The Wounds of Sexual Abuse
In Nicaragua, as in the rest of the world, awareness is growing of the extent and impact of sexual abuse and incest committed against children and adolescents of both sexes. We spoke with Lorna Norori, one of Nicaragua’s most experienced psychologists working with survivors of abuse.
María López Vigil
On the periphery of the globalized world, Nicaragua struggles as best it can for democracy and development, longing to reach these two closely-linked goals that glimmer in the distance like the lines of a far horizon. While this struggle faces difficulties in all areas, the epidemic of sexual abuse and incest against our children continues to rot society’s underpinnings. We cannot transform society until we deal with this evil and heal the wounds it has caused. Opening these wounds, examining them, suturing them and helping them heal are collective, social tasks. To do this, we must first become informed so we will not only be able to think more clearly about what we must do, but also develop the courage to take action.
First case, initial leadsIn 1990, the Nicaraguan psychologist Lorna Norori began to work with children and adolescents—both girls and boys—who had problems at school. Their parents brought them to her to find out why they had fallen behind or gone through sudden behavioral changes. It was through this doorway that she began to see the problem.
The problem at school quite often led me to a problem in the family. Although I hadn’t yet had any training in detecting sexual abuse, I soon came across it. The first case I saw opened my eyes. It was a 12-year-old girl who lived with her father and stepmother on weekdays and her mother and stepfather on the weekends. The girl’s father brought her to my office because she wet the bed every night. She told me about "something" that was happening to her and I began to suspect it might be sexual abuse. With this issue, many things can lead you off the track. There was a "loving father" who had sought me out to treat his daughter and a mother who had had several partners. In which of the two houses had the girl been abused? I was shocked when I found out that it was happening in both houses: that both her father and her mother’s partners, her stepfathers, had sexually abused her since she was small. All her life she had been passed from the hands of one man to another.
Without any training, I set to work. The stepmother didn’t know what the father had been doing to the girl but she believed the girl. The father became frightened when he realized I had caught on to him through the therapy, and he didn’t touch the girl again. These two circumstances made it possible for her to feel a little more secure in one of the two houses. And something began to happen that might have seemed almost magical to someone who didn’t know: the girl stopped wetting her bed during the week, until the weekend, at her mother’s house, when she started doing it again, and on Monday it stopped. When I spoke with her mother and told her what the stepfather was doing, she refused to accept the truth. I suspected that she might have also suffered from sexual abuse as a child, but didn’t pursue it. At that time, with the little I knew, I was satisfied with my small achievements: the girl had found support in her stepmother and gained the strength to stop her father.
Working on that case affected me greatly. I didn’t know at the time that I would soon have to make the decision to work on many more. In 1993, a friend called me to tell me about a new project to respond to sexual abuse cases in the Nicaraguan NGO Dos Generaciones. She asked if I was interested. Although this is hard to believe, no institution in Nicaragua had done any systematic work to deal with this problem before that time. It was going to be a pioneering project. I was interested and said yes. When I started there, my thinking was shaped by all the myths spun to cover up this problem. The myth that sexual abuse occurs in the streets. The myth that children are abused mainly by people they don’t know. The myth that child abusers are alcoholics or uneducated, and so on. The myths began to unravel as I learned about the cases. Society’s ignorance of this issue runs so deep that we can only manage to overcome the myths by informing ourselves, talking, listening and sharing cases, information and experiences.
Putting a name to what happenedThe first case I dealt with in Dos Generaciones also had a big impact on me. It was a 16-year-old girl who came with her boyfriend, a boy the same age. She’d been abused from ages 6 to 12, first by her stepfather, then by his brother and his son. When she was 12 she told her mother what had been happening, but her mother never believed her and even ran her out of the house. The lack of support from her mother affected her strongly. Whether or not a girl gets support from her mother is one of the factors that determines the success of therapy with survivors. The girl told me how she realized what was happening to her: she was in fourth grade and passed by a sixth grade classroom where a natural science lesson was going on, and the teacher was talking about sexual relations and explaining that they take place "between adults." She was shocked to learn that this was what was happening to her. Until that point, she had been unable to name it, to define it. This happens very often: a child is abused but doesn’t know if this is what’s supposed to happen, if it happens to everyone, if she should try to avoid it and how... And this confusion is part of the damage done.
The trauma she suffered was so deep and complex that she had already tried to kill herself five times. Before then, I had never worked with anyone with such self-destructive ideas, which are very common among survivors. I was stunned to see her come in as though she were in a trance and tell me, with perfect calm and in great detail, how she had slowly sliced her wrists with a razor blade. The experience taught me that the tranquility in her voice was simply a form of dissociation, a psychological mechanism found in all survivors. Some people dissociate by forgetting, others by shoving this unbearable experience they can’t understand into a small compartment, separating it from their lives. The problem is that you can never forget it or separate it out; it is always there, doing more damage.
The girl came to me because she had a "problem in her relationship." The problem was that the two of them had failed to commit suicide together. They had already agreed on it and made one attempt but he pulled back at the last minute. Another "problem" in the relationship was that both had gotten involved in a gang and from there in crime. They had paid kids in another gang $100 to kill the abusive stepfather, but the attempt had failed and they couldn’t agree as a couple on how to kill him. Just amazing. I later came across many other cases like this first one, which left me with feelings of powerlessness. Recovery is much more difficult when the woman or adolescent has so completely lost her sense of self-worth and drugs and crime are involved.
Incest and sexual abuse cut across class linesIt is a myth that only poor or uneducated men commit abuse, or that incest occurs only in rural areas. Most abusers appear to be perfectly normal men, who frequently enjoy great prestige in their community and society.
That girl wasn’t from a poor neighborhood; she’d always lived in a middle-class environment. I’ve worked with many, many cases in which the abusive relative is a professional. It’s a myth that abusers are alcoholics. In most cases I’ve worked with, they are serious men who drink little if at all. The same with drugs. The percentage in which drugs are involved is minimal.
Over the past ten years, I’ve seen cases of sexual abuse at all social and economic levels in Nicaragua. I’ve seen cases in rural areas and in all sectors of urban society, in the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific, the north and the south, among very poor people who live off garbage dumps and professional people in the "best" families. The greatest myth in Nicaragua is that incest only happens among the poor and happens among them because of misery, degradation or overcrowded living conditions. If statistics were drawn from all the cases I’ve seen, I bet they would show that it happens about the same amount in all social sectors. Sexual abuse and incest don’t respect class lines, but what is virtually a law is that the higher the sex offender’s social status, the more political, institutional or economic power he has, the greater the pressure not to denounce what happened, to remain silent.
I saw a 12-year-old girl. Her mother got up to wash clothes early one morning and realized that her husband, the girl’s stepfather, was on top of her daughter. She immediately denounced him to the police. They sent the girl to us, and I accompanied her to the forensic specialist. We went through the whole legal process, but when everything was set to begin trial, the mother froze up, because of the man’s social status. They were middle-class people with a good income, and he was well respected in the neighborhood, in part because he’d been the head bodyguard of one of the leaders of the revolution. The woman began to lose heart. "Who’s going to believe me?" she asked. "No one else saw him, and they’re not going to believe me because he’s a good man, he doesn’t drink or smoke, and he’s so well liked in the neighborhood. They’re going to say I’m trying to hurt him..."
The capacity to be shockedI tried to keep an emotional distance with the first case I saw in Dos Generaciones, but I couldn’t. Other cases followed and then others, and the same thing happened. You hear so much pain and can’t separate yourself from it. I once asked the Argentine psychologist Jorge Corsi, who is one of Latin America’s leading specialists and teachers on domestic violence and sexual abuse issues, if treating so many cases might make us so used to the pain that we lose our sensitivity. He told me we had to be alert to this because to work well with survivors, that we must never lose our "capacity to be shocked." Dealing with cases of sexual abuse against children and adolescents requires us to reach down into the very bottom of a deep, sordid pit, one of the worst of the places where one human being destroys another. This kind of sexual abuse and incest affects all facets of developing children; it affects their bodies and their minds during the time when their personalities are being formed. And since this damage is done around the issue of sexuality, which is basic to the physical, psychological and spiritual life of every individual, the damage done is always very serious and complex.
Getting involved in this work takes a high emotional toll. I suffered from gastritis, nightmares, a lot of tension... I felt so helpless in some cases that I wanted to run away, give up, know nothing more. But I never did. I was working on the assumption that our team was the only one of its kind and if we didn’t do this work, no one else would. Learning about so many cases—I often saw as many as six people in a day and was totally exhausted—I began to realize how widespread the problem was in Nicaragua. I never would have imagined, because there was no abuse in my childhood. There were lots of material things I didn’t have as a child, but no one abused me sexually. And I fit the profile of someone at risk of becoming yet another survivor, since I was the last child of parents who were already getting older, and the only girl after three much older brothers. But nothing ever happened to me. My father was incredibly human and my mother’s ideas were those of an independent woman, not at all common in our surroundings. The two of them were deeply in love and loved me very much. I never saw a single incidence of violence from my father aimed at my mother or my brothers. I know that in this social context and in Nicaragua, I was very privileged not to have suffered from sexual abuse. Perhaps this helped to prepare me for the work I’m doing now.
Boys are also abusedAlthough sexual abuse and incest against girls is still the best-kept secret in any family and any society, it is much more common to hear of it than to hear of sexual abuse against boys. But boys are also abused. In one of the most helpful books for survivors of abuse, The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis from the United States, the authors recognize in the prologue to the third edition that if they were to write the book over they would have to take into account the numerous cases and testimonies of boys abused in childhood that they saw in the six years following the first 1988 edition.
It shattered myths and surprised me very much to discover that men not only abuse girls, but also boys. It happens much more often than we think. I soon began to work with boys as well. My first case involved three boys from the countryside, two brothers and their cousin, who were 5, 6 and 7 years old. We worked in coordination with the court, which sent them to me for a psychological evaluation. The father of two of the boys had denounced the case. All three had been abused by the same man: their godfather. They had not yet given a statement, so the first time they talked about what had been done to them was when they were talking with me. It was very painful to hear such small children give such crude, clear details of the abuse they’d suffered. Since they were farm kids, their language was concrete and direct. My son was 6 years old then and after listening to the 6-year-old tell his story, I felt something for the first time that I’ve felt many times since, the desperate need to see him and reassure myself that nothing had happened to him. To think that someone could also do this to my son made me panic.
That case taught me a lot. It troubled me to hear the 7-year-old say, "Listen, what this kid’s going to tell you"—pointing to the littlest one, the 5-year-old—"is nonsense, because he liked it when they stuck it in." And when I talked with the 5-year-old boy, he cried because he didn’t want anything to happen to his godfather, whom he loved very much. The man had made special efforts to make the littlest boy want the abuse and even feel pleasure, which happens a lot. That was how I learned about one of the most traumatic sides of sexual abuse and incest in children, how linking affection with abuse confuses the developing child’s understanding of what love and pleasure are.
Looking for trails, connections, signsSome join the police, feeling that the uniform protects them. Some become nuns, feeling that the habit covers them. These are unconscious choices. At school, a sudden change of attitude is one sign. An excessive desire to achieve and excel can be a sign too, a mechanism to compensate for the pain and confusion the child feels.
Since so little information was available in Nicaragua, we urgently set out to study the various consequences of sexual abuse in childhood. At first we tried to verify if it could lead to homosexual tendencies, but we later understood that it is not determinate, not a rule, although there can be links between the two realities at some point. What is a rule, however, is that people who have suffered from sexual abuse in childhood invariably use mechanisms for self-protection and concealment.
One learns to develop a sense for detecting the outward signs that can lead you to discover a history of abuse. The need for abuse victims to defend themselves from their aggressor is often expressed in the way they dress. Women may wear masculine styles to dissemble, so no one will touch them. Or slender girls may disfigure their bodies by becoming obese, believing that if they become ugly, they won’t be touched like that again. The body posture, gestures, always reflect what is happening or has happened. Walking around timidly, hunched up or stooped over, as though not only trying to cover up the breasts that are beginning to develop but even to make their whole body disappear, is typical of adolescents who have been abused. Their expressions are dimmed. In their faces, the eyes speak most clearly, looking down, sad and evasive. Others go to the opposite extreme, wearing very short, tight clothes, so they’re almost naked.
The look and the posture in the photos of children can put us on the trail of sexual abuse in childhood. A 50-year-old woman suspected that she’d been abused when she was very young, but she couldn’t remember it. We were looking together at pictures of her when she was 4 and her eyes were incredibly sad in all the photos, though she was smiling.
The characteristics of the woman in front of you can give rise to suspicions of a history of sexual abuse. As I mentioned before, there are various signs. Often a woman or adolescent who has been abused will tell you, "I don’t understand why I want to die and why I do things I shouldn’t do." Or they’ll say, "I was born under an unlucky star, everything turns out bad for me; this life is shit, I feel like I’m not going anywhere." They tell you they drink although it’s bad for them, that they smoke marijuana or use cocaine even though they react badly to it. A whole set of self-destructive tendencies can lead you to suspect a history of sexual abuse.
The story they tell gives you other clues. When you begin to go into the family history, characters begin to appear: the grandmother, the mother, the brother, the sister... and the father? Hmm, the person isn’t saying much about him. Not wanting to talk about someone, whoever it is, is a clue. My job is to follow such clues in order to confirm or discard them, keeping the radar set to detect some sign of abuse in the story. And I invariably find it.
Another common characteristic among adolescents who were abused as young children or at the beginning of their adolescence is a desperate need to flee with the first man who happens by. They run away from home with a boyfriend, or anyone else for that matter; and many of them end up living sexually promiscuous lives. Similarly, there’s good reason to suspect that behind the prostitute cowers an abused child, especially when the prostitute is an adolescent with no sense of self-worth. They think, "No one valued my body, so why should I? It’s been abused, they’ve seen me naked, they’ve already touched whatever they wanted to and didn’t give me anything in return. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of it and live off my body?"
An identikit of aggressorsCosta Rican psychologist Gioconda Batres, one of Latin America’s leading specialists on incest, has written a book titled El lado oculto de la masculinidad (The Dark Side of Masculinity), which gives us an idea of the profile of sexual aggressors or sexual offenders, those men of such normal, charming appearance, with whom she has done pioneering treatment work.
It is important to understand the logic that motivates sexual offenders of children and adolescents, that motivates men who commit incest. A stepfather who abuses his stepdaughter does not do it because he feels it’s all right since he’s not related by blood. Nor does he do so because she’s a very attractive girl and he can’t resist. These are all myths that keep us from understanding the aggressor’s logic. His logic is power. If he abuses his stepdaughter, he’ll also abuse his biological daughters and do it in order, one after the other. He feels that he owns all women, especially those who live under his roof. He’ll abuse the ones who aren’t so pretty as much as the pretty ones. His logic is power: he feels he has the right and wants to exercise it over everyone. I’ve seen cases where the mother finds out what’s happening when the man is on the fourth daughter. The aggressor always believes he has the right and tells himself he’s not doing anything wrong, not doing any harm. He justifies it to himself by saying that the girl enjoys it, desires it, provoked it or even asked for it.
Sexual offenders always have a strategy. Always. It is conscious and appropriate and defined according to their interests and the victim they select, and is based on seduction and control, since it is through seduction and control that they exercise their power. They seduce because they’re close to the children. They take advantage of the affection and confidence they enjoy, as well as the authority they have over the children as family members—grandfathers, fathers, stepfathers, uncles, older brothers—and adults. They take advantage of their privileges as close adults, which is what allows them to seduce and control. They seduce through a whole process of gestures, looks, words, expressions of affection. And when they begin to act, touching the child with sexual intent, they never admit to themselves that they’re doing it intentionally. They convince themselves that it’s only an expression of affection.
Secrecy and silence are firmly groundedWhile they seduce, they also exercise control. One great advantage in their favor is children’s earliest repressive lesson that anything to do with sex is nasty and forbidden. This misguided education guarantees that abusers can count on the victim’s silence: children know they’re not supposed to speak about sexual things because they’re bad, and because they themselves are small and don’t understand. The silence of children who are being abused is very firmly grounded on foundations that have been laid down in their own homes since they were very young. For example, children are taught other, evasive names—like wee-wee or Mr. P—instead of their genitals’ true names, if they’re taught any names at all. Although this might seem innocent, it lays the foundations for their later silence.
Even before they act, aggressors are confident that they’re not going to be found out, and their power is also based on this. This security guarantees that they can fully exercise their power over children. They usually don’t have to threaten to get secrecy and silence. Gestures, signs and looks are enough, a simple code that children assimilate and that obliges them to be quiet. This is why both during and after the abuse, when they understand what happened and have talked about it, even when they have denounced it to the authorities, they feel guilty, as though they were accomplices. Trapped in the affectionate power and power-based affection of their aggressors, they experience abuse as though they had caused it, as though they were responsible, largely because they didn’t speak, they accepted it, they didn’t defend themselves, they submitted.
Sexual pleasure is often associated in human beings with the exercise of power. When men sexually abuse children, the pleasure is associated with the power implicit in totally controlling another human being considered weaker or seen as personal property. These men get greater pleasure from possessing a girl than an adult woman, because the inequality of power makes them feel they "possess" her more. They also enjoy the pleasure of "being the first." The thinking is, "If other men are going to do it to my daughter, then why shouldn’t I be the first, since I’m her father?" This idea is deeply rooted in Nicaraguan peasant culture and is tightly linked to the conception of power: "The child is mine, I can do with her as I please."
Sexual abusers always justify themselvesOffenders, even the clumsiest of them, not only have a strategy to abuse but also one to protect themselves, the starting point of which is never to admit to the abuse. They are unlikely to even recognize it. There are times when, out of sheer stupidity, one of them does without even realizing it. I saw a 9-year-old girl from an extremely poor family who had been abused by her stepfather for a year and a half. The grandmother was the one who noticed that the girl had marks all over her body. It took several more days before the girl dared to say who’d done it. When she began to talk about the abuse, she told me about anal penetration with the penis, which was what was most etched in her mind. The man was jailed and his statement was incredible: he claimed that the accusations weren’t true, that the girl had started it, that he never wanted to do anything but she asked him to "play" and he played with her, but this wasn’t sexual abuse, merely a game. He swore he’d never raped her, that all he’d done was "put it in from behind." He confessed it himself! You feel as much anger as surprise when you read something like that. When they took the girl to the forensic specialist, we learned that her hymen had also been ruptured. Talking with her, I found out that he hadn’t vaginally penetrated her with his penis but rather with his finger. So he didn’t see this as rape, and she didn’t experience it the same way because it didn’t hurt as much.
In their strategies, they never admit to anything and always justify themselves. In ten years of work, I’ve only worked with one man responsible for sexual abuse. The girl’s mother asked me to see the father after she had discovered what he was doing with their 9-year-old daughter, immediately denounced it and asked for a divorce. Both were professionals, but even in their social circle, as a result of the prevailing machista complicity, she was accused of trying to harm the man. Like all the others, he refused to recognize what he’d done. Although he didn’t go to jail, she got a divorce in ten days. The day the divorce was finalized, he phoned her and begged her not to sign: "I have a bible and a pistol in my hand and I’ll kill myself if you sign it," he said, blackmailing her. She was horrified. I tried to show her that she wasn’t responsible for his suicide threat and promised to see him. Like all others, he began by justifying himself, but I finally got him to confess. And then he gave the classic argument: he didn’t want to do it but "the devil got inside me." He said that every time he saw the girl he’d tell himself, "I won’t do it any more," but six months went by like that, with the devil going in and out of him!
Working with sexual aggressors requires certain personal characteristics. I can’t do it, because my sensibilities are totally biased in favor of the children, the women. There are limits to one’s compassion, and mine doesn’t reach that far. But the most important thing in working with sexual offenders is an appropriate focus. It’s inappropriate and dangerous, for example, to treat them as people who need therapy because they were abused as children and thus abuse others. This focus justifies abuse and in the patriarchal culture we live in, we can end up treating them as the victims and not as the ones responsible for abuse. This focus leads us to assume that anyone who was abused can commit abuse, and that’s not the case. One question that always comes up when discussing the recurring cycle of sexual violence is, will a boy who’s been sexually abused later become a sexual abuser himself? I don’t think it’s necessarily a norm that someone who was abused is going to repeat the pattern. I’ve always said that if it were, there’d be an enormous number of women who are sexual abusers, but in fact there aren’t.
Speaking out: A risky first stepIn all parts of the world, not just Nicaragua, speaking out and denouncing sexual abuse involves running a risk. It is a necessary first step, but there is more to break through than only that initial silence. One must keep breaking through layers of silence, sometimes without ever managing to get all the way through the accumulated silence. Still, certain factors, attitudes and motivations can help survivors break through the silence, even knowing the risk they run.
Children are almost never able to break through the silence, to speak out. Very few at that age will tell an adult what’s happening to them—and fewer still in Nicaragua—because they feel such fear, shame, pain and guilt. What happens most often is that an adult discovers what’s going on. One thing that sometimes leads children to speak out, however, is that their fear grows to such an extreme they’re afraid something even worse could happen. I saw a case of two sisters, 11 and 12 years old, who were being abused by their uncle, a military officer with a lot of authority in a semi-rural area near Managua. The uncle picked them up twice a week and took them to his house where he abused both of them, threatening them with a pistol, but without letting either know what was happening to the other.
He had gone further with the older girl and had already raped her. She was panicked, because he said if she told anyone he’d kill her and then burn down her family’s house and would never be punished because he was in the army. The girl started having a recurring nightmare that began with snakes and ended with a house in flames. After going through this anguish for a month, she told her mother that she didn’t want to go back to her uncle’s house. Since everyone in the family had so much affection and respect for the man, the mother was puzzled, but accepted it. She kept sending the younger daughter, however. So the older girl’s fear burst through: afraid he was going to do the same thing to her sister, she decided to speak out to protect her. The education women receive, which makes us more likely to protect others than ourselves, helps in this kind of case, which happens quite often: a child speaks out to protect a younger sister or the family.
When the girl told her mother why she didn’t want to keep going to her uncle’s house, both her parents believed her immediately, which gave the girl a lot of strength. The younger daughter, who was reluctant to speak, confirmed what had happened once she saw that her sister had already spoken. It was a tremendous case, because the family was very poor and the uncle had a great deal of power and authority in the town, but this didn’t keep them from denouncing the abuse. In the end, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison. I hope he hasn’t been released among the people pardoned this year. Each year I go over the list of those pardoned to see if a child abuser has been let out. It happens quite often.
The mother’s roleMany things play a part in the capacity of a child to speak out: a child’s age, how long the abuse has been going on and the amount of power wielded by the abuser are all factors. I worked with an adolescent who had been abused by her grandfather on her mother’s side between the age of 3 and 12. She didn’t dare talk about it until she was 14, when the grandfather, who’d left the house two years earlier, came back. Fearing he’d start to abuse her again, she told her mother, who believed her immediately because she had also been abused by him as a child.
The mother confronted him directly, but the rest of the family didn’t believe either her or the girl so the mother retracted her accusation and began to ask her daughter if she was sure about what she’d said. In the end, the girl also recanted.
When people ask children if they are sure about what they are saying or appear to doubt what is being said by asking, for example, "Why didn’t you say anything before?"—it is very likely to make the child regret having spoken. This is especially true if the mother is the one asking such questions. The doubt can sow regret about the decision to speak out and the child retreats to silence and secrecy: "If they’re not going to believe me, I better not say anything."
The damage this causes is enormous. In this particular case, the retraction increased the distance between the girl and her mother. The girl didn’t know the same thing had happened to her mother, much less with the same man. Time passed and the case got more complicated, as always happens. By the age of 16, the girl had already had two partners. The first abused her by insisting that she give him "proof of your love," the classic blackmail, and the second physically forced her to have sex with him and totally dominated her. Girls who have been abused as children very often accept partners who abusively control them. When she got pregnant, the girl decided to tell her father everything: the pregnancy, her boyfriends and her grandfather’s abuse. And her father believed her.
The girl came to see me at the age of 21, with two well-planned suicide attempts already under her belt, one when she was 17 and the other when she was 19. Through therapy, we made a lot of progress in a year, but her mother never convinced herself to begin therapy. She told me one day, "With my daughter yes, but with me it’s not worth it, I’m already lost." She was a young woman, but the story she hid made her feel unworthy. She suffered from depression and there were signs of incipient alcoholism. But she didn’t want to uncover the story at the root of her problems. "I buried this a long time ago," she said. And since you can never force a person to talk about what they don’t want to reveal, I can’t do anything until this woman decides to unbury the past and open up this wound. Talking about abuse is a strictly personal decision: you must be sure you want to speak and believe you can overcome what happened.
Adults have trouble breaking the silence tooSome women have broken their silence for the first time with me: mothers of abused children who came when they saw how I worked with their children and ended up telling me that the same thing had happened to them, something they’d never told anyone. There was one case of a 43-year-old woman with seven children, two boys and five girls, four from one marriage and three from another. She came because her third eldest daughter told her the stepfather was abusing her. As we looked into the case, we discovered that he had also abused the two older girls.
I began to try to empower the mother so she could deal with this terrible situation, and during our third meeting she burst out, "I’m the one to blame for what’s happening to my daughters because the same thing happened to me. I was born cursed." Her story was terrible. When she was 14, her mother and father left her home alone in the afternoons, when they were at work. A 25-year-old neighbor who often came to the house appeared one day, closed the door, threw her on the floor and raped her. He began repeating it every afternoon.
She became pregnant and when she was four months along, her parents noticed and asked her who she’d been with, but she didn’t dare to say it was the man they all knew, so they ran her out of the house. She asked a neighbor if she could stay with them and two days later, the man came to the house, insisting, "You’re going to live with me because what you have in there is mine!" She married him. The man beat her from the very start. She had three girls and a boy with him. She found out that he abused the three girls, one after the other, when he was with the youngest of them. Sexual abuse against children and adolescents creates a chain that many women interpret fatalistically by blaming themselves: "I shouldn’t have been born, I shouldn’t live."
Why now? Why didn’t you say anything before?The question sometimes asked of those who break their silence as adults—"Why didn’t you say anything before?"—makes no sense. It takes time to be able to speak about this, and the most normal, most common thing is that people can’t speak, don’t dare speak, don’t how to speak, or don’t want to. A countless number of women become adults without ever having spoken, having dissociated, blocked out and completely hidden the abuse they suffered as children. I worked with a 37-year-old woman who was not Nicaraguan, who was abused by a neighbor when she was 5, in the basement of the house—in other countries, where houses have basements, abuse often occurs there, which is why survivors identify it as such an ominous place. The girl was terrorized because the man told her that he would kill her mother and father if she talked. For years, she couldn’t talk, but when she was 10, mostly out of fear that he’d do the same thing to her sister, she told her mother. Her parents believed her, but never again talked about it or confronted the neighbor or did anything else. A great deal of damage is done to a child when the adults around her don’t say or do anything. She was extraordinarily hurt by it, and has lived dissociated from it ever since: she buried the pain and "forgot" everything that had happened.
Her own first child was a boy, and the second a girl. When her daughter turned five—the age when she was first abused—she began to feel very bad and "remembered" what happened. This kind of projection is very common among women who’ve been abused as children: when their daughters reach the age they were when they began to suffer the abuse, they go into a panic that it could happen again. It was then that this woman sought me out, ostensibly to help her daughter with a problem at school, but she revealed a story to me that she had "forgotten" for almost 20 years. She still blames her parents for not defending her.
Breaking the silence to talk—with whom?I remember a 31-year-old woman who came to me saying that life wasn’t worth living; she took drugs and wanted to die. She spoke about her family, about every member. Then she told me she’d started therapy with a psychologist who mistreated her and stopped going because of that, then went to see another psychologist. But she didn’t say any more about him, just that she stopped going. When I began to follow the lead of this second psychologist, the whole awful story came out. Her father had abused her from age 6 to 12, her brother from age 8 to 12, then her cousin. But she never told anyone. When she was an adult, she sought out a psychologist, but didn’t tell her about this history; instead, she talked about the dilemma of her sexual orientation and promiscuity. The psychologist insisted that she had to abandon the "life of vice and chaos," find God, forget the past and forgive everything. She felt mistreated by this advice and so sought out another therapist, and dared to tell him the whole story, for the first time in her life. But what happened was even worse: the man sexually abused her. A tragedy.
One thing that limited this woman’s recovery was that she had no one to talk with about her story. It’s not enough to break the silence once, with a single person. Therapy isn’t enough. It’s necessary to be able to talk about it with more people, to have a support network. I try to encourage mothers to support their children as they go through this, although I know there are limits to this advice. What kind of sexual education have these mothers received that would make it possible for their children to talk with them and feel listened to? In Nicaragua, how many children and adolescents talk with their mothers about their sexuality even when they haven’t been abused?
Risks, obstacles, lonelinessWhile it is very important for survivors to find people they can talk with about their story, it is hard for them to find good listeners. There are few good listeners in our society, which is unprepared to hear this pain. This is one of the main problems: we encourage women and children to break their silence, but after that, who will they continue to talk with, who can they talk to in their homes, their environment, their work? After freeing themselves by telling their secret, will they be trapped in another silence, that of a society that doesn’t want to or can’t or doesn’t know how to listen to them?
One problem is that talking about these stories affects the family: the guilt, shame and fear touch all family members. Another big problem is that it is very difficult to understand a survivor of abuse. Those who listen don’t know what to say, how to respond, how to treat the person, how to help. Survivors who have broken their silence tend to be very arrogant and demanding. Once they’ve spoken out, they tend to keep throwing what happened to them in everyone’s faces, reminding others that they weren’t there for them or didn’t defend them, insisting that they can’t possibly understand because they haven’t lived through it and can’t even imagine how they feel.
I remember the father of an abused child who told me he was very concerned about how his daughter was behaving at home. "Before she began her therapy, she talked about this only with me and very discreetly. She didn’t talk with her mother, because she knew it was painful for her. But now things have become horrible because she talks about it with everyone, in front of the whole family, with her uncle, her aunt; she won’t stop talking about it. And when she talks about herself, she says, ‘I, who have been abused, who was raped by that degenerate.’ The person she’s talking about is her grandfather and she says it in front of the whole family and everyone else!"
This kind of reaction isn’t ostentation or exhibitionism. It’s a demand, a way of saying, "Now that you all know, what are you going to do?" It’s part of a normal phase of the healing process. After the secrecy and silence comes an urgent need to speak its name, to shout it out, to get it out in the open so it can’t hurt any more. What happens is that potential listeners tend to remain mute, paralyzed, unsure of what to say or do because they lack information and haven’t been taught how to respond sensitively. I met a 37-year-old woman who broke off her relationship because once she had broken her silence because she felt she couldn’t talk with her partner about what had happened to her. He would say to her, "I don’t know what to say to you, how to respond," and she couldn’t bear that. Many relationships end like that. It’s often impossible to maintain a relationship if one partner can’t become a good listener for the other.
When a survivor talks, unexpected things are revealed about the people around her that can change her perceptions of them. The first has to do with whether they trust her or not, whether they believe what she says. Feeling that the people around her have confidence in her—when she had lost confidence in herself—is very important in building a new identity. But survivors don’t always find this confidence in those they had hoped, and sometimes do find it in those from whom they had least expected it. These twists are revelations.
Another important revelation has to do with how she sees herself after having spoken out. For the first time, she sees herself as she is, without the need to hide or keep a secret. After years of hiding behind her bodily posture, her facial gestures, her clothing, her silence, it is a revelation to feel that she no longer has to do this. After breaking her silence, a survivor has a job in life: seeking and finding her own identity and leaving behind the one imprinted on her by sexual abuse.
Truth, punishment, devastating choicesIn extremely poor environments, there are specific risks and other walls of silence. I worked with a 12-year-old girl who lived in a completely marginalized neighborhood. She was the youngest child in the family, and her mother and older sisters were prostitutes. Suddenly, she became completely mute. When she managed to speak, she told her mother that her older brother, who was 26, had been abusing her for a year. She couldn’t say any more. The mother had the courage to accompany her to the police station, where they knew she was a prostitute, to denounce her own brother. When they brought her to me, she wouldn’t say any more than her name. I kept on trying to get her to talk, and we spent over an hour like that, with her mute. She came again, sat down and again remained totally silent. One day I went to her house and asked if we could talk there. "Talk about what?" she asked, as though she were telling me, "If you want to talk about the same thing you talked about in your office then no, but since you’re here at my house, if you want to talk about something else, what might it be?"
When she finally started to talk with me after two weeks, her voice was almost inaudible. I had to sit right beside her to hear her. In situations like this you can’t get very close, or even try to gain her confidence by taking her hand, because in the early stages they don’t want to be touched. Her process was a very long one, since the environment was totally adverse. The temptation to recant and drop everything was always there.
Retracting what they’ve said, the denunciation they’ve made, is always a risk when people realize what it means to keep talking. It’s especially hard for a mother to continue when the aggressor is her son, more so than when it’s the father or stepfather. The dilemma of choosing between her daughter and her son is devastating. "How is it possible that my daughter has suffered so much because of my son, how is it possible that my son was capable of doing this?" In such a situation, it’s very hard for women to overcome their social conditioning on what it means to be a mother. They think, "I gave birth to both, I suffered for both, I’ve loved them both." In the case of this girl, her mother acted in an exemplary way: she denounced her son—despite the risk that they wouldn’t believe her because she’s a sexual worker—and went through the whole process, including coming to see us with her daughter. But she couldn’t continue when she saw that it was going to end with her son in prison. Women who denounce abuse don’t necessarily want to see the abuser punished or in prison. They want the abuse to stop.
For girls who’ve been abused by their fathers, it’s especially hard to think that because of what they’ve revealed, "my dad will be punished." I worked with a 9-year-old girl who had been abused by her father for six months. The mother got divorced immediately. When the girl came to me, she largely blamed herself for what had happened. She’s 17 now and continues to say the same thing she said the first time I spoke with her: "I don’t have a family because I destroyed it. My dad left home because my mom found out what was happening to me. It was my fault that my mom and my dad got divorced."
Because of all these external and internal risks and obstacles, and especially because of the disempowering nature of abuse and its severe and long-lasting consequences, it’s impossible to get through this trauma alone. It has all manner of impacts, on the body and on the mind. The most serious have to do with one’s personal identity, which is affected when the body is invaded and sexuality distorted. "If my dad does with me the same thing he does with my mom, who am I? Whose daughter am I? Am I my mom’s rival? Which of the two do I choose?"
Boys experience the biggest tabooNicaragua’s machista, phallocentric culture puts its particular brand on the trauma that a sexually abused boy goes through and the consequences he’ll have to face. Society sees it as an indisputable fact that a sexually penetrated boy will inevitably become homosexual. And the cultural stigma against homosexuality is virtually rock solid.
I had an experience with a pair of brothers who were 4 and 6 years old and had been abused by a security guard at their expensive, prestigious preschool. It was very enlightening for me to see the risks and problems that arise when sexual abuse is paired up with institutional power.
That case was enlightening in other ways too. In talking with the boys about what had happened to them, the great taboo came up: the older had been penetrated anally—there was physical evidence—while the younger one had been abused with touches and had been penetrated with a finger. The way we see it, both had been victims of abuse and both had been raped. But according to the legal definition, only the older boy had been raped. And the family focused the whole stigma around him.
The mother would call me in desperation and say that she urgently needed to talk with me. Invariably, what she had to tell me was that the boy had changed, that he used to play with cars and now he played with his cousin’s doll, that he cried over everything. And she always asked the same question: "Is he going to be queer?" The mother’s sister had recommended that if she saw him cry she should be harsh with him and ask him, "Are you a faggot? What’s wrong with you? Since you became a woman you’re no good for anything!" And her sister was a doctor! We spent six months talking about this but got nowhere. The same was true of the father. He came in to tell me, "I can’t see him without thinking about what happened to him and what’s going to happen to him." They couldn’t get over it. Our machista culture didn’t give them room to understand.
Sexual abuse of boys is a taboo that carries an even greater social stigma if it becomes known. That’s why the family is so careful to hide the secret, and the boy also keeps a more profound, more prolonged silence. Considering this, I wouldn’t say that boys are abused more or less often than girls in Nicaragua, but the silence that covers up the abuse is greater. While girls are clearly more vulnerable, I believe that boys are abused much more often than we presume.
The silence of adult menIn Managua, we’ve done work to raise awareness among members of the National Police, both men and women, to give them the tools they need to deal with sexual abuse cases. After we’d been working with the same group, made up of 60% men and 40% women, for almost a year, we did a survey of their experiences of abuse in childhood. And we were stunned: a very high percentage of the men said a woman had sexually abused them in their youth. For most of them, it happened when they were 10 or 12 years old, and the woman was someone they knew: the neighbor who took care of them, a friend of their mother’s, their aunt.
What kind of abuse is this? If you ask men how they began their sexual life, they’ll very often respond in a sure, macho voice, "As a boy, when I was 12, with an older woman who taught me." But how did this child or adolescent experience their sexual initiation? Thinking about it, those policemen said things like, "You say it doesn’t matter because you’re a man, but here inside this room I can say that it did matter to me, that it was something really ugly, and I didn’t dare tell anyone about it." Men often feel a greater degree of guilt. Based on this experience, I think there must be a lot of pain we don’t know about or even imagine, around this issue. Because of their socialization, many men are unable to even stop to consider that this first sexual experience was something they didn’t want, something sad, something traumatic. Only through a consciousness-raising process like the one encouraged through these workshops did they come to recognize and identify it as abuse.
Abuse produces similar effects, The consequences in men and women who were abused in childhood are quite similar. There’s the inaudible voice with which they narrate the facts. The sense of guilt. The fear of talking about it, of being exposed, of people finding out what happened to them. The feeling that they’re different, strange, marked forever. The imprints left on their sexual lives and their relationships.
independent of sex
Only twice have I worked with adult men who had been abused as children. During a course I was giving to Health Ministry personnel to raise awareness and give them the tools they need to detect and refer cases and to guide and support people who’ve suffered from domestic violence and sexual abuse, a man of around 30 came up to me. Timidly and in a very low voice, he told me that he found the subject very interesting, and asked if I thought boys were abused more often than girls. He said that when he was a boy, he knew of cases of other boys who were abused. Another time he came up to tell me that he always wore long-sleeved shirts because he had an allergy problem, some spots on his skin caused by on-going psoriasis. He also told me about his long-time gastritis.
I didn’t suspect anything because of my lack of experience working with adult men, but at the end of one of the workshops he asked me, "Do you think a person who was abused as a child and has let a long time pass can still denounce what happened?" I told him such a person could do it if he felt the need and had the strength to do so and felt supported. "I’m that person," he said. An old neighbor who lived in the house next door had abused him between the ages of 8 and 11, and had abused another boy in the neighborhood as well. "We never said anything; this is the first time I’ve ever talked about it, and I don’t want anyone else to know. It’s been very hard for me to keep this inside for such a long time, but each time I come to the workshops and hear what you say I see myself, everything you say is like a mirror in which I see myself." We both understood that his skin disease was nothing more than a physical consequence of the abuse, although he had never before connected the two.
People who’ve survived sexual abuse often don’t associate their physical problems with the abuse they suffered, since they haven’t considered the connection. Abuse always damages the body. The symptoms differ, depending on each person’s personality. Some people don’t or can’t express what they’ve gone through with physical symptoms. But if the classic symptoms—gastritis, panic attacks, muscle pains, vomiting—don’t appear, there’s always other evidence: excessive drug use, insomnia, eating disorders, anorexia or bulimia. And there are always self-destructive ideas.
Mothers and nannies: abuse against babiesTo understand adult women who abuse children and adolescents, the key is the same: sexual abuse is always an abuse of power. Those who abuse want to affirm, demonstrate, impose their power. Women who abuse have often suffered a history of violence that has made them identify power with sexuality.
I haven’t had the opportunity to see any cases of women who abuse children, but I know they exist. Our machista education encourages us to identify sex and power. Why, for example, have women learned through gender socialization that you shouldn’t touch the genitals of a baby girl, but can play with the penis of a baby boy? People see this as an expression of affection and some even caress a baby’s penis to make it erect. Some mothers see these caresses—which focus masculine identity in the genitals—as totally normal and positive, although they know they have a clear sexual connotation and get sexual pleasure from them. Women’s playing with a young boy’s genitals should be essentially understood as training for abuse. Learning at a young age that their genitals are the focal points of power can prepare boys either to abuse or to be abused through them.
There are also cases of nannies or domestic servants who sexually caress boys, and this can also be understood as an exercise of power: "Although I’m a subordinate, I can exercise this power over the boss’ child. I control and am an authority to this small child. And if he talks, who’s going to believe I did anything to him?" Some might even think that if he talks, his mother or father would be likely to tell him, "Well if you complain it’s from pleasure, because if you don’t like it it’s because you’re a fag!"
We’re also seeing a demonstration of power in the case of adult men who abuse baby girls. These are dramatic cases because of the fragility of a baby’s skin and body. Even an excessive caress on a leg can cause damage and leave a mark. In these cases, the abuser invariably begins by fondling the baby with sexual intent. An escalating cycle is immediately created: it feels good to touch the soft skin and this feeds the desire to keep touching it, but since the damage done is increasingly apparent, it’s better to hide the damage by going further and further, thus increasing both the pleasure of the abuse and the evidence of the damage. To hide the abuse, men often end up hitting the baby to make it look like an accident and it sometimes becomes "necessary" to kill them. This process, which is quite common, quickly spirals out of control because of the evidence left by the first touch.
The legal process: At first, talking about the history and details of abuse is painful to a survivor. And it always will be until solid progress has been made through a therapeutic process. Telling the details of the story can help to heal a survivor but it can also re-victimize, depending on the context and the objectives.
The force of a survivor’s words
A 12-year-old girl goes to a forensic specialist and has to explain to this unknown doctor all the details of what happened to her, which makes her relive the experience and feel the same thing she felt each time it happened. In Nicaragua, although there are some exceptions, a sick or morbid interest is very common in the questions forensic specialists ask. Their questions may also blame the child. Simply ask a child, "And why didn’t you tell your mom, when you know you have to trust her?" and you’re already judging and condemning her. It’s as though you were saying, "You’re the one who’s responsible since you didn’t say anything."
In the Nicaraguan legal process, a child must first make a statement before a secretary and then before a jury, made up of five judges the child has never seen before, in the presence of the aggressor, which creates excruciating tension. The ideal thing would be to avoid this appearance before the jury members since I have seen that again, a sick curiosity lies behind their invariably strong show of interest in having the child give the statement in person. They’ve already read the file, they already know the case, they have all the facts they need to make their decision, but they want the child to testify. What they want is to see her face and hear her explain how he did it, where, in what way, how many times... The shocking questions they ask the child reveal their sick curiosity.
The work we’ve been doing with judges has begun to bear fruit, however. Some have begun to allow the child to appear before the jury accompanied by a psychologist, and others understand that there’s absolutely no reason an 11-year-old child should come to the marketplace called a court to make a statement in front of everyone. Some have let me use their offices so the child can make the statement there, and have allowed me to accompany the child through it and the rest of the process. They understand why a child going through this should have a psychologist at his or her side.
In Argentina and Mexico, people have been working on ways to ensure that the child does not have to keep repeating the story, based on the idea that the therapist is the only one who needs to hear the details. For the last eight or ten years, a method developed by Corsi has been used in Buenos Aires to avoid the re-victimization of abused children. The child and the psychologist talk alone, and the other people who should hear the statement because they are responsible for handling the case—judge, defense attorney, prosecuting attorney—sit behind a dark glass wall so the child can’t see them. The psychologist has greater freedom to use therapeutic techniques that allow the child to reveal what happened and talk about the details, but after this conversation the child will never have to talk about it again to anyone without choosing to.
Abused children should go through a psychological process at the same time as the legal process, to gain strength. We try to help them see the great strength they have in their own voice, which they can use to tell the truth of everything that happened to them. When the time comes to appear before the jury, we encourage them, reminding them of the objective: "It’s not to punish the person who did this to you, it’s to stop him so you can make sure this doesn’t happen to others, because if he did it do you he can do it to others. But with the great strength of your voice, you can stop him." Children get a great deal of strength from understanding that they have this power.
Once the abuse has been denounced and the legal process begun, many fears arise: of having to talk yet again about what happened, of being asked things they don’t have answers for, of being asked again why they said nothing earlier, of seeing the aggressor during the trial, of what he could do to them afterwards if he’s not punished... The strength they can gain from going through the therapeutic process at the same time as the legal process is decisive in allowing them to continue through the whole thing.
A pioneering project that serves only a minorityThe majority of victims do not denounce the abuse and the majority of those who do must go through the process alone. Of those cases that reach the jury, the majority of offenders are declared not guilty. These facts discourage most survivors from following through with the legal process. In Nicaragua, Dos Generaciones is the only center provides specialized legal and psychological attention to both male and female children and adolescents who have been sexually abused—other centers work only with girls. Four people have been working in the Dos Generaciones project since 1993.
We can roughly calculate the necessary level of attention based on the figures we have: in 1999, according to National Police statistics, just over 400 children and adolescents denounced cases of sexual abuse in the country’s Police Stations for Women and Children. You have to remember that most cases aren’t denounced and that the Police have only thirteen such specialized stations in the whole country. Of these 400-plus cases, only a small fraction came to Dos Generaciones. We can deduce that in only 3-4% of the cases denounced in Nicaragua do the survivors receive adequate therapeutic support.
In the cases we saw at Dos Generaciones, the process typically went like this: people denounced the abuse to the Police and the case was handed over to the Prosecutor’s Office, which referred some to us for accompaniment. This essentially involved "crisis intervention," listening to the child to give him or her some initial emotional support. It also involved preparing a plan to go through the whole legal process. People are totally unfamiliar with how to do it, so we told them what to do. In many cases, we had to accompany them to the forensic specialist, which was more difficult a few years ago, before the Institute for Legal Medicine was established in the country. Since one of our objectives was to get the forensic verdict quickly, we had agreed with the Police and the Prosecutor’s Office to refer cases to certain doctors we knew would do it quickly, sensitively and without any morbid interest. It’s very important to move quickly, because the physical evidence, evidence of abuse in a boy, for example, can disappear in a week. We worked with the Prosecutor’s Office throughout this whole process to raise awareness, giving them the legal tools that would allow them to handle the case in the most appropriate, expeditious way, convincing them that a prolonged process would re-victimize the child.
The first time in Nicaragua that the Prosecutor’s Office handled a case authorizing my presence as a psychologist in the trial was in 1994. I recall them telling us they always tried to convince families that had denounced sexual abuse not to take the case all the way, because experience had shown that almost all girls retracted their statements or withdrew, and those that did stick it out almost always lost the case. They said that they thus didn’t like to "waste their time" with cases of sexual abuse against children. That time they took the case to the end and won, and that encouraged them a lot.
The time required to get from the denunciation through the trial to the sentencing depends on several factors. It usually takes three or four days after the abuse is denounced for the legal proceedings to get underway, depending on whether they capture the aggressor. If Dos Generaciones handles the whole process, which speeds it up, it can take three or four months to get to the sentencing, while more complicated cases might take up to a year and a half. Naturally, the child suffers a great deal during this long stretch, and even more if she isn’t accompanied.
In the defendant’s chairDuring the trial, aggressors tend to remain unmoved. They never cry. The defense lawyers speak for them and use various forms of argumentation and pressure. In one case, the lawyer brought the aggressor’s wife, son and baby daughter in an attempt to impress the jury, to present him as an exemplary father and family man, as though to say, "Is a man like this going to do a thing like that to a girl?" They often try to get the jury to compare: "Look at this man and set him alongside this girl; how can you possibly believe her?" If the aggressor is a young man, they present him as a responsible worker "with his whole life ahead of him, who’ll lose his entire youth in jail for something he didn’t do." They also tend to add letters of support to the file, signed by people in the neighborhood or the institution where he works who say he’s irreproachable and that it is impossible to believe he’s committed such a barbaric act.
In my experience, however, even Nicaragua’s best-prepared defense attorneys have a hard time defending aggressors in cases where there is clear proof. Since there’s no way they can deny the facts in the face of such proof, they resort to technicalities. They might try to object that I can’t testify before the jury because our Penal Code doesn’t recognize the figure of the forensic psychologist. But this argument falls flat, because there is an article that says I can testify as an expert witness. Another maneuver is to try to minimize the impact of my statement by arguing that I’m not qualified to talk about the topic. The prosecution then clarifies that I am an expert and invites them to ask me whatever questions they deem necessary. The explanation and the evidence I give of the effects of abuse on children make a big impact on the jury.
Hand in hand: support among survivorsSurvivors can accompany each other in the legal process, and even in the therapeutic one, as long as they’ve gone through their own individual experience that’s helped them to identify and mitigate their pain. In other words, they can accompany others once their own wounds have begun to heal. Under these conditions, a survivor can provide very good accompaniment to a victim or another survivor. And I think this is very good for both of them: the survivor who receives support has greater confidence in someone who’s gone through the same thing, and the survivor who gives support feels vindicated: "I got through this and now I can do something for someone who hasn’t yet."
I saw two girls. A neighbor had abused one, who wasn’t yet 15, with the complicity of her mother, who was his partner. I worked a lot with this girl to prepare her for the legal process because the case was complicated. At first, the defense attorney tried to classify it as statutory rape, because that carries a lesser sentence, but we blocked that move and the man was condemned to 12 years. I remember that the girl’s father came to the trial armed with plans to kill the accused man if he wasn’t convicted. It’s very common for the members of a girl’s family to come to the sentencing ready to take justice into their own hands.
After she went through all that, I started working with a 12-year-old girl who happened to live in the same neighborhood. The aggressor in her case was her 32-year-old brother, and she was already five months pregnant. In this case we again came up against the mother’s pain of having to choose between her daughter and her son, a conflict that was even more painful because the son was not only her economic support but also her emotional support as an evangelical pastor. It was a special case: we had to prepare the child for the legal process, for her pregnancy (among other things ensuring that she got adequate nutrition since the family was very poor) and for the possibility of giving the baby up in adoption. She had no idea what it meant to have a child. When this girl had to go to the trial, the older girl who lived in the same neighborhood was her best source of support. She explained how things had gone with her and accompanied her to court. They held hands as they entered the courtroom, one sharing her experience, the other listening and trusting.
In the therapy groups I’ve worked with, both the girls and their mothers express a desire to support others. In the last stage of these groups, when we talk about what they want to do next, the girls inevitably say "I wish more girls like me were here; I’d like to help others because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I went through." The same is true among the mothers: they talk about supporting other mothers and accompanying girls who don’t have own their mother’s support. One mother said, "There are many girls like mine who have gone through this and don’t even have their own mother’s support. I’d like you to form a group and call us as volunteers to accompany these girls." They feel they vindicate themselves when they can do something for others.
Therapy groups and trainingWe organized the first therapy group of adolescent survivors and their mothers in Nicaragua in 1995. These are small groups; you work with the individuals separately then bring them together for one or two sessions. Now I’m putting together a project to form therapy groups with adult women who were sexually abused as children or adolescents, which has never been done in Nicaragua. To take part in such a group, the women have to have gone through individual therapy. A group with adult survivors presents different challenges than a group of adolescents. It’s easier with adolescents, because the pain is recent and still very close. For adult women, touching the pain felt by that girl they used to be is more complicated, since they’ve suppressed it for a long time and they almost always continue to blame their "inner child" for what happened. Another thing that makes the process more complicated for adults is that their professional and sexual lives can also be more marked by the effects of abuse since they’ve lived longer. I don’t mean to say it’s easier to heal the wounds of adolescents than of adult women, simply that the adolescents are easier to work with.
In 1997 I left Dos Generaciones and went to work training and raising awareness among various sectors of the country. I prefer longer training processes over workshops; they’re more effective since they take place over time and touch the history of each of the participants involved, the abuse they may have experienced, the abuse they may have committed, how they behaved, how people behaved with them. I’ve worked through this kind of specialized process with some 180 people in the public health sector, which has always been a priority for the international agencies that finance the project.
For a long time, as I thought about the scope of this problem, the number of people harmed and the lack of people prepared to deal with it, I felt a terrible personal sense of isolation. But since I’ve dedicated myself to training others, seeking to spread information and raise awareness, I feel less alone. Right now I’m beginning a specialized theoretical and practical course among the Health Ministry’s psychologists and psychiatrists so they can learn how to deal with sexual abuse by using a gender-sensitive focus and providing personalized follow-up. Up until now, they’ve responded to the problem using the focus provided by traditional clinical practice and Freudian theory, assuming that they’re dealing not with survivors of a trauma but rather with people suffering from anxiety and depression. That focus is totally obsolete. The challenge is not only to give them new tools but also to make them see that the results depend above all on their personal disposition.
Teachers, pastors, priestsIn 1994, 1995 and 1996, we did some consciousness-raising work among teachers, which is one of the top priority sectors since children can spend up to twelve full years of their lives in school, among teachers, who are very powerful figures for them. Of course, there may have been sexual aggressors among the teachers I worked with, and I can’t find them out. Sexual abuse is very common in schools. In 1994, we worked with three 15-year-old girls who’d been sexually abused by their math teacher. The teacher described the girls as crazy drug users, bums and bad students, but we demonstrated that they were excellent students with very good grades. When we visited them at home, we saw that all three were quite shy, stay-at-home girls. It was a very sad case because it was an evangelical school, and the teacher was a pastor, and others pastors and members of evangelical churches mobilized to cover it up. They wielded enormous pressure, and he got off.
I’ve worked with several cases in which the aggressor was an evangelical pastor, but none involving Catholic priests although I know they exist. There’s a very well known case in Matagalpa, and the man has enjoyed total impunity for years. I think the Catholic Church has much greater power and manages to keep these secrets under wraps. In 1996, I began to work with some in the Catholic sector when we were doing community work around sexual abuse, but there was skepticism about the project and it was discontinued. More recently, some religious schools directed by priests have shown an interest in conducting campaigns to raise awareness among teachers and provide attention to students who’ve been abused.
Nicaragua: much done and much left to doSome genetic theories explain that our species acquired an instinctive check against incest through natural selection to avoid disseminating lethal genes and giving birth to offspring with genetic defects. Some anthropological theories maintain that this check against incest is the result of cultural selection and became part of our species at a very early stage, when we were hunter-gatherers. The small bands of primitive hominoids could control larger and more secure territories by forming sexual alliances with other bands than by sexually mixing within the same group. The social and economic value of avoiding incest increased when agriculture was discovered and societies that were more complex developed. The end of taboos against incest is relatively recent and seems to be associated with the prevalence of money in mediating exchanges among human beings. In addition to this socioeconomic evolution, which has encouraged the spread of incest despite religious prohibitions against this "sin," the gender inequality that characterizes our millennial patriarchal culture also plays a part. An understanding of the traumatic physical and psychological effects of incestuous abuse on children and the sensitivity to stop it have only begun to become generalized in human culture over the last two or three decades.
Society tries to disguise, hide and deny sexual abuse and incest. It’s a tendency in our patriarchal culture and dates back at least to Freud, who described incest in the upper classes he treated as a psychiatrist. He made progress in his understanding, but reached a point where he didn’t want to risk his prestige and status and had no choice but to deny what he’d discovered and explain the stories of abuse revealed to him by women of Viennese society as nothing more than their hysterical fantasies. Really, more people that one imagines have discovered the extent and seriousness of incest and talked about it, but we haven’t heard of them, perhaps because if they continued talking about it they were burned at some stake.
We have to assume that those of us in Nicaragua who understand the scope of this tragedy are still a very small minority. Most Nicaraguans don’t admit that it’s a crime, that it’s serious. Or at least, they don’t think of it as that serious. One small example: when I speak with successful women lawyers about the meaning of sexual abuse, trying to get them to go beyond strictly biological criteria and broaden the concept of incest to include acts committed not only by blood relatives but by any adults who have authority over children and adolescents, even this country’s most learned lawyers say things like, "You can’t go against history." It’s as if I were asking too much, or as if the history of culture had not been transformed by laws and conceptions. It’s clear that they don’t think like this for strictly legal reasons: if the crime of incest can be imputed to adults who have authority over children or ties of affection, confidence and respect with them, this would include teachers and priests. And in the culture we live in, you can’t talk about that. Nicaragua’s machista culture is full of double standards. In general, when a case is discovered, non-intervention is justified by saying, "It’s a private problem, a family matter."
Zoilamérica made us reflectIn March 1998, Zoilamérica Narváez’s charge against Daniel Ortega for incest and sexual abuse committed over the course of 19 consecutive years posed a test to Nicaraguan society and opened the eyes of a good sector of the population to the scope and characteristics of this crime. The case is emblematic and will remain open in national consciousness for a long time.
When Zoilamérica broke her silence, very few of us in Nicaragua understood what it was about. Her denunciation helped and provoked us in a positive way. I worked with many, many such cases after that: women inspired by her example who sought help to reveal their own stories and come to understand them. Her denunciation made us reflect a lot. But what has happened with her, the impunity that’s prevailed, has shown us that we still have many issues to deal with.
The most important issue is to convince people at all levels. If you ask me which level I consider it most important to convince, I’d say without a doubt the state. The public sector has to be convinced that the problem exists, that this tragedy can be found everywhere, because it is still not convinced. It’s shameful to say it, but all the awareness-raising workshops I’ve given, all the projects I’ve participated in have been financed by foreign cooperation. Virtually nothing in either prevention or raising awareness has been done in Nicaragua with public funds.
In the majority of cases that are made public, the state politicizes the problem in various ways. And it never responds with conviction because its institutions are made up mostly of men and they tend to protect each other, to cover each other’s backs. This gender complicity is institutional and raises barriers, and the women who’ve filled public posts so far haven’t managed to make much of a difference. In general, the same focus and the same masculine mentality prevail among them too. One example: in activities to raise awareness about sexual abuse, I’ve heard women judges say things like, "We don’t want the forensic specialists from the women’s centers and the people who are active around this problem to send us ‘feminist’ verdicts or opinions."
Since there’s still so little understanding of the seriousness of the problem in Nicaragua, I think it’s very useful to try to raise awareness person by person, talking with people around you, making them feel what the problem is about, bringing them closer to this pain that’s so silenced and hidden, raising awareness of the scope of the problem and the urgent need to deal with it. Because of the ignorance that still exists in Nicaragua, talking person to person is absolutely indispensable.
Ten years with the walking woundedTen years later, if you were asked which case was the most difficult, the most complex, the one you remember most, what would you say?
All of them. Each case has its pain, each pain is unique, and you have to discover it. You can’t be neutral as you do this, you can’t say, since I’m free of this pain I can help you. No, you have to submerge yourself in the pain. It’s not only a question of opening wounds or of suturing them; it’s a question of delving into them. I remember all the faces, all the names, and I’ve worked with so many people I haven’t kept count. There wasn’t a single girl or boy among those I’ve worked with in whom I didn’t find openness and spontaneity. Sexual abuse couldn’t rob them of this treasure. Coming into contact with that interior beauty has inspired me enormously in the work.
I’ve learned a lot, and was lucky to have had Dr. Bates as a teacher. In 1998, the United Nations Fund for Population Affairs organized a theoretical-practical course on sexual abuse as part of its Adolescent Women’s Program. It was a pioneering effort that coincided in time—and this seems a marvelous coincidence—with Zoilamérica’s denunciation. It was the first time Dr. Bates, the leading Latin American specialist on the subject, came to Nicaragua to share her knowledge with us. We already knew her book Del ultraje a la esperanza ("From Humiliation to Hope"). Since then, she’s returned to Nicaragua several times. I remember how openly and bravely she led us to talk on that occasion, as therapists, about Zoilamérica’s case. It was something that had affected all of us there very deeply, since we’d all fervently participated in the revolution. That debate—in which each of us, according to our own personal process, accepted the need to take sides and bring Daniel Ortega down from the position of idol in which we’d placed him—opened us all up for a new stage.
I remember that several months after Zoilamérica’s denunciation I was talking with a Sandinista friend who asked me about it. She knew I had experience in sexual abuse and wanted to hear my opinion. I told her that, according to my experience, all signs indicated she was telling the truth: her gestures, her posture, her look, the testimony she’d written. I spoke very frankly and I think she understood the depth of my conviction when I said, "I feel like Daniel Ortega raped me." And I started to cry. It is the same thing I’ve felt throughout these 10 years: each time I work with someone, I feel like I’m also being abused. I’ve never stopped crying in response to a single case, through which I’ve survived repeated sexual abuse. And that’s how I feel today, like another survivor.