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Fighter for land and rights

It was something unheard of in the town of Dipilto, perhaps the entire department of Nueva Segovia, maybe even in all of Nicaragua.

Filomena Gradys was demanding of her husband that they divide their land 50-50, so that she would have legal title to three hectares, and he to the other three. Each would manage their own parcel.

Though strong-willed, Gradys didn’t find it easy to approach her husband 10 years ago with this radical proposition. “I stewed for three months thinking how I would tell him,” she said. His response was predictable: “‘You don’t know how to work, you have no experience,’ he told me. It was a tremendous fight,” said Gradys.

The real reason for his reluctance was not her lack of experience, but deep-seated tradition in a culture of machismo. “He thought that people would laugh at him, that they would say that I was the boss—such is a man’s pride.” But she persisted in her demand because after all, “Who knows what might happen in the future? I need security too.”

Her husband eventually agreed, and from then on they managed their parcels independently while at the same time helping each other with the work and making joint decisions on household expenditures.

Several years ago, Gradys’s husband started attending training sessions held by the non-governmental organization poldes, which had been contracted by the IDB-financed Socio-Environmental and Forestry Development Program to help farmers adopt soil conservation practices. “Yes, he was the one who took the lead,” admitted Gradys, but soon she began going also. “I learned how to identify diseases that affect coffee plants and how to control them, and other, more advanced, techniques.” Pretty soon she and her husband were engaged in friendly rivalry to implement the new things they learned.

Tradition dies hard. But just as it was impossible to keep Gradys in the home, it proved difficult to keep her on the farm. She became active in women’s groups, taking the lead in a women’s credit cooperative.

But the traditional concept of the woman’s role dies hard. Gradys’s oldest son, who is married, says that he doesn’t want his wife to become like his mother. “I tell him he is a machista,” said Gradys.

The problem is ingrained in society, she says. A girl is told she cannot continue in school because she is needed at home to make tortillas. Even when the wife is the producer, the local bank insists on dealing with the husband. The top positions in organizations and firms are reserved for men. “They say women don’t know anything. But women are 36 percent of the country’s economy and 52 percent of the population. For this reason I participate in women’s organizations to defend other women who can’t speak out on their own. Thank God my husband has supported me in this.”

Gradys and her husband have already sent three of their eight children to the university, and they are determined that the others get degrees as well. “It’s OK if my dress is five years old, but they’re all going to get an education,” she said. Gradys has ambitions for herself too: She has become involved in local politics and is running for mayor.

But while Gradys has proven that she can manage her own life, she could not control the weather. Hurricane Mitch, which destroyed the livelihoods of so many in Nicaragua in 1998, carried away nearly half of her low-lying land, reducing it to bare rock and sand. She was crushed, but she was not beaten.

She pointed to a neighboring slope covered with coffee bushes. “That’s the land I’m going to buy, if I can get the owner to sell,” she said. “He will sell. I’m sure of it.”

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