I knock again on the door, more firmly this time.
“Bueeeenas,” I call through the chipped blue door. I hear a creak from inside and move to the window. The top glass pellet is missing and I peer through the dust and smoke filling the inside of the room to where I see a shuffling figure moving in my direction. The door opens. She stands in front of me in rumpled clothes, her T-shirt streaked with dirt. Her eyes are still puffy with sleep and white around the edges. A baby cries faintly but steadily from behind the curtain that serves as a door to the one separate room. It’s 10.30 am.
“Entra” she says, as I step through the door.
I make myself as comfortable as I can on the one plastic chair in the room.It is a child’s chair and one of the back legs is starting to buckle so I balance predominantly on the front legs, shifting from one butt cheek to the other as subtly as I can. She disappears behind the curtain for a second a reappears with a small girl who has stopped crying and is now whimpering. She sits on the bed and pulls down her shirt. Both mother and daughter look at me defiantly as the daughter takes the nipple into her mouth and starts to nurse. The smoke from the fire behind me is getting in my eyes and in my throat. I can smell it on my skin. The house seems to weigh me down, clogging my pores with its smoke. A chicken walks into the room, picking it’s way around the dirty clothes and pans on the floor. It finds some day-old rice kernels on the floor and happily starts picking at them, the sound of its beak on the rough dirt floor almost in tune to the sucking of the child.I look down at the follow-up questions I have on my sheet, ready to have this over with. “Do you live with the father of the child?” I ask. She looks away for a split second and I see something like anger pass over her face. When she looks back at me her expression, if possible, is even more defiant than before.
She is from one of the nearby communities, she tells me. She doesn’t mention the name but mentions that it was close by the river, which makes me guess that it must be the Guayaba, or Malpais, both about 2 hours away by bus – a rickety old American Bluebird that splutters its way up the unpaved roads, snaking it’s way among the never-ending beautiful, rolling expanse of mountains to the communities, perched precariously on the steep edges of civilization. To me it is but a short bus ride away; to her it is another lifetime, the furthest distance she has ever traveled in her 17 years. When she was 14 she made that trip alone and since then has not had any contact to her parents or family, aside from the distant aunt she now lives with. I try to ask her once more about the father and her family. Her anger tells me more than I need to know.
The child has stopped nursing and the mother tucks away her breast, rearranging the child on her lap. My ass cheeks are both asleep by now and the survey is finished. For a family that only consumes rice and beans 3 times a day, a dietary diversity form is easy to fill out. The mother is still looking at me defiantly. I want to say something, I want to tell her that her defiance is justified, her choices admirable, but I suddenly feel the need for fresh air. I stand up and pick my way around the clothes on the floor. It is 10:57.
“Con permiso,” I say, tugging the door closed behind me.
This scene stays in my mind the next week as I am preparing for a workshop on sexual health and pregnancy prevention for underage girls. I look over the statistics in my notes that are ever apparent but never talked about. Of the number of women dying at childbirth, 22 percent are teenagers. Of all the females that are raped every year, two-thirds are girls under 17. In 2011, Nicaragua’s rate of domestic or sexual violence was 57 times higher than the WHO’s definition of an epidemic.
But when I get to the schoolroom with the group of bubbly adolescents I change my mind. They are so innocent. So adorably awkward and at the same time so ready to be taking change into their own hands. For the most part they are aware that the substandard sexual education is doing them more harm than good, that the general cultural taboo on talking about sex has to be changed so they courageously ask their questions. It is an informal air, I feel almost like an older sister answering to the curiosity of my younger sisters. That is, until the question of abortion comes up.
One of the girls, an energetic 13-year-old bundle of black hair and bony knees and a rebellious streak looks at me directly.
“What do you think about abortion?”
I feel the other coordinators in the room pause. Suddenly it feels like glass shards surround me. I look over to one of the younger coordinators, a fairly religious and very smart young man. His face is blank. I haven’t figured out if his complete pro-life stance is for real or not, despite sharing an office space with him for the last month.
“Well,” I say, “that is a difficult question here…”
Abortion in Nicaragua is outlawed; the country is one of the last four in the world that doesn’t allow therapeutic abortion even if the mothers life is at risk or due to rape and incest. This was only recently enacted, in 2006, and since then Nicaragua has seen an increase in maternal mortality – the leading cause (unsurprising) of maternal mortality being complications from illegal abortions. It is an intensely taboo topic and, although portrayed as a religious issue, is ultimately more of a political theme, being intricately linked to the ruling party’s desire to capture votes and appease the catholic church – a not unimportant force.
I search for a diplomatic answer.
“The thing is, in my opinion the basis of a democratic, just, and equal society is one in which the society respects the right and freedom of control of the individual over their thoughts, beliefs and body….”
I hear a clap from the back of the room. The younger coordinator is standing up, smiling at me and the crowd of young girls in front of me.
“Yes,” he says “ a difficult question indeed, shall we move on?”