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Sounding the Drum for Women's Rights

We traveled for two days to get to our destination – the community of Waspam, near Nicaragua’s northern border with Honduras. After two flights and an hours-long, bumpy and dusty ride, we were bone tired when we first stepped out of the car.

That tired feeling soon evaporated. It was replaced by the humming energy of the place and the reason that brought us there: the 1,000 Indigenous women gathered for a four-day annual Forum to discuss their lives, their communities and their rights.

Women in Nicaragua
Rose Cunningham, Director of Wangki Tangni, leading the Forum’s opening march. © Lindsey Stuart

A few of us journeyed there together. Natalia Caruso is MADRE’s Program Director. Lindsey Stuart is a midwife and nurse practitioner, who joined us via the organization Circle of Health International (COHI). And finally there was me, MADRE’s Communications Director, arriving in Waspam for the first time.

When we pulled up, Natalia was the first person out of the car. She had been in Waspam so many times before, and she already knew her way around, greeting people by name and pointing our way forward. We were right in front of the beautiful home of Rose Cunningham, the Director of MADRE’s sister organization Wangki Tangni.

Within moments, Rose smiled down on us from her balcony and greeted us with a shout: “You made it!” Stepping inside, we found a place buzzing with activity, as the Wangki Tangni organizers worked hard, using her home as a staging ground to put everything in place. It was a big task — no wonder with over 1,000 Indigenous women from across the region converging in Waspam. Some of them had even traveled for days to arrive, some by foot, some on boats along the nearby river, the Rio Coco.

(A few days later, we even met one woman who traveled for two days in a canoe with her one-month old baby daughter strapped to her chest – just so that she could be part of this Forum. Pause for a moment to think about what that must have been like.)

Forum attendees marching through Waspam.
Forum attendees marching through Waspam. © Lindsey Stuart

Why did these women feel that it was so important to be there? We asked that question to some of them over the course of the next few days. Many of them were leaders in their own villages, organizing to improve conditions for their families and communities. They wanted to meet with other women activists from the region, to share their stories and experiences. And they wanted the chance to present their demands to the local and regional authorities who would attend the Forum.

And on that first day, it started with a bang. To be exact, the banging of drums.

I was standing in a courtyard in front of the local basketball stadium. That was the space that Wangki Tangni had claimed, where Forum participants would gather for the next four days. We were all milling around, preparing for the launch event of the Forum, a massive protest that would wend its way through the streets of Waspam. Moments before, I had turned to Natalia to ask, “How will we know when it’s time to start the march?” Her simple reply: “We’ll know.”

Rose Cunningham, Bibidelia Clarence and Natalia Caruso marching.
[l to r] Rose Cunningham, Bibidelia Clarence and Natalia Caruso marching. © Lindsey Stuart

Suddenly, there was an eruption of sound, loud drumming coming closer. I walked closer to the gate leading to the street, looking to my left just in time to see Rose herself, approaching at the head of a marching band. It had started.

For the next hours, a mass of people moved through the streets. We carried signs and raised our voices, denouncing violence against women and demanding human rights. The whole town came to know that something big was happening.

For the next four weeks, we will blog more about the Forum – about what brought us there, about what happened and about what came out of it. But first, I wanted to share this memory, about the hope, anticipation and possibility that hung in the air, from the very start.