On May 31, 1998, Zoilamerica Narvaez, stepdaughter of the former Sandinista guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega, made public a denunciation that shook Nicaraguan politics to its core. Her earthshaking revelation – of huge magnitude and unsuspected consequences – included a paragraph that would be devastating for any political figure: “Daniel Ortega Saavedra raped me in 1982. I don’t remember with precision the exact day, but only the events. It was in my room, thrown down on the rug by him, where he not only fondled me but also aggressively and harshly hurt me. I felt a lot of pain and a deep cold. I cried and was nauseous. Everything about that act was forced on me, I didn’t desire it ever, nor was it a result of my willingness or consent.”
Some saw it as the political death of the Sandinista Front strongman, who decades before had fought to overturn the Somoza dictatorship. Twenty years later, however, Ortega is once again in power in Nicaragua, governing with absolute authority. Narvaez’ revelation remained unpunished, as have hundreds of sexual abuses committed against girls in a country where violence against them has become “normalized.”
The young Narvaez made her denunciation public in an effort to bring Ortega – at that time an opposition leader – to trial. He escaped thanks to the political control that he’s exercised for decades within the State power structure. He could also count on a fundamental pillar: the support of his wife, former poet Rosario Murillo, who turned against her daughter, declaring her “crazy”, and defended her partner instead.
“Her support was converted into a hugely expensive tab for Ortega to pay,” comments former guerrilla commander Dora Maria Tellez, an active figure in the armed struggle against Somoza. That “payment due” meant that upon returning to power Ortega would share it with his wife. Today, Rosario Murillo is the all-powerful vice president, who governs essentially as a despot. The body of her daughter was the offering she made to conquer power in Nicaragua.
Narvaez was eleven when her stepfather began abusing her. Today the young woman lives in exile in Costa Rica, following years of political persecution from her mother. Her history of abuse and the abuser’s impunity repeats itself over and over in this country termed “Christian, socialist and in solidarity” by the so-called “Government of Reconciliation and National Unity”, headed by her abuser and managed by her mother. A nation of just over six million inhabitants, with an average monthly income of US $150 per worker and where acts of violence against girls are as much a daily event as the poverty that afflicts hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants.
Milagros, the girl from the presidential campaign
It was just before the 2011 presidential elections in which Daniel Ortega sought his first continuous reelection since returning to power in Nicaragua in 2007. The headlines blared complaints about Ortega’s reelection campaign and its political manipulation of the rape and pregnancy of a 12-year-old child of indigenous origin.
Foto: Carlos Herrera /confidencial
The story involved a nightmare being lived out by “Milagros” [“Miracles”], who lived in Walpa Siksa, a remote community in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region, lost amidst mangroves and tropical jungle, and previously known only because of occasional confrontations between the army and bands of drug traffickers. The young girl had been raped and then obligated to give birth. “It’s a miracle, it’s a sign of God,” declared Rosario Murillo, then campaign head for the Frente Sandinista, Ortega’s party. The story of “Miracles” put the indigenous community on the front page of the newspapers thanks to the Frente’s political exploitation of the case.
Once again, Murillo used the body of a twelve-year-old girl to assure the political favors of the most conservative, religious and traditional sectors of Nicaragua. “Rosario expressed joy at the happy outcome in the case of the pregnant girl,” read the headline in “The Voice of Sandinismo”, a paper under government control. “We’ve worked to defend life, in accordance with the beliefs and customs of the majority culture of Nicaragua,” affirmed Murillo. “I want to thank them (girl and mother) for trusting us.”
The girl was obligated to have the baby because her grandmother wanted her to, and this was celebrated by the government, effectively as if it had been a “Miracle”. Her rapist was never pursued by the justice system.
On October 2006, the Nicaraguan National Assembly had passed a law prohibiting therapeutic abortions, which had been allowed in the country for some hundred years previously. Rosario Murillo, at that time head of the presidential campaign and promoter of an alliance with the Catholic and Protestant churches, declared that it was a matter of “protecting life.”
The doubly brave mother
Laura is 17 and the oldest of Samanta’s six children. She’s also the second one in the family to be raped.
She was attending high school in Jalapa, a small town in the north of Nicaragua, some 300 kilometers from Managua. Three young men invited her and some other friends to go drinking. After they had all drunk a lot, they split up to go home. One of the boys offered to take Laura home on his motorcycle. On the way, he veered off and took her to a discotheque where he worked as a waiter.
He raped her there and later he took her to a friend’s house where he threatened her while squeezing her throat: “He told me that if I told anyone what he had done, I was going to be sorry later.”
She didn’t remain silent, but told her family. An aunt was the first to know what had happened and later her mother. When they filed the complaint at the police station and the case began to unfold, the family’s nightmare got worse.
Jalapa has a population of approximately 85,000 spread out over a flat plain surrounded by mountains. The town’s economy is depressed – although there isn’t any reliable data from the government, the entire department of Nueva Segovia is one of the poorest regions of Nicaragua. It’s a region that suffered violent and bloody moments during the civil war of the 80s when the counterrevolution financed by the United States aimed to overthrow the revolutionary government. Since it’s so close to the border with Honduras, the municipality is on the route for all the Nicaraguan migrants who pass through seeking a better life in the U.S. It’s also said that it’s a refuge for Hondurans fleeing from violence in their country.
In this depressed and conservative municipality, Laura’s rapist was set free pending trial. Every time he had the chance, he would mock the young girl. He let it be known in all corners of Jalapa that it was a consensual act, and even went so far as to comment on the sexual positions they used.
Laura, on the other hand, had to tell her story first in the Police station, later in the office of Legal Medicine, and a third time before the judge. She spent three days in the hospital due to the lesions the abuse left and had to drop out of school out of shame at feeling judged.
“Most people say it’s my fault, because I went with them. Others tell me that it’s all a lie, that he’s innocent, that I’m a very unjust person for what I did to him, and that he’s paying for something he didn’t do. There are even people in my family that think everything is my fault,” says the 17-year old.
It’s not the first time that Samanta, Laura’s mother, has had to face this nightmare. In 2009 she had to file her first police complaint because a man abused her six-year-old daughter, Laura’s younger sister. The abuser was sentenced to 12 years in jail, but served only six, after which he was released for good behavior.
The biggest belly contest
On May 30, 2017, Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, the New Radio Ya ,a radio station allied with the Ortega government, celebrated the day by holding a contest for “the biggest belly”. The event was staged to reward the pregnant mother who had the biggest stomach.
President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. Photo: Carlos Herrera /Confidencial
One of the winners was a 14-year-old girl, who received a mattress and provisions as part of the prize. The station used the hashtags on social media #MamaMasJoven [Youngest mother] and #MadrePanza [Mother of all bellies]. Immediately, however, a heated debate burst onto the scene.
The case provoked huge controversy on the social networks. People wondered how a 14-year-old girl who was pregnant could merit a prize instead of an investigation for sexual abuse, since according to the Codigo de la ninez [Code of laws regarding children] any pregnancy of a minor should be legally considered rape. In such cases, according to the law, the State was obligated to open an investigation.
The debate grew more heated when it became known that the man who impregnated the young girl was 24, and lived in the same house with her and the rest of her family.
The history of this teenager placed in evidence, once more, the difficult situation of girls and women in Nicaragua. This country has the highest rates of pregnancy in all of Latin America among girls and teens from ten to fourteen, according to data collected by Plan International Nicaragua. The violence against girls and teens represents a grave public health problem in the country.
“Even if you file a complaint, it’s very difficult to get an exhaustive investigation,” states Marta Maria Blandon, IPAS Central America’s director. She explains that the research their organization did showed that the majority of the girls who get pregnant wish to end the pregnancy. In addition, the 2012 National Demographic and Health Survey revealed that 8 out of 10 women with a history of rape reported that this occurred before their 18th birthday; half of them occurred before 14. The data from Legal Medicine in 2016 showed that in nearly 80% of the cases of girls under 14 who were raped, the abusers were “fathers, stepfathers, other family members, or acquaintances.”
The case of the adolescent with the “biggest belly” remained unpunished, not without Rosario Murillo taking advantage of the occasion via the communications media under her control – a propaganda apparatus that includes four private TV stations purchased with funds from the Venezuelan oil aid which President Ortega has administered at his own discretion.
Femicide: Only for cases involving “sentimental ties”
In 2012 Nicaragua passed the Integral Law Against Violence towards Women, known to the public as Law #779. This legislation was intended to put the brakes on an ever-increasing wave of violence against women, directed with especial viciousness towards girls.
Catholic priests, Protestant pastors, and conservative groups wasted no time in expressing their disagreement with a law that they felt limited men’s rights. One priest even went so far as to say that 779 was “the new number of the beast”, because, “It’s destroying families.”
“How many times does someone react out of ire, or in reprisal? And once the waters have calmed, the person who has accused the husband, the uncle, the cousin, recognizes that their position has been too harsh and asks to have the case reversed. But it’s already in the hands of the Justice system,” the bishop said.
Two years later and amid the annual celebration of Santo Domingo, the patron saint of Managua, President Ortega announced Executive Decree 42-2014 to establish the regulations governing Law #779. His decree confined the category of femicide to the private realm: that is, a crime would be termed a femicide only if there were an emotional tie between victim and perpetrator.
The law’s regulations define it as follows: “Article 34: on the crime of femicide. In order to characterize a crime as femicide, it must be committed by a man against a woman within the framework of a couple’s relationship, and as a result, bring about the death of the woman.”
It also introduced the notion of mediation as a means to resolve crimes, and created organs known as Family Counseling offices in the neighborhoods, aimed at resolving relationship conflicts. The family counseling offices are under the control of Rosario Murillo.
Azahalea Solis states that following the passage of regulations undermining the force of the legislation there’s been an increase in the number of crimes against women of all ages. Solis is a member of the Autonomous Women’s Movement, one of the most belligerent feminist organizations in Nicaragua, whose pressures led to passage of the original law, something considered unheard of in Ortega’s Nicaragua. The present increase in the number of femicides and other crimes against women is only being reported by the observatories that work closely with women’s organizations all over the country, because the government has opted to close its doors to public release of data.
That explains the difference, Azahalea Solis adds, between the statistics from the women’s organizations and those of the Nicaraguan government regarding violence against women.
The judge specializing in cases involving violence
Eden Aguilar, a judge who specializes in cases involving violence, is one of the more visible faces in the struggle against violence in Nicaragua. He assures that the justice system is focused on helping prevent violence and bringing to justice those who stalk women and girls.
His name became known the day that he ordered jail time for two sexual abusers who had groped a woman and a girl on the Managua streets.
“The State of Nicaragua has advanced on classifications, programs for attention, and programs for the protection of victims. It has programs to locate the victims in certain places. We take evidence using the most adequate measures. When we have the supposed aggressor, there’s no visual contact made. At times we opt for holding video-conferences with psychological attention,” explains Judge Aguilar.
His defense of the system, however, contrasts with the complaints of impunity made by the victims and critics from the feminist movement. Young people like Marina, who was raped on November 11, 2016, in the city of Ocotal, 230 kilometers from Managua near the border with Honduras. The perpetrator was a neighbor who lived across the street from her house. He drove a taxi and had been spying on her schedule for entering and leaving school.
One day, as the young girl left school, he drove by and offered to pick her up. The girl, who was 13 at the time, believed that she could trust him, since he was a neighbor. When she got in the taxi, though, he took her to a rural road and abused her. Her family filed a complaint, but “the police (official) who took the complaint began to blame me, telling me that I couldn’t be innocent, and that I couldn’t send him to jail for 15 years for something he didn’t do,” narrates Marina in a cracked voice.
Marina not only had to put up with being blamed for the rape she suffered, and the verbal abuse from the family of the perpetrator, who accused her of being a “slut”, but she was also expelled from the school she was attending. The director told her mother that “she couldn’t have girls that weren’t innocent” in the classrooms of this Catholic school.
In her case, there was no justice. The aggressor fled the night before the police arrived to arrest him. Although there was some interest in going forward with the case, Marina’s mother believes that the authorities opened the door for this man to flee, since “they took several days to go and make the arrest.”
Luisa Centeno, of the Condega Women’s Network in the north of the country, is one of the active women who casts doubt on the declarations of Judge Aguilar. She doesn’t view the system as positively as he does when it comes time to attend to the girls who’ve been victims of rape.
“I’ve received threats,” she says, due to her work as an advocate for the rights of women and children, and for the way she has opposed a system that abandons young girls to their fate when they’re victims of rape. Centeno affirms that when the victims of violence feel that the State isn’t really focused on helping them, they prefer to keep quiet.
A study realized by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development notes that 3 of every 10 women have a child before 18. But the study also reflects that the partners of these women are typically five or ten years older at the moment they get them pregnant. Typically, these men never come through with any economic support.
“Nicaragua is one of the countries that has the best laws for the protection of children and girls,” highlights Vivian Sequeira, specialist in child protection from Plan Internacional. Nevertheless, not enough is done to prevent violence against girls, and within the government itself there’s talk that the teen pregnancies are “miracles” or signs of “prosperity.”
The little girl on the island
In a small community of Ometepe, an island in Nicaragua’s Great Lake Cocibolca, lives “Maria”, a young girl of 16 who’s the mother of two boys: Yuleymi Marcela, who’s four months old, and Edier Antonio, who’s nearly three. Her community is known as Altagracia Pull, a small collection of houses hard hit by poverty, and full of families split by the seasonal emigration to Costa Rica, where thousands of Nicaraguans migrate for work. The days pass to the beat of tedium, dust, suffocating heat and a sun that burns the skin. People here live off their plantain crops, or by raising poultry or from fish they can catch in the calm waters of the Great Lake. In this community far removed from the tourist zone of Ometepe, lives Maria, victim of a teacher’s sexual abuse.
“He told me that I was pretty, asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend, promised me he was going to take me on trips to many places. He told me that we should have sexual relations, but I said no. He told me that he was going to teach me something unforgettable that I had to know, that he wanted to be the one to teach me,” relates the young girl in the small doorway of her house, constructed of old wooden boards painted with faded turquoise.
Maria cries; she’s nervous; at times there are long pauses in her story. But she continues. She says that she wants to tell her story so that the things she went through don’t happen to other girls in Nicaragua. Her abuser, Manuel Ortiz, was put on trial and sentenced to 15 years in jail, but to Maria, that’s not enough. Her life was ruined. She was condemned to leave school and become a mother at an early age. In a country where the pregnant girls are termed a “miracle” by the government, Maria is yet another “miracle” girl. She’s another symbol of “prosperity” in the “Christian, socialist and in solidarity” Nicaragua of Danial Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
(Editor’s note: all names of the victims and their families have been changed in this article, as well as omitting details of the neighborhoods, and characteristics that could serve to identify the affected parties.)