MANAGUA, Mar 20 (IPS) – The first criminal prosecution for racial discrimination in Nicaragua, in response to a complaint brought by a woman lawmaker in the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), has focused attention on the segregationist treatment of indigenous and Afro-Caribbean women in the Caribbean coastal regions.

Indigenous and black women make up 52 percent of the 650,000 people living along the country’s Caribbean coast, and they bear the greatest burden of gender and racial discrimination, the rector of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN), Alta Hooker, told IPS.

The complaint was lodged on Feb. 12 by Bridgete Budier Bryan, a PARLACEN lawmaker for the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and has highlighted the historical marginalisation of the two autonomous regions, which occupy nearly 46 percent of the land area of this country.

Nicaragua’s eastern coastline is on the Caribbean Sea (part of the Atlantic Ocean), and its western shores are on the Pacific.

Budier Bryan reported the owners of the El Chamán discothèque in Managua to the public prosecution service and to human rights organisations, complaining that black people were being refused entry.

On Feb. 16, the investigation was widened to include four other discos. If the owners are found guilty, they face fines of a portion of their revenues for 500 days, or may even be shut down.

It all began when the lawmaker’s teenage daughter, Majaila Francis Budier, went to the disco with several white friends. ‘They let everyone in except her. And she was the only black person in the group,’ Budier Bryan said.

The lawmaker investigated the case and found that several night clubs in the capital were refusing entry to people with indigenous or Afro-Caribbean features, especially women.

On Feb. 6, she visited one of the clubs with her daughter and some friends, all of whom were from the autonomous regions, along with an international delegation of the Central American Black Organisation (CABO), a regional group defending Afro-descendants’ rights.

‘They refused us entry, saying they reserved the right of admission, but they let in all the whites and mestizos (people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry) who were waiting in line. Whenever they saw a person who looked indigenous or black, they turned them away,’ Budier Bryan told the press.

Beyond the dance clubs

‘The good side of all this is that it has exposed one of the worst forms of discrimination against indigenous and Afro-descendant women, who are sidelined, ignored, and treated as if they were invisible,’ Hooker told IPS.

The general lack of information and statistics merely confirms the invisibility of women belonging to these ethnic groups.

According to statistics compiled by URACCAN, the indigenous population makes up between 10 and 12 percent of Nicaragua’s total population of 5.7 million. But there are no reliable figures for the proportion of blacks.

‘To remain silent about the situation amounts to complicity, and is demeaning to women. The prevailing attitude is that poor, black women do not even merit consideration of their case,’ Hooker said.

The black population is descended from Africans who arrived in British slave ships to the Caribbean coast of present-day Nicaragua and Honduras, a region that was in dispute between European powers during colonial times, and which remained the British protectorate of the Mosquito Coast until 1860.

Thus, the central highlands and Pacific lowlands of the country, under Spanish rule, were populated predominantly by whites and mestizos, with Spanish as the official language, while in the lowlands along the Caribbean coast, the English language and surnames adopted by Afro-descendants prevailed.

The Afro-descendants live alongside the indigenous population of the area, made up of the Miskito, Mayangna, Rama and Garifuna ethnic groups who have their own languages and cultural traditions.

The indigenous people live on communal land along the coast and in the inhospitable inland zones of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS).

In the far south, the Caribbean coastal region is also populated by black Creoles and mestizos who have moved from the Pacific region.

Its ethnic and linguistic pluralism distinguishes the Caribbean region from the rest of Nicaragua.

Costal women unable to speak their own languages

According to the Research and Information Centre for Multi-ethnic Women (CEIMM) at URACCAN, the right of young black or indigenous women to speak their own languages is not respected.

‘Young women applying for jobs in public or private institutions are required to speak Spanish. And if a woman is white, speaks Spanish as they do in the Pacific region and is from the Pacific, she will get a job sooner, or be paid more, than local Atlantic coast women,’ Hooker said.

In addition to institutional discrimination, the legacy of an indigenous social structure in which decisions are taken by men has a major influence, according to Hooker.

‘The councils of elders, rural judges, community leaders, indigenous political parties and the boards of companies in the Atlantic coast region are all 90 percent men. That is how it has been for a very long time, and it is barely beginning to change,’ she said. Lottie Cunningham Wren, a sociologist and the head of the Centre for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN), said that racial discrimination affects domestic employees and graduates from the region’s two universities equally.

The Atlantic coast universities, URACCAN and Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU), both have campuses at Bluefields (in the RAAS) and Puerto Cabezas or Bilwi (in the RAAN), and at additional locations.

‘In the country as a whole, and especially in the Pacific, employers prefer women graduates from universities in Managua and the centre of the country over young women graduates from our universities, in spite of the fact that their degrees are recognised by the National University Council (CNU),’ Cunningham said.

‘At banks, women face obstacles for simple transactions like applying for credit, and their houses and properties located on the Atlantic coast are not accepted as guarantees for loans. The banks consider property located on the Pacific side of the country to be better collateral,’ she said.

Security officials at ports and airports disproportionately select women from the coast to carry out strip searches for drugs, she said.

This practice is declining ‘but it has not disappeared; as soon as they see a black woman, they suspect her of carrying drugs,’ she complained.

Even the Special Ombudsperson for Women in Nicaragua, Deborah Grandison, was subjected to humiliation two years ago, when she arrived by plane in Managua from Bluefields, the capital of the RAAS, where she was born.

Police officers tried to remove her from the counter where she was getting her papers stamped in order to search her, and would not accept her identity documents as valid. Finally a policewoman recognised her, and only then was she released, with apologies.

Aeons of isolation

Public institutions have improved their attitude and taken measures to eradicate discriminatory treatment and racial segregation, activists acknowledge.

But Miriam Hooker, the head of the Centre for Human, Civil and Autonomous Rights of the Atlantic Coast (CEDEHCA), says racial discrimination is virtually embedded in the country’s institutions.

‘The state continues to exclude the Caribbean region, and this marginalisation extends to every social and economic aspect of life,’ the activist told IPS.

The Atlantic coast has always been isolated from the rest of the country, as is evident from the lack of social and productive investment and transport infrastructure, the limited availability of basic services, and the dependence of its institutions on the central government.

According to a 2005 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), people in the two Caribbean regions have least access to opportunities for development and education. In the rest of the country, 80 percent of the population has access to piped water, while in the Atlantic regions only 20 percent of indigenous people have potable water.

Forty-seven percent of all Nicaraguans live below the poverty line, but in the RAAN and RAAS regions, 79 percent of the population is poor, according to the UNDP study. In addition, productive sector employment has a skewed distribution, with 79 percent of the jobs being held by men and 21 percent by women.

‘Within generalised conditions of poverty, women are more vulnerable when it comes to competing for jobs,’ Miriam Hooker said.

A 2008 study on racism and ethnic discrimination in Nicaragua by Mirna Cunningham Kain of the Centre for Autonomy and Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI) conveys the impact of racism on gender relations through interviews with hundreds of women.

‘Gender discrimination is closely related to racism, because they both involve the dominant cultural group (mestizo men) who throw up barriers for others (women, indigenous people and blacks) on the basis of discriminatory prejudices about their inherent abilities and attributes,’ her study says.

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