Breaking Down Barriers For Women in Nicaragua
When asked to describe their service learning experience in Nicaragua, Counselor Education students of the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions repeatedly used the terms “humbling” and “life changing.”
Travelling to Leon, Nicaragua, six students facilitated a three-day workshop on August 13 - 15 with women who live with domestic violence. Dr. Virginia Kelly, professor of Counselor Education, developed the Special Topics class entitled “Violence in Nicaragua” in response to a request for help. “I heard about women needing counseling for domestic violence in Nicaragua through the New Haven/Leon Sister City Project and had always wanted to facilitate a workshop of this nature,” explained Dr. Kelly. “The experience had a profound impact on my students.”
Dr. Kelly learned that several rural villages outside of Leon were struggling with issues of gender equality and violence against women and that these women needed help. Through the Sister City Project that promotes social justice and supports education and sustainable development, Dr. Kelly organized for her and six of her students to visit women in Goyena and Troilo, rural towns near Leon.
“The culture was described to us as machismo, meaning that it tends to be male-dominated,” explained student Sarayu lyengar. “Consequently, women have limited resources, knowledge, or education – which has had a profound impact on issues of self-esteem and self-worth.” lyengar described how prior to the actual trip, she and her classmates studied research material, prepared slides and created activities on the topic – most of which they had to abandon because they quickly realized that they had to get to know the women first before they could “teach” anything.
This first trip was truly a pilot program in the sense that the students had to evolve their approach on the fly as they came to understand the needs of the women. “Our hope was that, as a result of forming a sense of community with the women that we might begin to help them strengthen their own sense of community” lyengar explained. Fellow classmate, Alessia Gagnon described how the group was humbled by the realization that they had as much to learn as the women did – maybe more. “We quickly realized the importance and relevance of understanding cultural perspectives and the women’s expectations for us,” said Gagnon. While in Leon, Dr. Kelly and her students worked closely with the Leon director of the Sister City Project, Erendira Vanegas, arranged for the group to visit rural communities outside of Leon to provide a context for their work.
“We were also fortunate to meet Sara Henriquez, an activist leading continuous efforts and noteworthy contributions to the issues of gender equity and violence against women throughout Nicaragua,” explained Gagnon. “She provided us with a historical perspective, a sociopolitical and cultural background and an in-depth description of significant events that have promoted the cause and hindered its success.”
Upon meeting the women in the villages, a main focus of the trip became helping them process their experiences with domestic violence through role-playing in small groups. But first Dr. Kelly and her students needed to gain the trust of the women who were reluctant at first to share their experiences. For many of the women, this was the first time they had been given the opportunity to talk about the violence they experience first-hand in their homes. After going through a series of icebreakers and group activities on the first day, the students then focused on facilitating an environment where the women could feel safe and explore their thoughts and feelings. “Ultimately we wanted the women to feel that they could give voice to their experiences,” explained lyengar.
To the group’s pleasant surprise, more women attended the workshop on the second day. On this day the students covered topics they imagined would be difficult, specifically sexual violence and the impact of abuse on children. Many of the women had their children with them at the workshops because childcare in their village does not exist; women stay home with their kids. With their children beside them, the women had the courage to openly discuss emotional and difficult issues. “I really enjoyed the role-play we facilitated to allow the women to act out alternatives to aggressive behavior that they face every day,” shared student Susan Elliott. “They had a chance to act out their daily lives and change the ending.”
On the third day of the workshop the students focused on building self-esteem and emphasized the importance of finding one’s voice. Through creative exercises, including laughing yoga and letter writing, the group was able to help the women realize their self-worth. Elliott summed up well a key lesson the group learned as a result of the work they did with the Nicaraguan women: “No matter where you live, and in what culture you are raised, the universality of the human condition is always present. You just have to take the time to listen to the stories of others with openness and non-judgment, and trust the rest of the therapeutic process to unfold.” Dr. Kelly hopes to travel with more students to Nicaragua next summer and continue to work with the women of Leon.