For the third straight year, Nicaragua ranked 5th in the world for gender parity in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, scoring just below Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden, and ahead of New Zealand, Ireland, Spain and Germany.
Rwanda, which ranked 9th, was the only other developing country to crack the top ten in the 2020 report. It’s an impressive ranking for Nicaragua, which ranked 90th in 2007. But behind the rankings is a far more complicated picture of the status of women and gender relations in Nicaragua.
The Global Gender Gap Index has been tracking progress in closing gender-based gaps across four dimensions since 2006. Specifically, the Index measures gaps in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.
The index is designed to measure women’s positions compared to men in their own country rather than the status of women compared to women in other countries. Thus, despite what rankings might suggest, the report does not claim that the status of Nicaraguan women is better than or on par with other countries in the top ten. Yet headlines such as Nicaragua in Fifth Position For Gender Equality in the World or Nicaragua, the world’s unlikely champion of gender equality suggest otherwise.
Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, broke into the top ten in 2012, thanks in part to social programs and policies implemented by the Ortega administration. The elimination of school fees and the introduction of lunch programs helped to boost primary school enrollment, while a 2007 literacy campaign boosted the literacy rate by approximately six points.
In 2020 Nicaragua was tied for first place in Educational Attainment, which measures ratios of female to male school enrollments and the female to male literacy rate. While more girls than boys are enrolled in school in primary school in Nicaragua, fewer are enrolled in secondary school. Moreover, secondary school enrollments for both sexes, which the report lists as 52% for boys and 44% for girls, were lower than the regional average.
Nicaragua is also tied for first place for Health and Survival, which is measured by life expectancy and sex ratio at birth. Life expectancy and sex ratios may tell us something about gender parity on those indicators, but they do little to illuminate the very real health and survival issues faced by Nicaraguan women. Nicaragua has high rates of gender-based violence. As many as half of Nicaraguan women experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes. According to the United Nations Population Fund, Nicaragua has the second highest rate of adolescent pregnancies in Latin America.
Almost 30% of women give birth before age 18, and half of those are in girls ages 10-14. Many of these pregnancies are the result of sexual assault. In fact, more than 80% of sexual violence victims in Nicaragua are 16 or younger. Women and girls lack the freedom to make decisions on their reproductive health. Abortion, previously legal for limited health reasons, was made illegal in November 2006. While Nicaragua’s maternal mortality rate has improved in recent years, it remains high. According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), 20% of all maternal deaths were adolescent mothers.
Nicaragua ranked third for political empowerment, a score comprised of women in parliament, women in ministerial positions, years with female head of state over past 50 years. Nicaragua’s vice presidency and more than half of cabinet positions, including traditionally male positions such as the defense minister, are occupied by women. Due to an electoral law on gender quotas passed in 2012, 45% of seats in the legislature and 42.5% of mayoral offices are held by women.
In 2008, only 8.6% of mayors were women. These are important strides in increasing women’s representation in government, but has that increase in women in elected office translated into policies that improve the lives of women? Certainly there have been social programs implemented in recent years that have targeted women, such as the Zero Usuary (microfinance) and Zero Hunger programs, but there are deeper structural issues that impede gender equality.
While women’s political representation was expanding, there appeared to be little political will to address deeply-entrenched gender-based norms. In 2012 the Law Against Violence Against Women, commonly referred to as Law 779, was touted as a sweeping law against gender-based violence. Not only did the law recognize femicide as a crime, but it also recognized the unequal power relations between men and women and included both economic and psychological violence in its definition of gender-based violence.
Under pressure from the religious leaders, provisions in the law were struck down by courts. Other key provisions had no budget. Two years later, a presidential decree weakened the law by emphasizing family units over the rights of women. In 2016 the country’s women-only police stations (comisarías), which were specifically charged with investigating violence against women, were closed.
Gender biases also persist in the economic sector. Land ownership, despite a 2010 law on funding the purchase of land for rural women, remains heavily concentrated in the hands of men. Like Law 779 and the comisarías, the land fund was poorly funded. The economic gap between Nicaraguan men and women is the highest in Central America. Not only do women earn far less than men, but they remain segregated in the labor market. For these reasons, Nicaragua ranks 81st on the report’s Economic Participation and Opportunity dimension.
Data can be incredibly useful in illuminating both progress and challenges in the struggle for gender equality, but select indicators alone rarely convey the full story. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap rankings create a false impression of progress in many countries, including Nicaragua. This gap between ranking and reality obscures the very real struggles faced by women in countries like Nicaragua, where structural discrimination and gender-based violence persist.
This article was originally published in Agenda Publica (in Spanish).