Nicaraguan Feminists Under Attack


During the nine months I spent in Nicaragua from July 2006 to April 2007, the National Women's Network Against Violence–a loose affiliation of hundreds of women's organizations from across the country, overseen by a rotating, democratically elected coordinating committee–had their hands full. In October 2006, under intense pressure from the Catholic and Evangelical Churches, the Nicaraguan National Assembly voted unanimously to criminalize abortion under all circumstances–including when a pregnant woman's life is at risk. Over 80 women have died since the criminalization was signed into law in November of last year, some from the denial of potentially lifesaving therapeutic abortions, and many more from the denial or delay of emergency obstetric care during dangerous miscarriages (with the new law, doctors are afraid often to operate for fear of being accused of causing an abortion). Shortly after therapeutic abortion was criminalized, a spate of women were raped and assaulted in taxis in the capital city of Managua. Then, in April 2007, Cecilia Torres, a member of the Network from the northern department of Matagalpa, was murdered by her son-in-law. The same week that Torres was murdered, three other Nicaraguan women were also murdered by their partners.

It was a tough year for the Network–in addition to the hundreds of other organizations, collectives, and coordinating bodies that make up Nicaragua's diverse women's movement–but it was by no means atypical. Violence against women is widespread in Nicaragua, sexual abuse is a growing concern, and now the new abortion law–one of the world's most restrictive–regularly strips pregnant women of their right to life. In such an environment, the Network is an essential voice for female victims of violence, and has long been an effective advocate for positive change–even as leaders from across the political spectrum drag their feet on addressing Nicaragua's epidemic of violence against women, or cynically throw their support behind legislation that undermines public health and women's human rights. Which is why it's particularly frustrating, but not particularly surprising, that nine members of the Network are currently spending their energy fighting off an attack from a shady, non-registered NGO that calls itself the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH).

The accusations against the nine women concern a case that made international headlines back in 2003: the case of Rosita, a 9-year-old Nicaraguan girl who sought a therapeutic abortion after she became pregnant as a result of rape. Rosita's mother and stepfather were Nicaraguan migrants living in Costa Rica at the time, and Rosita claimed she had been raped by her Costa Rican neighbor. Her pregnancy caught the attention of several prominent Costa Rican officials, and she was placed under state custody and treated as a medical curiosity. When members of the Nicaraguan Women's Network learned of the case, they traveled to Costa Rica, and at Rosita's mother and stepfather's request, helped the family clandestinely return to Nicaragua, where they secured permission for a therapeutic abortion (which was still legal at the time). Network members accompanied Rosita and her mother and stepfather to secure a safe, legal abortion at a private clinic. After an attempt on the part of local Catholic leaders to excommunicate everyone involved in the case, Rosita's story eventually receded from the headlines.

Now, over four years later, the case is back with a vengeance. Rosita, it turns out, is pregnant again at the age of thirteen, and this time she says her stepfather, Francisco Fletes, is the one who got her pregnant. It's a horrifying enough story as it is. Worse, the ANPDH has seen fit to capitalize on this tragic turn of events by using it as a pretext to go after nine members of the Women's Network. Several months ago, the women learned via newspaper reports that they had been accused of knowing that Fletes was sexually abusing Rosita in 2003, conspiring with Fletes to conceal the abuse, and using Rosita as a means to generate publicity for themselves and build public support for liberalizing Nicaragua's abortion laws.

In order to believe these accusations, you have to believe that the Network's entire mission and history is a lie, and that their commitment to combating sexual abuse and eradicating violence against women is in fact nothing more than a cynical front for gratuitous, self-serving abortion promotion and covert support for rapists–which is possibly what the forces behind ANPDH believe. Alternately, you could view the attacks mounted by ANPDH–a non-registered NGO that is widely thought to be a front for high government officials–as a thinly veiled attempt to punish outspoken feminists for what the current government perceives to be their political transgressions. The Network has been vocal in their opposition to the 2006 therapeutic abortion ban, which was supported by Sandinista party leader and current president Daniel Ortega. And back in 1998, the Network also threw its support behind Ortega's stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, when she came forward to accuse her stepfather of sexually abusing her throughout her adolescence. Ortega has a history of going after his enemies, and many believe that the current accusations against the nine feminists are an attempt to intimidate the women's movement and discourage the rest of civil society from speaking out against his policies.

No matter what you believe, this territory is depressingly familiar. The abortion issue is yet again being used as a blunt instrument to discredit feminists' support for a broad spectrum of women's heath needs and human rights, not to mention feminists' efforts demand accountability from their leaders. It reminds me of the Virginia-based anti-family-planning organization PRI's campaign to discredit UNFPA's wide-ranging and utterly vital global work to promote women's reproductive health, based on (groundless and unproven) accusations that UNFPA supported forced abortions in China. It also reminds me of Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline's attempts to accuse abortion clinic workers of conspiring to cover up sexual abuse in their zeal to perform abortions on young women. Fight for women's right to life, get accused of trampling women's human rights and coercing them into having abortions they don't actually want. And, in the process, redirect energy and resources that could be expended on the actual promotion of women's human rights toward criminalizing those who provide vital (and often scarce) health and support services for women. After all they've been through this year, don't Nicaraguan women deserve better?

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  • http://OwnThePipes.com invalid-0

    This iterative cycle of sexual violence and abuse makes me wonder what’s driving this ugliness in the first place. Certainly we cannot ignore the immediate need of the Nicaraguan women, but I’m also wondering if, parallel path, we can’t push for a deep understanding of why these atrocities are happening in the first place. I want to believe there’s a reason. I _need_ to believe there’s a reason, and once this reason is discovered, we can consider approaches for eliminating the cause of this sadness in the first place.

    Is it simply poverty and a feeling of powerness that drives these men to behave so horribly?

    I’m at a loss.

  • invalid-0

    The worldwide crisis of irresponsible and dishonorable manhood is certainly not confined to the Americas or Nicaragua. Gender discrimination, sexual molestation and abuse, domestic abuse, amongst other unconscionable instances of errant behavior stem from a widespread and gross acceptance and casualness toward sin.

    With all due respect, and without any concept of your particular stance, I realize that this identification of the root cause may be completely foreign to your mindset. In our modern age, most issues are chalked up to psychological deficiencies or behavioral maladjustments resulting from our own ill-effected nurturing early in life.

    I believe that there exists an evil that wants nothing less than to kill. Take a step back for a moment. What is considered normal? Why is it considered normal? Most likely, the normal things you identify are life-givers. Nearly all sane people will agree that normality is life-giving, though they disagree on what qualifies as life-giving (for some, this is pro-life-giving abortions, for others, pro-life giving births). Where then does life-taking come from? Look at the cases: when carried to the full extent, some result in death. How does something that starts as a sexual thing end in death? Why would that ever happen?

    The motivation is not some psychological deficiency. To identify it as such will be to temper a destructive cause out of fear of discomfort. There are not any psychological “fixes” for these issues. Would there be need to register sex offenders in the States, if that were so? If you want this to end, you will have to change the hearts of men in Nicaragua to hate sin. That’s going to require a radical about-face to the Son of God.

    As an aside, this effort will not be aided by self-righteous church officials that seek their own glorification. They cannot be of any help, because the Spirit of God cannot have His way in their lives.

    Is this something of a strange response for you? I hope I do not seem to you some wild, fringe wacko. Can you consider this possibility?

    My name is Mike.

  • invalid-0

    Your account is lacking several details that may shed light on this case.

    1. “Rosita” has not only stated that Francisco Fletes is the father of her current child, she also told the Nicaraguan court that he was the father of her first child, which the Women’s Network helped him to abort after fleeing an investigation in Costa Rica over the original pregnancy, when his stepdaughter was nine years old. That is one of several reasons that Fletes is serving a long prison sentence in Nicaragua today. This can be verified simply by reading the La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario articles on the case, still available on the web and searchable in Google. The Network disposed of the body of the fetus, making it impossible to test it genetically to determine if the accusations against Fletes were true, which allowed him to continue raping his stepdaughter for four more years.

    2. The women of the Network, specifically leaders Marta Maria Blandón and Lorna Norori, admitted in a 2003 interview that is still widely available on the web (in English), that indeed they did know that Francisco Fletes was under investigation by Costa Rican authorities for the original rape, and that they helped him to escape from Costa Rica to Nicaragua during that time. Amazing, but true. The interview is titled “We have successfully challenged two states” and is all over Google.

    3. You wonder if it can be really true that a feminist group like this would exploit a child molestation case to push abortion in Nicaragua, but not only do Blandon and Norori admit that they knew the father was under suspicion in Costa Rica and wanted to leave, and helped him to do it, they also admit in the same interview that they did it precisely because they saw an opportunity to use the case to promote abortion in Nicaragua.

    4. Lorna Norori is a professional therapist specializing in child sexual abuse who has written in the past about the frequency with which such abuse is carried out by family members (stepfathers, uncles, etc.). Such interviews are available in Spanish on Google to this day. Despite this, and despite the fact that she and Blandón were aware that he was under suspicion in Costa Rica, she ignored the possibility that she was helping Rosita’s abuser escape justice in 2003.

    5. There is good evidence from eyewitness testimony by neighbors of the family that the Network was aware of what was continuing to happen to Rosita, and that they covered it up.

    There is so much more to this case, which is available in both Spanish and English on the web. I hope you’ll investigate it further.

  • andrea-lynch

    Hi Matthew,

     

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve read the coverage in El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa, as well as the interview with Blandon & Norori–in fact, I link to the interview & some of the ND & La Prensa coverage in my post. However, I disagree with your reading of the interview, and your suggestion that it represents damning evidence with respect to Blandon, Norori, and other Network members’ involvement in the Rosita case. In the interview, Blandon and Norori explain the reasons behind their belief in Fletes’ innocence at the time. They explain that the Costa Rican government had essentially kidnapped Rosita, was treating her as a medical curiosity, refused to provide her or her family with full information about her legal health options (or with information about the medical risks associated with a nine-year-old girl bringing a pregnancy to term), and generally showed a blatant disregard for both her human rights and her family’s desires. If you think they’re lying, that’s fine, but then you can’t use the interview to prove anything else. You imply that they helped Rosita & her family flee Nicaragua with the express purpose of protecting Fletes, who they knew to be raping her. I don’t see any evidence of that in the interview. You also claim that Blandon and Norori “admit” in the interview that they brought Rosita to Nicaragua “precisely because they saw an opportunity to use the case to promote abortion in Nicaragua.” I did not read the interview that way. What I read was that because of the extremity of Rosita’s case (which involved, let’s remember, the governments of two countries attempting to force a nine-year-old rape survivor to carry a pregnancy to term), the Network was able to develop an advocacy strategy around the need for therapeutic abortion in general–an advocacy strategy that would in turn help them secure the legal therapeutic abortion that the Nicaraguan government was attempting to deny Rosita.

     

    I think a more plausible explanation for the whole debacle would be that the Network members were focused primarily on doing what they could to save Rosita’s health and life, and in the process, were tricked by Fletes (it’s easy to see how that’s possible if you watch the Rosita documentary, unless of course you dismiss the documentary as another piece of conspiratorial feminist propaganda in the plot to protect a known rapist). Their policy in the Rosita case–just as it was in the Zoilamerica Narvaez case, and in countless other cases of rape and sexual abuse that they have handled over the years–is to believe the victim, and in this case, the victim said that her Costa Rican neighbor had raped her, an account which (according to the interview you cite) was confirmed by neighbors. Rosita’s family were poor, illiterate campesinos from Nicaragua living in a country where Nicaraguan immigrants are subject to systemic discrimination as economic migrants–so it’s understandable that the Costa Rican government’s accusation of Fletes, when Rosita herself denied that Fletes had raped her, might look to the Network members like a typical case of anti-Nicaraguan discrimination.

     

    I genuinely believe that the Network members (some of whom I have met and spoken to personally) would never have knowingly protected a man who they knew to be sexually abusing his stepdaughter so that he could go on abusing her, and then force her to have an abortion to destroy the evidence. In order to believe that, you really do have to believe, given what they publicly stand for, that they are liars and hypocrites to the core. In my estimation, their commitment to defending and promoting women’s rights is deep, passionate, and motivated by a tremendous desire to help women and girls. I believe that in this case they are guilty of an error of judgment and an overzealous application of their bedrock principle of always believing the victim, but that the accusation of conspiracy is outrageous. As for the “good evidence from eyewitness testimony by neighbors of the family that the Network was aware of what was continuing to happen to Rosita, and that they covered it up,” when was that? It’s the only claim for which you haven’t cited a source, and I’d be curious to learn more.

     

    Finally, speaking of omitted facts, what do you make of ANPDH president and Bishop of Estelí Abelardo Mata’s January 2008 decision to defend a priest in Madriz who has been accused of sexually harassing and abusing four adolescents boys? It seems a little disingenuous in light of ANPDH’s claims that the nine Network members were not sufficiently committed to rooting out sexual abuse in the Rosita case. Full coverage is available on the Internet—I hope you’ll investigate it further.

     

    Thanks again for your comment,

    Andrea

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for your response. Below I respond to your points, and have some more questions for you.

    1. You say that you don’t see any evidence to show that Blandon and Norori were trying to exploit the “Rosita” case to promote the political agenda.

    Here’s what Blandon herself said in her interview with the Women’s Health Journal in 2003, in explaining their decision to bring “Rosita” and Fletes to Nicaragua:

    “Marta: From the very beginning a strategy was developed by the members of the support group that was set up and led by the Red de Mujeres contra la Violencia and many other organizations with long experience in the issues. This coalition of the broader women’s movement felt that it was the right time to lobby for an enforceable law allowing therapeutic abortion and to demand that the State take responsibility for Rosita’s case. This decision coincided with a struggle to prevent the elimination of therapeutic abortion, a battle long underway in Nicaragua: the Penal Code is currently being reformulated, and “pro-life” groups are urging that the right to therapeutic abortion be removed.”

    This seems to me to be a frank admission that they wanted to use this case to promote their agenda, but let the reader decide. I agree that they weren’t just trying to cover up a rape for the fun of it; I think that they ignored the real possibility of Fletes’ criminality because it wasn’t convenient for their political goal, which was to promote abortion in Nicaragua.

    2. I didn’t see a response to a basic point I made in my first post, and that is Norori is an expert on child sex abuse (she’s a family therapist whose primary work involves such things). She herself has said repeatedly in interviews that the abuser is most often a relative, stepfather, etc. Why, then, did she and Blandon so cavalierly dismiss this possibility with the “Rosita” case in 2003, and chose to believe a nine year old girl who obviously would be in a difficult position to tell the truth about her victimizer? Again, we have a clear political motive. What is your response to this point?

    3. If they were so concerned about the welfare of this girl, why did the feminists dispose of the body of the fetus, making genetic testing in Nicaragua impossible? The issue of Fletes was raised by pro-lifers in Nicaragua repeatedly before the abortion, and they knew it. I think that it’s fair to ask you this question.

    4. I’m writing this at 1:40 am, so I don’t have time to go back to El Nuevo Diario right now, but I will follow up with the info you requested about neighbor testimony against the Network, and then I would like your response.

    5. I don’t know the detail of the priest molestation case (but will look it up tomorrow), but a mere accusation against anyone, including a priest, is not sufficient to convict them in court or even in the mind. Why is it wrong for this organization to defend someone who is accused of something? If it is obvious that he did it (and I’ll check to see what the evidence is), then I would agree with you that they shouldn’t defend him. However, this case is not about the purity of the accuser, but the guilt or innocence of the accused women of the Network.

    6. I didn’t say they helped Fletes escape with the “express purpose” of helping him to evade investigation, and I didn’t mean to imply that it was their primary purpose. It seems to me that their primary purpose, again, was to exploit the case for their political agenda, and that helping Fletes escape served that purpose. I think they were at least indifferent about the identity of the perpetrator, but later they had a strong motive to actually hide that identity. Whether they did or not could be revealed in a fair trial.

    7. My final question to you is this: if a group of feminists are totally dismissive of concerns about unborn children (including females, who are actually aborted at significantly higher rates than males worldwide), even late in the term as was Rosita’s child, why should we be surprised that a girl like Rosita, outside the womb, would be treated badly? You may regard that as a politically charged question, but I think it’s a perfectly fair one. It seems that once people deny the right to life to one class of people, that they are far more likely to ignore the rights and dignity of others. What is your response to this?

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  • invalid-0

    Andrea,

    I’m sorry about the delay, but here’s the follow up I promised to my previous post:

    1. You mentioned a priest who is accused of sexual abuse, and is being defended by his Nicaraguan bishop (the same bishop who leads ANPDH), and asked me why he’s defending the priest. I found only one reference to this on the net, which was a La Prensa article in which the Women’s Network Against Violence makes the same accusation, and the bishop responded that he had investigated the case and that the priest is innocent:

    http://www-ni.laprensa.com.ni/archivo/2008/enero/29/noticias/nacionales/240245.shtml

    That’s all I could find on the internet. If there’s more available, please refer me to to it and I would be happy to read it. As it is, I don’t see what it has to do with all of the evidence against the feminists in the Network.

    I will say this: if there is good evidence against the priest, let it be given in a fair trial, and if he is guilty, let him be punished with an appropriate punishment (life in prison would be appropriate). I would say the same thing about the women. If there is evidence against them, let them go to trial and be exonerated or convicted based on the evidence. That seems fair to me.

    2. You asked me for a link regarding testimony by neighbors that the Women’s Network Against Violence knew about the abuse before and didn’t report it. The evidence to that effect is mentioned in the following El Nuevo Diario article:

    “Las proporcionaron bienes muebles e inmuebles y, según testigos, vecinos del lugar, las mujeres del colectivo de la Red, a como les llamaba “Rosita”, sabían que estaba embarazada y que era sujeto de abuso sexual por parte de su padrastro Francisco Leonardo Fletes Sánchez, hecho que las miembros de la Red ocultaron”, señala Petray en la denuncia.

    Translation:

    “They gave them furniture and housing, and according to witnesses, neighbors of the place, the women of the Network collective, as “Rosita” used to call them, knew that she was pregnant and that she was subject to sexual abuse on the part of her stepfather Francisco Leonardo Fletes Sanchez, a fact that the members of the Network hid,” indicated Petray in the accusation.”

    Source:

    http://www.laprensa.com.ni/archivo/2007/noviembre/17/noticias/nacionales/227714.shtml

    That’s Petray, the head of ANPDH in his accusation filed against the Network members. You may doubt his word, which is your right to do, but then, why not let it go to trial and let the evidence be examined? Let the neighbors come forward and say what they saw and/or heard. Surely, if the Network feminists are innocent, they have nothing to fear, assuming the trial is conducted fairly. It would be a highly-publicized and well-examined trial, monitored scrupulously by the the Network’s allies at multi-million-dollar US foundations, so I think we could have confidence in that.

    I hope you’ll notice something else about the article, something I find disturbing, but I would like your opinion. The woman do something that they have done repeatedly: they absolutely refuse to apologize. They say they did nothing wrong. Let them speak for themselves:

    “Cuatro años después de haber inducido a que la menor fuese sometida a abortar a la criatura, Gutiérrez defendió que lo hayan promovido.

    “Four years after having induced the minor to submit herself to abort the child, Gutiérrez defended what they had promoted.

    “En ese sentido, la red cumplió con la parte que le correspondía, como era salvar la vida de la niña y para nosotras lo más importante en todo caso es la vida de las mujeres, de las niñas, niños y adolescentes que están corriendo un peligro y si en ese momento ese embarazo significaba la próxima muerte de la niña, consideramos que no tenemos por qué arrepentirnos ahora de que esa situación se haya dado”, refirió.

    “”In this sense, the Network fulfilled the part that corresponded to it, which was to save the life of the girl and for us the most important thing in the whole case is the life of women, of girls, boys, and adolescents that are running a risk and if in that moment this pregnancy meant the impending death of the child, we think that we don’t have any reason to repent now that that situation has occurred,” she said.”

    Never mind the fact that this Network representative contradicts what numerous doctors said both in Costa Rica and Nicaragua (they denied there was in danger, although they said that moving the girl *was* in fact dangerous, something the Network had no compunction about doing when they transported her in a long car trip to Nicaragua). Let’s forget that. And let’s assume that they didn’t realize that they were helping a rapist escape investigation and prosecution in Costa Rica. Let’s even assume they had no ulterior motive for disposing of the genetic evidence that could have saved Rosita from four more years of sexual abuse by her stepfather. Even if we made all of those assumptions, we would think that if these were sincere, starry-eyed humanitarians trying to make the world a better place, that somehow it might have occurred to them to be actually SORRY for having done what they did, that indeed they would have SOMETHING to apologize for, to regret, as a result of this terrible tragedy. But according to them, they don’t.

    I think these are all reasonable questions, and I think that many concerned Nicaraguans would like answers to them. Wouldn’t a fair public trial help to sort all of this out?

    Thanks,
    Matthew