Stories from PSJP: Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres

Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres (FCAM)/Central American Women’s Fund (CAWF), Managua, Nicaragua and San Francisco, USA
Written by Andrew Milner

FCAM and the swallows

‘I remember the case of Veronica. While she was working [as a sex worker], a client shot her in the stomach and ran off. We, her colleagues and fellow sex workers, took her to hospital in Managua. We also hustled around to look for blood for her because the hospital didn’t have blood of her type and we took it in turns to stay with her until they took her to be operated on. She was really bad. The bullet punctured her organs and she had to use a drain for two years. Luckily, they operated on her again and it went well. But in this case, justice was never done because the police wanted her to make a deposition straightaway without taking into account that she was critically ill in hospital. Later, the case was filed away and she didn’t want to reopen it for fear that her assailant would come back and kill her.’

It was experiences like this, of abuse by clients and by the police, that, in 2004, led a group of young women sex workers to form themselves into an organization, Las Golondrinas (the Swallows) to affirm and defend their rights and the rights of women generally (the narrator of the story is Fanny Torrez Rodriguez who became Coordinator of Las Golondrinas). But where to start? At first there were six of them, who knew each other from the bars out of which they worked. They had no money, no premises, no experience of forming or running an organization and very little education. Without outside help, it’s unlikely that the group would have survived. Around this time, FCAM published a call for proposals for its Ola Joven grantmaking programme. One of the women saw it in the newspaper, they applied and were successful.

FCAM and how it works

FCAM’s mission is to nurture a movement of women, and particularly young women, in Central America who are working to guarantee their rights to physical and emotional integrity, economic justice, and participation as leaders in making decisions that affect their lives and communities. The Fund works in a number of ways: grantmaking; networking among grantees, capacity building, supporting access to learning opportunities such as workshops and international events, disseminating information, participatory evaluation and fundraising. As we will see, its relationship with Las Golondrinas illustrates many of these elements better than any general description could.

Ola Joven (Young Wave) is one of six grantmaking programmes the Fund runs* and its core programme. It works long-term with 79 organizations and focuses on groups whose participants and leaders are women aged 16 to 30, which work on new or controversial themes, have little access to other funds, are located in isolated areas or support young women who are very much marginalized. The application process for the programme, which Las Golondrinas went through, is worth special mention. Grantees are not selected by the Fund’s management or Board of Directors, but by other grantees and applicants for funds. Proposal summaries are circulated to this group and are voted on. In keeping with this spirit, all of FCAM’s grantees evaluate one another and themselves throughout the year using the Fund’s evaluation tools. Participatory processes such as these, believes FCAM, help women to share knowledge and experiences and to develop leadership skills.

The relationship

So FCAM gave Las Golondrinas its first grant. As the group had no legal status at the time, it is one of the few funders in the country or outside of it which would have done so. In fact, one of the ways in which it helped the group was by assisting it to acquire legal status. This, combined with FCAM’s introducing it to other donors, has helped it subsequently to get money from other sources, such as the American Jewish World Service.

But FCAM’s support has helped the group in many other ways, too. At the start, the women had no experience of running an organization. FCAM helped them develop the skills to do so. Carla López, executive director of FCAM recalls that when Fanny Torrez Rodriguez first presented the project in public at a FCAM grantees meeting she was ‘very shy, she didn’t want to talk in public because she ashamed’ – of her lack of education and of her status for, in Nicaragua, as elswhere, being a sex worker carries a stigma. FCAM guided them through the presentation and encouraged them to think in insitutional ways. FCAM also facilitated contact with other organizations, which helped both to publicize their own activities and to learn from those of others. With FCAM’s support, Las Golondrinas joined REDTRASEX (Red de Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latino América), a Latin American regional network of sex workers. Ana Criquillion of FCAM’s sister organization CAWF stresses that this non-financial support has been in some ways more important than the funding they received since it has opened up a much wider field and much greater possibilities.

In short, the support they received from FCAM has transformed them. Las Golondrinas is now an organization comprised of 23 women activists. They work in five municipios (administrative districts) with around 100 women aged between 18 and 31. They are an organization with a national and, through REDTRASEX, a regional presence. In 2009, they signed an agreement with national ombudsman to get his support for the cause of sex workers’ rights. Now, they are negotiating with the director of national police to get a commitment to combatting the abuse by police officers of sex workers, of which there are many instances.

They have made the rights of sex workers a public issue where previously it was not a subject for debate. In fact, as in many places, working as a sex worker is illegal in Nicaragua which made it easy to ignore. By contrast, Fanny Torrez Rodriguez can now say without blinking that she is a sex worker. ‘It’s not a crime,’ she says, ‘it’s a job.’

From organizational development to personal development

This touches on another important consideration. The women have also gone through a process of great personal development. In common with most sex workers in Nicaragua, they are young women from small communities in the interior of the country. They are from poor families and barely educated. They work in secret, they have no official existence, consequently no rights and no legal protection. As sex workers, they labour under the contempt of others. Naturally, they have very little self-esteem. Through Las Golondrinas, that has changed. They have begun studying and many of them have either gained qualifications. This is not because of the money that the organization has received, but because, through their work in developing the organization, they have seen the possibility of another life and have reacquired a sense of their own worth. In turn, this encourages the women they work with to believe that they can do the same.

‘I have a voice and I have wings. Now I’m a Golondrinav

It’s been a big jump. They have developed from a small local group to a nationally-recognized organization capable of negotiating with other national institutions and ‘representing the field’ as Ana Criquillion puts it. Of course, the greatest factor in this has been the courage and resolve of the group’s members. It also shows, however, what judicious, all-round support from a social justice funder can achieve. In the years between 2004 and 2012, FCAM has given Las Golondrinas around $50,000. It’s a small amount of money, but it has been critical. Even more important has been the capacity-building, guiding them through application procedures, helping them secure legal status, introducing them to an important and influential network of contacts. It is doubtful if they would have survived their early days without FCAM support. FCAM’s size and the fact that is a local presence is important here. As Ana Criquillion points out, with foundations that work at a remove, the grant is everything. They are seldom in a position to offer the kind of networking and capacity building support, without which a small grassroots can easily fail. Small foundations on the spot and close to the grantees have an advantage in this respect that can be crucial.

Meanwhile, the organization continues its day-to-day work of holding meetings of sex workers and former sex workers in the municipios in which it works on topics like sexual health, the right way to use condoms, prevention of violence and self-esteem. Once a month, they go to the bars where sex workers work, they talk to them and give out condoms and educational material.

In an article in Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario in June last year, a young woman sex worker told the reporter how she used to think in desperation of taking a machete to defend what she earned the previous night from the pimp who called most days around midday to take half her earnings. As she talked, she got ready to go to a workshop on self-esteem organized by Las Golondrinas. That day, the pimp did not come. She knew that he would another day, but she was not afraid. She told the journalist she was no longer the poor girl from Samulali. ‘Now I have two effective weapons. I have a voice and I have wings. Now I’m a Golondrina.’

* The other five are: My Body is Mine which supports groups that advance a woman’s right to choose abortion in cases of a life-threatening pregnancy or sexual abuse; Women and Transnational Families which supports immigrant and migrant women in defending their human rights; the Rapid Response programme which, as its name suggests, quickly provides grants to women’s rights leaders who face emergencies, or who are active in urgent and unforeseen advocacy efforts; Women Workers’ Rights, a new effort, which supports groups which organize women working in factories located in free-trade zones, or maquilas; and the Sexuality and Rights programme which supports groups that seek to strengthen the movement for sexual diversity throughout Central America.

This account is based on:
• A conversation with Carla López, Ana Criquillion and Shakira Simmons of FCAM, 15 October 2012 and written material they supplied
• Two articles in Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario, ‘Las Golondrina,’ 12 June 2011 and ‘Mujeres cansadas de maltrato’, 30 April 2012
• A case study compiled by Max Niedzwieckifor a meeting of social justice funders in Cairo, dated 9 February 2009