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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 02:48 GMT
Nicaragua's culture of home abuse
Domestic violence is widespread in Nicaragua, where it is often tolerated by the victims - mostly women and children - who accept it as part of the local machista culture, the BBC's Sheena McDonald reports as part of a series for BBC World Service.

The title of our series - Violence Begins At Home - could not ring truer than in Nicaragua.

Child in doorway
Young boys are made to believe they are superior to girls
The entire notion of "domestic violence" is barely recognised in that beautiful little country. Whenever I raised the subject the same word was used - "normal".

And popular entertainment reflects that normality: one of the favourite forms of music - ranchera - customarily celebrates the machismo culture in which Nicaraguan children are raised.

The male singers boast of the typical male dominance which encourages boys to grow up seeing themselves as superior and girls to be submissive.

So wife-beating is common. And because children are seen as property, child sexual abuse is also common.

Effectively, what the sexual abuser wants is to exercise power, with a sexual element
Lorna Norori, therapist

And there is another element characteristic of Nicaraguan society: secrecy.

The unwillingness to openly accept the high incidence of abusive behaviour, almost all of it by men against women and children, means that violence and discrimination are tolerated - by the perpetrators and their victims.

I'm not exaggerating. A young father, Oswald Montoya, told me how hard it is to bring his son and daughter up differently.

"It's a constant challenge. For instance, when educating children it's very common to use corporal punishment - and I think that is violence!

"So children get the idea that the one who is taller and stronger can hit the smaller ones. And as for the issue of adults versus children - this is a very 'adultist' society."

Of course, many adults are living with the consequences of having been abused. One woman spoke of her relationship with her mother.

"After five years of therapy, I think I've managed to understand her a bit - why she reacted the way she did to my grandfather sexually abusing me.

"Initially, I hated my mother for not believing me. She'd been abused by the same person so she should have believed me.

"Now I understand that her attitude came from having been abused herself - the fear of confronting the problem."

'Exercising power'

There are therapists in Nicaragua who are very familiar with that kind of story.

Lorna Norori specializes in child sexual abuse.

She told me: "When a man abuses a child, he'll say: 'The worms are going to get her eventually. Better a human eats her than a worm. I'm human, and moreover she's mine - nobody else's. I can do what I want with her'."

Ms Norori does not accept that argument for a moment.

"Sexual abusers are always described as 'ill', 'paranoid', 'psychotic'. But they're not.

"And I can't justify their behaviour by saying that they were necessarily victims of abuse in their own childhood, because if that were the case, you'd have many more women sexually abusing, and that's not true either.

"Effectively, what the sexual abuser wants is to exercise power, with a sexual element."

But are the institutions which have maintained the machismo culture ever since the Sandinista revolution overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 beginning to change how they manage society in Nicaragua?

'Zero tolerance'

There is now an ombudsman for human rights, Norma Moreno.

When my wife got out of control, the mechanism that I had seen and learned was to use violence to get what I wanted
Nicaraguan man

Her role was reluctantly accepted by the executive as a trade-off for an external debt-pardon, and as a child of the revolution she refuses to be cowed by the resistance to her attempts to establish a meaningful human rights constitutional framework.

"When I make a denunciation, it's never received with sympathy by the civil servants. But recently I denounced a case of sexual abuse in a government-run school.

"The Ministry for Education wanted to use an administrative decree to transfer the teacher to another school.

"I requested that the abuser be put at the disposition of a judge immediately - otherwise the ministry would be acting as an accomplice to the crime. So the ministry felt obliged to reverse the abuse of human rights that they had committed."

Norma won that fight. But she is still battling to have human rights incorporated in the educational curriculum.

Rodrigo Alvarez of the Ministry for Education is proud of the new Education for Life programme, but recognises the scale of the challenge to change Nicaraguan culture.

"That's why we're working on a new school regulation, where everybody will understand that we have zero tolerance for people who abuse kids, especially within the schools."

Cardinal Miguel Obando Y Bravo was Archbishop of Managua for 35 years and now runs the Roman Catholic university there - Unica. He blamed domestic violence on poverty and lack of education. I queried this.

Violence and abuse are manifest through society.

He replied thus: 'When I meet with professional friends, I sometimes joke with them and I ask: "Who's the boss in your house?" The man tells me, "It's my wife." I say, "Do you have the last word?" The man says, "I do - but it's 'yes, ma'am'!"

Men take a stand

The big societal institutions are rushing to change the culture that tolerates violence - but some individuals are.

Xavier Munoz is president of the Association of Men against Violence.

Some years ago he and a few colleagues realized that women were dying and men were becoming lonely and isolated because of the violent culture.

One of his members told me: "When my wife got out of control, the mechanism that I had seen and learned was to use violence to get what I wanted."

Now Mr Munoz' association use a method called "popular education", learned during the revolution.

"It concentrates on getting men to talk about their lives and what problems they've had.

"We start with their own experience, but we also try to give them a vision of how they could change life for themselves and their families."

If institutions are reluctant to change their practices, codes and no-go areas, one must rely on bottom-up grass-roots initiatives.

I saw these and met independent, brave women and men.

If modern Nicaragua was forged in the heat of a revolution, then perhaps it is experienced enough to tackle domestic violence now.

Machismo need not dominate society forever, if individuals are committed to a fair and equal society.

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