From Co-Ops to Kitchens: In Nicaraguan cities, women face an uphill battle in and out of the labor force.


From Co-Ops to Kitchens: In Nicaraguan cities, women face an uphill battle in and out of the labor force

Julia Morales, a seamstress for 30 of her 70 years, and her daughter have seven sewing machines in their Managua home, where they used to employ several other women. A founding member of the Women's United Textile Cooperative a decade ago, Morales and others like her joined up with much enthusiasm, but today her sewing has stopped and the machines sit idle. To earn a living, Morales sells soft drinks and other items out of her home, and she also sells some used clothing from the United States. But with high unemployment, no one buys and she sees little change ahead.

The Women's United Textile Co-op, like other co-ops formed over the past decade, testifies to the human costs of the programs to curb inflation and sell off publicly owned industries that spread through Latin America in the 1980s. In Nicaragua, structural adjustment, as these policies are known, began under the Sandinista government, which devalued the Nicaraguan currency in 1988 and instituted massive cuts in the public sector in response to a war-torn economy and a U.S. embargo. The impact on most Nicaraguans in part accounts for the Sandinista's 1990 electoral loss.

After the elections ushered in the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) government of Violeta Chamorro, more far-reaching measures that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank mandated have had even harsher consequences. Privatization, cuts in social spending, and a shrunken state sector are key elements in a pattern now familiar to much of the Third World.

Viewed by the UNO, many Western analysts, and even some Sandinistas as inevitable, structural adjustment has curbed inflation but also contributed to high unemployment, declining wages, and a sharply falling standard of living. Access to basic health care and education, once free, are becoming privileges of the small middle class. Many products enter the market, but few Nicaraguans can afford them. As a result, a debate has emerged over the impact of the new economic policies, in particular on women, children, and the poor. The measures seriously hurt urban workers in small industries and businesses. Faced with competition from foreign industries and products, cuts in credit to national industries, and the removal of subsidies and some price controls, co-ops, like other small producers and sellers, can't get the raw materials they need or sell the items they make or have.

Many co-ops have failed in recent years, while those that remain are struggling to be viable. The women in them note the personal adjustments that structural adjustment has forced them to make at work and at home. In their workplaces and in their households, women have been forced to absorb the shock of the economic crisis and underwrite the very policies that marginalize them.


The Women's United Textile Co-op, formed in 1982, illustrates the impact of the new political order on Nicaraguan women and an economic idea that had lent them hope in the early 1980s. The textile co-op is made up of women who sew clothing at home and come on a rotating basis to sell their clothes from a small store in a Managua market. Like many of the co-ops formed in the 1980s, it benefited from the availability of relatively cheap raw materials - in this case, fabric and thread. The women enjoyed their friendships with coworkers, and, as in the case of many co-ops, they joined CONAPI, the national union of small industries, which allocated supplies and offered other support.

The co-op began with 68 members, but only 29 remained in 1991. Many of the women still active were among the founders, now middle aged or older, and regarded it as a family to which they owed loyalty. They believed the co-op's problems stemmed from the UNO government's support of large industries in the name of the free market. This leaning hit garment producers particularly hard, as imported new and used clothing from the United States and elsewhere flooded the market. The co-op slowed production to adapt to slow sales, and many members sought other sources of income. Like Morales, some have even begun to sell used clothing, although this would seem to undermine the co-op. "The compañeras long-time member Beatriz Núñez explains.

The co-op's fortunes have sunk even lower in the last year. The store, which had once displayed racks of membermade clothing, stands nearly bare, and almost no customers come. Morales and the others continue to take turns at the store but mainly to safeguard the property and share a meal they prepare together. Everyone eats, regardless of ability to pay, and they value one another's company in this grim time. Some resent CONAPI, which once praised their commitment; now that times are hard, they hear nothing from the union's leaders. The women are particularly bitter because CONAPI's new president had been in the garment industry himself but pulled out in time to avoid the difficulties they face. They think he looked out for his own interests, rather than do his responsibility to advise them.

Now the co-op must deal on its own with the question of whether to sell its store and dissolve or try to hang on. When I last visited the store in mid-1992, the women felt defeated. The single rack of clothing for sale held imported second-hand clothing from the United States. One woman, Ana García, summed up the mood: "The truth is our chances of surviving here are few."


While the textile co-op faces its troubles alone, it is far from alone in its suffering under structural adjustment. The Industrial Bakers of Managua, also a part of CONAPI, was established in 1979. It counted more men than women among its members, but the wives of many of the men worked alongside their husbands, and a number of women bakery owners were represented as well. The co-op provided flour and other basic materials to its members at low cost.

After flourishing for over a decade, the co-op closed in early 1992 after flour suppliers began selling directly to bakeries at favorable prices. Unable to compete, the co-op put its offices up for sale; although a few bakeries remain as members of CONAPI, most view their enterprises as independent. They see little advantage in affiliating with a trade-union organization that is itself struggling to survive. Some bakery owners, adopting the attitude of UNO, consider competition desirable; others recall with nostalgia the more protective Sandinista years.

In a third co-op, five jewelry makers and five bark-work artisans came together in 1987. Working out of one woman's home, they founded the Francisco Estrada Cooperative, named for an artisan and national hero. The men and women who started the workshop included Alejandra Pérez, who specialized in making ornamental wall hangings and other items from the bark of trees from the Atlantic coast. She trained several other women who later joined the co-op (although she herself now works independently). Despite the high quality of the co-op's work, however, sales are low, limited to foreign visitors and the few Nicaraguans who can afford ornamental items. Two men quit recently, and the other members are slowing production and seeking new markets.

Not all the news is bad for the artisans' co-op. CONAPI and a Norwegian nongovernmental organization have helped it secure funds to build a new workshop. Construction is underway, and members hope that sales will grow along with their visibility and productive capability.

Even more surprising than that potential success, co-ops are still forming. Early in 1991, 10 unemployed women completed a welding course and inaugurated a workshop in a Managua women's center sponsored by AMNLAE, the women's association affiliated with the Sandinistas. The national coordinator of AMNLAE was on hand for the gala opening, and the group exhibited their work at a 1991 international women's day celebration in Managua. In high spirits and with support from local organizations, the co-op members began making wrought-iron plant stands, chairs, and tables, and security bars for windows and doors.

In the co-op's early months, all 10 women stayed busy, but when jobs tapered off, conflicts arose over how to share work. Some felt that the two coordinators lacked necessary leadership skills. Other differences emerged when CONAPI sought their participation and the director of the AMNLAE center resisted this move, saying the women would lose their autonomy in the male-dominated union.

By mid-1992, only two welders of the original ten remained active in the co-op. One coordinator went into partnership with a male welder. Lack of work and heavy family responsibilities kept some women away, including a few who had hoped to resume their work later. Eight new members began a welding course, but only three remained a few months later because, as the second co-ordinator said, the cost of transportation to the training center was prohibitive for the unemployed women.

Today, the co-op's future looks uncertain. Welding is competitive and discrimination against women in the fields is common. The co-op members depend for the most part on other sources of family support. The women, whose group still lacks a name, are considering refashioning themselves into a "micro enterprise," which can employ up to five workers, to go with the times and increase their chances of getting a small loan.


In all four cooperatives, women have found ways to cope with low earnings, rising prices, and inadequate services. Their families' eating habits have changed: instead of waking to large meals of rice, beans, eggs, and cheese, they eat a bit of gallop into (mixed rice and beans) with the morning coffee. Instead of three abundant meals, including meat, each day, Morales has given up eating meat and gets around the city by truck, the cheapest form of transportation. More women wash and iron their clothes themselves; those who have always done this work restrict it to once or twice a week to save on soap and electricity. In addition, physical and mental health are deteriorating in Nicaragua, and women are taking on the care of ill family members. Regardless of their political orientation, the women in these co-ops experience all this as worsening conditions.

As women in cooperatives and other formal-sector jobs lose ground, many turn to precarious livelihoods in the informal sector, where they lose any benefit from protective legislation or a union and earnings are typically very low. While the informal sector has included about 60 percent of Managua's working population for several years, some informal workers had been "formalized" under the Sandinistas by joining co-ops and state-owned enterprises. As these options shrink, people are falling back on independent and informal activities.

Moreover, recent policies have pushed even more workers into the private sector. A 1991 plans for "occupational conversion" offered public-sector workers up to $2,000 to leave their jobs and set up small businesses. Far from starting strong enterprises, many people bought freezers to sell drinks or ice out of their homes. Many who left public-sector jobs are Sandinistas, considered undesirable by the new government. Many are women, viewed as appropriately turning their attention back home.

Home is no refuge, however. In one barrio that is known for its many artisans and sellers, most homes in some blocks are also small commercial establishments. Families are pressed into service, and even very young children sell small amounts of fruits, vegetables, or other goods out of their homes or in the streets. In the poorest families, children add to the family income with tips for guarding parked cars.

Any policies that ignore gender are likely to have particularly harsh effects on the health and well-being of the large number of single mothers and their children in Nicaragua. Structural adjustment, which has increased competition and reduced demand, has led to the decline of many co-ops, and since women were among their major beneficiaries, the decline has hit particularly hard. Clearly, structural change is necessary, but it is also necessary to recognize who is being asked to make the most painful adjustments.


Helen Collison, ed., Women and Revolution in Nicaragua, Zed Press, 1990.

Envío, Women in Nicaragua: The Revolution on Hold, Central American Historical Institute, 1991.

Fundación Internacional para el Desafio Economico Global, Situación del Sector Informal en la Ciudad de Managua, 1991.

Paola Pérez-Alem n, et al., Diagnóstico Sobre la Situación de la Mujer en la Pequeña y Micro Industria de Nicaragua, CONAPI, 1991.

Women's Worth

Country: Guatemala

Project: Communal Banking

In the spring of 1992, students and staff at the University of Denver raised $2,500, matched by $7,500 more in other funds, to help women in San Antonio Palopo open a communal bank. The funds were donated through the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), which operates a network of more than 700 banks in Central America, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. These banks serve 19,300 borrowers, 85 percent of whom are women.

The San Antonio bank grows out of a 1978 effort to find an alternative to the seasonal contract labor on which the community then depended. With the help of a Peace Corps worker and the Catholic Church, people in the village developed a commercial weaving industry from scratch. Unfortunately, few women benefit from the effort, since they lack the capital to buy enough threads.

The new communal bank may help some San Antonio women to better capitalize weaving businesses. In fact, many plan to use their loans to buy thread. Others, however, have dismissed additional textile production, saying it is only minimally profitable, and they have turned to expanding small-scale cottage industries. During the summer, a number of Cakchiquel Maya women pooled their individual loans to start a frozen-chicken business.

Only time will tell how much village banking will help San Antonio. Whatever happens, the women from the community are taking steps toward organizing and self-reliance that form the basis of a very exciting brand of development. FINCA says that loans of as little as $30 can double a small merchant's family income in six months.

Contact: Tracy Ehlers, Anthropology Department, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80208

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