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I.M.O.W. Team

Mujeres Constructoras

Women Carpenters in Nicaragua

Mujeres Constructoras in Nicaragua redefines "domestic labor." This innovative organization trains women in electrical work and carpentry, in the process changing their lives, the community and the country. All photographs by Paola Gianturco.

In the small town of Condega in northern Nicaragua, women could rarely find jobs, and most worked as poorly paid domestic laborers or in agriculture. That is, until the early 1990s, when Amanda Centeno Espinoza (a former member of the Sandanista political party) founded Mujeres Constructoras, an organization which trains women in carpentry, welding, plumbing and electrical work.

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Photographs by Paola Gianturco

Amanda raised money from North America, and brought U.S. tradeswomen to Nicaragua to train local women in Condega. The women worked together to build a workshop, including workbenches, tables and chairs, where more women could learn and practice carpentry.

Eventually, students of Mujeres Constructoras built furniture for an exhibition and sold some of their work. As the women developed their skills, they also did odd carpentry jobs to earn money and gain experience--and some began to receive custom orders for their work.

Mujeres Constructoras soon became an integral part of the community as more and more women learned skills that helped them gain financial independence. Then, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch tore through Nicaragua, flooding and destroying entire neighborhoods. The hurricane also flooded the ground floor of Mujeres Constructoras' workshop.

The women managed to rescue their equipment and supplies, then looked to see what else they could do to help. They began by rebuilding houses for single women whose homes had been destroyed. Founder Amanda Espinoza also negotiated a land donation from the government, where the women from Mujeres Constructoras built 30 houses for those who had been displaced by Hurricane Mitch. Emergency relief funds allowed the group to buy a concrete mixer and a concrete block maker. Tradeswomen, called brigadistas, also flew in from the U.K. and the U.S. to help.

Many of the women who are part of Mujeres Constructoras are single mothers who once had other careers. Nery Gonzales Ruiz, a single mom, rearranged her life to attend morning classes after working the night shift in a tailoring job. "Now I think more of myself, my future, more about education for my children," says Ruiz. "I have even changed physically. I was thin. Today I am strong. And now, I even teach carpentry here."

Helen Shears, a carpenter from England who moved to Nicaragua to help with training, explained, "Women's carpentry curriculum is different from men's. It's not based on the assumption that the students know about tools and math. But it's the atmosphere, more than the course content, that's different. We spend more time at the beginning sharing stories and information, talking about the working world, helping with math, giving life skills."

Today, Mujeres Constructoras continues to employ instructors to train women and produce skilled and competent carpenters. Their work has spread out beyond Condega to other parts of the country. Wherever it goes, the organization helps women not only learn valuable skills but re-imagine their roles in their community--the first step towards escaping political repression and poverty.

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