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Last Updated: 08/07/2008
Women in the Nicaraguan guerilla movement
Kosna Beker

Key Words: Nicaragua, Samoza Dictatorship, Latin America, central America, Revolution, Gender Analysis, Violence, Non-Violence

“If the twentieth century was the age of revolution, then surely Latin America was the region of revolution. Over the course of that century, new revolutionary movements emerged every few years across the region, movements that promoted goals such as overturning dictatorships, confronting economic inequalities, and creating what Cuban revolutionary hero Che Guevara called the ‘new man’. But in fact, many of those new men were not men. Thousands of them, especially in the second half of the century, were women.” (Karen Kampwirth, Women and Guerrilla Movement)


Nicaragua is one of Central American states, former Spanish colony which gained its independence from Spain in 1821, for a short time becoming a part of the Mexican Empire and then a member of the federation of independent Central American provinces. In 1838, Nicaragua became an independent republic[1]. From then on, Nicaraguan history could be depicted through the rivalries, conflicts and civil wars. Because of Nicaraguan very important geo-political position in the region, U.S. has had an interest to intervene in the governance and internal politics of Nicaragua. Therefore, with the exception of 9-month period in 1925-1926, Nicaragua was under U.S. military occupation from 1911 to 1933.[2] In the period between 1927 and 1933, U.S. forces engaged in fight with rebel forces led by General Augusto Sandino.[3] Empowered by the foreign troops, National Guard Commander Anastasio Somoza Garcia conducted several tactical movements in order to overthrow his political opponents-including Gen. Sandino, who was assassinated by the National Guard.[4] Somoza took over the presidency in 1936. The Somoza family dynasty lasted from 1936-1979, owing to constant and generous U.S. support. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), originally a student organization, was established in 1961. During the 1960s and the 1970s, FSLN guerrilla struggled against Somoza’s regime and sometimes they met with remarkable success.[5] The Somoza dynasty ended in 1979 with a massive rebellion led by the FSLN guerrilla forces.[6] What happened after this moment is part of Nicaraguan contemporary history, which for the purposes of this paper will not be necessary to mention in detail, but in a few words, the FSLN established an authoritarian dictatorship for one, the relations with the U.S. weakened rapidly, which eventually led to the U.S. support of the Nicaraguan resistance to the FSLN and imposing of an economic embargo. In the end, the regime nationalized private industries and confiscated private property.[7] In February 1990, as a result of both domestic and international pressure, the first nationwide democratic elections were held, proclaimed to be free and fair by the international observers,[8] which was a great success story. It could be said that since this time, democracy with its institution has been developing very fast in Nicaragua, followed by national reconciliation, stabilizing of the economy, and decrease in human rights violations.[9]


Nicaraguan women and guerrilla

Although during the second half of 20th century many countries in both Central America and Latin America had guerrilla movements and/or revolutions, the FSLN was one of the most important revolutionary guerrilla groups in the history of the region because they successfully overthrew a corrupt Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua, implemented one of the first socialist governments in Central America, and fought against constant United States intervention.[10] What is maybe less known is the fact that 30 percent of the combatants, and many of the top guerrilla leaders within the FSLN, were women.[11] In addition, the study of the records of the Sandinista Social Security Institute found that 6.6 percent of people who were killed in the struggle against Somoza were female.[12] It could also be argued that this percentage of women’s engagement is really high, especially when compared to the other guerrilla movements across the world, but the question still remains - why is this the case or why is that the Nicaraguan women were involved in such high numbers in the guerrilla struggle. According to Karen Kampwirth’s study, the reasons why women have chosen to participate in the guerrilla movement are the same as the reasons given by their male counterparts, such as: the end of the dictatorship, the end of the exploitation of poor and indigenous, and the creation of better society for their children.[13] Yet, despite the same initial motivations for joining the guerrilla movements, men and women did not share either the same position or the same importance in Nicaraguan society historically. Women have been ignored and marginalized in politics, in history, and within society in Nicaragua, as in the rest of the world. According to Anna M. Fernandez Poncela: ‘Women’s social and political role in Nicaraguan history has been reduced to “history as legend”: the stories of individual women, elevated to the status of “national heroines” (such as mythical Xochitl, Rafaela Herrera, and few female guerrilla commanders-Monica Baltodano, Dora Maria Tellez)’[14] These examples are part of the ‘official’ version of history, but if we look under the surface, we can see the existence of the social and cultural resistance of many anonymous women, from the colonial times to nowadays. Women have been involved in all struggles taking place in Nicaragua, starting with the indigenous women during the conquest time. Afterwards, women were part of the struggle for independence in 1811, in the civil wars of 1854 and 1856, then in the uprising led by Benjamin Zeledon in 1912, next in the Sandino’s war (1926-1934), the national strike of 1936, workers struggle in the Patco textile factory, and the student demonstrations of 1956.[15] Although not so visible at the first sight, Nicaraguan women have a long tradition in social and political movements, as well as significant importance. During the four decades of the Somoza’s family reign, some crucial changes happened in the Nicaraguan society, which were of great importance for numerous women engagement in the guerrilla. In 1955, women were given the right to vote through Somoza’s constitutional reform.[16] Besides positive international image he wanted to have, the other reason for that decision was an idea that women are mainly conservative, and that female vote would serve his political goals.[17] Widespread belief across the whole Latin America is that women more likely than men to support conservative politicians, and one of the reasons for such belief is analogous to the peasants’ conservatism.[18] Women, like peasants, tend to be especially vulnerable, less literate, with underpaid jobs, and more likely to be hurt by political and economic change; thus, they are considered to be supportive of the stable dictatorships rather than risky unstable democracies.[19] During Somoza’s dictatorship, for the mentioned reasons, equity and equality of men and women were proclaimed, along with continual emphasis on the importance of women in Nicaraguan society. This strategy had two main oversights: the contradiction between empowerment of women on the one hand, and violent exclusion of both women and men on the other hand, as well as the fact that vulnerable groups may be more conservative than others in one set of circumstances, while under different circumstances they also may be more radical, because they did not have anything to lose.[20] Other reason for the mobilization of Nicaraguan women in the guerrilla movement was the combination of social, political, structural, and personal factors. Economic reasons were predominant, both inequalities and level of poverty grew, land was concentrated in the hands of the elite members. For that reason, Nicaraguan family faced with increased rates of family abandonment on the part of fathers[21], leaving behind numerous female-headed households. In order to find a way to support their children, single mothers moved to the big cities[22], where they had greater chances for better jobs and for independence. In addition, the Sandinistas had different strategy for recruiting people, they gave up Cuban recipe (small foco bands), and employed mass mobilization strategy in which all new members were accepted regardless of their gender.[23] In the study of women in the guerrilla movements Karen Kampwirth argues that considerable number of female guerrilla activists came from the lower-middle class families with long resistance tradition; mostly young women, well educated, freed from many patriarchal constrains, as well as aware of serious risks that participation in the FSLN entailed.[24]



The combination of all various factors mentioned before could be an answer to the question of why the FSLN was the first guerrilla movement with such a large number of women both combatants and supporters. While initial motivation for joining the guerrilla movement was the same for men and women, their social origin, personal background, and later motivation diverge. As pinpointed by Karen Kampwirth – ‘To some extend, males and females always see the world differently, and act differently, because their experiences and opportunities differ. The greater the disparity between the way men and women are treated in a given society, the more likely that male political activists (including guerrillas) will differ from female political activists.’[25] Nevertheless, Nicaraguan case is a good example of united forces, resulted in the multiclass, dual-gender guerrilla movement which effectively ended up the Somoza dictatorship.

[1] Bureau of Western hemisphere affairs, Background Note: Nicaragua, History,

[2] Inevitable Revolution, The United States in Central America by Walter La Feber, pg.11

[3] Bureau of Western hemisphere affairs, Background Note: Nicaragua, History,

[4] Ibid

[5] Dennis Gilbert, Sandinistas,

[6] Bureau of Western hemisphere affairs, Background Note: Nicaragua, History,

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Brandon Miller , The Importance of the FSLN in Nicaragua,

[11] Karen Kampwirth, Women and Guerrilla Movements, pg. 2

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid, pg. 6

[14] Gender Politics in Latin America, Anna M. Fernandez Poncela, Nicaraguan women: legal, political, and social spaces, pg.37

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Karen Kampwirth, Women and Guerrilla Movements, pg. 22

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, pg.23

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid, pg.42

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid, pg.43

Kosana Beker holds an MA from the University for Peace