The Nicaraguan government is failing to tackle widespread rape and sexual abuse of teenage girls and provide adequate assistance to rape survivors in the Central American nation, a researcher at the rights group, Amnesty International, has said.
Since 1998, more than 14,000 women and girls in Nicaragua have suffered sexual violence, including rape, according to local police figures. In almost half of all rape cases, the girls were under 15 years of age.
“Rape of girls is endemic in Nicaragua. This horrible event defines the lives of these girls,” said Esther Major, Amnesty International's Central America researcher and author of the group's report on gender-based violence in Nicaragua.
“Despite laws and protocols in place, the government is not taking the high levels of sexual violence across the country seriously and it's not carrying out its obligations to provide support to rape survivors. Their own police force recognise sexual violence is a huge problem,” she told AlertNet in a telephone interview from London.
Many cases of violence against women occur at home in Nicaragua, often at the hands of family members and/or a woman's husband or partner. This means the problem is often shrouded in secrecy and concealed by social attitudes that tend to condone it and stigmatise survivors of sexual abuse.
“Nicaraguan society in general stigmatises victims of sexual violence. Girls are often too scared to come forward because they feel they will be rejected by their family and friends,” said Mayor.
Women often lack information about their rights and what constitutes a sexual crime, says Amnesty International. This combined with the low social status of women amid a strong patriarchal culture and a lack of confidence among women in the country's justice system to punish perpetrators of sexual crimes, are behind the high rates of gender-based violence in Nicaragua.
Sexual violence against women is a problem across Latin America, says Amnesty International. But in recent years in Nicaragua, it is a problem that appears to be getting worse with the erosion of women's rights under the leftist government of President Daniel Ortega.
In 2008, the Ortega government revoked a partial ban on abortion, making the procedure in Nicaragua illegal under any circumstances, including when pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or if the life of the mother or foetus is in danger.
Under the law, women and girls with unwanted pregnancies as a result of rape or incest face the threat of imprisonment.
“Rape survivors are therefore denied any choice about how to proceed, and whether to have an abortion or not,” said Mayor.
“The doctors and nurses we spoke to are very nervous about providing healthcare to women seeking abortion services. The government must change the law so that they and doctors aren't criminalized,” she said.
Analysts say Ortega sought to criminalize abortion largely based on political expediency, a move that earned him support from Nicaragua's powerful Catholic Church and its members and helped Ortega win the 2006 presidential elections.
The Nicaraguan government's lack of will to address sexual violence is reflected in the decision to dismantle the national commission protecting children's rights (CONAPINA) in 2007, which rights groups say meant closing down the only forum where government officials and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were able to develop initiatives to tackle violence against children. It is also seen in the absence of sex education in schools, Amnesty International says.
“There is no systematic support provided by the government for girls who have suffered abuse. There's an urgent need to improve protection programmes and provide psychological support for survivors of sexual violence,” said Mayor.
The Nicaraguan government does not provide any funding or support to run shelters for survivors of domestic violence and rape. Across Nicaragua, there are only 10 shelters run by NGOs, which are dependent on international donors for funding.
Women and girls who do come forward to report rape or sexual abuse often find that they are dismissed by police officers, prosecutors and judges who lack professionalism and sensitivity and who do not follow local and international laws on the protection and treatment of victims of sexual abuse, Amnesty says.
Defendants are regularly allowed to remain out on bail, it adds. Some survivors of sexual abuse whose cases get as far as court, often abandon the case before or during trial because the legal process is either too expensive for them or too traumatic.
The rights groups is urging the Nicaraguan government to raise public awareness about sexual violence and help challenge the culture of blaming survivors.
“We want the government to make public statements that sexual abuse will not be tolerated. That sexual violence is never the fault of the rape victim and that culprits will be punished,” said Major.