Nicaragua took what might seem like a surprising step: in 2012, it passed its most comprehensive law on gender-based violence, Ley 779.7 The next section analyzes the trajectory and content of Ley 779, and the backlash that followed.

The making and unmaking of Ley 779

  • 8 El Nuevo Diario, 20 October 2010, “Más de 12 mil firmas respaldan proyecto de ley a favor de mujere (...)
  • 9 Ibid.

24Concerned with rising rates of femicide and ongoing impunity for gender-based violence [Carrillo, 2010], local women’s organizations in Nicaragua began a grassroots campaign in early 2010 to draft a new law that would address important gaps in previous legislation. In September 2010, women’s organizations presented a draft law and a petition with over 12,000 signatures to the National Assembly.8 At the time, Wilfredo Navarro, a key member of the PLC, expressed support for the law. In a public statement, Navarro affirmed: “The struggle to punish those who violate the rights of women and defend the victims of violence does not have a political color or gender.”9

25Despite Navarro’s encouraging remarks, the women’s legislative proposal remained stuck in committee until 2011 while an inter-agency commission led by Nicaragua’s Supreme Court worked on its own separate draft law. The government commission included representatives from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Police, the Supreme Court, the Ministry of the Family, the National Women’s Institute, and the Ombudsman for Women’s Rights. In interviews, some feminist leaders told me that they believed the government’s rush to draft its own law was an attempt to co-opt their own efforts, and to eliminate a “victory” for the PLC.

26Once the two proposals were complete, according to longtime feminist activist Azahálea Solís [2013], the committee to which the draft laws were assigned “took the best of each,” resulting in a fusion of the two legislative proposals. Importantly, Solís also noted that at the time, the FSLN did not yet have an absolute majority in the National Assembly, making negotiations more feasible. The final bill, Ley Integral Contra La Violencia Hacia Las Mujeres (Ley 779), was passed by the legislature in January 2012, signed into law by President Ortega in February 2012, and went into effect in June 2012.

  • 10 In my interviews, women I spoke with frequently mentioned how mediation did not resolve their probl (...)

27Ley 779 criminalized femicide, expanded the legal definition of violence against women, established special prosecutors and courts to hear gender-based violence cases, and introduced new protections for female victims. One of the law’s most important provisions was the elimination of nonbinding mediation agreements. Prior to Ley 779, mediation was commonly used by Nicaraguan police to informally settle domestic violence cases, a practice that often put the lives of women in further jeopardy.10

28Even more significant than these specific provisions, however, were the broader principles set out in the law. Ley 779 shifted the country’s legal framework for addressing crimes against women by discarding the language of previous statutes which referred to “domestic violence” or “intrafamily violence” in favor of “gender-based violence” or “violence against women”. This language recognized the violence to which women are subjected on the basis of their gender, irrespective of marital or family status. Article I of Ley 779 states, in part, “The objective of the present law is to act against the violence committed against women to protect women’s human rights and guarantee them a life free of violence… promoting changes in socio-cultural and patriarchal patterns that sustain relations of power.” In addition to recognizing women’s human rights, the text of the law explicitly critiqued the system of male domination that normalizes gender-based violence. Article IV enumerated the fundamental principles undergirding the law, which included “real equality” (igualdad real) and “complete gender equality” (plena igualdad de género), a recognition of the substantial gap between women’s de jure and de facto status and rights.

  • 11 Fieldnotes, July 2012.

29Despite these lofty goals, the passage of Ley 779 in 2012 did not lead to any notable reallocation of resources to fund the comisarías or other enforcement institutions. In fact, just weeks before Ley 779 was scheduled to go into effect, there was no budget to fund most of its major mandates, such as additional state prosecutors and courts specializing in gender violence. “Ley 779 without a budget is like rice and beans without the beans!” proclaimed a banner sponsored by local feminist groups in Managua.11

30When the details of the law became known, it sparked a sustained backlash from conservatives, religious leaders, and some local attorneys. Textually, the specific provision that generated the most controversy was the ban on mediation. However, this narrow critique quickly spiraled into a broader moral panic over Ley 779’s potential impact on the family. For example, Rev. Saturino Cerrato, President of the local Assembly of God church, claimed that the Ley 779 would “destroy marriage and the family” because it no longer permitted mediation.12 These concerns about the family were intricately tied to men’s privileged position therein. Representatives of the local Episcopal Conference called Ley 779 both “an attack on evangelical values” and a statute that “leaves men without rights.”13 Monseñor Silvio Fonseca, from the Archdiocese of Managua, added, “[Ley 779] tilts the balance towards women and leaves men unprotected.” One bishop compared Ley 779 to “the number of the beast,” a biblical reference to the devil.14

31In July 2012, a formal legal challenge to Ley 779 was filed with the Nicaraguan Supreme Court. In addition to the concerns over mediation, the other main objection to Ley 779 were the special tribunals established for gender-based violence cases, which opponents claimed discriminated against men. Attorneys involved in the litigation was quoted in the local press, saying: “[This law] represents revenge against men, hatred of men… the Penal Code establishes sanctions of conduct, not people.”15 Danilo Martinez, President of Nicaragua’s Association of Democratic Lawyers (Adanic), summarized the legal challenge in this way: “we consider the individual guarantees for men in Nicaragua have been suspended in a partial way. Men are in an undeclared state of emergency” [Chamorro and Gallegos, 2013].

32Although the constitutional challenge was based on the alleged argument that Ley 779 violated the constitutional principle of equality under the law, beneath the legal arguments lay a much broader concern: the inclusion of a “gender perspective” into the law. For example, Adanic President Danilo Martinez argued that “legislators should have an integral perspective on violence, not a gender perspective, because violence is not exclusive to the male sex” (emphasis mine) [Gallegos, 2013]. Another member of Adanic, Chester Membreño, went further. In an opinion piece published in June 2013, Membreño wrote: “[Ley 779] is a product of an assault of radical international feminism that encourages women to abandon their husbands in other to later legalize aberrant same-sex unions or homosexual marriage.”16

33What the comments from both religious leaders and conservative attorneys make evident is that the objections to Ley 779 were rooted in a moral panic over the perceived consequences of incorporating a gender perspective into the law. From their point of view, incorporating feminist ideas into local jurisprudence was the first step toward the supposed destruction of “the (heterosexual) family” and the normalization of same-sex relationships. Conservative and religious leaders blamed these undesirable (to them) potential outcomes on the infiltration of so-called “radical international feminism,” an ahistorical proposition that ignored more than 30 years of local feminist mobilization in Nicaragua. Yet a similar position has been adopted by the Ortega government as well, which, like its predecessors, has sought to discredit local feminists as “outsiders” peddling a suspicious foreign agenda [Kampwirth, 2006; Murillo, 2008]. So widespread was this narrative that Azahálea Solis [2013], a longtime feminist activist and human rights lawyer, made it a special point of emphasis in her public defense of Ley 779. “Ley 779 is a law with history—it is not a prepackaged or imported law,” she said.

34In August 2013, the Supreme Court upheld Ley 779 as constitutional, with the caveat that the National Assembly would need to revise the prohibition on mediation. Despite the opposition of local and international human rights organizations, the National Assembly responded by drafting a modified law that permitted mediation under the following conditions: (a) the accused has no prior legal offenses, (b) the alleged crime was classified as a “minor offense” with a carceral penalty of five years or less, (c) the women agrees of her own volition to mediate, (d) no previous mediation has occurred between the two parties, and (e) mediation is conducted and documented by the attorney general’s office or a judge. The modified law passed with overwhelming approval: 83 for, 4 against, 1 abstain [Carranza, 2013].

35Had the dispute over Ley 779 been solely about the matter of mediation, the 2013 reform would have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Even after the revised law had passed, complaints about Ley 779 continued to dominate local news coverage, with concerns ranging from overcrowded prisons due to an increase in men convicted under Ley 779 to the so-called destruction of the family. Women’s organizations continued to protest the use of mediation in gender-based violence cases, but their appeals were ignored. In defense of the reincorporation of mediation, Chief Justice Alba Luz Ramos later claimed that the reform was necessary because of a provision of the Organic Law of the Judicial Power which requires that the opportunity for mediation be provided prior to any judicial action [Le Lous, 2015].

36One clear sign that the political struggle over Ley 779 was not over came in early July 2014 when the Nicaraguan police released a report stating that 18 femicides had been committed during the first half of 2014 [Membreño, 2014]. This report drew the attention of local feminist organizations because the number of femicides was far lower than the 47 they had documented independently. Feminist activists I spoke to at the time were convinced that the police were not counting femicides accurately because the Ortega government had plans to further modify the law.

37The feminists were right. In late July 2014, President Ortega unexpectedly issued a special decree (Decreto 42-2014) containing a new reglamento or set of regulations for the implementation of Ley 779, months after such regulations would have been constitutionally permitted. First, the decree redefined the objective of Ley 779 as “to strengthen Nicaraguan families… [and] a culture of familial harmony.” Second, it reduced the scope of femicide (originally encompassing the killing of women in either the public or private sphere) to include only the killings of women committed in the home in the context of a pre-existing relationship. Third, it shifted the responsibility for implementing Ley 779 from an interinstitutional commission to the Ministry of the Family.

38The decree mandated the establishment of neighborhood-based counseling for women victims as an obligatory first step to resolving “family conflict” via mediation prior to placing a legal complaint with the police. According to the decree, these counseling groups would be led by the same individuals already active in the FSLN-controlled Cabinets of the Family (the reformulation of the CPCs) as well as pastors and other religious leaders. If neighborhood level mediation was unsuccessful, the case would be referred to the Ministry of the Family and only afterwards to the police once all other remedies were exhausted [Romero and Vásquez, 2014]. Other elements of the new neighborhood counseling structure included door-to-door home visits and a “values school” [Carranza, 2014].

39Interestingly, the incorporation of religious leaders into the new protocol sparked the first pushback from pastors and priests about Ortega’s actions concerning Ley 779. In a public statement, Bishop Silvio Báez of Managua noted that he had never offered to be a mediator in cases of violence against women [Alvarez and Chamorro, 2014]. In a similar fashion, Bishop René Sándigo, president of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, declared, “We are not police, we are not judges, we are the church” [Chamorro, 2014]. However, their objections were based on concerns over “becoming auxiliaries of the police and the prosecutors,” not a critique of neighborhood-based mediation itself. To the contrary, Bishop Báez described mediation as a way of assuring that “marriages would not fall apart so easily” [Alvarez, 2014].

40Unlike in 2012 and 2013, this time the concerns of prominent religious leaders went unheeded. Instead, the Supreme Court publicly defended the new regulations. According to Chief Justice Alba Luz Ramos, “the regulations aren’t modifying any of the penal types established by the law” [Vasquéz, 2014]. Changing the definition of femicide, Justice Ramos maintained, was irrelevant because crimes not prosecuted as femicides would instead proceed under the charge of murder, which carried just as severe of a penalty. “A dead woman is a dead woman. In the end it doesn’t matter what it’s called,” Justice Ramos added [Poder Judicial, 2014]. Feminists challenged Ramos’ position, arguing that it served to re-invisibilize violent crimes against women and their root cause, misogyny [Vásquez, 2016].

  • 17 Fieldnotes, August 2014.

41In August 2014, I joined local feminist groups for a march to protest the presidential decrees and honor the lives of women killed in recent years. Just before dusk, we gathered at an iconic rotunda near Managua’s former commercial center to march toward the National Assembly. Dressed in black and carrying small candles and photos of women victims, the women activists walked in single file down the center of a historic boulevard that leads to the city’s recently redeveloped lakefront. As we approached a major intersection, we encountered a line of men dressed in dark blue polo shirts and Sandinista baseball caps blocking our way. Some women leaders argued with the police who were also there, while others recorded the incident on their cameras. “Why can’t we pass through? We have the right to freely mobilize,” one woman shouted. “Our rights are being violated!” But the police stood their ground and refused to let us march any further.17 At another feminist gathering, one woman described Ortega’s actions as being “like that of a monarch inspired by God, on whose goodwill rests the well-being of the people” [Fernández, 2014].

42In October 2014, I attended the inauguration ceremony for the Ministry of the Family’s new counseling office at a comisaría in Managua. When I arrived at the comisaría that morning, colorful banners such as “In love there is no fear” were being hung under a small white tent outside the building. One police officer welcomed everyone to the “comisaría of the family and the community” (a clear discursive change from its official institutional name, which is Comisaría of Women and Children). In her remarks, the Director of the Ministry of the Family, Marcía Ramírez, commented, “This is the beginning of a path containing many challenges as we struggle to eradicate the scourge of violence and strengthen the family as the nucleus of society” (emphasis mine).

43Following several speeches, the captain of the comisaría invited those in attendance to tour the comisaría’s updated facilities, which had been freshly painted and decorated with balloons. One wall featured a large bulletin board with several posters. One poster said, “A family united in the love of Christ lasts forever. Give God control of your family today and always.” Another featured a black and white drawing likening the ideal relationship between parents and children to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, known in Christian theology as the Holy Trinity. By the end of 2015, family counseling offices had been established in most municipalities in the country, while in stark contrast, women’s police stations were on the verge of being shut down completely.

44In November 2016, Ortega won his third consecutive election, this time with Rosario Murillo as his running mate. Earlier that year, Murillo had spoken about the “divine mission” of the Ortega government, language that offended several religious leaders [Alvarez, 2016]. Local and international observers questioned the legitimacy of the election results, pointing to the unconstitutionality of Murillo’s candidacy, the exclusion of a major political party, and high levels of voter abstention [Cerda, 2016; Lakhani, 2016]. In the lead-up to the election, even the Episcopal Conference criticized Ortega for his moves to create a one-party state [Mendieta, 2016]. By this time, however, Ortega and Murillo seemed beholden to no one.

Gender and patrimonial authoritarianism in Nicaragua

45Over the last fifteen years, Nicaragua has witnessed a massive slippage between its political party organizations and state institutions [Puig and Wright, 2010]. Even more so, it has witnessed the consolidation of political and economic power by Daniel Ortega and his family, who in classic patrimonial fashion, now treat the entire nation as though it were “their own household” [Tercero, 2003]. This process has necessarily implied marginalizing opposing voices, particularly those of women’s organizations which historically have been one of the most important political counterweights to the governing party and are now cast as outside agitators. In Ortega’s Nicaragua, women are welcome to be part of the revolution—the “divine mission,” as Rosario Murillo called it—as long as they accept Ortega’s divine (and therefore implicitly unlimited) right to rule.

46To accomplish this consolidation of power, Ortega not only needed to fill government positions with political allies, which he did; he also needed an ideological scaffolding that would neutralize potential opposition and legitimate his right to rule. Adopting and manipulating religious fundamentalist rhetoric, and selectively granting favors to conservative religious leaders, effectively served this purpose. Christian teaching on the importance of the family and men and women’s appropriate roles therein—and the moral panic over the ever-encroaching “ideology of gender” embodied in Ley 779—conveniently dovetailed with Ortega’s own political project of maintaining himself in power as the imagined “father of the nation.”

  • 18 See Maclure and Sotelo [2003] for a similar example of conservative political backlash following th (...)

47The fact that Ortega has maintained a family-centric religious discourse since casting his lot with el pacto (and especially since 2005) makes clear that the undermining of Ley 779 discussed in this article was not a sudden aberration in any way. Rather, it was the passage of a progressive gender violence law in the first place that did not fit the pattern. Feminists’ momentary achievement stemmed from a unique constellation of political conditions, the most important of which was the controversy surrounding the 2008 and 2011 elections which created a temporary legitimacy crisis for the Ortega government. As soon as the backlash to Ley 779 began, that window of opportunity promptly vanished.18

48When religious leaders initially expressed their opposition to Ley 779 due to concerns over “family unity”, Ortega strategically mobilized their concerns in order to further his own objectives. This is most vividly reflected in Ortega’s reaction to priests’ objections to being incorporated into the neighborhood counseling groups established by the 2014 presidential decree. The purpose for integrating religious leaders into these groups was not in fact to grant power to churches, but rather to reinforce the hegemonic beliefs that enable and normalize patriarchal rule in the first place. In other words, family-centric religious discourse has become the ideological scaffolding that Ortega employs to justify his family’s own continued rule over the nation.

49The consequences of this patrimonial-authoritarian state are felt by numerous groups throughout society, but especially by women. Religious ideas about the family are now being explicitly promoted by the country’s legal and political institutions as a justification for weakening laws against gender violence and discouraging women from reporting violence or seeking help from the comisaría. The all-encompassing focus on “the family” has sidelined women’s individual needs and interests by promoting the idea that women should sacrifice their own well-being for the higher purpose of “family unity.”

50Expecting women in Nicaragua to sacrifice themselves for others—whether that be the family, the party, the revolution, or the nation—is not new. Contained within these recent calls for unity and harmony are echoes of the rhetoric that the FSLN used back in the 1980s to marginalize feminist demands [Heumann, 2014]. When women’s organizations opted for political independence rather than absolutely loyalty, Ortega reacted by linking arms with the right-leaning PLC instead of responding to women’s concerns. As feminist ideas blossomed throughout Latin America, women in Nicaragua found inspiration and support from allies abroad that became a source of intensifying political criticism at home, long before Ortega’s return to the presidency. Yet since 2007, the spaces for feminists and other dissenting groups to contest hegemonic patriarchal discourses and present counter-narratives containing alternative visions of society are increasingly limited. Although the government appeared to take a step in the right direction with the passage of Ley 779 in 2012, since that time, the Ortega government has reversed course entirely, presenting an image of forced harmony rather than address the root causes of gender-based violence.

51Ortega’s political alliance with religious organizations and his appropriation of Christian language and doctrine has bolstered considerably the power of antifeminist groups and ideologies in Nicaragua. Given these realities, the foreseeable future for Nicaragua’s women’s movements and other forms of political resistance within this patrimonial-authoritarian state appears bleak, as breaking the syncretistic connections between church, party, and state will require a significant realignment of political forces in Nicaragua.

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1 Femicidio refers to the killing of a woman on the basis of her gender. Feminicidio (a term coined by Mexican feminist and legislator Marcela Lagarde) extends this definition to emphasize the responsibility of the state for perpetuating these crimes against women in contexts of high impunity.

2 Translation from Spanish by the author.

3 Alemán’s presidential successor Enrique Bolaños (2001-2006) sought to distance himself from el pacto, which made it nearly impossible for him to govern [Tercero, 2003].

4 Ortega is not the only political leader in Nicaragua to rely on the Catholic Church for legitimacy and support. Former presidents Alemán (1997-2001) and Bolaños (2001-2006) did so as well [Tercero, 2003].

5 The Guardian, 20 October 2009. Available at:

6 El Digital, 23 February 2015, “Seguridad Soberana es Nicaragua Unida en Fe, Familia y Comunidad”. Available at:

7 It bears noting that as president, Ortega has also taken some steps that could be interpreted as “progressive,” including granting legal recognition to a sex workers’ union, and strengthening women’s access to land ownership in rural and urban areas. In general, however, these policies are ones that do not fundamentally threaten his political alliance with conservative religious groups.

8 El Nuevo Diario, 20 October 2010, “Más de 12 mil firmas respaldan proyecto de ley a favor de mujeres”, available at:

9 Ibid.

10 In my interviews, women I spoke with frequently mentioned how mediation did not resolve their problems but often escalated the violence to which they were subjected. In addition, according to data collected by Nicaraguan feminist organizations, approximately 30 % of the cases in which mediation occurred ended in femicide (fieldnotes, 2014).

11 Fieldnotes, July 2012.

12 La Prensa, 19 April 2013, “Ley destruye matrimonios”, available at:

13 El Nuevo Diario, 18 March 2013. “Polémica por Ley contra violencia a las mujeres”, avalaible at:

14 La Prensa, 7 May 2013. “Obispo Mata compara ley 779 con anticristo”

15 El Nuevo Diario, 19 April 2013. “Asambleas de Dios critican la Ley 779.”

16 La Prensa, 18 June 2013, “La Ley 779 y los abogados democráticos”. Available at:

17 Fieldnotes, August 2014.

18 See Maclure and Sotelo [2003] for a similar example of conservative political backlash following the passage of progressive legislation on children’s rights.

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Pamela Neumann, « Gender-based violence and the patrimonial state in Nicaragua: The rise and fall of Ley 779 », Cahiers des Amériques latines, 87 | 2018, 69-90.

Référence électronique

Pamela Neumann, « Gender-based violence and the patrimonial state in Nicaragua: The rise and fall of Ley 779 », Cahiers des Amériques latines [En ligne], 87 | 2018, mis en ligne le 25 octobre 2018, consulté le 21 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cal.8515

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Pamela Neumann

Pamela Neumann est postdoctorante au Stone Center for Latin American Studies à l’université de Tulane aux États-Unis. Elle s’intéresse aux questions de genre au Nicaragua et ses travaux ont été publiés dans les revues Gender & Society, Social Forces, et Latin American Politics & Society.

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