Susan Spronk has got the girls hula-hooping today. Though rewarding, it hasn’t been an easy gig for twenty-three-year-old Spronk, a development worker from Edmonton, Alberta. On a Change for Children internship, she worked for seven months in a shelter for abused girls called Casa de las Niñas (House for Girls) in Managua, Nicaragua in 1999. Nicaragua has a population of 4.3 million; 53% are under the age of 18. Due to the horrendous economic plight of the country—it is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere—many kids are forced into earning a living on the streets. The harshness of street life is often aggravated for girls—sexual abuse, family violence, high rates of teenage pregnancy, multiple back-alley abortions are dangerously common for Nicaraguan girls. In late 1999, I went to Nicaragua to profile Canadian development workers and spent a couple of days at the Casa with Spronk finding out how her job affects her and the women she is working with.
Spronk is an earthy-looking girl, with short curly brown hair and eyes that are full of blue light. Squeaky-clean looking, she wears a scarf to push her hair off her face, a white tank-top, blue shorts, and today she has a yellow hula hoop struggling around her hips. The hula hooping is just one part of Spronk’s job; she is at the Casa to spend time with the girls, to participate in their activities, to be a companion in their daily lives at the shelter, to do research, and to hold workshops on the concept of gender. Today Spronk experienced a small triumph—it was the first time she succeeded in getting one of the girls, Glenda, to participate in the physical activities. “I’ve been trying to get Glenda to move for months and now she’s finally moving, she was scared of hurting the baby.” Inertia is not good for these haunted girls and as the orange, yellow, blue and red hula hoops orbit on pregnant tummies, you can see their spirits rising. Unemployment in Nicaragua is 60% and the link between poverty and domestic abuse is not a theory in these girls’ lives, it is a palpable reality. Some of the girls have been child prostitutes, learning early that their bodies are a commodity. Stories are told where little girls who want to sell Chiclets on buses, first must let the bus driver grope them.
When I ask her what the letters stand for, she makes a fist and answers: “Amor (love), Paz (peace), Justicia (justice), y Felicidad (happiness).” This could be the first time in Rachela’s life that she’s encountering all four of these elements.
The Casa is part of Nicaragua’s Institute for Human Promotion (INPRHU), a non-governmental organization that works towards helping the street-working children that have little access to education, health care, and in many cases, love. The Casa is the place where the girls in the worst situations are sent to be protected, counselled and taught how to care for themselves and their babies. Most of the 12 girls here are teenagers and are themselves daughters of teenage pregnancies. Two of them are pregnant and though their case histories are confidential, I am told that often the pregnancies are as a result of rape.
“The focus changes as the needs of the populations evolve. The last few years the focus was on teenage pregnancies, but because of all the great prevention work the project has done, they’ve found that the need has lessened. So now they’re attending more to girls that are suffering abuse in their families and who need to be removed,” Spronk explains. The Casa is the second level of intervention in INPRHU. The first is in the project territories, the outreach workers intervene on behalf of the kids with the parents. The extended family becomes an option for placement if intervention with the immediate family is unsuccessful—any resource that can be used is tried because there is no government infrastructure in place and nowhere else for the girls to go. Often though, when the situation is dangerous and the rehabilitation process takes a very long time, the girls need a place to live in the meantime, and so they come to the Casa. “The first level is always in the community—this is one of the philosophical commitments of INPRHU—because it’s very drastic to take people out of there situations, homes, schools and to relocate them to this environment which is so different from the barrio. I mean look at it, eh,” Spronk explains, gesturing to the tiles on the floor, the courtyard, the largeness.
The shelter is strategically far away from the barrios where the girls live, in the outskirts of Managua. There is no sign on the front door and there are guards that keep the house safe. There is a pet rabbit and a lovely courtyard with a lush tranquil garden—a rare landscape of serenity for these girls who generally have only known the pot-holed, pollution-congested, gang-dominated streets of Managua. Many of them live in dirt-floored shacks in dangerous barrios. “I like it here, we live in peace,” says the spunky young Dominga: “On Sundays, they take us to the Malecon—they give us 2 pesos each, we ride the games, drink, eat fritanga.” The Casa runs how a functional home should; from sewing workshops, to volleyball, to housework and homework, the girls are kept busy and peaceful.
One girl is breast feeding, two are pregnant, they range from 6-16 years old. The directors have made an exception for two little sisters who are here, normally the house is for teenagers, but these two little sisters were abandoned by their young mother. She left them and her older husband for another man, and their father beats them. Spronk tells me the littlest one, Maritza, keeps calling the other girls, Mom. Maritza doesn’t want to go to school, can’t sleep and understandably has huge abandonment fears. Right now though, she is dancing with her sister to blasting rap music, they are three-foot funky dancers. Physical activity does all the girls good—no matter how reticent they are to participate—once they start, they whoop, holler and run around. Playing is relatively new for the girls at the Casa as most of their time in the barrio is spent working the streets—trying to sell water, gum, and lottery tickets to people in cars stopped at intersections. Getting shooed away much of the time by drivers on the street makes up most of their work day, yet if they do not come home with enough earnings, they can catch much worse than a shooing away. So music and dancing makes them scream. They like hip-hop and with affection they try to teach Spronk some moves. “You’re so full of shit, get up and dance,” feisty Dominga tells Alex, my photographer, when he shyly says he does not know how to dance. “I like your necklace,” I say to Dominga. She reaches her arms around her neck to undo the clasp. I try to refuse her gift but she will not let me leave without her beaded necklace.
The statistics on sexual abuse and child molestation are so high in this country of beautiful people who are called the friendliest of all Central Americans. It hurts the mind to contemplate how the situation could have become so perverse. Alice Walker wrote on how economic and cultural oppression can so often lead to the debasement and dehumanization of people. The futility and helplessness of endless, grinding poverty can cause people to empower themselves in ways that are so harmful to others, often loved ones—the contexts are different but the symptoms the same. As love and violence is a common mix in Nicaragua, gender issues are especially complicated. Spronk’s job in the workshop context is to try to get the girls to be able to identify what is healthy and what is not in a relationship. The goal is to teach the difference between gender and sex in order to know that human relations are not static and behaviour can be unlearned. After Spronk has finally got the girls all paying attention, she begins the gender workshop by making the girls list the characteristics of the genders (boys stand up to pee etc.). Holding a Jiffy marker, Spronk makes lists with the girls’ answers on a big white notepad. Starting with the basics of anatomy she slowly draws out the larger concepts like nature versus nurture, eliciting the answers from the girls themselves by examining questions such as the difference between boys and girls beyond anatomy. “Where do we learn these roles? What are our options for changing our roles within the house?”
A different workshop, with a different set of girls, is much more difficult. Spronk says this group of girls are more problematic because of their backgrounds. In some cases their stories of abuse are so bad, it totally skews their behaviour. Less attention span, they yell and interrupt, screaming their answers, talking over each others’ voices. Sure enough, not even five minutes into the workshop and total chaos has erupted as the girls all start to clap in mutiny. They hurl out corrections, fixing Spronk’s Spanish as she tries to yell, “LISTEN TO ME.” Structurally the room has broken up into factions, cliques are strong. One girl jokes that she will smash her chair over another girl. Despite their rebellion you can see their affection for Spronk. Once the uproar rides out its course, after much coaxing, the scene calms down and Spronk, sweating, is able to conclude her workshop and sit down.
Spronk explains why she does the gender workshops: “So that the girls know their rights, know what equal relationships are and aren’t; so that they know what to expect in relationships. We talk about gender as a construct: we’ve learned how to be women, it’s not something that’s natural—we’ve learned how we’re expected to act, how we’re expected to dress, to behave. If we’ve learned it, we also can unlearn it, we can change it. Next week we’ll talk about the advantages of being a girl and the disadvantages, and about boys.” Boys from INPRHU projects are often invited to her workshops because the idea is not to exclude men but to attain healthier relations. There are organizations working in Nicaragua who work with the problem of male aggression and father absenteeism.
Social work is difficult at the best of times, when you introduce being a foreigner it gets even more trying—language barriers, cultural differences. Spronk carefully researched Latin feminism and cross-referenced her own resource material to make sure she didn’t show up being blindingly ethnocentric. But Nicaraguan society is far more sexualized, machismo still reigns supreme. As one cab driver casually said, “Ya there is a lot of violence against women in Nicaragua, but it is because women don’t listen.”
Some of the most important emotional work the girls do at the house is with Vladimir, the Casa psychologist. Twice a week the girls have one-on-one sessions with Vladimir as well as group work to reinforce the individual counselling sessions. Vladimir tells me that he has to try to teach them to separate love and violence, to distinguish between abuse and affection. Most of these girls have never known healthy relationships. Vladimir says that the most striking thing about these girls is that in the midst of all the violence and aggression they maintain the hope that they are capable individuals. “They teach me a lot of patience,” Vladimir says.
Post hula-hoop dancing, the girls sit in a circle in traditional Nicaraguan rocking chairs with a tangible sadness etched in on each of their faces. Smiles come and go and when they’re gone, the sad look resumes in their faraway eyes. But they do like to have visitors here at the Casa. For the sake of the workshops Spronk has declared Alex and I to be extraterrestrials—which also explained our dancing peculiarities. As soon as one girl comes over to talk to us, the rest get up and circle us; playing with his camera; pulling out my white hairs with playful hands; flocking around us, curious, trying to read my notes; trying on my sunglasses. One has her hand on my lap, the other is holding my hand. Another nicked my pen and climbed a tree. Some of them are spunky, they have fight left in them, ingrained in them, while others sit back, subdued. Sarah, who looks almost twelve, is sitting quietly sucking her thumb like a toddler, watching us all; while another girl with dark varicose veins on her legs—likely from standing all day at work in the street—clutches the pet bunny against her breast. All of them need and crave the same things, affection and attention.
Navigating her way in this foreign context, Spronk, with her liberal Anglophone feminist training, had much to learn about the workplace politics of cultural relativism. “I had a different understanding than my co-workers about what constituted a woman-friendly, woman-centered program. On several occasions I found myself in conflict about this.” Spronk told me of the time she noticed that her colleague’s computer had a permanent screen saver showing Cindy Crawford in pornographic mode. Enraged, Spronk took it upon herself to change the screen. “To me, the image of a half-naked Cindy Crawford dancing on the computer screen represented the oppression that women suffer trying to mold themselves to an image of beauty. I feared that if the girls in the Casa saw this, it would be one more reminder that they are not ‘thin enough, white enough’ or ‘beautiful enough’. To my Nicaraguan co-workers, on the other hand, Cindy Crawford represents a beautiful woman who is secure with her body and not afraid to show it.
“I have learned that you have to see these situations where you have differences of opinions from your co-workers as opportunities for discussion rather than reasons to take offense. Dialogue is more constructive than war, especially when in the final hour you find yourself on the same side of the struggle.”
Spronk and the girls explore the basic mediums of communications and popular culture; they talk about song lyrics on the radio, magazine articles, women’s work, men’s work. Towards the end of the workshop they talk about love and what their hopes and fears are and adolescence in general. Having the perspective of a foreigner present can be helpful during group discussions. Yahaira tells me: “We love hearing Susan talk about how things are different and the same in her country.” What they might take for granted, Spronk can highlight and question from an outsider’s point of view. When a female walks down the street in Managua, inevitably she is hissed at non-stop for the entire duration of her outing, much more extreme than any construction-site cat-calling in Canada; when a female goes to any kind of business in Managua, the male is always served first. These might be seemingly pedestrian examples, but these details are indicative of the perception and treatment of women on a elemental level. I met Canadian female development workers that were terrified to walk the streets alone, some of them resorting to dying their hair, wearing wedding rings, but nothing works beyond trying to ignore it. In a country that is so poor, unemployment so much the norm, where lack exists in every way—the one pleasure that is free is amor. Women are sexualized from early on; stickers of busty naked women cover most cars’ dashes; Playboy Bunny logos hang from rearview mirrors, and super sappy music dominates the airwaves.
Spronk also does research in documentation centres for resource material for her workshops and also so that she can direct the girls to places where they can get access to information on topics such as sexual health, motherhood, and nutrition. One field trip involved Spronk taking the workshop girls to a nurse to dispel one of the common Nicaraguan male myths. Nica boys tell girls that they are on the male pill. The nurse whom Spronk took the girls to visit, handed out condoms, explaining that boys often lie and that the girls need to protect themselves. By coordinating these field trips, Spronk also helps the girls learn how to do research effectively for articles in the newsletter that they produce in an INPRHU project where another Change For Children intern teaches the girls how to desktop publish their own newsletter. The idea is that the kids can have their own voice and have the skills to make it heard in print media.
Maria-Isabel, director of the Casa, enthusiastically spoke of the good effects of having foreign development workers. On one level she says it helps to build links with other like-minded organizations internationally, and on an immediate level it shows the girls themselves that people in the outside world care about them when often their own family and government has forsaken them.
“I’m very impressed with the work of INPRHU. The kids that have made it through the programs seem to be making really good choices about their futures and relationships. Some of the kids have leadership skills that I envy, and I have learned so much from their strength and their ability to find joy in such hardship. What INPRHU provides is someone who finally believes in them and cares enough to encourage them to make good choices,” Spronk concludes.
Rachela is pregnant. She has a regal face and lustrous black hair and has one home-made-tattooed-letter on each of the knuckles of her right hand. When I ask her what the letters stand for, she makes a fist and answers: “Amor (love), Paz (peace), Justicia (justice), y Felicidad (happiness).” This could be the first time in Rachela’s life that she’s encountering all four of these elements. The Casa de las Niñas is perhaps one of INPRHU’S most vulnerable projects and is an operation that requires support from foreign countries as the government offers no subsidies. I said my goodbyes to the girls who all asked when we could come back and visit—fifty kisses adios. For more information on the Casa de las Niñas and Change for Children internships please contact CFC at (780) 448-1505. Equipped with some firsthand knowledge of how project planning works in the field, Spronk has since returned to Canada where she is currently a Masters candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University.
2012 update: Spronk is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa
This article was produced with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It was published in Canadian Dimension in 2001, vol. 35, 1