Saturday, June 26, 2010


Some background information on abortion in Nicaragua from a recent article I read:
“Amnesty International has accused the Nicaraguan government of "chilling indifference" to the rights of women and girls in its refusal to allow any exceptions to its blanket ban on abortion.
The Nicaraguan law means that even under-age girls who are raped or who are the victims of incest are forced to bear any child they may conceive or risk their life or imprisonment by seeking an illegal abortion. A United Nations human rights working group recommended Nicaragua should change the law, but the country has refused. The total ban was introduced in 2006. Nicaragua is one of four countries that forbid all abortion - the others are El Salvador, Chile and Malta.”

Nicaragua, like most Latin American countries, is mainly Catholic, so views on abortion and condom use follow traditional religious beliefs. Once I saw a mural on a church which depicted Jesus holding a bloody fetus with the words “Abortion is murder.” During my time here, I have had intimate contact with two women who found themselves pregnant within this culture which denies abortion, yet at the same time does not promote family planning.

During Peace Corps training, my 33 year-old host sister “Maria” found out she was pregnant. She already was the single mother of a four year old daughter, and the father of her coming baby was her current “hidden boyfriend.” Hiding a relationship is common here, where official permission from parents is not given easily. Young lovers will meet up in the streets at night, having sex in alleyways, cemeteries and underneath soccer stadium bleachers – anywhere semi-private. Maria was so worried about her mother finding out, I had to buy the pregnancy test for her at the pharmacy and for a few weeks was her only confidant. This pregnancy was unplanned – she earned just U$75/month as a preschool teacher and her boyfriend was unemployed. There was barely enough space in my host family’s current home to fit the current members, and adding another mouth to feed would stretch their very limited resources. I’m not sure if abortion was legal in Nicaragua, she would have gone through with it. We never talked about it, but I could see the panic in her eyes when she told me her test came back positive. “My mother will kill me! She’ll throw me out on the street again, just like before when I was pregnant with my first daughter.” (Yes, these are words coming out of a 33-year-old’s mouth). She says she never used condoms because she had pena (shame) to buy them at the pharmacy, and her boyfriend didn’t like to use them. I tried to support her emotionally and she eventually told the family and secretly marrying her boyfriend after I moved out of their home to my new community. The baby was born last October, and despite her initial anger, Maria’s mother has accepted the new little boy with open arms. They are scraping by, selling chicken and horse feed from their home, and my host sister has still not moved out of her mother’s house.

In my current community, another close friend, 23 year-old “Lucia” came to me in panic asking if Peace Corps had any information on abortions. I was taken aback – due to Nicaraguan laws, abortion was normally a taboo subject, and I knew Lucia came from a “good Catholic family.” When I explained to her that Peace Corps can’t give her any information and that while yes, abortion is legal in the U.S., there’s nothing she can do here in Nicaragua. Lucia and I had previously had long conversations about family planning and condoms, when she came to me in shame asking about abortions, I could see how difficult it was for her. Peace Corps warns us about this: after educating so many youth and young people on the necessity of condom use and birth control, there will still always be a few who don’t follow through and either end up pregnant or with an STD. Behavior change is a complicated phenomenon and there are many factors that can inhibit the implementation of new behaviors – in the case of family planning, culture, religion and Latin machismo being some of them. Lucia explained that she hadn’t used a condom with her boyfriend (also a “secret” relationship) since they had so much “trust” with each other, she didn’t see the need. Once again, I was Lucia’s only confidant and she was terrified to tell her family and lose her reputation.

Weeks later, Lucia came to me saying that she had investigated getting an illegal abortion at a gynecologist in a nearby city. The cost was U$300 – an unthinkable amount for her or her boyfriend to pay. She was torn emotionally and finally told her mother about the pregnancy in order to obtain money from her to carry out the abortion. I was surprised when she told me this since I knew her family was Catholic. Apparently, religious values took second place when a crisis of this nature falls upon this family.

Even after she had the money, Lucia vacillated on whether or not to carry out the abortion. I didn’t know what to say to her, and simply served as a listening board. She was well along in her pregnancy (in the second trimester I think) when she finally decided to go through with the illegal abortion. It sounded like a horrible procedure – Lucia had to take medicine to induce labor and had to “give birth.” It was a day-long affair and she returned looking weak, pale and with a vacant stare. She refused to talk about it. She started to lie in bed all day long, never having enough energy to talk or go out of the house.

When I first moved to my community, I was taken aback by Lucia’s vibrant personality and her passion for life. She studied in the university in Managua, traveling back and forth bi-weekly. She was uniquely independent for a Nicaraguan woman, didn’t like to tie herself down with a “serious boyfriend,” and liked to travel around the country meeting new people. I felt like she was the one Nicaraguan woman that I could relate to; we would sit and chat about traveling, dancing, and politics. She had a mind that was thirsty to learn about the world. After her illegal abortion however, she slipped into a deep depression. She was weak and listless and ended up dropping out of the university, of which she was in her last year. A few weeks after the abortion, she suffered a hemorrhage which made her even weaker. I was worried about her health and her refusal to talk about what had happened to her. It was the elephant in the room; everyone knew what had happened in her family and I did as well, but we never discussed it.

When I moved to my new house, I stopped having much contact with Lucia and we didn’t see each other much. Last week however, I heard a rumor that she was pregnant again. I went to investigate and saw a noticeable bump under her shirt. She was seven months along. She got pregnant in the same year she had the abortion and this time was keeping the baby. The father was the same boyfriend. I didn’t go into details with her; she was visibly ashamed to break the news to me of her new pregnancy. She knew that I worked every day to promote contraceptives and here she was - one of my close friends, pregnant right after an abortion.

I’m not sure why she decided to keep this baby. Maybe she didn’t have enough money for another abortion. Maybe she couldn’t emotionally go through with another. She is due in a few weeks. She has no job and her boyfriend does seasonal work on a delivery truck. She says that he wants her to move in with his family in their house nearby. I struggle to talk to Lucia these days. Whenever I look at her, all I see are lost opportunities. I see the exuberant girl that I met in my first days in my community, the girl who knowledgably told me everything about Nicaraguan idioms and her university life. The girl who seemed so sophisticated – she didn’t belong in this small town, I had thought. Now, Lucia will end up just like her mother and her older sister – a young mother with no education to support her children on her own. She will rely on her family or her boyfriend’s family since he is deciding to “recognize” the child as his own, as they say here in Nicaragua.

I am not pro-abortion, but I do favor a woman’s right to choose. The fact that Nicaragua makes all abortion illegal is a roadblock to this country’s development. When girls and women cannot make their own decision about whether to give birth after an unplanned pregnancy, or even rape or incest (both common here) – they often fall deeper into the cycle of poverty. Their children grow up in single-parent homes and struggle through life. Women may sell their bodies or take their young children out of school to work instead. As I learned through Lucia, even though abortions are officially illegal, women will always find a way to get them done, and an illegal procedure often means a dangerous one. While Lucia’s hemorrhage didn’t prove serious, other women might not be so lucky. While the Catholic Church opposes abortion on the premise that all life is sacred, I believe that God wants children to come into loving homes that plan for them, and if family planning can facilitate that, then the church should be supporting rather than banning condoms.

I hope the Nicaraguan government will stop wishful thinking and realize that allowing legal early-term abortions is a step towards guaranteeing the human rights and preventing poverty that the subjugated female population of this country so desperately need.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Illegal Immigration

There’s a new fancy house being built on the next block, someone is adding a few bedrooms onto their existing home, my neighbors have bought a new pick-up truck, a new restaurant is being constructed, and my friend Alba just started classes this year at a nearby private university. What do all of these events have in common? They are all being funded by remittances: money sent back to Nicaragua by relatives living abroad, mainly in the United States, Spain and Costa Rica.

This money is a type of “unofficial development assistance,” that the U.S. inadvertently gives to hundreds of countries around the world. According to a book I’m currently reading, Forgotten Continent: The battle for Latin America’s soul by Michael Reid, more than 25 million Latin Americans are thought to live outside their own country. “People have become an important export for some Latin American countries: remittances totaled some $62 billion in 2006…This figure exceeded the combined flows of foreign direct investment and official development aid to the region.” I’ve observed that most Nicaraguan families who are well off, own businesses, have nice homes, or own vehicles, have a family member sending them money from a developed country.
Above: a typical Nicaraguan home in the country.
Below: a home being constructed by a family with remittances from the U.S. Notice a difference??

Husbands and brothers usually make the journey abroad to work for a few years; leaving wives, girlfriends and/or children behind while they go mojado (illegally) - (literally, mojado means “wet.” The saying come from the idea that when clandestinely crossing a border made by a river or other body of water, you would get wet). They work in whatever they can; cleaning boats in Louisiana, milking cows in Michigan, childcare in Florida, waiting tables in California, cleaning office buildings in New York… I hear the stories of these illegal immigrants from their family members as I talk with my neighbors. It seems surprisingly easy to get into the States illegally, and once there, they will work in anything for very little money. Going legally is often out of the question; the time consuming, confusing and competitive American visa application process deters many Nicaraguans who barely have enough money for the bus ride to Managua to visit the U.S. Embassy.

Most people go abroad for 2-5 years without any visits home. In my community, I see children growing up without fathers or mothers, only recognizing the face on the web camera when they video chat with their parent at the internet café once a month. The wives men leave behind usually remain faithful; overseeing construction of the new house they will share when their husband returns, and taking care of the children. These men, on the other hand, usually find girlfriends abroad and when they return, may bring back an STD or HIV/AIDS – if they return at all. During their stay in the States, they rarely learn English, choosing not to enroll in classes or socialize with Americans to avoid risk of deportation. They live in constant fear of being caught and their lives consist of little more than work and sleep. While it may be surprisingly easy for them to get to the States, once there, the policies are not in place to help integrate them in to American society: teach them English, give them temporary work Visas (most only want to work for a few years to build up money to build a house and then go back to their native land), and make them taxpayers or even American citizens.

While the Nicaraguan leftist President Daniel Ortega warns against the ills of capitalism and the United States’ evil ways (most recently criticizing Arizona’s infamous immigration reform and the BP oil leak), paradoxically, thousands of Nicaragua’s residents flee their native land in search of economic prosperity in capitalistic, democratic countries. Even loyal socialist Sandinistas will gladly accept money sent from relatives in the States.

Growing up in Alaska, I saw little of the volatile immigration debate that is currently gripping the U.S. Immigrants in my community mainly came from the Philippines and were there legally. I can’t imagine how some illegal immigrants must live and the prejudice they must put up with in order to give their family a better chance. The money they send back funds university educations, better homes, and food for their families. I live comfortably in this country for about U$250/month, so it doesn’t take much. Many Americans are willing to donate money to non-profit and relief organizations to aid developing countries, but when that “aid” comes from illegal workers in the U.S., the attitude suddenly changes. It seems like an odd situation: we can either give a developing country money with no real payment in return through “official development assistance,” or we can give people from these countries temporary work visas and at least get something out of our economic exchange – their work.

Everyone wants to ignore the fact that immigration exists: that the leftist government of Nicaragua is still highly critical of capitalism, and the U.S. refuses to reform immigration and acknowledge the existence of these illegal immigrants, many of whom fill important roles in our economy, all without paying taxes.

I know I’m not an expert in immigration policy, I only know what I see on a daily basis and what I read in the headlines while I’m at the internet café. I hope that future U.S. immigration reform, if it comes to pass, will take into account the opinions of both American citizens as well as legal and illegal immigrants. Here in Nicaragua, I see the families on the other side of many of those illegal immigrants – the human side of those dark-skinned men and women you see doing yard work, cleaning homes and washing dishes. They have families to care for just like everyone in the U.S., and they are searching for the American dream just like our ancestors did.