Thursday, December 20, 2007

Religion and Politics: Good Thing It is Not a Dinner Party

The effects of the Abortion Ban and Why it Got Passed

In 2006 the Nicaraguan Legislature voted in a law to out right ban abortions – even if the mother’s life is at risk. Former president Enrique Bolanos signed this law into the record books after much contested debate. In conversations and in human rights publications it became apparent that the timing of the vote was the critical factor.

 The issue of abortions was thought to be completed as the law was already conservative in nature, an abortion could only be obtained after three doctors confirm the mother’s life is at risk. However, the issue was revisited in the months prior to the Presidential Election of 2006. UN representatives and Nicaraguan medical associations pleaded for the bill to be postponed until after elections but their voices fell on deaf ears. The Sandinistas, the former revolutionary party that has always maintained the rights of the people as its battle cry, decided to support the proposed bill in fear that they would lose the votes of the Catholic and religious groups, which are numerous throughout the land. Current President Daniel Ortega, a long time advocate of limited-abortion rights, crossed aisles and used the issue to unite himself with the Catholic Church, something that many agree won him the election. This is simply an example of politics done wrong, or sadly right, and it's not limited to Nicaragua. Political leaders changing stances or building platforms to gain votes and not because they believe it is right or just for the many. What has come from this bill?

Many women’s rights group have launched campaigns that profess the bill as limiting the rights of women. A rare victory that received national headlines in 2003 was the dismissal of criminal charges against the parents of a 9 year old rape victim and the doctor who performed the abortion. The issue still remains as a topic of closed quarter conversation. One banner that stayed in my mind was across from the public university and read “Adolescentes that are pregnant were violated, give women their right and say yes to therapeutic abortions”. Women of all ages have suffered from the banning of therapeutic abortions. One women’s rights group uses the story of a 22 yr old woman named Olga who died from complications of an entopic pregnancy, which is when the fertilized egg nests outside the uterus; thus losing any chance of survival and gravely putting the mother’s life at risk. Doctors in the hospital hesitated to act stating that they felt their hands were tied.

In regards to HIV, I was told about the plight of one of the women living with the virus who does not have many options to consider. While struggling with the everyday battle against poverty and the mental anxiety of finding out one’s HIV status, the woman has found out she is 2 months pregnant. Her fears are serious. What if the baby has HIV? Who will take care of it if I succumb to the disease? Can my body take the start of treatment with being pregnant? How will I afford the costs of supplemental medication and food with raising a child? In her mind she has decided that a therapeutic abortion is the only answer but where can she go? She does not have the money like some of the wealthy to fly to the USA or other countries to get the procedure done. She does not have the money to hire a lawyer to plead her case in the courts or pay for a doctor at a private clinic to secretly conduct the abortion. The most realistic option she has is to get what is called a “back-alley abortion”. These illegal and unsanitary methods directly put the woman’s life in danger and can lead to horrible birth defects if not successful.

This abortion ban is only one example of the aligned relationship that takes place between the church and the state in Nicaragua and, as a result, women, impoverished women to be more precise, are the ones paying the real price. Instead of the $500 for a plane ride to the USA and how much an abortion costs, the Nicaraguan woman who can’t afford this pays the price of putting her life in danger because of a law that was passed in fear of losing votes. Sadly this has become the nature of politics; do whatever will get the vote or keep you in office.  

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Inauguration Marks Big Step Forward

I had the pleasure of attending the inauguration of the project entitled “Talking about HIV and AIDS, Strategy for the Empowerment of People Affected”. Before I comment on the afternoon I should first explain the jist of the project. This project formally establishes the HIV Self Help Group that is run in the region known as the Occidente, the three northwest regions of Nicaragua. The project is funded jointly by a German NGO, Arbeiter Samariter Bund Deustschland, and the German Government; both had representatives that addressed the crowd that had gathered and the members of the HIV group. The group’s office has been established in CISAS-León and will be autonomous. That said, the group will count on CISAS’ continued support to coordinate events and maintain a high level of performance.

Having a peer group of support is a vital component to living or battling any disease or ailment. This becomes even more essential with HIV and AIDS because of the heavy stigma and perception that abounds throughout any culture and place in the world. This group already has served as a guiding light and a place to gain hope battling for one’s rights. It is the hope of all the parties involved, that the existence of this group will mark a change in the way HIV is perceived in these communities and in Nicaragua.

The Group’s coordinator, a woman who has become a beacon of strength for many in the Group, addressed the crowd about the importance of solidarity and their goals. It was a speech full of passion that marked the objectives of the Group, but more importantly, it acknowledged that the rights of people who live with HIV are the same as those who don’t.

Both German officials that spoke touched on the power of solidarity, be it local or international, and did so in a manner that was heartfelt. The segments of their speeches that stuck with me depict certain truths about HIV both globally and locally. The representative from the German Embassy stated how for the first time in a long time HIV rates rose in Germany, and how it shocked a lot of people. He acknowledged that the fight and struggle against HIV and AIDS is perpetual and demands continued attention. In the face of the pandemic complacency is simply failure. The other German was the NGO representative and he closed his speech in an eerie manner that demonstrates the reality of living with the virus here. He stated that they know some of the group members will no longer be alive to see the end of the project, which is three years from now. The matter of fact style did not sit well with me and no one can ever blame the gentleman for sugar coating the truth.

This Group is much needed and the work they have already done and will continue to do is inmeasurable. I want to stress that the inauguration was a success and a reason to celebrate. However, the last thing I want to mention was something that I continually thought about while seated in the front row. During the speeches and the songs I imagined myself seated with a few of the HIV positive friends I made at Open Hand and the people I interviewed. I could only imagine their response to some of the choruses to the songs and the closing line by the NGO official. The songs, created for the event, seemed to me to be a little out of place. A good deal emphasized the fear one should have of contracting the “terrible HIV virus” and how if you contract it all your “happiness will leave”. These MAY be true (especially when treatment is adequate at best), but with all the HIV positive people in the crowd and the marking of the HIV Self Help Group, I believe all the stress should have been on living with HIV, solidarity, the breaking of stigma, and to the assurance of equal rights. However, I soon realized that I was not with those same people, and the mindset they have is unfortunately not realized here yet.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

La Purísima - Halloween Meets the Virgin Mary

National Holiday Celebrates the Immaculate Conception of Mary

I already know that Halloween gets its origins from being on the eve of all Saints Day, so the background is semi based on religion. However, somewhere through the years the focus changed to the tales of witches and ghosts and the doling out of candy. Kids get dressed up and yell " trick or treat" laughing. Now flash to the feast of the immaculate conception of Mary. It was made official by Pop Sixtus IV in 1476 and has been celebrated in Nicaragua for 150 years. Something tells me that not much has changed with the feast.

Boom Bang Boom . . . The fireworks, bottle rockets, and firecrackers start ar 6am and ring for 15 minutes. This will go on every 6 hours for the next 2 days no matter if day or night. Sporadically throughout the day you hear them fired and pop, but nothing as exciting as the first noon on the first day of celebration. Boom Ding Boom Ding... At noon the fireworks are accompanied by the bells of the churches that have towers in Central León. This signals to all that it is time to break from work and prepare for the Purísima.

For the 4 hours that we are at work nothing at all gets done. The excitement has been building all week. This year the 2 day celebration starts on a friday and is marked as the 150th anniversary. Moreover, this city is where the first ever celebration took place and the Church from which it started is one block from my house. Everyone asks me time and time again if I am going to yell today. At first I kid and say of course not, and I am met with an inquisitive "but you said you were catholic?". Well, I had to learn the jist of things and of course what to yell.

You subsitute "trick or treat" with a phrase "Who causes so much happiness?" that garners the response "The Conception of Mary", then you reply "Long live the Virgin". Whereas on Halloween the houses who are participating leave their lights on or some sign that they are Halloweeners, such as a Jack-o-Latern or tombstone, here the houses are signaled by an altar dedicated to Mary. Rich or poor the people put together ornate altars that feature christmas lights, fake flowers, painted backgrounds, and statues of Mary and Saints (see photos). Also instead of getting candy everywhere you go, "yellers"(as they are called) get everything from socks, pens, candles, to little sweets. Perhaps the most telling thing I recieved was from the Church of the Mother of Mercy, which handed out peeled sugar cane. It is a symbol of Nicaragua´s past, present, and future. From the sugar cane comes Nicaragua´s orld famous rum and also sugar, which in the future could be used such as in Brazil as fuel. It turs out to be quite the tastey treat, and something traditionally done for over a century. The Church also had an altar which had a painting of God with a halo of Red and Black, the traditional colors of the Sandinista political/revolutionary party.

I am not sure how to react to the entire 2 day feast. It is pretty obvious that their is very little separation between Church and State here. The TV channels and radios continually yell the phrases and President Ortega does so as well on TV and even has hundreds of people yelling at his house as he hands them bags of treats and then they are shoved out of the line. All these people are hailing the mother of Jesus and venerating her purity and sanctity, but then again women´s rights and the rule of Machismo plague civil and social society. On the one hand it is nice to see so many peope celebrating a holy day of obligation, but then again the churches are not exactly filled. In the end it would appear that a good deal are talking about Mary, whose feast day celebrates her sinless life, but just thinking about booze, free gifts, and having a good time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Joining the Effort

Door to Door in Rural Nicaragua

Nothing prepares you to face poverty. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by flies and the smell of burning dried leaves. You turn a corner on a dirt road and you have a 3yr old boy with no shirt and no shoes by himself staring at you in bewilderment because of your complexion or presence in his tiny town. I walk up to him, smile and rub his head. A group of kids 8 - 11 in age come prancing along smiling ear to ear as I start with an hola amigos. Their smiles and laughter roll back my memory. The CISAS clown troup had dotted my nose and cheeks with red paint before I began my rounds with the Ministry of Health workers and CISAS volunteers.

House to shack, door to rusted metal leaning over the opening where the door should be, we go distributing a pamphlet that tells the bare bones of what HIV is, how it is transmitted, how we can protect ourselves, and how to properly use a condom. Along with the paper comes a pair of condoms. After doing 3 houses in pairs, I am told to take a pack of both and start down a 4 foot wide path that is lined with fences on both sides made of barbed wire or cactus. I´m with Oscar, the most well built and tall Nicaragua I have met thus far. A bartender by night and a community health intern by day. As I walk the path, making sure not to step in the stream that resides in the middle, my mind goes back to Mountains Beyond Mountains and the story of Dr. Farmer doing just this, but instead of only providing awareness and 2 condoms, he brings life saving medicine and years of medical expertise.

I struggle through my first house. The 20 year old male would rather talk about the Bronx and whats up on MTV then Sexually Transmitted Diseases. I get him back on track when I tell him about the free condoms. Mission accomplished - he asked for 2 more pamphlets for his brothers and extra condoms. My next house, like many here, are little shops in the front to get drinks, snacks, candy etc, and then the living room behind the counters. I turn to the older gentleman and Oscar turns to the woman selling him an egg and dry rice. I try to explain the science behind how the elderly man should not be using two condoms at a time. As I talk, the woman laughing says, give him all he needs he sleeps around too much with girls that are in their 20s. His leathery and worn skin smiles displaying only a handful of teeth. Is this the face of a man that a 20 yr old woman is going to give herself to? Do I dare mention the rights of women? I spend extra time telling him how a condom is really the only protection if you are going to be sexually active. He smiles again, asks for 10 condoms and thanks myself and Oscar for the advice.

On the half hour ride back to León, Oscar and I discuss how there just weren´t enough pamphlets and condoms, but that doesn´t mean there is no hope. We over hear one of the women from the ministry of health speaking about a 20 yr old girl who actually told her how HIV is transmitted and told her to save the condoms for others in the neighborhood that will need them; in her own words, "I have plenty of those trust me".

Sunday, December 2, 2007

World AIDS Festival

Festival a Success Despite Distractions

Picture this, a two lane street a block away from the heart of the town plaza, where the biggest church in Central America resides. On one side of the street is one of the many buildings of the UNAN (Nicaragua’s public university), which is the site of the Global AIDS Festival. The other is the Church of the Mother of Mercy (the patron saint of the city).

The festival begins with the reading of participating groups and then an address from the leader of Leon’s self-help group for people living with HIV. With great courage and charisma she stands in front of the microphone and delivers a speech promoting the solidarity needed to face this virus that affects the person, community, and the world. She thanks all for coming and putting on this festival to acknowledge World AIDS Day. She leaves to the sound of applause while two 7 year old girls dressed in brightly free flowing dresses take the stage. This is the first of what will be 4 different groups of girls dancing the traditional folklore steps that Nicaraguans take great pride in. After resounding applause the CISAS clowns get introduced. Five minutes into the act, the bells of the Catholic Church of Mercy begin to clamor creating a battle of sound waves between the voices of the clowns and the sound of the bell. The bell tolls for approximately ¾ the show, obscuring some of the vital information being brought to the audience and people passing by. “Tattoos (DONG) that aren’t (DONG) cleaned before (DONG) ….” I am sure you get the picture.

The clowns put on the same show as in the terminal, but this time also added a demonstration on how to properly put on a condom, take off a condom, and throw away a condom. They also got a volunteer from the audience to replicate the procedure for a prize. When there is very limited sexual education in the school systems, and the culture does not lend itself to families talking about sexual relations and practicing safe sex, then upon who does it fall on to obtain life saving information? In this instance it is the world of non-governmental and non-profit organizations.

Throughout the 2 hour festival the bells ring on and off to the point that some people begin to laugh. Would the church blatantly have the bells ringing to overshadow the speakers directed toward the crowded streets? Why did the bells only ring during the clown show and other acts that had something to do with HIV awareness? Did the bell ringer just like folklore music and that’s the reason why the bell was silent during those acts? I had plenty of questions, so I marched into the church! I had a hundred different things that my Catholic education has taught me swirling around my head. Matthew 25, Jesuit mottos, the golden rule, all emphasizing on how this church should in no way be attempting to silence what is taking place outside its door. I walked through the beautiful wooden church doors in search of a simple answer to a simple question; do the bells normally ring like this? The head priest was saying mass and the best answer I could get stated that mass was going on and that there is no rhyme or reason to the bells – they just ring. I thought of the many Catholic priests, nuns, and the different orders, like the Jesuits and the Maryknolls, that would be greatly dismayed if the bells were utilized as a means to silence promoting World AIDS Day or educating the people.