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Friday, 19 March, 1999, 16:23 GMT
The sins of Nicaragua's fathers
Women of all ages and backgrounds suffer from domestic violence in Nicaragua
By Isabel Hilton

On a stiflingly hot afternoon in Managua, I found myself listening to a stream of women tell dreadful stories. Each of them has suffered violence and on some of them the physical evidence was all too visible. In others, it was the emotional and psychological wounds that brought them to tears.

Listen to this report in full

Each of these women had come to a special all-women police station in the Centroamerica District of the Nicaraguan capital, Managua. It was set up five years ago to try to help the victims of what seems to be an epidemic of domestic violence in Nicaragua.

Research suggests that up to half of Nicaragua's women have suffered violence or sexual abuse and there's little sign of the tide turning. In this police station, Captain Guadeloupe Ovando and her team can offer counselling and legal advice, medical support and, of course, police services. The women who came in while I was there came from every class of Nicaraguan society, from the obviously poor to the comfortably off. Captain Ovando told me that they get twenty new cases a day in her police station from one small Managua suburb alone.

Lorna Norori insists women have a right to justice
Statistics like that don't suprise the Women's Network Against Violence. Lorna Norori is a psychologist and one of the founders of the network, which now has more than 100 affiliated groups. The network has had some successes - it persuaded Congress to pass Law 230, which outlaws physical and psychological violence, but now, she told me, the problem is to get the law implemented. "Most women didn't even know it had been passed, " she said, "and they had no idea that they had the right to say no to violence."

The Network is now struggling to raise awareness - it's taken out advertisements in the newspapers, marched on government buildings, and produced a series of radio publicity announcements, promoting the ideal that women have the right to justice. "No more impunity", they insist, "I have the right to live without violence."

The case of one woman who has said no has now become a cause celebre in Nicaragua. Exactly a year ago, Zoilamerica Narvaez accused her stepfather of systematic sexual abuse. She is now 33. The abuse, she said, began when she was 11. The allegations would have been shocking under any circumstances. But the fact that Zoilamerica Narvaez's stepfather is Daniel Ortega, the former president and Sandinista revolutionary hero, made it into a national scandal.

Zoilamerica Narvaez's claims of abuse by Ortega rocked the nation
Zoilamerica's case was front page news again in Managua on the first anniversary of the day she made them public. I met her in the thinktank where she now works and she talked of the pain and difficulties of the past year. Perhaps the most painful thing, she said, was the fact that her own mother had denounced her. But despite that, she had no regrets about what she had done. "I had to do it, because I had to get him to stop. He was still abusing me by telephone," she told me.

Ortega denies all the allegations of abuse
Daniel Ortega is now the leader of the opposition and hopes to be the Sandinista presidential candidate in the next elections. I had interviewed him several times in the eighties, while he was Nicaragua's president, but never imagined that one day I would have to ask him about allegations like these. I went to see him in the National Assembly in Managua. He strenuously denied the charges, and told me he saw them as a political plot; but Daniel Ortega refuses to give up his parliamentary immunity to let the charges be tested in court. Now Zoilamerica is trying to bring charges in the Central American Court of Human Rights.

The Sandinista revolution once promised equality for women. Now, many women have left the Sandinista movement to campaign separately against violence and sexual abuse.

Sofia Montenegro, a writer and political analyst, told me that she believes the roots of Nicaraguan sexual violence go deep into the country's history and culture. "Every mestizo society," she said, "began with an act of rape."

Others offer different explanations: the long years of civil war, the deepening economic crisis that has brought unemployment rates of up to 70 per cent in some areas of Nicaragua, Hurricane Mitch, with its further devastation - and a machista culture that has taught men that they have the right to do what they choose to their women and children.

Isobel Hilton at the women's refuge in Esteli
But now the men of Nicaragua, too, are beginning to question that culture. In the country's only hostel for battered women, in Esteli, I met men who had come to attend counselling and group therapy sessions that had enabled them to admit to their own violence and to find different models of behaviour. They told me with great emotion how important it had been to them to come to the centre - the only place, they said, where they had been able to find the help they needed.

Now there's a small, national movement of men against violence. Oswaldo Montoya, one of the movement's members, admits that it is difficult for men to take part. "They find that people accuse them of homosexuality," he said, "because this is a group of men that rejects violence. But I think things are really beginning to change in Nicaragua. These days, it's no longer a compliment to be called a macho."

WEB EXCLUSIVES: Listen to the radio advertisements
made by Nicaragua's Women's Network Against Violence
Writer Sofia Montenegro:
"the entire history of Latin America is one of rape..."
Oswaldo Montoya
explains why "I'd admire Ortega a hundred times more if he admitted it.."
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