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At a glance: Nicaragua

Opening doors for women in Nicaragua

© UNICEF Nicaragua/2006
Rufina Centeno is a politician dedicated to women’s issues on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

UNICEF’s flagship annual report, ‘The State of the World’s Children’, launched on 11 December, focuses this year on the double dividend of gender equality, which helps both women and children overcome poverty. Here is one in a series of related stories.

CARIBBEAN COAST, Nicaragua, 19 December 2006 – Poverty, lack of education and few opportunities epitomize the lives of many indigenous women on the impoverished Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. But 39-year-old Rufina Centeno has managed to overcome the obstacles in her life to become not just an empowered woman, but a passionate advocate for the rights of women and children.

Women living in this region have historically played a limited role in the political decision-making process. Traditional conceptions of a woman’s place in society and unequal access to education were just two of many impediments to their participation in politics and government.

Increasing opportunities

However, growing awareness of the benefits of women’s involvement in politics and increased educational opportunities for them have translated into better prospects for women from both rural and urban areas.

Ms. Centeno is an example of this trend. She was first elected to the Regional Council of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region in 1998 and re-elected in 2002. From 2000 to 2002 she was the first female Vice President of the Regional Council’s Executive Board. Dedicating herself to women’s issues, she worked closely with the President of the Regional Council’s Commission for Children and the Family to establish a Regional Women’s Forum.

The Forum is composed of representatives from the Regional Council, women’s organizations and the region’s municipalities, who meet twice a year to discuss proposals regarding the status of women and children – and to ensure their inclusion on the region’s social and political agenda.

Achievements to be proud of

A member of the Miskito ethnic group, Ms. Centeno was separated from her mother at the age of five and sent to live in the home of her father and her second stepmother, where she was routinely beaten, insulted, underfed and overworked. Although married at the age of 14, she managed to finish secondary school and went on to take a course in business administration.

Ms. Centeno began working when she was 17 and spent 10 years with the Nicaraguan Social Security and Welfare Institute, including five years as director of a prevention centre for children in situations of risk. Her own personal experiences helped her identify with the children’s problems.

© UNICEF Nicaragua/2006
Nicaraguan advocate Rufina Centeno works on behalf of women and children to ensure their inclusion on her region’s social and political agenda.

By the age of 24, Ms. Centeno was increasingly involved in local and regional politics. Despite holding much of the country’s natural wealth, the Caribbean coast is one of Nicaragua’s poorest regions and remains isolated from the Pacific side of the country, where political and economic power is concentrated. Since 1987, administration has been divided into the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions, which have their own elected Regional Councils.

Ms. Centeno was elected President of the Regional Council’s Commission in 2005 and succeeded in passing a resolution on equal opportunities for women; creating a secretariat for women, children, adolescents, youth and the family; and lobbying the Executive Council to declare 1-8 March as Women’s Week and 8 March a public holiday for the region’s women.

Paving the way for others

Despite ongoing challenges and male resistance, even within her own party, Ms. Centeno sees her experiences as useful lessons for the women who will follow in her footsteps in politics.

“You open yourself to criticism, attacks, scorn and blackmail,” she says. “If you really want to push forward, you have to be very conscious and aware of your public life and very psychologically prepared. You also have to prepare your family, because they suffer when you’re attacked.”

Economic empowerment is crucial in the struggle for women to become more involved in politics. “We need to strengthen ourselves economically,” says Ms. Centeno, “and have the courage to face up to men in any arena, without being intimidated by the first threats they make.”

Ms. Centeno has recently left the Regional Council to make way for new faces and to set up a non-governmental organization in support of women and their families. These days, as she prepares for the next chapter in her life, she takes pride in the advances made by the women in her region, who can be seen preaching in Protestant churches, helping run political parties and receiving quality higher education from two recently established universities.



UNICEF Policy on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Girls and Women

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