Last month saw two major stories involving sexual abuse in the headlines of Nicaraguan newspapers. First came the account of a mentally and physically disabled 12-year-old girl allegedly raped by four policemen and a security guard 30 meters from the presidential compound in the capital. Three policemen were arrested, but not the guard, who local media reported works for a company with political ties to a top Sandinista leader.
Days later, the alleged victim attempted suicide. “She cut one of her wrists and was taken to a hospital last week,” a statement published on the website of the Nicaragua Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) said.
The trial against the three policemen begins Oct. 7.
More recently, CENIDH denounced the case of a student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, who accused her professor of attempted rape. That incident allegedly occurred in June and was reported to the police in the department of León, northwest of the capital. But after three months, no charges were brought against the teacher.
Staff at CENIDH pointed out that the alleged perpetrator, Francisco José Venegas, is a Sandinista departmental deputy and holds a significant position within the university.
The two incidents have prompted Nicaraguan rights groups to speak out against what they are calling an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in the country.
“We're talking about an epidemic that should cause the authorities to issue an alert. If there were 5,000 victims of dengue or 5,000 victims of H1N1 virus, then there would be an alert,” said Marta María Blandón, Central American director of Ipas, an organization that works to protect women's reproductive rights.
Last year, 3,660 allegations of sexual abuse were reported in Nicaragua. According to the National Police's Statistics Commission for Women and Children, in the first six months of this year, 1,873 abuse allegations were filed, of which 1,050 involved children under the age of 14. Many others go unreported.
In the first quarter of this year, the Nicaraguan Medical Forensics Agency performed 1,312 forensic examinations on abused women and minors – an average of 14.6 per day. The agency said more than 80 percent of cases involve victims under 17, and 50 percent of victims are under 13.
International organizations also are denouncing sexual abuse in Nicaragua. Marcos Gómez, a regional director at Amnesty International who visited the country in 2011, said Nicaragua has the highest rate of attacks against women in all of Central America.
According to Juanita Jiménez of the Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres de Nicaragua, a political organization that aims to further women's rights in Nicaragua, “The cause lies not only in the machista culture of our society, but also in the lack of democratic institutions, since impunity for these crimes discourages complaints from victims and legitimizes the culture of abuse.
“The abuse has been present in our culture, but the partisanship of public institutions, and particularly the justice system, has perverted institutions and legitimized abuse in general,” she told The Tico Times.
Jiménez also mentioned past allegations against President Daniel Ortega. In 1998, Ortega's stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, accused the current president of sexually abusing her from 1979 (when she was 11) until 1990. Both Ortega and Narváez's mother, First Lady and Sandinista spokeswoman Rosario Murillo, denied the charges, and the case was never brought to trial. Instead, Nicaraguan courts granted Ortega immunity from prosecution because he was a member of the legislature.
In Nicaragua, charges of sexual abuse and rape have a five-year statute of limitation. Narváez has never withdrawn her accusation, although the charges expired long ago.
According to Martínez, the case “set a bad example for our society and legitimized the impunity of sexual abusers at the highest level.”
Other criticisms were recently levied against the judicial system when professional baseball player Jimmy González was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl who became pregnant. Despite DNA testing proving he is the father, no case was ever brought to court.
Then, in 2011, the Sandinista government gave red-carpet treatment to Belgian priest François Houtart during the commemoration of the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. Houtart is a confessed pedophile who renounced a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2010 after admitting that he raped his 8-year-old cousin.
In another case last July, the Supreme Court reduced a jail sentence for defendant Farinton Reyes, who was convicted of raping a co-worker. The court ruled that Reyes committed the crime under the influence of alcohol, and was therefore in a state of sexual excitement that he was unable to control. Judges reduced his prison sentence to four years.
After the case, Sandra Ramos, director of Movimiento de Mujeres María Elena Cuadra, a women's rights organization based in Managua, said, “Clearly, we have a justice system that does not support or protect women.”
Lorna Norori of the Movimiento Contra el Abuso Sexual, an organization that works with sexual abuse victims, added, “Sexual freedom cannot be measured by alcohol intake. Having a position like that means anyone can abuse women, children and adolescents and claim impunity.”
One of the biggest problems Nicaraguan women face is a law introduced in 2006 that bans all forms of abortion, including therapeutic abortion, even when a woman or girl is raped. Last month, several hundred protesters marched in Nicaragua as part of the Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“The criminalization of abortion without exceptions violates the legal status of women by not allowing them to save their own lives or reduce the risks to their physical or psychological well-being,” Martínez said.
Last month, rights groups stepped up pressure on the government to enact reforms. But before that happens, the groups warned, more women likely will become victims of abuse.
“We urge you not to give up on reporting crimes of sexual violence,” CENIDH said in a recent statement. The statement also urged victims to seek help from aid groups.