Ignoring sexual violence in Nicaragua

Ortega, president of Nicaragua, has been re-elected to office, despite alleged sexual abuse of his stepdaughter.

Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega’s close relationship with Cardinal Miguel Obando has resulted in stringent laws against abortion [EPA]

Dominique Strauss-Kahn would not have lost his job if he was President of Nicaragua. He would have been re-elected. At least, that is what happened to the former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Accusations that he sexually abused his stepdaughter did not seriously hurt his political career. Shielded by the judiciary and increasingly popular for his social programmes, Ortega went on to be re-elected President of Nicaragua this month. While Ortega’s alleged sexual abuse may seem particularly gruesome, the tolerance of sexual abuse that enabled his re-election echoes broader inequalities of power that perpetuate violent societies in the region.

When Ortega was promoting Sandinist ideals and fighting for a better world throughout the 1980s, he was at the same time reportedly sexually abusing his adopted daughter. In 1998, Zoilamerica Narvaez filed a complaint for repeated sexual abuse, rape and harassment, claiming she was molested starting at age 11 until she got married. As a teenager, the daughter of the President had nowhere to run to, threatened to keep silent not to jeopardise the success of the revolution. Even as a young adult, she found no mechanism of support or escape, remaining what she calls the sex slave of the Sandinista hero.

Zoilamerica found little solace in publicly denouncing the abuse. President Ortega claimed the accusation was part of a conspiracy to defame him and the Sandinista party. Zoilamerica’s own mother, Ortega’s wife, defended her husband and denied the veracity of the charges. Nicaragua’s judicial system shielded the accused on two fronts. In addition to bringing up the statute of limitations to invalidate the charges, the courts granted Ortega immunity from legal prosecution as a member of the legislature.

Overall, the scandal did little damage to Ortega’s political career. Ortega went on to be elected president – twice – by the Nicaraguan people. Running on a slogan “with everyone and for everyone”, Ortega has poured money into health, housing and education programmes and extended support for farmers and small businesses – all laudable policies in a country craving for social investment. His re-election on November 7 won by a landslide vote that more than doubled his closest rival.

Gearing up efforts

Yet if Ortega has become a symbol of sexual violence in Nicaragua, the initial outcry achieved little reform. Despite endemic levels of sexual violence, there is no proper legal procedure to report sexual abuse. Feminist activists who openly criticise the government are intimidated and the government has shut down all funding for prevention and support to victims of sexual abuse. To make things better, Ortega’s political marriage with the retired Cardinal Obando y Bravo have been accompanied by some of the most draconian abortion laws in the world.

As difficult as the situation may be in Nicaragua, violence against women is a global problem. It is because the UN identifies gender-based violence as a major cause of death and disability for women aged 16-44 that it launched the global campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women in 2008. In addition to 16 days of worldwide activism that start on November 25 every year, the initiative is geared towards public awareness and institutional reforms to improve women’s security.

Reversing this pervasive cycle of violence requires a real effort on the part of governments to institutionalise women rights. Where legislation exists, it often fails to be implemented, making gender-based violence far too permissive and rarely costly. Governments need to build better legislation, assure higher levels of implementation, and develop state policies that promote women with physical, emotional and socio-economic well-being.

Tackling violence against women also requires an active role on the part of men. Women movements, which have been mobilised for decades now, cannot go all the way alone. Macho, a documentary by Lucia Broadbent (2000), retraces the Ortega abuse scandal as well as the efforts of some men to organise a campaign against domestic violence. More and more men are joining in to stop violence against women and discuss masculinities. Efforts are gearing up around the world with grassroots initiatives like Men Against Violence and the One Man Can campaign to international platforms such as the Network of Men Leaders.

Power inequalities

Yet looking at Ortega’s landslide victory, it becomes salient that something else needs to happen. It is troubling that an accused rapist of his calibre would be able to retain a leadership position because it illustrates the impunity associated with sexual crimes. What seems even more disturbing is how someone with such alleged credentials may be the preferred leader to tackle inequality, and thus violence, in Nicaragua.

If we argue that his re-election is due in part to the lack of political alternatives, we transform sexual violence into a minor problem, something we are to live with. If in turn we defend Ortega as Nicaragua’s best option to fight poverty, we not only normalise sexual violence but fail to see how it is connected to the social inequalities that we are eager to resolve.

The problem is not only that there are too many Zoilamericas, that victims of sexual violence tend to be ostracised while perpetrators are rarely held accountable. The problem goes beyond the incommensurable cost of sexual violence on women’s lives, so extensive that countries such as Mexico and Guatemala are talking about femicide. The larger policy problem is that violence against women is inevitably intertwined with the web of violence that affects all social realms.

Ortega’s re-election is problematic because of what it tells about our misguided efforts to solve violence at the detriment of gender equality. Violence against women is not a problem that belongs to women. It impacts society at large. It is not only that we should all care about violence done to women and that men also suffer from the violence done to the women around them – mothers, sisters, partners. It is that sexual violence merely mirrors the larger spectrum of violence at play in our societies. In that sense, violence against women is an indicator of socio-economic violence, racial discrimination, drug-related violence and police brutality. Sexual abuse is tightly entangled in the pervasive public insecurity that impairs many regions of Latin America.

Sexual abuse is accepted in Nicaragua because violence, broadly speaking, is normalised by lingering power inequalities. Gender justice is social justice – one cannot take place without the other. Inequality is violence, and violence springs out of inequality.

Ortega was re-elected President of Nicaragua because sexual violence is not enough of a crime as much as because we are failing, as a collective, to recognise how individual physical violence is intertwined with broader socio-economic violence. Turning a blind eye to the violence exercised onto others – whether it is sexual abuse or ethnic discrimination – will not bring us democracy.

Until she denounced her alleged aggressor, Zoilamerica could not reconcile how someone could be at once a caring political leader for the nation and a violent abuser at his home. It is time that as societies, we start deconstructing this duality too. As long as we tolerate – even reward – violent behaviour, we will continue to live in violent, unequal societies.

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.