Your little sister, thirteen years old, lives with your mother and your mother’s live-in boyfriend, while you live in another city. Suddenly you get news that your little sister is pregnant. The guilty party is the guy your mother calls “your step-father.” His criminal activity with your little sister began two years ago but came to light only when your sister reached puberty.
Your mother denies everything: she didn’t know, it wasn’t possible, she would have known; her boyfriend protects her and he’s a good guy. But you trust your little sister, who has a clear and open spirit. And to tell the truth, the reason you don’t live at home is because your step-dad is a lousy drunk. It pains you to see your little sister, no taller than your shoulder, all 73 pounds of skinny limbs, so beat down now having to bear a baby so young.
You suspect that her little bones are not ready for this, and you’re right. Girls who are forced to bear children so young can have physical problems their whole lives long. They turn out poorer than other single mothers, and their babies die more often in the first year of life.
What can you do? There is a fledgling system now in Nicaragua for protecting little girls –and battered women—who are victims of violence and can no longer live safely in their families. The Ministry of the Family—MIFAMILIA—extracts your sister Maria from your execrable family. But another part of the system, the Public Prosecutor, won’t even listen to Maria’s testimony about what happened, because there were no other witnesses. You still believe her. Maria is living in a shelter, one of only four in Nicaragua—Managua, Waslala, San Juan del Sur, Ocotal. Meanwhile, your mother continues to live with the rapist of her daughter, as if nothing had happened.
How can you bear to live in a world so vile and unjust? Between the two of them, your mother and her partner, they have ruined your sister’s life. They have robbed her of something that is worth so much: her childhood– her self-esteem, her sense of having a good direction to go in.
Maria loses weight in spite of her pregnancy. You worry about her sadness. How happy she was, once; gracious and kind, a little timid but nothing abnormal for her age. And now! If she survives giving birth, she is going to lose years of her life raising a child she didn’t want, a child who is likely to remind her of the bad stepfather and of the continuous invasion of her little body. . . Only because abortion isn’t legal in Nicaragua even in cases of rape or incest. And your little sister is a case, if you dare use the word “case” about someone you love, of both!
And everybody is saying your little sister in an “ex-prostitute.” What lies, what stupidity. And you, what are you going to do about it?
Personal vengeance? You are no Lisbeth Salander, no hero with a Dragon Tattoo, treating the rapist the same way he treated Maria. “An eye for an eye” leads directly to a world full of blind people.
The only thing to do, yes, is to change this world around you. In this world, evil is hidden, denied, neglected, and it is the innocents below the age of consent who get a bad name. Pure luck that now there are shelters. In the shelter for abused women, Maria is surrounded by other girls saved from various situations of intrafamilial violence and sexual exploitation, sometimes commercialized.
Maria gets support from them, friendship with the other girls, food, medical attention, therapy, tutoring at her level, and comprehension from the staff. She is learning some manual skills and proving to be clever. From time to time there are entertainments. Initially Maria didn’t want to go out—she felt ashamed. You said to her, “No way. He did it, not you.” Now she goes out. The girls all go out, with companions—to eat ice cream, take walks, buy little things.
You believe that Maria’s life is going to improve. You know that a lot of adolescents heal in time from their wounds. Maria will become an adult. But, but. . . If only there were a system of foster care, everywhere, a home where some wonderful woman would give Maria the welcome that you can’t offer her. A system of sensitization for men, more work for the unemployed, a campaign against alcoholism, public condemnation of perpetrators…
You think to yourself: Men have to learn to respect the rights of children and control themselves. Is this guy a man, this tick who commits such a disgusting act? Or that animal who wants to buy a daughter from her mother! A guy who thinks it is a tradition rather than a betrayal to buy himself a “little woman”! And what about the mothers who don’t protect, who don’t teach values or don’t practice them, who expose their girls to evil-doers, who sell them for food or cell-phones—let them go out and commit robbery rather than selling their own flesh and blood.
And what are you going to do with all the gossips, with the guys who use the word “bitch” about women who are exploited and beaten, like rappers, and who call even little girls “ho’s”? And all those who don’t understand what happened to your little sister and those other little girls who live by her side—thousands of them, hundreds of thousands, millions. In the United States, in Afghanistan, in Africa, Asia, all the way from A to Zambia.
You think, painfully, but with a flash of hope, that respect for the protection of rights grows with the experience of abuse. Finally, you find your voice.
“Innocent,” you are shouting now, “they are innocent!” And to those without compassion, you yell, “You hypocrites. No one so blind as those who will not see.”
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, the author most recently of Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, helped find funding for Solidarity House, a new shelter in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, that rescues girls and women from violence and exploitation. San Juan del Sur is the Sister City of Newton, MA. Those who want to learn more about Solidarity House, or donate, can write email@example.com