Nicaraguan Feminists Under Attack

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. That's what's happening in Nicaragua right now.

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?