Feminists denounce Nicaragua’s culture of impunity

Nicaragua has one of the most progressive gender violence laws on the books, but human rights activists say it’s not being applied in the spirit with which it was passed

Feminist leaders say there is a diverging reality gap between Nicaragua’s progressive legislative efforts to protect women’s rights and the country’s predominant culture of impunity and machismo which create a permissive environment for gender violence.

“The problem is not the policies or laws that exist on paper, rather the reality of the situation,” said Azahálea Solis, director of the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), during last week’s special session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (ICHR) to assess the situation of women’s rights in Nicaragua.

“There is a significant breach between the legislative advances and the reality (of Nicaragua),” she said, reading from a document presented to the commission by MAM and two other rights advocacy groups—Ipas Central America and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL). “The trafficking of influences, the minimization of crimes, the lack of investigation and convictions, and impunity are heart-rending constants with which many Nicaraguans live.”

The rights groups say Nicaragua’s progressive new law to protect women from violence is being undermined by impunity, indifference and corruption—all of which have contributed to an increase in various forms of violence against women and girls.

ICHR commissioners Dinah Shelton (L) and Rosa Maria Ortiz express concern about the rights of women and girls in Nicaragua (courtesy photo)

In 2012, the Network of Women Against Violence registered 85 femicides in Nicaragua—nine more than the year before. Of the victims, 47 were younger than 30 years old, and 13 of them had sought protection by filing complaints against their abusers. Only 24 murderers were detained by police for the 85 femicides last year, and only four of them were convicted, according to statistics provided by the women’s network.

There was also a 5% increase in rapes reported last year, according to police statistics. Rights activists are particularly alarmed at the percentage of rapes committed against minors. Of all the 5,371 confirmed rapes last year, more than 84% were of minors, and half of them were younger than 13, according to the statistics.

Nicaragua’s total ban on therapeutic abortion—and the Sandinista-led Supreme Court’s six-year shameless shirking of responsibility by refusing to rule on a constitutional challenge to the criminalization of life-saving interventions to save a mother’s life—is only aggravating the rights situation for poor women and girls who depend on public health clinics, the rights activists argue.

According to the government’s own statistics, 27% of all births in Nicaragua are by mothers younger than 19, and the number of girls under 15 giving birth has increased by nearly 48% in the past decade.

In 2011, the Ministry of Health reported 1,453 births delivered in public health clinics by mothers who hadn’t yet celebrated their quinceañera. Even though each one of those girls was a rape victim by Nicaraguan legal standards, the feminists said they don’t know of a single case where the girl was treated as a rape victim or where the rapist was denounced or prosecuted by the state.

“What we do know is that none of these girls were given the option to interrupt their pregnancy, putting their mental and physical health at risk,” the rights activists charged in their complaint against the state.

Nicaragua gets called on the carpet

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, after hearing from both sides, called the situation in Nicaragua “alarming.”

 “This is an unacceptably high rate of sexual violence,” said ICHR chairwoman Rose-Marie Antoine. “There certainly seems to be a need for more proactive measures by the state, being a responsible state.”

Sandinista government representatives Iván Lara (L) and Luis Alvarado (courtesy photo)

The Sandinista government, represented by a delegation of two seemingly ill-prepared men, was severely chastised by the rights commissioners for Nicaragua’s medieval ban on therapeutic abortion. Iván Lara, the head delegate for the Sandinista government, told the commission that the ban is an issue of “sovereignty” and one that corresponds to the “social reality of our country.” He noted that “95% of Nicaraguans are religious…and if you ask those people, it’s difficult to think they will be in favor of abortion.”

That argument didn’t convince the human rights commission.

“I am troubled by the idea that public opinion dictates the content of rights; if that were true, we would still have slavery in a number of countries in the western hemisphere,” said ICHR chairwoman Dinah Shelton.  “The majority in a country doesn’t determine the content of one’s human rights.”

The more the Sandinista apparatchiks tried to defend Nicaragua’s ban on therapeutic abortion—a position that is untenable from a human rights perspective—the more they dug themselves into a hole before the ICHR.

“An abortion is not an appropriate method of birth control; prevention needs to be through the use of contraception,” Lara told the human rights commissioners, indicating that he is confused on a very basic level about the difference between a therapeutic abortion and an elective abortion.

Lara went on to argue that it is false to presume that the 1,453 Nicaraguan girls (ages 10-14) who gave birth in 2011 were forced to do so just because of the ban on therapeutic abortion. “The question is, did anyone ask those 1,453 minors if they wanted a therapeutic abortion?” Lara asked.

Marta María Blandon, director of Ipas Central America and one of the three representatives of Nicaraguan civil society at last week’s ICHR session, quickly cut down Lara’s arguments and pointed out the folly of government’s positions.

“It’s true that the 1,453 girls who gave birth in public hospitals in Nicaragua in 2011 weren’t asked if they wanted a therapeutic abortion, because the doctors have their hands tied— they aren’t going to ask girls if they want a medical service that they can’t offer,” Blandon said.

Blandon also scoffed at Lara’s argument that Nicaragua ought to cater to people’s religious convictions when legislating, as if the country were governed by a theocracy. 

“I would like to remind the government of Nicaragua that the Constitution has not changed; it still recognizes that Nicaragua is a secular state, so you can’t argue that the majority of the population professes a certain religion—the laws have to protect everyone,” Blandon told Lara, who shuffled through the papers on his desk.

The Sandinista government’s other representative, Luis Alvarado, who remained quiet nearly the entire session, finally spoke up at the end to criticize Nicaragua’s civil society for complaining all the time. “It’s not enough just to denounce a problem, you also have to find solutions and support solutions,” he said.

Alvarado’s contribution didn’t help Nicaragua’s case before the ICHR.

“Part of the solution is to make the problems visible,” said Rosa Maria Ortiz, president of the ICHR.

The ICHR concluded the session by asking the Nicaraguan government for permission to send a delegation here to investigate the situation here in situ. The commission also asked the Government of Nicaragua to respond within 30 days to the written denouncement filed by the rights groups.

The ICHR has asked the Nicaraguan government for permission to visit the country on five occasions since 2008. The Sandinista administration has not honored any of those requests. 

Impunity is king

When Nicaragua passed the Integral Law Against Violence Against Women (Law 779) in January 2012, rights activists hoped the new legislation would mark the beginning of a much-needed pushback against the country’s long and tedious history of machismo and sexual violence. But a year after entering into force, the law—as pretty as it is on paper—is still not being applied consistently or in the spirit with which it was drafted, argues Ipas’s Blandon. (Indeed, there is even an attempt afoot in the Supreme Court to have the law overturned on arguments that it is unconstitutional).

The feminist leader says many state prosecutors and judges are still acting in open defiance of the law by continuing to apply the old measure of “family mediation” to resolve cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence, rather than sanctioning aggressors with jail time, as clearly specified in the new legislation. Furthermore, a series of recent Supreme Court rulings to reduce the sentences of convicted rapists on ludicrous arguments such as the aggressor was “drunk and horny” (in the case of rape victim Fatima Hernández), the aggressor has suffered “moral embarrassment” in the case of a Catholic priest who raped an 11 year old boy and had his sentence reduced from 15 years to six, or the aggressors’ father is sick in the case of an admitted rapist who recently had his prison sentence commuted to house arrest to care for dear old dad, has turned Nicaragua’s tragicomedy of a judicial system into a full-blown theater of the absurd.

Nicaraguans march for women’s rights in Managua (file photo/ Tim Rogers)

“The message that the court is giving is that there is protection for rapists,” Blandon told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an interview before heading to last week’s ICHR session in Washington, D.C.  “If it’s not official state policy (to protect aggressors), at the very least there is an acceptance or tolerance of this behavior. There is complacency.”

Blandon says the Supreme Court’s recent show of propriety in suspending Judge Gertrudis Arias for being too lenient on convicted drug traffickers should also be applied to judges who pardon rapists and other violent aggressors. But in Nicaragua, laws protecting women’s rights are not enforced with the same eagerness as anti-drug laws, Blandon laments.  

“Impunity has nothing to do with living pretty, or living in family or community or whatever; it is not possible to live pretty under these conditions,” Blandon says, referring to the first lady’s esoteric new campaign to promote moral living and family values in Nicaragua.

Blandon says no previous administration in Nicaragua—with the possible exception of Violeta Chamorro (1990-1996)—has ever taken an active interest in promoting and defending women’s rights. But she says the culture of impunity seems to be getting more brazen and shameless in recent years.

Blandon points to the case last September in San Rafael del Norte, Jinotega, where a doctor was found guilty of violently raping a campesina who went at his clinic seeking prenatal care. As a result of the rape, the young woman suffered a miscarriage. But when the doctor was found guilty of rape, the community and many of the state institutions came to his defense, demonizing the young victim for denouncing the crime and demanding that the local Sandinista party secretary use his political influences to have the aggressor pardoned. The doctor eventually had his sentence commuted to a form of house arrest.

“State institutions even gave public employees the day off work to go protest in front of the courthouse on behalf of the doctor found guilty of rape. Meanwhile, the girl and her family had to go into hiding,” Blandon says. “It was disgusting.”

“There is a sense that the situation is more shameless now; there is more impunity than before,” says Mayte Ochoa, coordinator of public policy for Ipas Central America. “These cases give permission to other men to do the same because the message is: ‘Do whatever you want here, in two years you’ll be out of jail and it doesn’t matter whose life you’ve ruined in the process’.”

Unfortunately, Ochoa says, even the recommendations of the UN and OAS human rights committees don’t seem to make a difference here anymore, because the government routinely ignores all recommendations or dismisses them as “foreign meddling.”

“The situation here won’t change because the government is not interested in changing the situation,” Ochoa said.

Regardless of civil society’s low expectations and limited ability to protest here, Blandon says opportunities such as last week’s ICHR session on Nicaragua are important opportunities to keep up the good fight on the international stage.

“We don’t have great expectations about what can happen here, but the worst thing we can do is to do nothing at all,” Blandon said. “We have to document what is happening here to provide evidence, because at some point in time there has to be justice.”

  • ells

    I can’t even imagine what the real numbers would be if all the undocumented cases of rape and femicide were represented. I hope Dinah and Rosa Maria with the support of both Nicaraguan men and women can push to have Law 779 implemented. I have touted it all around our community to raise awareness, but it does more harm than good if it’s just theory. Perhaps it’s time to take down the copy I have taped to my office door.

  • Ken

    I would imagine that the feminists are right, but have to make a couple qualifying comments.

    First, to find a discrepancy between the law and actual practice anywhere in Latin America is hardly unique. This is more than a feminist issue, it’s a general problem. Legislatures are all the time passing laws they have no intention of implementing. The most anyone can usually do is what the feminists are now doing, namely trying to hold the lawmakers’ feet to the fire.

    Second, it would appear that the laws have had some beneficial effects since there has apparently been an increase in reported rapes. Does anyone believe that the real rate of rape has increased? This is doubtful. The fact that reporting is up suggests that the atmosphere had improved, no doubt not enough, but some.

    • Kelvin

      The National Police has opened 60 or more ‘Comisaría de la Mujeres’, specialist women’s units where they can report incidents and get physical and psychological assessment by experts. When the investigation team goes out, it includes police as well as psychologists, medical examiner, a lawyer and a social worker. So you are right, they now have a place to report these crimes.

      • Gerardo

        Hi, Kelvin! After the riot police brought down post election anti fraud demonstrations in our remote country side, some 50 men and women were imprisonned for a day or more. In prison they were beaten, offended, they got patadas, the women had to ndress and were sexually offended and touched, even by female police and in presence of the responsable person of the Comisaría de la Mujer. Any proposal where should they report this abuse?? You can see the whole video about it in youtube.


  • Kelvin

    Sorry to hear that. Fortunately there are many other stories that place the units in a more positive light.

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