Chasing justice : violence against women, legal activism, and the gendered state in Nicaragua




Neumann, Pamela Jane

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Drawing on ten months of ethnographic fieldwork, in-depth interviews, and secondary sources, this dissertation examines how everyday institutional practices shape the different trajectories of women victims of domestic violence who seek legal assistance in Nicaragua. Taking a transnational feminist analytical lens, this research reveals how gendered governance operates through global policy on violence against women, contentious local politics, and the everyday interactions that women have with bureaucratic actors. In so doing, this study demonstrates the limitations of state-centered solutions to violence against women, particularly the unintended consequences of legal-punitive strategies which fail to address women's economic dependence on men. The first chapter analyzes the political battle between feminist organizations and state actors over Nicaragua's new law against gender-based violence (Law 779), passed in 2012. The central question posed here is: why would a government pass a highly progressive law and then almost immediately proceed to dismantle it? The chapter offers a two-fold answer. First, I suggest that Law 779 was passed in order to keep pace with regional legal trends in Latin America. Second, I contend that the law's subsequent derailment resulted from (1) the president's alliance with conservative religious groups, and (2) the interest of particular state actors in preserving Nicaragua's reputation as the so-called “safest country in Central America.” The second chapter draws on feminist theories of the state to analyze how the routine practices of low-level state bureaucrats impact women's experiences navigating legal institutions in Nicaragua. Contrary to theories of representative bureaucracy, I show how the increased presence of women officials within state institutions does not improve most women's treatment by police or prosecutors. Rather, only when women victims have access to specific forms of social capital are their cases granted legitimacy by state actors. The third chapter focuses on why some women do not follow through on their legal cases. Drawing on Dorothy Smith’s concept of bifurcated consciousness and Merton's concept of sociological ambivalence, I identify the specific material, relational, and institutional factors that contribute to the ambivalence of some Nicaraguan women toward laws and legal solutions. Through this institutional ethnography, I demonstrate the linkages between the material, symbolic, and embodied dimensions of gendered governance in Nicaragua, including how gendered hierarchies are constructed within the state itself, and how these hierarchies may be disrupted. At the same time, I also argue that the increasingly homogenized global discourse on “violence against women” has not only erased the diverse array of women’s experiences that constitute such violence, it has also circumscribed the range of alternatives available to women.



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