Jinotepe, Nicaragua – Watching nervously for paramilitaries on motorcycles that stalked 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.
Since her sons lost their jobs, Lesage’s family has plunged into poverty, her carpenter husband unable to find work in Nicaragua’s 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, the portraits of her jailed sons on a nearby shelf, said she believed “the dictator” should be removed “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, 700 in jail and 62,000 in exile, Nicaragua’s women have faced “dramatic consequences”, helping fuel the opposition, analysts and activists say.
The crisis has affected women in myriad ways. Some lost their children, others struggled financially after their husbands were forced to flee, and some were fired from teaching or healthcare jobs as a result of the protests.
Women were also playing 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.
They ranged from Azalea Solis, a top figure in the Civic Alliance opposition group, to 21-year-old Madelaine Caracas, who became famous after she read out the names of the deceased after Ortega denied there had been student killings in reconciliation talks last year.
“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,” said Caracas, who spoke to Al Jazeera and whose actions led to threats of death and rape, and an order for her arrest before she fled to Costa Rica.
One high-profile group was the Mothers of April, for those with lost, missing or jailed children. They have banded together to call for inquiries and support opposition demands such as ending repression, disbanding paramilitary groups and holding elections earlier than those scheduled for 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 called him, played the drums at church and was in high school when he decided to attend the march on his own.
Cordoba, 45, recalled that after she heard her son was wounded, she rushed to the 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, filled with Orlando’s trophies, photos and teddy bears. She has since moved to a house across town. Another of her sons lost his government job as a result of the 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 lawyers and spoken out about her case. “I want justice, for my son and all the others,” she said.
Margarita Mendoza, 49, knew that feeling all too well. Recently, she and her husband, Vidal Reyes, laboured under the afternoon sun, weeding and cleaning her son’s grave in Managua. Killed at 19 years old, Javier Alexander Munguia Mendoza was buried with others who died during the crackdown.
They wanted to shut down the voices of our kids, and we need to continue for them.
After her son disappeared in May, she and other parents gathered outside Managua’s El Chipote prison. Her son’s body eventually turned up in a morgue. Since then, she has worked to piece together the events leading up to his death, discounting a police account that he died in a robbery. She believed that evidence suggests he went to a protest and was strangled, likely by paramilitaries or during an interrogation.
“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 was wearing a T-shirt with her son’s likeness and carried grisly photos of his corpse, 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 vowed to continue for different reasons. One was feminist opposition figure Marlen Chow, a 69-year-old sociologist who carried an AK-47 in the Sandinista revolution that overthrew United States-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
When Chow was first arrested in October last year for protesting, she turned her lipstick into an opposition symbol. When police interrogators asked her which group she represented, she blurted out, “Pico Rojo”, which meant “lipstick”. It sparked a social-media meme with the hashtag #SoyPicoRojo, with both men and women posting photos of themselves with red lipstick.
Sore from her latest arrest by police in a March protest, Chow said the crackdown sparked 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.
Chow said that she too was under surveillance from pro-government supporters who followed her and took photos of her home and visitors, and threatened her on social media. “There’s not any night I can sleep,” she said.
Across the border in neighbouring Costa Rica, Nicaraguan women were among the tens of thousands who were still afraid to return despite Ortega’s recent agreement promising their safe right of return.
“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, supported Ortega or blamed opposition groups for the clashes affecting their lives.
Ingrid Gaitan is a resident of Monimbo, where clashes between protesters and the police and government supporters left bullet holes on the front of her house. She said the barricades kept her from getting to work or buying food. She said she feared protesters would target Sandinista supporters.
In a quiet Managua neighborhood, in an empty building that was used as a temporary safe house in late March, Yaritza Rosran hunkered down as she was hiding from the police, her friends keeping watch for paramilitary members. Her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.
The student activist turned 25 while serving spent more than six months in La 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 was still facing charges that could see her locked up for years.
Nonetheless, she decided to slip out of the house to attend a March 16 protest, the first since they were banned last autumn. After police swept in and shut the demonstration down forcefully and arrested 100 people, she decided it was not safe to go back home.
Since then, Ortega agreed to release the prisoners, respect people’s right to protest and let independent media report freely. But his recent clampdown on protesters shows he has backtracked. United Nations human rights officials say Ortega hasn’t followed through on all of his promises.
Earlier this week, the government said it had released 636 prisoners who had been imprisoned for “various reasons”, putting them on house arrest. But the opposition group the Civic Alliance said only a small fraction of those were political prisoners.
Rosran said she planned 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.”