Nicaragua, the "land between lakes and volcanoes," is also a land of violent cultural contradictions. Male-female relations are not the least of these contradictions. More than 80 percent Catholic, its central religious feast is "La Purísima," the Immaculate Conception. It is one of the few countries in the world with a woman president, Violeta Chamorro, who played on this religious culture during her campaign in 1990. Always in a white dress, with Cardinal Obando y Bravo at her side, she was "la purísima," the pure and faithful widow of the martyred national hero, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, assassinated by Somoza in 1978.
But this exaltation of chaste womanhood has as its underside a culture of brutal machismo in which male violence to women in the family has long been assumed to be an unassailable masculine prerogative. This family violence is accompanied by a pattern of family fragmentation, where fathers commonly abandon their wives and children. It is estimated that about 60 percent of the families of Nicaragua are headed by women. Women carry not only the responsibilities of parenting and domestic work, but most of the economic maintenance of the family as well. Male sexual and cultural prerogatives are fiercely asserted almost in inverse proportion to actual paternal responsibility.
This pattern of family fragmentation is not new. It goes back to the coffee and cotton plantation economy of the late 19th century, when men left the family for several months a year to work in the fields of the landowners. Women were left not only to care for the children and household, but also to till the tiny family plot of land and scrape together the daily necessities of life. The poor pay in the fields, and the high rate of alcoholism often meant that the men returned with little to show for their labors and reasserted their male prerogatives with their fists.