Let’s end violence against women

We must bring the perpetrators to justice and end the culture of impunity

Editor’s note: the following is the speech that human rights activist Bianca Jagger delivered to the International Poetry Festival of Granada on Feb. 18, 2013


It is an honour to be speaking to you at the International Poetry Festival of Granada to celebrate our national treasure Ernesto Cardenal, an inspiring figure who has contributed so much to the fields of art, literature, theology and politics. He has helped to shape our national history.  

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be among so many prestigious poets here in the beautiful city of Granada.

I was born in Managua and spent my childhood and adolescence under the brutal and repressive dictatorship of the Somoza regime. I learned first-hand the meaning of oppression and social and economic injustice. I left Nicaragua with a scholarship to study political science in Paris.

Many reasons, both personal and professional, have brought me back for this particular trip. My return has been filled with sadness as well as with joy.

I am delighted to be invited as a guest of honour at the Poetry Festival of Nicaragua.

I am also here to lay to rest the ashes of my beloved brother Carlos, who passed away on the 24th of January this year. His passing was a great loss, and I am heartbroken. But he would be glad to know that his final resting place will be here in our dear Nicaragua. I hope that when the time comes, I will rest next to him.

I am also here for my human rights work. As some of you may know, for the past thirty years I have been a human rights defender of social justice and environmental protection. In 2006 I founded the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation to be a force for change, and a voice for the most vulnerable members of society: women, children, indigenous people and prisoners on death row. The BJHRF is dedicated to defending human rights, achieving social justice, eradicating poverty, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, speaking up for future generations and addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change.

Over the years, in the course of my campaigns, my work has taken me all over the world – to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. Now it brings me home to Nicaragua.

My organisation, the BJHRF and I have been asked to collaborate with UN Women on projects in Nicaragua to promote gender equality, the prevention and elimination of violence against women, the economic empowerment and political participation of women.

This is a cause close to my heart. After my parents’ divorced when I was ten years old, my mother found herself single, without a profession, and with three small children to care for. I watched her being discriminated against because of her gender and status. During those difficult years she exhibited great courage and strength. She never gave up.

My mother was a pioneer. She believed in women’s emancipation at a time when most women in the Nicaragua of the sixties devoted themselves solely to home-making and were regarded as second-class citizens. My mother was my role model.

It’s true that conditions for women in Nicaragua, in Latin America and throughout the world have improved since those days. There has been some progress. Women are excelling in many fields. We have different lives to those of our grandmothers and even our mothers.

Gender equality is far from achieved, however. We still face unconscionable levels of discrimination and violence against women. The stark reality is that women are still a vulnerable group.

Violence against women is a crime. And yet it is a universal, global phenomenon. It happens in every country in the world, in every echelon of society.

According to UN Women, globally up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

In Guatemala, two women are murdered, on average, each day.

Hundreds of women have been slaughtered in the deadly Ciudad Juarez in Mexico over the past decades. According to the New York Times in 2012 alone sixty women were killed and dumped in the vast mass grave outside the city. The grave was discovered in the mid-1990s, and more bodies are dumped every year. No one seems to know what these hundreds women died for, or be able to stop it.

In India in 2010, 8,391 dowry death cases were reported across the country, meaning a bride was burned every 90 minutes, according to statistics recently released by the National Crime Records Bureau of India.

In South Africa, a woman is killed every 6 hours by an intimate partner.

We live in a world where rape has long been used a weapon of war.

In 1993, I went to the former Yugoslavia to document the mass rape of Bosnian women by Serbian forces as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Nothing had prepared me for the suffering I witnessed, or the horrific stories I heard.

It is estimated that during the Bosnian war up to 50,000 women were systematically raped.

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide it is estimated between 250,000-500,000 women were raped.

Globally 60 million girls are sexually assaulted on their way to school each year.

100 to 140 million girls all over the world, predominantly in Africa, have been subjected to female genital mutilation.

Trafficking ensnares and destroys the lives of millions, trapping many women and girls in modern-day slavery and prostitution. Women and girls form 79 per cent of the estimated 800,000 people trafficked across national borders annually, with the majority trafficked for sexual exploitation.

These horrifying numbers speak for themselves. They indicate a culture of tolerance of violence against women all across the world.

And I fear that these appalling statistics may be only the tip of the iceberg. Many women are afraid to speak out in cases of domestic abuse. Much violence against women goes unreported.

In a study of women in fifteen countries by the World Health Organisation 15 to 71% of women who had a partner had been seriously physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner. And one fifth of these women surveyed had never told anyone but the surveyor about the abuse.

Women of indigenous and tribal peoples are particularly at risk. In May 2012 UN special rapporteur Rashida Manjoo presented a report, “On Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences,” to the General Assembly. It makes for shocking reading. For example, “In Guatemala, the current experience of massive and violent killings of indigenous women has a legacy stemming back to colonial times, further increasing during the 36-year armed conflict. Indigenous Maya women constituted 88 per cent of victims of sexual and systematic attacks, with such attacks being publicly and intentionally perpetrated, mainly by military and paramilitary personnel.”

The report concludes that worldwide, “the main failings by the authorities are the failure of police to protect aboriginal women and girls from violence and to investigate promptly and thoroughly when they are missing or murdered.”

The list goes on and on. It is shameful, a global pandemic. Violence against women seems to be entrenched in our societies. It shouldn’t be. We must stop it. We must put an end to the worldwide culture of impunity.

Violence is a cycle, and it perpetuates itself. It is not only our generation, but our daughters and granddaughters who will suffer if we do not stand up and call a halt to the epidemic of violence. We have to educate our children, and raise them to respect women’s rights.

Violence against Women in Nicaragua

Here Nicaragua there is a lot to be done.

In 2011 there were 37,000 recorded cases of domestic or sexual violence. About 80 women a year were being killed by their spouses.  In a country with 6 million inhabitants, this is an appalling number, which the World Health Organization considers as signalling an epidemic of violence.

The first study on the prevalence of marital violence against women in Nicaragua, entitled Confites en el infierno (“Candies in Hell”), was made in 1995. (Ellsberg et. al., 1996). According to the study, one of every two women in Nicaragua has been physically mistreated at some point by her husband or companion, and one in four women had been the recipient of physical violence during the last 12 months.

Rape and sexual abuse are still widespread in Nicaragua. Amnesty International reports that between 1998 and 2008 the police recorded 14,377 cases of rape in this country. More than two thirds of these (9,695 cases) involved girls under the age of 17. Again we have to face the fact that these numbers are not the full story: countless rape cases are never reported.

Too often women who are victims of violence are intimidated or ignored by a patriarchal legal system.

In one case, reported to Amnesty International in 2010, a mother was sentenced to 12 years in prison for being “complicit in the crime of sexual violence.”  The mother went to report the case to the police after her daughter had been repeatedly raped by her partner, the girl’s step father. The police arrested the mother for not reporting the violation earlier and she was sentenced to 12 years. Meanwhile no efforts were made to detain the perpetrator and he remained at large while the mother was in prison.

There are many such unconscionable examples of women being assaulted and killed with impunity in Nicaragua.

Sandra Ramos, founder and director of the “Maria Elena Cuadra” Movement for Working and Unemployed Women has said that Nicaragua is “very male-chauvinist and patriarchal… the revolution did not recognize their rights as women, as feminists,” she said.  “The Sandinistas lifted people out of poverty, but they were very slow to move on women’s rights.”

Nicaragua’s “Law on Violence against Women,” which entered into effect on June 22, 2012 is a step in the right direction. But we need to do more, much more.


Not all the news is bad. I have seen some initiatives during my visit that give me hope for Nicaragua and for the world.

I was in El Salvador at the beginning of last week, participating at the Regional Consultation on the Prevention and Elimination of Violence Against Women. The conference was hosted by UN Women and by ISDEMU, an organisation run by the first lady of El Salvador, Dr. Vanda Pignato.

While in El Salvador I visited a project, City of Women, in Santa Ana. City of Women is an inspiring project with the capacity to empower women and effect change in their lives. The services offered include medical, legal, and economic support in a secure environment.

UN Women would like Nicaragua to have a similar project. I’m convinced that the City of Women is a pioneering model that needs to be replicated not only in Nicaragua and Central America but all over the world.

On Feb 14, 2013 Eve Ensler, feminist playwright and author of the Vagina Monologues, organised a global movement – One Billion Rising. The purpose of the “rising” is, as Ensler puts it, “to break through the patriarchal wall of oppression and denial, to transform the mindset that has normalised violence, to bring women survivors into their bodies, their strength, their determination, their energy and power and to dance up the will of the world to finally make violence against women unacceptable.” One Billion Rising called for women all over the world and all the men who love them to walk out of their jobs, schools, offices, homes, and dance.

From flash mobs in Palm Springs, Florida, to crowds dancing to dangdut music in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, to a zumbatron here in Nicaragua, which I attended… millions of women and men in 203 countries rose and danced in a global demonstration of unity on February 14th.

It was an important and stirring event. A statement from women across the world: that they refuse to endure the continued violence, abuse and rape. That it must be stopped.

Writers and Artists

I am a great believer that artists, writers, poets and film makers play a vital role in standing up for democratic principles, in defence of human rights, civil liberties and freedom of expression. Throughout history, they have recorded and denounced the abuses and horrors of their time. Today artists and writers around the world continue to defend these values.

The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation works closely with artists. Our first fundraising event, “Arts for Human Rights,” celebrated the great Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is still under house arrest in Beijing, unlawfully detained for his political beliefs.

Writers and poets can make us understand human suffering in a way that no statistics or facts can. You have only to read the moving depiction of the plight of women in the poem ‘The Peasant Women from Cua,’ by Ernesto Cardenal, to see that this is true. It begins,

Voy a hablares ahora de los gritos del Cua

                        Gritos de mujeres como de parto…

I urge you to read the poem, if you don’t know it.

Call to Action – A non-violent Revolution

I call on women across the world to embark upon a non-violent revolution: a call to arms, without weapons. I hope that all men of conscience will join us. Movements like One Billion Rising, City of Women, and Nicaragua’s “Law on Violence against Women” are a good start.

But it’s not enough.

I call on leaders throughout the world to do what it takes to end violence against women, and achieve gender equality. We must therefore demand that all countries adhere to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and meet the Millennium Development Goals to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, and combat HIV/AIDS.

We must refuse to accept the continued abuse of and violence towards women and girls. We cannot afford to be apathetic, for the sake of the women suffering violence, persecution and injustice. For the sake of our daughters and granddaughters we cannot sit back and do nothing. By doing so we jeopardize their future. Gender equality is not only possible, but necessary. Discrimination and violence against women keep us from becoming a free and equal society. Violence against women and girls represents a crime against each and every one of us.

Let’s end violence against women. We must bring the perpetrators to justice and end the culture of impunity.


Bianca Jagger is founder and chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador, IUCN, Plant a Pledge Campaign Ambassador, and Member of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council of Amnesty International USA

  • flaco delgado

    Nicaragua should be very proud of Bianca Jagger. Although she isn’t in the news so much anymore, scan her biography and you will find that she has tirelessly devoted herself to human rights over the last 30 years. She deserves more recognition here in her home country.

    • Martin

      She has recognition in Nicaragua, she is recognized as a leftist outspoken multi millionaire who cherishes free enterprise and what money brings, yet she chose to support a communist movement turned capitalist due to convenience and yes, the detriment of my country…..