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Believed to have originated with the Nahua, Huastec, and Otomi peoples of central Mexico, the Danza de los Voladores is a very ancient ritual dating to the Pre-Classic era of Mesoamerican civilization; a formative phase of development commencing more than 4000 years ago.

It consists of one musician time-keeper and four dancers or ‘flyers’ who ascend a thirty metre pole, tie ropes around their waists, and then spiral back down to earth. In ancient times, participants wore elaborate feathered costumes to resemble eagles or other birds. One myth suggests the ritual originated during times of drought when five men sacrificed themselves to earn the favour of the gods of rain. The present-day version of the danza does not involve sacrifice, has been significantly simplified, and is maintained chiefly by the Totonacs of Veracruz.

Today, metal poles have replaced tree trunks, but the dance remains laden with symbols, including multi-coloured streamers representing rainbows and mirrored hats symbolizing the sun. The rotations of the flyers correspond to ancient calendars (13 rotations x 4 = 52, the number of years in a Mesoamerican century). The dance group featured in this video comes from the Totonac town of Papantla. They perform for tips every day on the plaza in Playa del Carmen.

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Photo: Imagens Evangélicas (Creative Commons)

It was a typical ruse. Claudia Ayala, a young Costa Rican woman, was promised a cleaning job in the U.S. Claudia trusted a man she had known for years, her pastor, to organise everything. She had no reason to doubt his assurances that she would be well paid and looked after by a good family. But after being smuggled across Central America and Mexico, and into the U.S, Claudia soon realised that there was no cleaning job to be had.  Instead, she was forced to work as a prostitute in Texas.   Despite being held against her will and living in appalling conditions for months, Claudia was lucky as she managed to escape back home to Costa Rica.

Last year, Claudia, along with eight other women, told her story as part of a radio series, El Silencio Duele, produced by a Costa Rican-based NGO, Voces Nuestras, in partnership with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).  These nine women are among thousands of people who are trafficked across Central America each year in what is a growing problem throughout the region.  In a 2012 report,Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime cautioned that human trafficking is an increasingly profitable market for Central America’s drug cartels. Indeed, the trafficking of people is extremely lucrative in other ways. According to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, an estimated annual profit of US$31.6 billion is made from the exploitation of trafficked forced labour and 4.1% of this profit is generated in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Disproportionately affected by human trafficking, women and girls are being denied their basic human rights. Exploited and forced to work in the sex industry, domestic servitude or as beggars, thousands of women and girls in Central America are denied their right to freedom, to be free from violence and inhumane treatment, and to health.  And, they are either trafficked southward to Costa Rica and Panama where they are forced into work or taken to countries outside the region, or they are trafficked northwards to Mexico, the US and Canada.

In 2012, the UNODC’s Report on Global Trafficking stated that, on average, 55%-65% of human trafficking victims are women and 27% are minors. The International Labour Organization estimates that globally women and girls account for 40% of people forced into exploitation such as manufacturing or domestic service, and that 98% of victims are forced into sexual exploitation. Women and girls are predominately trafficked for prostitution, but others are used for pornography and stripping.  According to NGO Casa Alianza, no fewer than 15,000 children are victims of Guatemalan child sex trafficking networks.  End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), a network of NGOs working for children’s rights, reports that in Guatemala, girls aged between eight and fourteen were sold for between US$100 and US$200, primarily for sexual exploitation.

Women and girls are also being trafficked for the purposes of forced labour in domestic households, for agricultural work or begging. Often, women believe they have been offered a legitimate paid job but on arrival are held and forced to work for nothing.  According to CAWN’s 2012 Trafficking of women briefing paper, this is what happened to Karen. Living in a rural village, Karen went to work for one of her father’s cousins in the city after he offered what seemed like a good opportunity. Karen left believing that she would be looked after but when she got there she was forced to work long hours for no pay. Living in filthy conditions, emotionally abused and held against her will, Karen suffered in silence until she managed to escape with the help of a friend.

Both Karen and Claudia’s experiences are far from unique. But because of the clandestine nature of human trafficking the true number or victims in Central America is unknown. However, what is more clearly understood is that complex and deep rooted societal problems such as entrenched poverty, inequality, and corruption contribute to women and girls being disproportionately affected by trafficking.  Deep-rooted discrimination against women is also a fundamental issue in Latin America. For example, Teresa Ulloa, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean, told theGuardian in 2013 that “The Latin American convention remains that women are to be used for men’s pleasure. This means that if they can’t access our bodies through force, they can do so with money, creating a demand for women and girls. If we could create policy on human trafficking that has gender equality at its core, then we would be tackling demand. If there was no demand for slaves, there would be no supply.

Although most countries in Central America have adapted existing laws or created new ones to tackle human trafficking, the lack of resources has often led to a failure to prosecute traffickers and to provide adequate support for victims. The Issue of corruption and complicity of state officials, and in some cases their lack of understanding of human trafficking, also represents a major stumbling block. But, there are several grass-roots organisations, such as The Central American Network of Women (REDCAM ),  RedTraSex , Foundation Rahab , Casa Alianza, and The Fundación Sobreviventes ,  which are working diligently to provide support for victims of trafficking and abuse. They also promote gender equality, and develop strategies to combat violence against women. There are also several international NGOs and campaigns which aim to raise awareness about trafficking, such as the United Nations Blue Heart campaign and the Call and Live programme, a regional campaign to combat trafficking which was set up by Ricky Martin, the IOM and the Inter-American Development Bank.

But the trafficking of women and girls continues to be a growing problem throughout Central America and different actions have to be taken at a local, national and international level.  Within the region, underlying factors affecting women, such as inequality, poverty and discrimination, urgently need to be addressed. More research needs to be conducted on trafficking and forced labour at both a national and international level.  And, grass-roots NGO’s providing education, support and research must be provided with the resources to aid them in their vital work of combating human trafficking so that no woman or child is forced to repeat the experiences of Karen and Claudia.

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Anti-total abortion law protest, Nicaragua

Amelia, a 27 year-old Nicaraguan woman, was diagnosed with cancer and like any other patient she should have been offered medical treatment. But, instead the young woman was denied what should have been a most basic right. Amelia was pregnant and Nicaraguan law makes it illegal for doctors to provide her with cancer treatment.

In 2008, a controversial law came into effect after amendments to the Penal Code began in 2006.   The new law prohibits all abortions, even when a woman requires a therapeutic abortion to save her life or when a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape. It also makes it illegal to provide life-saving treatment to a pregnant woman if there is any risk of harm to the fetus. Doctors and other medical staff who fail to follow the law risk prosecution.   Any pregnant woman or girl who suffers from cancer, malaria, HIV/AIDS or cardiac emergencies can no longer expect to be treated by her doctors because in the eyes of the law the life of her unborn child comes before hers.

Prior to the ban, therapeutic abortion had been legal in Nicaragua for more than 100 years and many international bodies, such as the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), expressed concern that the new law would be detrimental to the health of pregnant women and girls.  National and international women’s and human rights groups have since been campaigning for the government to repeal what has been described as a “draconian” law.

But according to a Ministry of Health (MINSA) report released in July, Nicaragua it is in fact “winning the battle against maternal deaths”.  Government statistics state that the number of maternal deaths in Nicaragua has dropped significantly since 2005 with 50.6 maternal deaths per 100, 000 live births in 2012 compared to 84.47 per 100,000 in 2005. And those in support of Nicaragua’s new abortion law suggest that these new figures show that the law has had no negative impact upon maternal health.

Back in 2010, the Nicaraguan government also released statistics which appeared to show a dramatic decrease in maternal deaths, 70 deaths per 100,000 compared to a 140 death per 100,000 live births in 2006. But the data was called into question by several Nicaraguan non-governmental organisations.

Francis Bustos, an independent clinical pathology researcher, told the Inter Press Service (IPS) that the figure quoted by the government “seems hard to believe”. Juanita Jimenez from the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM) also said: “There has been strong international pressure to reinstate therapeutic abortion, and one way or another the government is seeking to improve its image (with this new data).”

Another women’s rights activist, Fátima Millón, from the Central American organisation Network of Women against Violence (RMCV), also had her doubts, telling IPS: “The government generally tells lies, hides and manipulates figures when it doesn’t want them to become public knowledge, so I doubt that it’s true.”

But maternal mortality statistics can be unreliable and maternal death is often under-reported. Nicaragua’s country report to United Nations Economic and Social Council in 2008 admitted that although it was making progress in recording maternal mortality, MINSA recognized that “maternal deaths are under-recorded“ and  that “In some cases, this is because deaths occur at home and are not reported”.  The latest statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) are from 2005 and it puts the maternal death rate at 170 per 100,000 live births.  An estimated figure for 2010 from the Mortality Inter-Agency Group, which is made up of data from the WHO, The World Bank, The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), UNICEF, and the UN Population Division Maternal, puts the maternal death rate at 95 per 100,000.

The ‘real’ maternal death figures are not known.  Although government rates are substantially lower than the most recent estimates provided by the WHO.

Amnesty International’s 2010 report on the abortion law maintains that poor quality data means maternal mortality trends are difficult to measure in Nicaragua and, “this is compounded in a situation where abortion is criminalized and stigmatized, making it impossible to account for deaths resulting from unsafe abortion”. The criminalisation of abortion in Nicaragua encourages women to seek clandestine alternatives, thus avoiding the public healthcare system altogether.  Furthermore, doctors and other healthcare professionals, fearing prosecution, are less inclined to keep accurate data related to abortion and the treatment of other obstetric complications.

Many women and girls, some of whom were raped, now face prosecution. Victims become criminals. Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable with more than half of all rape cases in Nicaragua involving victims under the age of 18, and according to national police records, from 2008  2010, 79 women were charged with having an illegal abortion. 32.87 per cent of these women were under 18.

Indeed, the relationship between unsafe abortions and maternal mortality is well established. According to the WHO, 13 per cent of pregnancy-related deaths worldwide are attributed to complications due to unsafe abortions and the Central America Women’s Network’s (CAWN) report on maternal health, published in September 2012, states that this is the leading cause of maternal deaths in the country.

With one of highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world, the abortion ban is especially disastrous for adolescent girls.  According to data from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), between 2000 and 2012 22% of maternal deaths were teenagers.    The likelihood of developing complications that require therapeutic abortions is increased in adolescent girls. One complication includes cephalo-pelvic disproportion, which is often seen in girls who have not reached physical maturity and is when the pelvis is not wide enough to allow the fetus through. Data from MINSA also indicates that pre-eclampsia and the ingestion of poison, to induce miscarriage or commit suicide, were the leading causes of adolescent maternal mortality between 2007 and 2008.

Girls, some as young as nine, are being compelled to become mothers. Or they risk a dangerous and illegal abortion, which could either kill or criminalize them.

Both poor girls and women are disproportionately affected by the law and as Nicaraguan women’s rights activist and member of Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network Ana Maria Pizarro has said that “the anti-abortion policy was particularly cruel given the poverty of the majority of women, the lack of information about sex and reproduction, and the fact that Nica­ragua has one of the highest levels of ado­lescent pregnancy in Latin America.”

The government claims that the introduction of rural healthcare clinics for pregnant women, ‘Casa Maternas,’ is helping to reduce maternal deaths and provide better healthcare in deprived rural areas.

But Kenia Morales, a PhD student from Columbia University who is researching reproduction rights in Nicaragua, told CAWN that the “Casas Maternas are but a band aid to a gashing wound”.  Morles says that they the clinics, which receive funding from US based pro-life groups, “seek to reduce infant mortality and maternal death, but by doing so also reinforces these notions that parenting responsibility falls on women, and that victims of rape and incest should accept their god-given gift”.

Nicaragua is a devoutly Catholic county which places great importance on the fertility and the motherhood. “Abortar es Matar,”(abortion is murder) is a common expression in Nicaragua, women on street talked in hush tones about the death of ‘gods child,’ and murals depicting Jesus with a bleeding heart all reinforce Nicaragua’s pro-life message.  But desperate women will always find a way to obtain an abortion even if it puts their live at risk.

“Whether abortions are legal or not, women will (have always) find a way to control their natality and make decisions about the number of children they bear, the difference, and scary aspect, is how safely it will be done,” said Morales.

The abortion law is adversely affecting the health of pregnant women and girls.  Despite taking steps towards reducing maternal deaths and improving family planning services, the abortion law contradicts a body of medical evidence that clearly demonstrates a relationship between maternal deaths and unsafe abortions.

The government claims that it is successfully combating the country’s high maternal death rate. But in a country where there is poverty, lack of accessible health services and a ban on abortion under any circumstance, death during childbirth remains a stark reality for many vulnerable women and girls.

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Kusapin, Comarca Ngabe Bugle

Large tracks of pristine coastal land in the remote Kusapín district of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé in western Panama have be sold to foreign developers. An area of biological diversity with verdant forests, white sand beaches, and mangroves, Kusapín is located on the Caribbean coast – in 2004, its wetlands, an important nesting site for turtles, became a national reserve. Ngäbe families have lived on the land for generations, growing crops and fishing out at sea. But now 2100 hectares of land have been sold to developers, including Costa Rican businessman and politician, Antonio Álvarez Desanti. In 1997, after a long struggle, a comarca was awarded to the Ngäbe and the Buglé (a cultural similar but linguistically separate group numbering about 3000). Some 150’000 of the country’s 200’000 Ngäbe live in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé which encompasses 6968 squares kilometres of land, with three regions and seven districts. Land within the Comarca is collective and protected by a law that deems it “unalienable,” but this law has not stopped comarcal land from being sold.

According to an investigative article in one of Panama’s national newspaper, La Prensa, the land was originally acquired through a process of “prescripción adquisitiva de dominio.” This process allows occupants to apply for titles for privately held land if it has been occupied for certain amount of time and the original owner agrees to the titling or their whereabouts is unknown. In Kusapín, the land was bought for just three cents per meter by three lawyers, Evisilda Martinez, her husband Francisco Antonio Castillo and Nisla Janeth Ortega. The land, which consists of eleven fincas, was then titled and sold for millions to eight different companies. According to La Prensa, there were anomalies in the land sales– one issue being that the “prescripción adquisitiva de dominio” process normally takes years but in this case it was unusually fast, taking just a few months. Four of the eleven fincas were sold to Desanti, president of Desarrollo Ecoturístico Cañaveral, for millions although the exact amount is undisclosed. Desarrollo Ecoturístico Cañaveral is investing some 40 million dollars into the 685 acres of beachfront land for a tourism project that will include hotels, condos, and houses and is currently seeking hotel chains and investors.

According to its website “Cañaveral seeks to create a unique natural and cultural destination with a complete awareness of the fragility of our planet’s ecosystems and with the solemn purpose to preserve the cultural diversity of its surrounding communities.” Desanti claims “the whole community consultation process is properly documented by the district authorities.” But local Ngäbe resident Samuel Tugri told La Prensa that the community were outraged and felt deceived. “They said they would make a program to help people, but they really wanted our signatures to sell [the land]. They lied to us and now we have realized this,” he said. Community members also reported that unlike those who had so quickly acquired land titles, they had been attempting to obtain titles for years without success. La Prensa journalist Prieto-Barreiro Ereida claimed that Desanti could be taken to court. Speaking to Costa Rican paper Diario Extra, Desanti said that he bought the land in “good faith” and was unaware of any lawsuit against him. On 27 July, a regional meeting will held in the Kusapín district Comarca to discuss the development project and by the 23 August the community will decide whether to accept or reject it.