Francisca will not let anything stop her from defending her rights.
39-year-old Francisca Ramirez remembers her mother’s fear, the worry-lines etched into her face, her heavy shoulders. But the most vivid memories from her childhood are of the constant threats of being forcibly evicted, having to leave their home in La Fonseca, a rural town in Nicaragua. Her family had been living on their land for several decades, but they lacked official papers.
In recent years, her childhood fears have returned. In 2013, the Nicaraguan parliament passed Law 840, approving the construction of the “Grand Interoceanic Canal”, an enormous canal which would slice the country in half.
Francisca and many other communities in Nicaragua are worried that the Grand Canal would displace them from their homes. The authorities have not provided sufficient information about the project and both Indigenous and peasant farmer communities living in areas which would be affected by the plans for the canal are concerned that it could ruin their crops and destroy the graveyards where their ancestors lie.
Francisca read the laws carefully, and decided not to stay silent. Instead, she took action to defend her rights and those of her community. She started to raise her voice and has since become a leader in the community, fighting to ensure an adequate standard of living for peasant farmer communities in Nicaragua.
“I will not allow this area to be destroyed by a project which will only benefit a few, but will harm a vast number of people,” Francisca told Amnesty International.
Amnesty International has expressed its concern that the Nicaraguan authorities are planning to go ahead with a large scale development project that could potentially have a negative impact on many communities. The authorities must guarantee that all communities which could be affected by the construction of the Grand Canal are duly consulted.
As a human rights defender and rural woman in an extremely male-dominated environment, Francisca has become a role model for other rural women across Latin America. Today, on October 15, the International Day of Rural Women, we recognize women like Francisca. Women’s leadership and participation is key for protecting the rights of rural communities, in particular to ensure the effective realization of economic and social rights.
In Francisca’s own words, “women are fundamental for our society to function properly. Women need to be respected and their rights must be recognized and protected, their voices need to be heard.”
Women are fundamental for our society to function properly. Women need to be respected and their rights must be recognized and protected, their voices need to be heard.Francisca Ramírez
Women human rights defenders are often at risk of violence and experience intersecting forms of discrimination. Particularly in Latin America, as highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, women defenders are among the most threatened owing to the nature of their human rights work and to their gender.
Francisca has long challenged gender stereotypes. Despite having to take care of her eight siblings since her childhood, she has been able to place her feet on land that is hers in a way her mother was unable to. She has continued the family trade, which she has always loved. “I like agriculture, I like planting seeds, I like to take care of animals, I like raising cattle and I like the trade”, said Francisca to Amnesty International.
Francisca has planted the seeds of persistence and strength in fellow peasants. She is the national coordinator for a coalition of community leaders who, in spite of persistent threats and intimidation, continue raising their voices to defend their rights. They are united by the same cause: defending the land and natural resources which they depend upon to make a living. “The land is like a mother,” says Francisca. It would deeply pain her to see trees being cut down, their roots ripped out, leaving behind wounded soil. “We have to take good care of her, the land that feeds us.”
This territory is home to her and more than 50% of the women in La Fonseca who work the land and in the household, raising their children while harvesting the crops. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, but despite these challenges, Francisca would not live anywhere else.
Being the frontrunner against a large scale development project is not an easy task, especially when the risks are higher for women human rights defenders. Francisca has underlined the importance of collaboration from other national and international organizations.
“We need to be united for our voices to be heard across the region and around the world”.
The situation is becoming more and more challenging every day, but Francisca is determined never to give up the land where she was born and raised. What she worries about the most is how the construction of the Grand Canal could hamper the rights of her family and the entire community.
“That is our biggest fear, knowing that they will take our land, which is where we live, where we plant our food and which we will eventually leave to our children.”
Still, her determination shines through when she talks about the future.
“We have hope. We have human rights. We will win this fight.”