In much of the world gender inequality prevails, and Nicaragua is no exception. Round the clock, daytime soap operas play out on my host family’s snowy 10 inch television screen, and of the snippets I catch at mealtimes the women are portrayed as – pause for groan – either the docile victim or a rouge-lipped vixen. Naturally the men are the heroes, hell-bent on saving the damsels and then seducing them. It’s a dated trope and mostly laughable, yet despite the comedy these shows illustrate the wider gender issues at play. Long held machismo beliefs are embedded in Nicaraguan culture, influencing women’s issues and affecting gender roles.

One key issue – shaped by the macho attitudes surrounding sex in particular – is childbearing. In language, men can be referred to as ‘varones’ which implies ‘studs’. ‘Hembras’, on the other hand, is a negative word, translating as a female whose purpose is to breed. Nicaragua has one of the highest fertility rates in Latin America, and every 38 hours a mother dies in childbirth or in related complications. Abortion is illegal, and a religious stance against contraception is still the norm in rural regions.

With such high levels of pregnancy, the Nicaraguan government has implemented a grassroots support network for women. Maternal houses – known as ‘Casa Maternas’ – provide free shelter and medical assistance for pregnant women. Interested to learn more, we arranged a Friday afternoon learning session at Dipilto’s very own Casa Materna.

Situated in the centre of town and close to the health centre, the Casa Materna is located in an ordinary looking building. An emblem of a woman holding a baby is painted on the sign that warmly greets us, however the gates are locked. The lady showing us the house fumbles for a few minutes to find the right key. She explains that at the moment, there are no women using the house.

Inside, there are a dozen or so beds, a flushable toilet, a kitchen with a gas stove and a television with wooden rocking chairs situated around it. The amenities are a vast improvement to what many women will have at home, and it’s clear that there has been a real effort made to furnish the house and create an inviting atmosphere. However the beds lay empty and the dark rooms portray a sense of neglect that hangs in the air.

Maria (not her real name), a middle-aged volunteer helps to run the Casa Materna and explains to us more about the services they provide. “Women usually come here 10 days before their due date to rest and learn how to look after their baby,” she says. “This month there were two women staying here. Last month there were five. On average we host about three or four expectant mothers a month.”

Adolescent pregnancy rates are high. Out of 56 currently recorded pregnancies in the Dipilto region, 18 are underage. She looks at us and explains that girls our age would have families and at least two kids by now. Here, macho culture abounds and always favours the male. She tells us that, most of the time, “women don’t get married and they end up becoming single parents having to support a child by themselves”. When couples do marry, husbands are primarily in charge of decision making and women have very little choice over family planning.

We learn that the Casa Materna also acts as a safe house for women and children who face violence in the home. The services are advertised and promoted on the local radio to spread the word. However, cases of domestic violence are under-reported in rural Nicaragua and few women feel comfortable coming forward. We ask Maria if any women have used the Casa Materna as a refuge against domestic violence, and she replies that, to her knowledge, they haven’t.

The house, originally funded by the Ministry of Health, is now maintained by the local council (known as the Alcaldía). With the country’s sustained economic hardship, volunteers such as Maria are central to the success of the maternal house. Previously a health brigadista volunteer, Maria is determined to help and works hard.

Maria explains to us that as soon as she finds out that a girl has fallen pregnant in the community, she visits them immediately. “I tell them about the services we offer at the Casa Materna and encourage them to stay.”

However, issues of funding concern the fate of the Casa Materna. Maria explains how it is a struggle to work full time at the house unpaid. “I love my job, and I thank God for it. It’s really fulfilling and I get to help lots of women in my community. The only problem is that I’m only a volunteer, so I don’t get a wage. The doctor is trying to get me some economic help at the moment because I have children and a family to support, and I have to travel to get here too. I have to earn money on the side so I do other work as well.”

It is clear that the Casas Maternas provide vital support and assistance for women who live in isolated rural communities. Yet, the scheme is economically vulnerable and has to rely on outside funding. Even with a cash injection and a salary for volunteers such as Maria, efforts to improve women’s health run counter to underlying issues of gender inequality.

Over dinner that evening I catch another episode of a generic soap opera. A couple are dancing, and as the young woman flutters her heavy lashes the camera pans suggestively to a bed. Over the top, a saxophone plays out and then the scene cuts abruptly to a commercial. Ordinarily I’d find the clichés hilarious, but it’s these outdated sexist ‘norms’ of victims, vixens and varones that create an environment that sets males and females worlds apart. I wonder about how, in a culture biased towards the male, will women gain control over their own bodies, their independence and ultimately their own fate.

Written by Progressio ICS volunteer Sharon Natt