According to a new report by Amnesty International, young women and girls are suffering from a high level of sexual violence in Nicaragua. Official statistics from the country’s police show that in a ten-year period up to 2008, over 14,000 cases of sexual abuse were reported, where two thirds of the victims were less than 17 years of age. And it is likely many more cases of abuse go un-reported, particularly where the abuser is a family member.
In Nicaragua, a mainly Catholic country, traditionally conservative attitudes in society mean the subject of sexual abuse is still very taboo. This means that many young girls are ashamed to speak about what’s happened to them or are lead to feel the fault somehow lies with them, rather than with the abuser. If they do speak out, women are often stigmatised by society and the authorities, thus encouraging others in a similar position to remain silent.
Published to coincide with International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Amnesty report aims to highlight not only the high numbers of young victims, but also how they are treated following their ordeal. The report highlights the case of one 17-year old who was raped by a member of her family and fell pregnant. The girl was then pressurised by local people, including the priest, not to file a complaint and quietly give up the baby for adoption. In another case, a mother who reported the rape of her daughter by the girl’s step-father, was sent to jail for 12 years, accused of being complicit to the act. Meanwhile, no attempt was made to arrest the step-father.
For some girls, sexual violence is not the end of their suffering. If they fall pregnant, women in Nicaragua must have the baby. Since 2008, all forms of abortion have been criminalised, even where pregnancies are the result of rape or the mother’s life is in danger.
The absence of any public awareness campaigns about sexual violence, which could help to change attitudes, means that too many young victims go without the support they need. Often, when victims do go to local authorities, their complaints are taken lightly by policemen and the legal system. And for some girls, the costs of pursuing a legal case, with costs of travelling to courts and forensic centres, are simply too high. Many victims end up dropping out of school, giving up on work or even trying suicide. The lucky ones find legal and psychological help at independently-run centres for women or refugees.
Last month, the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child expressed similar concern over the “high level of child abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse...and gender-based violence” in Nicaragua. Both organisations are hoping that by raising the issue so publicly, more will be done inside the country to tackle this problem.