By César Chelala
NEW YORK: For a long time it has been one of Nicaragua most guarded secrets. But a new Amnesty International report, “Listen to their Voice and Act: Stop the Rape and Sexual Abuse of Girls in Nicaragua,” brings it to light. Rape of teenagers in Nicaragua is widespread, and nothing is being done to stop it.
It doesn’t help that Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, was accused by his own step-daughter of sexually abusing her. In 1998, Zoilamerica Narvaez Murillo accused Ortega of having abused her since she was 11, a situation that started in 1979 and lasted for 19 years.
Both Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, repeatedly denied the charges and said that they were politically motivated. Although a judge dismissed Narvaez’s charge, the Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres de Nicaragua (Nicaragua’s Women Autonomous Movement) stated that history would not absolve Ortega politically or morally despite the ruling.
At the time, the case could not proceed in Nicaraguan courts because Ortega had immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament, there was a five-year statute of limitations for sexual abuse, and rape charges in that context fall under the proviso of statute of limitation.
Regrettably, Narvaez’s case is far from unique in Nicaragua. Between 1998 and 2008, more than 14,000 cases of rape among girls under 17 were reported, according to official statistics. Experts believe, though, that this is just a small percentage of the total; the number would be much higher if the number of cases also included incest.
Two-thirds of rape victims in Nicaragua are under the age of 17, according to Amnesty International. Information is difficult to find for those at risk or suffering sexual violence. In many cases, the stigma associated with sexual crimes blames the victims, not the perpetrators. “Every day, girls in Nicaragua are suffering the horror of sexual violence in silence, rather than risk the rejection that many suffer when they speak out,” stated Esther Major, Amnesty International Central America researcher.
Many victims of rape or sexual abuse rarely go as far as demand prosecution for those crimes, because the legal process is too traumatic or too expensive for them. For those who proceed with the charges, failures in the justice system mean that the attackers frequently walk free. Because most perpetrators are relatives of the victims or people in a position of power, victims are under heavy pressure not to denounce the abuse.
In Nicaragua, the situation is even more serious because of the ban on abortion, regardless of circumstance, which compels incest and rape victims to bear children and thus contributes to the increase in maternal deaths, a fact that had been denounced by Amnesty International.
According to the 2008 penal code regulations abortion is criminalized, with prison sentences for women who undergo the procedure and criminal sanctions for doctors and nurses who help them. “Children are being compelled to bear children. Pregnant women are being denied essential life saving medical care,” stated Kate Gilmore, Amnesty International’s UK Director, at a press conference in Mexico City. I can think of almost no worst fate for a young girl than having a child from the man whom she detests.
The Nicaraguan government needs to provide economic help and psychological assistance to victims of rape, to allow them to rebuild their lives, and the judicial system should be open to allow that the girls’ complaints are heard and properly addressed. At the same time, laws on abortion should be modified so that the victims of rape will be better able to overcome the ordeal they went through.
Nicaragua overcame a bloody civil war to enjoy the fruits of democracy. An essential component of this process is to guarantee gender equality and to eliminate the most brutal forms of abuse and discrimination.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and an award-winning writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.