Kate Allen: Nicaragua's hidden scandal

Friday 26 November 2010 01:00

Connie was just nine years old when her father first raped her. The abuse continued until she was 14. She told Amnesty International that her father would regularly hit her so much that she was unable to go to school the next day. Why? Chillingly because he wanted her to stay at home so “he could abuse her as much as he wanted”.

Throughout those five years Connie felt powerless to say anything, or to speak up.

The abuse came to an end when, at 14, Connie became pregnant. At that point the police got involved and visited the house. Shortly after the police left (without taking action), Connie’s father tried to commit suicide and died in hospital shortly afterwards. When Connie’s situation was finally revealed, rather than receiving the care she desperately needed, Connie had to deal with a barrage of criticism from her teachers and her own brothers who blamed her for leaving them without a father.

Today Connie is 17 years old and still struggling to rebuild her life. She was forced out of the family home by her brothers, who no longer speak to her.

For any young girl the emotional distress – particularly if the attacker is a relative – along with the physical trauma of rape or any sexual violence is a suffering unimaginable for most of us.

Essential to any young girl’s successful rehabilitation is the appropriate treatment and support to rebuild her life. However, for thousands of girls in Nicaragua this is rarely what happens. Instead the response from both society and the authorities alike mirrors the reaction of Connie’s family. The victim is regularly treated as the person in the wrong and very little support is offered to these girls.

Tragically Connie’s story is not an isolated one in Nicaragua. Across the country, rape and sexual violence are endemic. Between 1998 and 2008, official statistics showed that more than 14,000 cases were reported. Two thirds of the victims were under the age of 17. Moreover rape and sexual abuse are under-reported crimes, especially if they include incest; the real figures will be considerably higher.

As Amnesty International show in its report published yesterday, the Nicaraguan authorities do little to clamp down on perpetrators and at times even religious figures collude with the secrecy. One young woman told Amnesty that she was 17 when she was raped by a member of her family and later became pregnant. Several people, including the local priest, pressured the teenager not to file a complaint and to give the baby up for adoption.

The gravity of this situation is compounded by the fact that Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the world where a total abortion ban is in place. This makes it illegal for any woman or girl to seek an abortion – even in cases of rape or incest, or where her life is at risk. Equally any medical practitioners who attempt to carry out an abortion, or even indirectly induce one face criminal charges. These highly controversial measures are putting the lives of thousands of women and girls at risk across the country.

As the world marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we are reminded by the story of Connie and other girls across Nicaragua that the failure to protect girls and women from such violence not only serves to destroy the lives of the girls and women themselves, it also destroys families and ultimately corrodes the country from within.

Put simply, this is a violation that no government can afford to ignore. For more information visit www.amnesty.org.uk/women

Kate Allen is the Amnesty International UK Director

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