Managua, Nicaragua – Martha Velasquez was an ordinary 12-year-old schoolgirl until February when she was raped by her cousin’s boyfriend. The 34-year-old grabbed her as she went to buy plantain chips, dragging her inside the church where he worked as a caretaker.
He raped her and warned her to say nothing.
Velasquez’ real name has been changed along with other children quoted to protect their identify. She spoke to Al Jazeera at a refuge on the outskirts of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. “He said if I told anyone he would hurt my little sisters like he’d hurt me. I felt terrible, but I was scared, so I kept quiet.”
Nicaragua has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against girls in the world that flourishes amid a patriarchal society, high levels of impunity, and discriminatory laws curtailing women’s human rights.
Last year, forensic doctors examined 6,069 sexual violence victims – a 27-percent rise from 2010, according to new Institute of Legal Medicine (IML) figures.
A staggering 82 percent of victims were children: 3,065 aged 0-13 and 1,897 aged 14-17. Nine out of 10 victims were female, and more than 80 percent, like Velasquez, knew their abuser.
Sexual violence against girls is so brutal and so naturalised in the country that it is considered normal, and machismo underlies it all.
The true number of victims is undoubtedly much higher, as an estimated 90 percent of sexual attacks are never reported to the authorities, according to IML.
“Sexual violence against girls is so brutal and so naturalised in the country that it is considered normal, and machismo underlies it all,” said Mayte Ochoa from Ipas, a global reproductive rights organisation.
‘Barely seen as a problem’
A recent study by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (Funides) found 17 percent of 15 to 19-year-old girls surveyed said their first sexual experience was a result of pressure from their partner, or rape. One in five of the girls had suffered sexual violence in the past year.
For Velasquez, the nightmare worsened. In July, her mother who still knew nothing about the ordeal, took her to the doctor as she had painful swollen feet. Velasquez was five-months pregnant, and suffering from pre-eclampsia – a life-threatening condition common among adolescents.
Nicaragua has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America, with 28 percent of women giving birth before the age of 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
In 2012, 33,812 babies were delivered by girls aged 10 to 19 – equivalent to one in every four live births, according to the latest available Ministry of Health figures. This included 1,609 new mothers aged 10 to 14.
Sex with a child under 14 automatically constitutes rape under the Nicaraguan penal code, but there are no official prosecution figures available. Only one percent of sexual attacks results in a successful prosecution, according to Lorna Norori, coordinator of the Movement against Sexual Abuse.
The impact of adolescent pregnancies are manifold.
Many girls are expelled from school for setting a bad example, even though this violates their legal right to education.
“In 99 percent of teenage pregnancies a girl’s education, job prospects, and ability to provide for her family are reduced,” said Rosa Romero, a sexual and reproductive rights expert from children’s NGO Plan International.
“It should worry the state that teenage pregnancies, usually involving much older men, have become so naturalised that it is barely seen as a problem,” she added.
Child marriage flourishing
Leila Orantes, 14, from Rama Key Island on the Atlantic coast, is seven-months pregnant and excluded from school. The baby’s father is a 32-year-old married man from a nearby community. “I thought he was my boyfriend,” Orantes told Al Jazeera.
Her family never considered involving the police. But they are livid that he has disappeared, leaving them to support the baby.
Wendy Flores, a lawyer from the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera: “Young sexual abuse victims and their families mainly want help to claim financial support from the perpetrator, the baby’s father, as they cannot afford another mouth to feed.”
Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, with half its six million people surviving on a dollar a day.
It also has the highest rate of child marriage in Latin America – 16th globally – with 43 percent of girls married by the age of 18.
|Many ‘child mothers’ have suffered sexual abuse in the family [Getty Images]|
Teenage pregnancies, sexual exploitation, and child marriage are particularly high in the poorest, most neglected regions of the country, such as the autonomous Atlantic coast regions.
President Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who helped win the revolution in 1979, was elected in 2006 after securing support from the Catholic Church, having lost the previous two elections.
Within weeks, Ortega’s ostensibly left-wing government introduced a law criminalising abortion in all circumstances, without any public consultation. Nicaragua became one of five countries with a total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape or if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. An unconstitutionality case filed to the Supreme Court in January 2007 by human rights organisations remains unheard.
It means for girls such as Velasquez, abortion is completely off the table.
“To force girls pregnant as a result of rape to give birth, to become mothers, is the cruelest, most damaging aspect of sexual violence. It is a crime against the child,” Norori told Al Jazeera.
Denouncing Law 779
Independent scrutiny of the effects of the abortion law has been almost impossible as the Ministry of Health has not published comprehensive obstetrics data since 2006.
The ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated questions or interview requests.
Amid growing pressure from the international community to address human rights violations against women, in 2012, Ortega’s government passed the landmark Law 779 – widely celebrated as one of the most progressive anti-violence against women laws in the region.
It outlawed all gender-based discrimination, including femicide (gender based murders), and obliged the state to support women and children leaving violent relationships. It also established special courts and prosecutors for crimes of gender violence, and special police units for women. It came after 30 years of campaigning by the indomitable women’s movement, and polls showed the law had widespread support from the public.
But it immediately faced widespread opposition from church leaders, magistrates and lawyers’ associations, and ordinary men, who took to the streets to denounce Law 779 as anti-men and anti-family.
In May 2013, Catholic Bishop Abelardo Mata, said in a TV interview: “The new number of the beast is not 666, but 779.”
The Democratic Association of Lawyers in Nicaragua condemned the law as discriminatory for giving women special access to justice, and agreed to represent men accused under Law 779 free of charge.
Ortega’s government subsequently approved widespread reforms to the law. This includes forcing women to sit face-to-face with their abuser in mediation, and most recently, obliging victims to first report familial physical and sexual violence to a neighbourhood Family Committee. These committees, comprised of party and pastoral representatives, are authorised to decide the merits of the allegation.
I felt so guilty, if only I hadn't walked past the church, but now I understand he is the only one to blame ... I will never forget what he did, but I hope one day I can remember with less pain.
‘Defenceless and unprotected’
Magaly Quintana – founder of Catholics for Free Choice – a violence observatory and data analysis organisation – said: “The original Law 779 recognised inequality between men and women as a major cause of violence in this country. This essence has been completely lost by the subsequent reforms, leaving women defenceless and unprotected by the state.”
Juanita Jimenez, a veteran human rights lawyer with Autonomous Women’s Movement, said: “The ultra-conservative Family Committee policy makes violence and sexual violence a family harmony issue. This will fortify machismo, increase impunity, and endanger women’s lives. It is a total abuse of institutional power, which has put the country back 50 years.”
The government has denied that the reforms will endanger lives.
Families Minister Marcia Ramirez has said family counselling would not be obligatory, but the committees would “strengthen family values and prevent violence in the family and the community”.
In Managua, seven-month pregnant Velasquez, a shy girl of slight build who turns 13 in November, is contemplating the future. Despite widespread impunity, her abuser was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail.
“I felt so guilty, if only I hadn’t walked past the church, but now I understand he is the only one to blame. I am scared about giving birth, but with my mother’s support, I feel ready to become a mother. I hope one day I can become a computer engineer too,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I will never forget what he did, but I hope one day I can remember with less pain.”