International Development Law Organization

Costa Rica Diary: Empowering Migrant Women

When you think of a border, you think guards, passport controls, fences, bits of barbed wire maybe. In the northern Costa Rican department of Upala, bordering with Nicaragua, you will find none of that.

La frontera here is just an imaginary line that people cross all the time – there are even houses built across it, the front door is in one country, the kitchen in the other.
The Nicaraguan side is a narrow strip of land closed off from the rest of the country by Lake Nicaragua. It does not offer much, so people cross into Costa Rica to work and to get access to all kind of services: shops, schools, hospitals, and even the police. Some have decided to stay on the other side, but not all of them have all their papers in order.

In this rural part of Central America machista culture is deeply rooted, violence against women is rampant, and victims traditionally have little or no recourse. For “Nica” women seeking protection and justice, things can be especially dire.

“A Nicaraguan woman living in Costa Rica turned to the judiciary for protection because her husband threatened and hit her. She was sent away because her passport had expired, and told to come back once her papers were in order,” a local activist tells us. “But to renew the passport, she had to travel to Managua, which would cost her a small fortune.” She never did, and remained at the mercy of her violent man.

As of February 2014, women in Upala have somewhere to go to for help and advice: the House of Women's Rights – the first of its kind in the country - was opened as a result of joint efforts between Costa Rica's Judiciary and the local municipality. The service it provides – to all women who need it regardless of their nationality or status in the country - was designed with support from IDLO through the European Union's EUROsociAL Program.

The House, its colorful murals shining in the sun, sits in a walled compound. It is meant to provide a safe and welcoming environment, where state and local institutions can work together to help women out of the violence they suffer at home or in the workplace. In case of need, it is equipped to offer temporary shelter to those who had to flee their homes. Now that it is up and running, our mission is to devise a strategy to reach out to these women, to make them aware of their rights and of the support they can get here.

After a tour through the town - one-story concrete houses painted in bright colors, commercial streets buzzing with people, horses grazing placidly in a field opposite the national bank – we drop in on Don Rafael, a life-long teacher and president of Radio Cultural de Upala, whose signal reaches every house in the department, and across the border. As he shows us around the radio station, newly decorated and equipped through Japanese Cooperation funds, he gives us one example of why Upala needed a “House of Women's Rights”. A neighbor of his, he tells us, went to the judiciary because her live-in partner was sexually abusing her 13-year-old daughter. She was turned away and asked to “provide evidence” of what she was saying. Sadly, this is not an isolated case, nor is the response from the institutions an uncommon one.

Don Rafael sets up an impromptu interview for his listeners to hear all about the House. In case we needed further proof that radio is the way to get your message across around here, the local mayor phones in to express his support for the project. He was in his car on the way to an official engagement, listening to Radio Cultural, as apparently do upaleños from all walks of life.

The next day, we meet with members of the Red de Promotoras Comunitarias - a network of women helping other women in their communities - to get their insights on how best to spread the news about the House.

Doña Reyna – her long, black ponytail belying her grandmotherly age - lives on the other side of the border. She has travelled by bus but tells me she has to walk two kilometers on a dusty road to get to the bus stop. Ana, a mother of eight children, walks in, balancing on her head a basket with the cakes she bakes and sells in the streets for a living. Johana arrives on a battered bicycle – she is giving up a day’s wages as domestic help to take part in the workshop.

Most of these women – all of whom are from Nicaragua and live on either side of the border – have suffered violence at the hands of their husbands, partners or employers. They have come out the other side thanks to local NGO Cenderos, which works specifically with migrant and cross-border populations. All of them are leaders in their communities and endeavor to help other women who are stuck in violent situations. We spend the day listening to their stories of suffering and discrimination.

Living in makeshift homes with no security, and often with no neighbors to hear their cries for help, they are exposed to all sorts of abuse. All too often, the biggest danger lies within the family: husbands, partners, and even sons who have soaked up a culture of machismo and gender-based violence.

In the words of Doña Reyna, “the family of a violent man becomes a violent family. My husband was as aggressive as a mountain jaguar and when he turned on me, I remember thinking, ‘If it comes to that, I will kill you first.’ And the saddest thing is that now my own sons are ill-treating their wives, because that is what they´ve learned to do.”

The advice of these women, who have found the courage to turn their lives around, is crucial to make sure we find the right channels - and the right words - to convey the message that all women have a right to live free from violence. And that finally, with the House of Women’s Rights, help is at hand.

Simona Beltrami
Upala, Costa Rica