The Silence about Incest Needs to Be Broken
There can be no real democracy if violence against women is allowed to continue. There can be no development or social transformation, no future or happiness as long as this abuse of power persists. And in this scenario of violence and sexual power, incest the least mentioned and most hushed up crime of all.
María López Vigil
Incest is an immensely serious problem in Nicaragua, as it is in the rest of Central America and in fact in the world as a whole. Although the available statistics will probably never illustrate the true dimension of this problem since most cases remain concealed and are thus not included, certain deductions can be made based on the sexual offences that women the world over are increasingly denouncing.
The figures are quite terrifying. In the United States, where according to the FBI a woman is raped every minute, feminist organizations calculate that one in every four girls between birth and 12 years of age is a victim of incest. In Mexico, seven out of every ten cases of sexual aggression are committed by people known to the victim, just over a third of them relatives. In Costa Rica, 95% of pregnant girls who are under the age of 15 are incest victims. In Brazil the number of women denouncing acts of sexual aggression by men has shot up. In the words of Río de Janeiro police chief Marta Rocha, "The most surprising thing is discovering just how generalized incest is in all sectors of Brazilian society." Various organizations calculate that only a quarter of the rapes committed in Latin America are actually reported, and the cases least likely to be denounced are those involving incest.
A society marked by violenceNicaragua’s "modern" history opened with a massive act of violence against women as the Spanish conquistadors systematically raped the area’s indigenous women. Abuse of power and violence have marked Nicaraguan history ever since and have gradually become socially legitimized. An incredible inequity runs throughout our country between the few who have everything and the many with nothing at all, making Nicaragua’s economic and social culture violent, because is not ignorance and hunger a form of violence? The political, family, business and personal culture is also violent. There is no political tradition of resolving conflicts through dialogue; tolerance is seen as a weakness and non-violent forms of struggle are unknown or considered expressions of useless cowardice. There is usually no respect for differences of any kind; most people do not know how to negotiate and language is employed to disqualify opponents. Money talks, winners take all and losers are left with nothing while people with power grant themselves the right to abuse it with impunity.
Meanwhile, domestic violence is seen as natural, even necessary. Husbands shout at and beat their wives, both mother and father shout at and hit their sons and daughters, older daughters and sons shout at and hit their smaller brothers and sisters and the smallest of all beat the dog or go out into the street to stone birds… Generation after generation, each link connects with the next in an endless chain. The weakest links have always been and continue to be the girls and women, but boys also suffer violence, and the younger they are the more they suffer.
Every day the special Police Station for Women and Children in Managua’s satellite town of Ciudad Sandino receives between 12 and 15 accusations of physical, mental, sexual and economic maltreatment of women and children. Police officers who work in that center estimate that only 5% of the total cases are actually reported. According to a study by the Preventive Medicine and Public Health Department of the National Autonomous University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences in León, 26% of the 213 women surveyed and no less than 20% of the 153 men said they had been victims of some kind of forced sexual act sometime during their lives, 35% before the age of twelve.
A 1998 Demography and Health Survey by the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses revealed that 29% of Nicaraguan women had been physically and sexually abused by their partner. In 1999 the National Commission for the Struggle against Violence towards Women, Children and Adolescents carried out an extensive media campaign to disseminate these and other worrying figures that emerged from the survey. As the campaign slogan put it, "Violence is an acquired culture" in which boys naturally learn from a very early age to use sexual violence to affirm themselves and impose themselves on women.
All sexual abuse is an abuse of powerPower and sex appear closely linked in male consciousness in the patriarchal culture. They are the two master keys of the macho system. Any sexual abuse is an abuse of power above all else. For at least 10,000 years now human culture around the planet has been patriarchal; in other words, men have controlled the power and its mechanisms. Men are the ones who fundamentally abuse power and they mainly do so against the weak, particularly against women and girls. This abuse has thousands of forms, which include the phallus, wielded like a weapon of domination and used to obtain pleasure and power; the pleasure of power.
All sexual offenses against women, independent of whether or not the aggressor is the woman’s partner, are examples of the exercise of power through sex. How can we quantify the sexual offenses men commit against their own wives? This subject is just not talked about in Nicaragua. The specialist Susan Brownmiller refers to the existence of a "mass rape psychology." She describes it as "a conscious process of intimidation through which men keep all women in a state of fear," and goes on to state that "it has been present and has been hushed up throughout human history."
The most serious and traumatic form of sexual abuse is the rape of a child, and deeper down in these murky waters lurks incest, the most hushed up sexual crime in any society in the world, of course including Nicaragua. According to Costa Rican psychiatrist Gioconda Batres, a pioneer in Latin America of research into incest and the treatment of survivors, father-daughter and stepfather-daughter incest represents the "paradigm of female victimization through male sexuality."
The most concealed and hushed up crimeFrom July 1999 to June 2000 I clipped all articles on accusations of consummated rapes—excluding sexual harassment and unsuccessful rape attempts—that appeared in Nicaragua’s three daily newspapers (El Nuevo Diario, La Prensa and La Tribuna), knowing that this would represent just the tip of the iceberg. They amounted to over 300 cases, of which almost a quarter were accusations of incest. On average, the newspapers presented their readers with one case of incest every six days.
It is incest if any adult relative sexually touches a girl, undresses her and looks at her naked body with sexual desire, masturbates in front of her, kisses or caresses her in a sexual way or induces her to caress him to achieve excitement. And of course, incest includes rape by means of vaginal or anal penetration. In its more therapeutically-oriented definition focusing on power relations, incest does not just involve sexual relations imposed by blood relatives, but also by other people with whom the victim has affectionate links or a relation of trust and dependency, people who have the obligation to protect them, love them and offer them security. Offenders include fathers, stepfathers, uncles, grandfathers, brothers, cousins, priests, bosses, teachers... It should be mentioned that although males predominantly commit this crime against females, there are there are also male victims of incest and female abusers.
Of the incest cases reported in the three newspapers, 98% involved penetration, which suggests that only cases that have reached this extreme tend to be reported. Meanwhile, 72% of the cases involved fathers and stepfathers who abused their daughters and stepdaughters when they were girls and adolescents, in most cases continued to do so for a number of years. Most frequently, the girls were between 10 and 14 years old at the time. (Only five accusations of incest against boys were reported in the newspapers, all of them by an uncle and none of the boys was older than 6. It is much harder to admit and thus denounce sexual abuse against a boy since the myth that a penetrated boy will become homosexual—"turn into a women"—tends to exacerbate the family’s silence.)
All cases that appeared in the newspapers took place in rural communities or marginalized urban neighborhoods against a backdrop of poverty and misery. A universal rule that holds true in Nicaragua is that "the higher the couple’s social status, the more the sexual abuse is hushed up within the family," in the words of psychologist Armando Sánchez, deputy director of the SI MUJER clinic in Managua.
Only one case made it onto the front page of one of the papers during the year. A 20-year-old man so badly beat and sexually abused his 2-year-old stepdaughter that she died. Readers were presented with photos of the man, the dead little girl and her mother, a 19-year-old woman who came out in defense of her partner. Another chilling and "typical" case was that of a 24-year-old woman from Diriomo who had suffered from a mental disorder since age 7 and died in a Masaya hospital in March 1999. She arrived at the hospital malnourished and with a serious sexually transmitted disease, shouting that she did not want to be treated because she wanted to die. And die she did, of heart failure, although neighbors claimed that the real cause was "moral distress." In hospital, the woman told how her father and brothers had continuously abused her since the age of 12, with her mother’s consent. She also said that although she managed to escape from her house on one occasion, she had had to return for economic reasons. Later, her mother declared that her daughter had told a pack of lies, writing her off as a mad woman who went out looking for men to sleep with her. The mother also blamed her daughter’s death on the inadequate medical treatment provided by the hospital’s doctors. The papers failed to follow up on the case and clear up the truth behind these two conflicting stories.
Three doors hide the secretWhile the journalists focus on certain cases, usually providing sensationalist and morbid coverage that lacks any context or elements that would lead to constructive reflection, most incest that takes place in Nicaragua remains hidden forever. The secret is locked away behind the three heavy doors of pain, shame and fear. Silence favors impunity, and silence and impunity provide the ideal conditions for the epidemic to spread. Incest is an endemic social disease that has yet to be eradicated in any country. An additional obstacle in Nicaragua is the lack of resources needed to effectively tackle the problem, starting with the generalized ignorance of the basic concepts involved, including the vocabulary with which to describe it.
A necessary first step is to understand that the perpetrators of incest are not exclusively poor men living in overcrowded conditions or psychopaths or alcoholics. The Nicaraguan media label those responsible as "perverts," a resounding epithet that implies that only degenerate lunatics are responsible for such acts. In fact, the perpetrators are everywhere. They are totally normal, even charming men, who belong to all social classes and practice all professions; they live in houses patched out of cardboard and they live in mansions; they can be found among the anonymous and marginalized and among the wealthy of great social standing. If this plague were openly talked about, we would be surprised to find it lurking within the four walls of many of Nicaragua’s so-called "fine families." In 1998, we even learned to our shock that it had recently existed behind the walls of the presidential residency.
Zoilamérica: an emblematic caseBetween March and June 1998, Zoilamérica Narváez’s denunciation of incest hit the Nicaraguan headlines, forcing everyone to reflect on this jealously guarded secret, regardless of the judgment they then formed. The male protagonist of the events revealed by this valiant Sandinista woman was her stepfather: none other than top FSLN leader and former President of the Republic Daniel Ortega. Her story contained all of the interwoven threads that typically make up the plot in these concealed cases: the home turned into a place of danger and the mother into a rival and accomplice; night as a time of fear; resistance transformed into submission; entrapment with no exit. It was a secret borne as an annihilating burden of shame, every young emotion confused, including affection. Masks used by the victimizer to impose himself and by the victim to survive. Permanent anxiety, loss of identity, a broken child inhabiting the body of a growing young woman, the untold damage to her spirit caused by the violation of her body. In this particular case, the most consternating aspect is the considerable degree of manipulation and unbridled abuse of power displayed by Ortega.
The Sandinista revolution—represented nationally and internationally by the man Zoilamérica denounced—transformed many social realities for the better and by "magically" touching many consciences unleashed an infinite amount of solidarity that helped Nicaragua advance during a whole decade. But the area touched by no magic was private life. Within their homes, men who proclaimed themselves revolutionaries continued despotically exercising their power and women who also proclaimed themselves revolutionaries continued transmitting the codes of macho power to their children and grandchildren in an age-old cycle that the revolution hardly even recognized.
Zoilamérica’s accusation rocked Nicaraguan society, paralyzing or unnerving some, mobilizing or clarifying things for others. Through it many of us came to understand just how profoundly serious it was for a movement that raised high the banners of justice and dignity and aimed to provide an alternative to such an unfair system of political and economic power to almost completely ignore private life. It also helps us understand that the revolution was strategically limited because men forged out of a military hierarchy led it and were handed an almost absolute form of power.
Let’s break the silence: a pioneering effortFollowing Zoilamérica’s denunciation, the Network of Women against Violence and other individuals and organizations that had formed a support committee for this historic case decided to engage in various activities to reveal the hidden tragedy of incest. It was the country’s first collective effort in this direction. Although the material and moral devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch postponed the initiative, six regional forums on sexual abuse and incest were finally held in Matagalpa, Estelí, Chinandega, Masaya, Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields between May 27 and June 12, 1999, involving participants from several government ministries and different civil society groups. The idea was to identify just how widespread this plague is on the local and regional levels and to draw up concrete proposals for "inoculating against" and eradicating the problem following an examination of its psychosocial, legal and preventive aspects.
The debates demonstrated that, despite major political, economic and social differences between certain regions of Nicaragua, incest is rife, has similar characteristics and is hushed up for similar reasons in all of them. The reflection process concluded in Managua in November with the First National Symposium on Sexual Abuse and Incest toward Women, Children and Adolescents, organized under the motto "Sexual abuse does exist. Let’s break the silence." Although all pioneering efforts break some new ground, the organizers recognized that those who participated throughout the process were mainly members of the women’s movement and of NGOs that were already fairly conscious of the problem and working with victims and survivors.
Home, bitter home..."Classic" rape—a momentary occurrence in a dark street, a hut in the middle of the countryside, or a vacant lot in the city—nearly always involves injuries, shouting and resistance to the imposition of the rapist’s physical force, which is clearly felt as violence, aggression and harm. Incest, however, plays itself out differently in the vast majority of cases. There is silence rather than cries, the victim does not resist but is perplexed and paralyzed by fear and the abuser, this authority figure who is often also a figure of affection, does not impose the power of force, but rather the force of power. The girl involved is totally confused before, during and after the sexual abuse: why is he doing this to me; what should I do...? Generally, incest leaves no external injuries. The marks it does leave are buried deep down inside, both in the tissues of the victim’s body and in her mind and spirit. Sometimes it is only possible to comprehend the magnitude of the damage done years later.
Another differentiating characteristic is that in a "classic" rape the victimizer flees while the victim is left to vent her anger and indignation. The limits between the one and the other are totally clear. After incest, everything is confused. The victim is helpless before a man she loves and respects and who is capable of displaying "affection." Sometimes he gives her gifts, sometimes he blackmails her, and sometimes he threatens, but he always asks her to keep the secret. And he is always there, at "the scene of the crime," omnipotent and safe within the four walls of the home and near to the victim. When he finishes his act, he simply removes one mask and dons another, that of the responsible man.
It is not easy to explore all the elements in this tragedy or the reasons for the silence and "passivity" of the victims, who often keep quiet for many years, sometimes a whole lifetime, profoundly wounded and confused. "Sometimes it is easier to believe that the young women invent the idea of incest or enjoy it than to question the whole family and social system that makes such acts possible," stated Esperanza Reyes Carrión during the Symposium. Reyes, who coordinates an Integral Women’s Support Center in Mexico City, also recommended "de-genitalizing" the way we view this crime in order to tackle it more effectively. "We shouldn’t focus on the sexual aspect so much as the exercise of power," she stressed.
What stage is Nicaragua in?The majority of the Nicaraguan population is made up of children: 46% of the population is under 14. In the symposium, it was pointed out that one of the most reliable indicators of a given society’s healthiness is the material and spiritual conditions in which its children are living. Also mentioned were the different stages through which societies pass in relation to sexual abuse against children. Stage one is refusal to recognize the existence of generalized abuse. Known cases are viewed as isolated acts, exceptions, and are blamed on psychopaths and alcoholics. In the second stage, a great deal of attention is focused on the most horrifying cases, but without setting them in an adequate cultural context. During the third stage society becomes concerned, offers different forms of attention and proposes strategies for dealing with the problem. The fourth stage sees the coordination of strategies that begin to demonstrate their effectiveness and society advances on various fronts to reveal abuse and put a stop to it. And finally, in the fifth stage, society comes to love its girls and boys, care for them, protect them and permanently prioritize their development and welfare.
So, at what stage is Nicaragua now? Most people seem to be stuck somewhere between the first two, completely unconcerned, while a very active minority struggles valiantly and tenaciously in the third stage in an effort to break new ground. In this particular field, as in those of the economy or technological advances, we are living in a "two-tier" country, where the abacus exists side by side with the computer and latrines with brass-handled toilets. In the country where Zoilamérica so audaciously broke the silence, the most popular radio station in Managua reacted to the anal rape of a 15-day-old baby who ended up in hospital by declaring, "What moral degradation! These are signs that the end of the world is nigh!"
Insensitivity, ignorance, cynicism and impunityAlthough incest is an endemic plague, there is a notable lack of awareness of its consequences and of information on the cultural "viruses" that transmit it or the remedies derived from an analysis of the power relations that could begin to cure it. In May, James Mangold’s film, Girl Interrupted, was shown in Managua’s theaters. Without ever being explicit, the film presents several young women undergoing therapy because of sexual abuse. The script gives enough clues for us to understand that the character of Daisy is an adolescent incest victim. Because she has been abused by her father, Daisy ends up trapped by bulimia and finally takes her own life. The girl’s compulsive eating caused uproarious laughter among the audience the day I went to see the movie. A journalist writing in the youth supplement of La Prensa described Daisy as "a rude girl who loves eating roast chicken." El Nuevo Diario’s film critic described Daisy’s situation as "delicate," but failed to name it. Did he not recognize what was going on, or did he just not dare mention it, because "it" is not something one talks about?
There is a great insensitivity in this area, not to mention a cynical ignorance born of "macho complicity" that is far more solid than class complicity. Retired Colonel Lenín Cerna, head of state security in the 1980s and currently responsible for the FSLN’s electoral campaign, was interviewed by La Tribuna in June 1999 about the political situation, the crisis affecting the FSLN and Daniel Ortega’s possible candidacy in the 2001 presidential elections, which Cerna backed. When asked what he thought about Zoilamérica’s accusation against Ortega, he called it "a family problem, a distressing problem," and though he insinuated that the accusation was true, he minimized it. "If you turn to the common people, they bring out the age-old wisdom and the accusation doesn’t frighten you," he commented, adding that in Nicaragua "there are hundreds of clearer cases and they don’t represent any problem." It is hard to imagine another country where a political leader could get away with publicly expressing such views.
Turning darkness into lightCerna’s opinion is representative of the backwardness and darkness in which many sectors of humanity are still living. Until relatively recently incest—like other forms of intra-family violence, most of them exercised by men against women—was considered a "normal" and strictly private affair. The "family secret," which was kept within the four walls of the house—and sometimes of the room where that violence was committed—was considered inviolable. It is only recently that incest has been recognized as a matter concerning public authorities and is now universally considered a human rights violation, representing a victory for the world’s feminist movement and a giant leap forward in human thinking.
In her multi-volume work, "The History of Private Life," Michelle Perrot examines the case of "cultured" France in the first half of the 19th century: "The family’s handling of sex was surrounded by silence and we therefore know very little about it. Incest, in particular, was commonplace and yet it eludes us more than anything else does… Virility was built up out of phallic feats exercised with complete freedom against women and particularly against daughters—who could be raped with almost total impunity in many regions—or against boys, who could be indecently assaulted as long as the matter did not become public… Rape was considered a variation on ordinary behavior in female-male relations. Sexual ‘normality’ covered the whole range of its consequences: violence, frustration, death… The idea of denunciation seemed inconceivable, inexpressible. Throughout the second half of the 19th century an increase in judicial repression appears to indicate increasing awareness."
Today France is one of dozens of countries, including Nicaragua, that have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979). In 1996, Nicaragua also ratified the Inter-American Convention for Preventing, Sanctioning and Eradicating Violence against Women (Belem do Pará, 1994) and made it national law. This legislation committed the Nicaraguan state to investigate, prevent, punish and eliminate the cruel form of violence known as incest.
Deficiencies and challengesNicaragua is lagging way behind in certain areas. During the symposium, for example, the following confession by Dr. Oscar Núñez was particularly startling: "The Nicaraguan Pediatrics Society has existed for 53 years; it is one of the most prestigious societies within the Nicaraguan medical profession. Yet it wasn’t until March 1999 that we agreed for the first time in the history of the profession to discuss child abuse and maltreatment during a congress. The Nicaraguan Pediatrics Society has absolutely no records of such cases. As doctors, it is obligatory for us to inform the authorities if a child comes to any public health center suffering from mange, but not if the boy or girl is being abused."
Núñez pointed out that the Ministry of Health had no strategy for dealing with this problem but referred to a pilot project initiated in Managua’s La Mascota Children’s Hospital. "We’re putting the finishing touches to the design of an ABC of child abuse, the sexual abuse of girls and boys, including all of the clinical elements that will help the doctor, the pediatrician, to suspect, to know, to diagnose that something like this is happening to their patient."
Specialists in sexual abuse of children and incest insist that the offenders "know how to choose" their victims. The truth is that the patriarchal culture sharpens their sensors and presents them with a wide range of possibilities from which to choose. The patriarchal system produces a series of offenders and victims. Nicaragua’s education system bears the marks of this system. Authoritarianism, lack of debate and discipline imposed through fear of punishment are generalized in the vast majority of the country’s schools. This transmits submission and subordination, predisposing children to accept abuse, especially the girls who come to the classroom from homes where they are already subjected to the needs, whims and even violence of the "men of the house." In addition, there is a glaring absence of sexual education in the Nicaraguan school system and children and adolescents are misinformed and badly educated in the streets through jokes, myths and macho stereotypes. There is no open talk of sexuality at school, let alone of sexual violence. With no consistent and potentially liberating sexual education, the possibility of girls acquiring the right tools to confront sexual abuse, the abuse of their bodies and macho violence is almost nil. All of this helps make them easier victims of incestuous men.
School and the educational system could play a highly important role in fighting this plague, as then-Minister of Education José Antonio Alvarado recognized during the symposium. He stated, "I believe not only that the silence should be broken but that the word should be spread in the best possible way. This means not being satisfied with expedient responses to an immediate question, but trying to put together a coherent plan with a long-term vision in which education plays an essential role."
A trauma with serious consequencesBut improving education as a preventive measure is not enough. The care offered to those who have survived this particular form of torture also must be improved. The marks left by incest alter one’s personality. Children who are victims of incest and the girls and women who have survived it suffer from a set of psychological and physical symptoms that constitute a "post-traumatic stress syndrome" similar to that suffered by war victims, and its effects will not disappear if they are not therapeutically treated. Furthermore, treatment only yields results over time, never in the short term.
Although there are classic symptoms, the consequences of this trauma vary according to the subjectivity and personality of the child involved, the age at which the abuse occurred, how long it lasted, who was responsible for it, what power the abuser has over the child, the positive or negative role played by the mother, etc. Incest has consequences for the whole family and particularly affects the mother-daughter relationship.
The girls who have suffered incest frequently exhibit learning disorders (difficulty concentrating and understanding as well as school desertion and failure). Teachers can be a great help in detecting cases if they heed the typical signs: an unexpected drop in performance or a disproportionate desire to excel, sudden behavioral changes, strange silences, isolation during recess. There are always shifts in their behavior (extreme seclusion or aggressiveness) and sexuality (extreme inhibition or premature eroticism and/or a tendency toward promiscuity). There are also sleeping disorders (nightmares, insomnia, somnambulism) and feeding disorders (bulimia and anorexia). Bodily pains are typical and can lead to disabling illnesses. Very recently the American Medical Association proved that the hormonal system is altered in women who have been victims of incest and sexual abuse during childhood, making them six times more sensitive to stress. There is a strong tendency to inflict damage on themselves, including wounds and mutilations, and the idea of suicide is never far from the surface.
Despite the presence of so many physical symptoms demanding specific treatment, Esperanza Carrión insisted during the symposium on the importance of "de-medicalizing" the care offered to incest survivors. She argued that "the women and children are not in themselves sick for having endured sexual aggression, and therefore should not have a medical label slapped on them. That would imply reducing the phenomenon to clinical cases of victims and victimizers." In Nicaragua, the ignorance surrounding the subject and the deep-rooted tradition of self-medication leads relatives and doctors to paper over the psychosomatic problems left by the trauma—nightmares, crying fits, gastric problems—by stuffing the girls full of pills or injections.
A cause of prostitution and suicideIncest has many social consequences. Prostitution by young and teenage girls is spiraling in Nicaragua and it is scandalous how many young Nicaraguan girls emigrate to Costa Rica to work as prostitutes. Often prostitution is nothing more than the end of a never confessed story of incest. The sexual exploitation of children is facilitated by a previous history of incest. Nicaragua has the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in Central America: one out of every four pregnancies involves a girl between 15 and 19 years of age. Eloping with a boyfriend and child pregnancy are other ways of escaping from homes with hidden stories of incest. In addition, incest is probably lurking behind many of the suicides committed by girls and officially put down to "unknown causes" or "sentimental reasons." The above-mentioned research study from UNAN-León revealed that 33% of the women who were sexually abused (how much of that abuse was incest?) had contemplated taking their own lives and 19% had actually attempted it. Among the males abused, 39% had thought about suicide and 25% had attempted it.
Incest survivors are very suspicious and have very low self-esteem. They do not know the limits of their relations with others, how to say NO, and because they are unable to express their anger they turn it against themselves. Furthermore, their capacity to imagine a future in which they feel good is blocked, they are more vulnerable to and defenseless against any form of pressure and abuse and sometimes turn abusive themselves, thus reinforcing the cycle of this insidious form of violence. A poster published by the Nicaraguan NGO Dos Generaciones carries the following statement from Flor, an 11-year-old incest victim: "I’m just left with the pain of not being able to laugh, fear of being caressed, sadness… I just want to cry and to sleep forever… My heart is all shrunken up."
Nicaraguan male identityIn Nicaragua, male identity has been built around three realities: having a job where you earn money that you dispose of at your own discretion; having various women who "have a lot of your children" to demonstrate your virility; and showing off your power over those women and as many others as possible by parading them, controlling them, shouting at them, humiliating them, hitting them, using and abusing them sexually.
Among the women over whom such men feel they have an acquired "right" are their daughters and stepdaughters, of whatever age. Sexually "initiating them" is a ritual, a right, a duty, a prize. It is not a problem involving "morals," passion or unbridled instincts. Rather it is one of demonstrating power, of "marking one’s territory." In some social circles men boast about having been their daughters’ "first man" while other men celebrate the fact with them. It is just one more expression of what José Höhne-Sparborth, a Dutch nun who specializes in violence against women, terms "the phallocratic culture that is dominant in Nicaragua and that prevents Nicaraguan culture from being defined as truly heterosexual," as this would imply a certain level of equity that barely exists here.
Nicaraguan history has added militarism to the make-up of the male identity. War—that destructive masculine cultural product—has been recurrent in our national history and is very much alive in the collective memory. The Sandinista revolution, which contained so many constructive projects, ended up dominated by military concerns. The US-sponsored contra war facilitated this, accentuating the hierarchical relations, aggressiveness and intolerance that were already present in a convulsed history and in a process led by military men who believed themselves omnipotent. By the end of the war in 1990, tens of thousands of men had learned how to kill, thousands remained armed or subsequently rearmed and most still have the philosophy of war stamped into their consciousness. In the words of Yamileth Molina of a woman’s organization called the Venancia Group from Matagalpa, a region still infested by armed bands of criminals, "They consider military attitudes to be part of their male identity."
Globalized capitalism has accentuated the most negative aspects of this picture. It has caused a worldwide mutation of humanity by structurally extending unemployment. In Nicaragua, a man stripped of his job and wage—one of his main identity tags—tends to try to compensate for this lack of power by growing more violent, setting upon his partner, his children or any woman who falls within his sphere of action with increased ferocity.
The dark side of so many menWhat are the characteristics of an abusive man? Costa Rican psychologist and incest specialist Gioconda Batres has closely examined this question in her recent book, El lado oculto de la masculinidad (The Hidden Side of Masculinity). According to Batres, "Masculinity engenders rejection of the feminine… In order to live up to his masculine identity, a man must convince others that he is not a sissy, a baby or a homosexual. ‘Don’t cry,’ ‘Play football well,’ ‘Be brave’… such statements all form part of the message. Other dictates tell them that women are dumb, are weak and are objects, in which the sense of superiority compensates the pain. This is clear in violent men who somewhere on the road to socialization have lost the capacity to discover pain or tenderness within themselves, particularly in their relationships with women, girls and boys. A lack of empathy is characteristic of abusive men. In the male ideology, sexuality is expressed through power and materialized in the genitals. Men learn from an early age that women belong to them. This is clear in the offenders who feel that the girls and boys (whom they categorize as girls), those vulnerable and unconditional beings, belong to them sexually, even if they are their own daughters and sons. Men learn to be excited by domination, submission and humiliation. Raping and abusing girls becomes a way for sexual offenders to feed their masculinity."
Batres also refers to the features of masculinity that should be particularly worked through in therapy with male sexual offenders: anger and anxiety regarding intimate relations, incapacity to express intimate feelings and thoughts, inappropriate channeling of anger, inability to listen, longing for power and control over others, the expectation that women should satisfy all of their needs and their desire to dominate and to overpower a woman’s "resistance." "During therapy with aggressors," says Batres, based on her recognized experience in this area, "if the therapist is a woman, her power is in itself therapeutic for the patient. The fact that the therapist has power over them helps them accept the therapeutic suggestions and to relate to a model of an energetic and assertive woman in a less threatening setting. The therapist is a model of the kind of woman that the offenders have scorned. In this psychologically safe context they can learn a new model of relations." She concludes, "Working with women involves returning them power and autonomy. Working with men involves performing a ‘macho-ectomy’ on them."
Breaking the silence: Liberation and riskBeing subjected to incest as a child puts a women’s whole identity at risk. Reconstructing herself presupposes healing the trauma and that healing process requires her to dig up the past—if the events occurred so early in her life that her memory does not consciously return their echoes. It involves revealing the secret or "breaking the silence," to quote a phrase that has become so popular throughout the world. After having aired the "family secret," the therapeutic healing process will require the woman to talk repeatedly about the events in a safe and friendly atmosphere, to exorcise them and expel the inner poison, thus recovering the life that was stolen away by this specific kind of abuse.
It is not easy to break the silence. The first thing is to decide whom to tell. In many cases, it is not necessary to go to a police station and a court. You do not always have to be so public about revealing what was up until then such a well-kept secret. A good teacher, friend or therapist, a family atmosphere that favors the victim and not the offender is enough to initiate the recovery process. In a great many cases, this is impossible due to the unequal power relations between the girl and the abuser, thus the case reaches the police and the courts. Such cases are the only ones that are occasionally turned into news by the media.
The participants in the symposium reflected on why young and adolescent girls who are incest victims remain silent. The reasons include the shame of talking about what happened; confusion generated by the affection and respect they feel towards their abuser; fear of not being believed, of being blamed and/or of the abuser taking revenge—in one case a 10-year-old girl said her father had threatened to kill her pet dog and bird if she talked. At other times they feel that the rest of the family will not support them; they don’t know what will happen to them afterwards or, without knowing it, they sense how complicated the road is that lies ahead. And they are not wrong. Breaking the silence is the culmination of a stage of profound suffering, yet it is just the first step on a long recovery process that will also involve its fair share of suffering. The intensity of the pain will depend on the resources that the family and society offer to those who decide to speak out.
In Nicaragua, the support centers provided by different women’s organizations are proving strategic because they at least understand the basic elements needed to start providing a response to this dramatic situation. But there is still a lack of professionals specialized in a therapy that requires specific training. Worse yet, there are no organizations or groups to resort to at all in many rural municipalities.
The biggest vacuum is the lack of sensitivity to the issue. According to Yamileth Molina, "In rural areas an accusation that somebody has stolen a cow is often deemed more important than a denunciation of incestuous sexual abuse." During the symposium the idea of creating "popular defense counsels" as a primary intervention body to which girls, adolescents and women can turn was put forward.
Society doesn’t know how to listenMost cases of sexual abuse and incest are not denounced due to the lack of legal, educational, social and economic instruments to guarantee the victims that they will be protected after taking this step. They become "invisible" crimes, while the majority of cases that are made visible are not given an adequate response.
The act of public denunciation is an attempt to put an end to the conflict between the victim and her aggressor, but it also opens up new conflicts within the family, at school and in the community. Nicaraguan society is cruel. In some schools teachers prevent girls who have been raped from returning to classes because they are "a bad example for the rest." Many people publicly express their rejection of the girl involved. People brand such girls by crying out, "There goes the raped one!" and nobody congratulates her when she courageously speaks out. Instead she is pointed out with contempt and suspicion and is the object of looks and sick jokes.
Society’s interpretation of events is usually mistaken: the girl "was provocatively dressed," it’s the mother’s fault for not looking after her, dirty linen should not be washed in public, talking about that kind of thing is obscene... The Catholic Church representatives, so severe when it comes to so many other "moral problems," never mention incest, preferring to keep such cases concealed in the name of "family unity." The reality is that they keep quiet because this form of abuse is the brutal expression of a "problem of power" and those who have power and authority, including many churchmen, prefer not to throw stones from within their own glass houses...
Society also tends to believe the man rather than the girl. If not publicly, then deep down in its macho consciousness, it supports the accused man’s justifications, which take many forms. First, they deny that they have done anything and claim the girl is lying and wants to harm them. When they have no alternative but to recognize what they did because there are witnesses or obvious proof, they will say that the girl provoked them, even if she is three years old; that she wanted it and asked for it; that they couldn’t control themselves; that they were possessed by the devil; that what they did wasn’t so serious; that they should be forgiven because they won’t do it again; that they have the right to do it; that they did it without harming her; that they did it out of affection…
The symposium also reflected on what girls want and need when their secret is discovered or they reveal it. Above all, they want to be believed. They want to be respected and not blamed, judged, pitied or censured. They don’t want the case to be made public, to be interrogated or to be stared at in the streets and made to feel like "easy women." But they do want the guilty party to be punished and they do want to be helped to understand what happened to them. According to Martha Munguía, the director of the Acción Ya center in Estelí, the center treated over 8,000 victims of intra-family and sexual violence, the overwhelming majority of them women and girls, over a six-year period (1993-98). Munguía considered that a resolution was reached in 68% of the cases. "For us, resolution means diminishing the residual effects, breaking out of the cycle of violence in which they were living and being helped to safety. But resolution is not the same thing as recuperation. Recovery is a much longer and more complicated process."
Judicial proceedings: A very tough challengeHaving broken the silence in a support center or talking to a relative or psychologist, the survivor can choose to initiate judicial proceedings against the offender. The Nicaraguan Penal Code establishes a punishment of between two and four years of imprisonment for the crime of incest.
Research into the characteristics of young female victims of sexual abuse done by Dos Generaciones discovered that the majority of denunciations were made by pre-adolescents and adolescents who had been abused since they were young girls. In those cases investigated, 75% of the survivors saw the case through to the end and 83% of the aggressors were released at some stage during the proceedings.
The study revealed that the most difficult steps of the judicial process for the girl involved are the forensic medical examination; giving her statement, which involves providing details and answering questions she does not understand or that embarrass her; waiting for the jury to reach a verdict during the trial; having to face her aggressor again, albeit in a better position than before; and the questions put to her by the defense lawyer. Jurists who specialize in sexual abuse and incest cases say that while all victims have the right to be heard during the trial, this right should not be allowed to prejudice their emotional recuperation.
Re-victimizationDuring the symposium, Juan Pablo Sánchez, legal adviser to the Attorney General’s Office on Children and Adolescents, listed the main obstacles that exist in Nicaragua to offering suitable attention to survivors of sexual abuse. These include a penal system that is inquisitive by nature and tends to re-victimize; antiquated legislation; judges and officials loaded with macho prejudices who thus doubt what the girls have to say; inadequate local judges and police officers; a lack of specific prevention programs in the school system; and the inappropriate media focus. Sánchez also noted some of the positive elements: the fact that the Child and Adolescent Code is now legally in effect; that there are alternative civil society institutions and centers dedicated to this issue; and that judicial and police officers are now receiving training and information on this problem. The National Police Stations for Women and Children, created in 1993 in various locations, have initiated workshops to train their staff in methods that guarantee holistic attention.
Unless serious efforts are made to deal with the re-victimization of girls and adolescents who decide to talk, it will be particularly difficult to put a stop to sexual abuse, particularly incest. In a society that is not prepared to protect, defend, support and rehabilitate those who denounce this crime, doing so can represent an enormous risk, a new way of feeling abused. This will be particularly true if they run up against the impunity of the abuser, which tends to be stronger the more power he exercises. When the offender is a public figure, the re-victimizing of the person who broke the silence is immediate, as the Zoilamérica Narváez case overwhelmingly proved.
Re-victimization must be avoided during the attention offered to those who break the silence. When memories are evoked or events analyzed that are traumatic and trigger reactions, all of those involved in any more or less public arena, including doctors, psychologists, police officers and judges, must exercise great tact so as not to traumatize the survivor further. Ideally, the attention should involve centers with a professional staff trained and specialized in this particular issue, familiar with the relevant laws and with a psychologically appropriate approach to the survivors. In Nicaragua, there is hardly any literature to help the survivors and those supporting them. El coraje de sanar (Courage to Heal) by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, published in English in 1994 (Harper Collins) and in Spanish in 1995 (Ediciones Urano, Barcelona), is a marvelous and very useful tool in this respect.
I hope my daughter will do it...In the midst of all of the gaps, deficiencies and impunity, Nicaragua has achieved certain successes. Civil society organizations abound that are working specifically with women, prioritizing women’s problems and incorporating a gender perspective into their projects with great conviction and hard work, thus training themselves—albeit usually not directly—to confront this particular plague. For many years now they have been sowing the seeds of awareness and are now harvesting results.
Something similar is happening throughout the world. The sustained progress made by women attempting to balance the unequal power relations with men was undoubtedly the most notable of all of the advances achieved by humankind during the last century. During the last hundred years each generation has managed to take an almost Olympian leap forward. Awareness has grown and so have the number of effective actions undertaken, as summed up in the saying, "My grandmother didn’t even think about it. My mother thought it, but didn’t say it. I said it but didn’t do it. I hope that my daughter will do it." This is not an illusory hope. The road ahead is long and hard, but the road already traveled shows us that our granddaughters will be happier than we are.