Rosa in the Land of Lovelessness
In March 2003 we published “The Names of the Rose,” an article for which I received the Second “Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal” Prize for Journalistic Excellence in January 2004. Rosa has returned to center stage in Nicaragua,
and we have to talk about her case again, looking anew at what it represents.
María López Vigil
Rosa, the only child of an illiterate Nicaraguan peasant couple working in Costa Rica who risked death in January-February 2003 due to a rape-induced pregnancy, is no longer the little 9-year-old girl we wrote about. While as spontaneous and intelligent as always, she’s now 14.
After finally returning to everyday life away from cameras and controversies that year, Rosa again became news this July when we learned she had given birth to a little girl in December 2005. We also learned that the father was Francisco, Rosa’s adoptive father who in 2003 had claimed to be her biological father as he, Rosa and her mother engaged in an institutional and ideological struggle both in Costa Rica and back in Nicaragua to finally get the therapeutic abortion that both Rosa and her parents insisted on to save her life.
What’s in a name?For many centuries human beings didn’t have last names; they weren’t necessary. One name was good enough. The surnames we now use began to appear in Europe in the Middle Ages as useful instruments in the primitive “state administration” of an increasingly complex world of kings and feudal lords. The surname placed the name in a context, signaling the family’s trade or the place in the kingdom in which its members had been born.
Almost five years ago we wrote in envío about Rosa’s many other first names: we wanted to give her an identity in that dramatic episode of her short life to show that she represented so many other little Nicaraguan girls who are also poor, emigrants, sexually abused, victims and survivors of that abuse, and also have the ability to express an opinion and make a decision. Now it falls to us to interpret the social, cultural and political context of the latest events in her life, this time identifying some of the surnames she bears, which derive from the land into which she was born.
Plain speaking about the once unspeakableIn the past 20 years—it seems like no time at all—we in Nicaragua have been learning and teaching ourselves about the drama of child sexual abuse thanks to the varied and extraordinary efforts of social organizations including women’s—and men’s—groups and those working on behalf of children. Some of the lessons have also come from public institutions, such as the Women’s Police Stations, regrettably supported only by international cooperation, not national resources.
We have been introduced to this extremely serious, far-too common and always dreadful problem through media campaigns, workshops, conferences, research studies, meetings and, above all, plain speaking about something that was once unspeakable. Virtually every day we learn of a new case in the media. Those who only read and listen superficially might end up viewing such tragedies as routine. Sensationalist reporting, which is the most common, does a serious disservice, dis-educating and even promoting the crime. Those who are sensitive to such morbid reports get indignant, but that’s also a form of education. In any event, we have increasingly more information, and that’s a necessary first step. If you listen and read carefully, you start discovering patterns. And you learn.
There’s so much to learn in this kingdomIn 2003, little Rosa taught us all something, but the central message then focused on the interruption of her pregnancy. The public debate was over saving a life at risk, the controversial issue of abortion, the steps that had to be taken. In our reflections, the sexual abuse itself remained on the back burner.
This year, Rosa’s case has us reflecting on the psychological scars left by sexual abuse. When I turned to psychologist Lorna Norori, who has spent a dozen years treating a wide range of cases that have helped her discover guidelines, detect, learn and teach, she told me, “Nobody here’s an expert in sexual abuse; we learn something new with each case.”
For that reason, if we compare the national context to school, we have to recognize that we aren’t yet out of elementary school; there’s still so much to learn, so many blind spots and so much accumulated ignorance to unlearn. Aware of how far we still had to go, a Nicaraguan Movement against Sexual Abuse was created just weeks before we learned of this new chapter in Rosa’s story. This new initiative brings together various organizations that had already been working in the field with the idea of insisting more forcefully on a comprehensive effort to change the culture that favors such frequent sexual abuse.
One man in the land of menSurnames are born of the culture, its context. Rosa’s surname comes from the land of men, one wallowing in a deeply rooted macho culture that men—and most women—see as perfectly natural. In this land, as naturally as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, men are sexually interested in little girls, rape their wives and celebrate their “manliness” and conquests in the bars. In this land we can’t even imagine what sexuality with equity between men and women would be like.
But what Rosa’s life was like after she became headline news in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica in 2003 was revealed this July when her mother María accused Francisco Fletes of raping her daughter. In various written and televised statements after he was arrested and jailed on August 17, Francisco admitted that he was Rosa’s adoptive father, and in a few words revealed that he was a regular “lord” of this realm, teaching us about the naturalizing of the sexual culture that leads to incest in this land of men.
Women’s bodies in the macho realm As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Francisco said he “fell in love” with Rosa and therefore had the right to have sex with her. He justified that right in a phone call to a journalist while still on the run from the police: “She’s not a little girl who plays with dolls; she’s a woman. Rosa has a woman’s body.” As naturally as he planted beans, picked cotton or split firewood all his life, Francisco expressed the belief of so many Nicaraguan men, be they rural or urban, young or old, flat broke or rolling in money, and of all political stripes: they have the right to invade the body of any woman they please.
Legally speaking, at 14 years of age Rosa is still a minor. But in the real land, the land of men where Francisco and Rosa live, a girl is seen as an appealing catch as soon as her body starts to change and her breasts begin to grow, which can happen when some girls are as young as 8 or 9. And in this same land of men, those changes are enough to make the girl start seeing herself in the same light.
It would be an error to interpret this vision as an expression of the culture of rural poverty that Francisco and Rosa represent so well. The consumer culture, designed to trap us all, has a lot to do with it as well. According to the distinguished Chilean educator María Victoria Peralta, the first six years of life are the child’s most formative stage, a delicate period that is critical to everything that will follow.
Many would say that the poverty and adult unemployment behind widespread child labor prevent boys and girls from living this stage fully in Nicaragua. But it’s not that simple. “In today’s culture,” laments Peralta, “adolescence begins ever earlier and lasts longer. The length of childhood is shortened, a tendency the media contribute to with images of little girls of 7 to 8 all dolled up as cabaret stars, singing and dancing sensually, presenting themselves as little women. In this land of men, both women and men often applaud these girl-women, egging them on.
A crime in the land of lovelessnessFrancisco sees his instinctive impulse for Rosa’s changing body as “love,” even when she’s his adoptive daughter. How and why has the incest taboo that biologically and culturally marks our species disappeared among so many men of this realm? And how many illnesses and deformities in our population have a genetic origin, derived from incestuous sexual intercourse between blood relations?
As he never had children with María, Francisco felt it was his right to have them with his adoptive daughter. It is an undisputable right of the kings in this realm that women must have children for them, even if those children are not then looked after. A woman who can’t or doesn’t want to have children isn’t a woman.
Francisco also said that Rosa “came on to him” and concluded that if he didn’t respond she would consider him a “fag.” And being, or appearing to be, homosexual is the greatest fear of the men of this realm. He further insisted that it’s only rape “when it’s her first man”—she is presumed to have nothing to lose if she’s no longer a virgin—or “when there are scratches and bruises.” So, ipso facto, there was no rape as this wasn’t Rosa’s first time, he didn’t put “a gun to her head” and Rosa wasn’t the one who denounced him. He declared that her mother accused him because she was jealous and “spiteful”; that she had “always known about it” and consented. Francisco, the perfect portrait of traditional male identity, thus concluded that no crime had been committed.
But a crime had been committed, and in the legal country anyone can file charges for the crimes of rape and incest, even when they happen in the home, becausesome private affairs are now public. In the real country, however, an uncountable number of Franciscos still ignore the consequences of their actions even if they’ve heard of these laws because the private sphere is their realm and beyond the law. Our new laws aren’t yet strong enough to have much impact on or even punish sexual violence in the real country.
Who taught Francisco, who is now thirty-something, to see everything so much in his favor, so distortedly? Nobody and everybody. He grew up breathing and assimilating a profoundly underdeveloped sexual culture, one that is totally anti-democratic and violates human rights and duties.
In the kingdom’s undergirdingsAnyone who reads the book La cultura sexual en Nicaragua, written in 2000 by Nicaraguan feminist Sofía Montenegro, will find an in-depth, detailed description of all the particles that came together in the mud in which Francisco is submerged. This pioneering and thought-provoking work ought to be a textbook in secondary schools and universities, because without knowledge and reflection we’ll never form a critical mass of men who no longer think and talk like Francisco.
Sofía describes our sexual culture as a “the land of lovelessness” where impulse and violence prevail and there is no pleasure of communication and communication of pleasure, where highly dysfunctional couple relations generate loneliness and anxieties. Sexual relations seldom involve more than an exhibition of dominion and an exercise of masculine power, leaving a permanent dissatisfaction that leads to more and more experiences that are always more unsatisfying, routine and even perverse. It is a relationship between slaves and tyrants more than lovers and friends in which “love” is blackmail, control, terrorism and aggressiveness and the result is deep emotional misery.
It’s a short step from the personal dramas provoked by this sexuality to the social dramas it unleashes: early pregnancies, unwanted children, abortions, suicides, feminicides, prostitution, addictions, sexually transmitted diseases… The undergirdings of this common home we call Nicaragua are held in place with the mortar of the personal and social dramas resulting from this miserable sexual culture. How can we erect walls of democracy, development and human rights if we don’t start taking these hidden foundations very seriously indeed? With such an unstable base, any walls put up will soon crumble.
To assure a strong and lasting structure, we must start with healthy, scientific, free, liberating, happy, open, frank, unprejudiced sex education at home, at school, everywhere. Such education requires information, which would involve retrieving sex education texts tossed in the garbage by the two recent Liberal governments under pressure from the Catholic hierarchy. Sex education doesn’t appear in the Bible and certainly isn’t born of the “values” stained by religious dogmas and fears.
If we start there, we might someday finish the construction and live in a land of love—or at least one with much less lovelessness. And perhaps we might come to defend that right still unrecognized in any universal declaration: the right of all human beings to come into this world wanted. According to a study just released by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, (ECLAC), a third of Latin Americans came into the world unwanted. What weight does a person have to bear knowing, feeling that he or she began life this way? More research should follow the ECLAC study to provide some answers to that question.
In the land of resigned toleranceNicaraguan society began talking increasingly openly about its sexual culture, sexual abuse and the consequences of a badly-oriented sexuality some years ago. Some progress can be seen in the new generations, but the foundations were laid a long time ago and as they’ve been rotting away without anyone considering the dangers we’re still living in the reign of tolerance. We tolerate, excuse, remain silent and resign ourselves, thinking things will always be this way because they always have been.
María gave birth to Rosa when she was 13. Did the father take responsibility? Surely it was one of thousands of cases of “male abortion,” the kind never mentioned by anti-abortion groups much less by the religious groups that so aggressively and dispassionately include women who decide to interrupt their pregnancies in “the culture of death.” Male abortion is committed by men who engender children and then fail to give them their name, financial support or affection or care, leaving scars that never go away. As a friend sadly told me, “There were 15 of us in my work group and only 3 of us know who their father was. I’m one of the ones who don’t know.” It’s impossible to measure the consequences of the irresponsible paternity underpinning Nicaragua’s culture. While the social tolerance of “male abortion” is excessive, actually taking a look at it and the damage it does our society might shake us out of our resignation.
Many people have pointed the finger at María, Rosa’s mother, for what Francisco did to her daughter: she knew and did nothing; she didn’t take care of her daughter; who knows where she was when this happened. The state has been indolent for years on this issue. Some of its authorities, who are trying to use legal formalities to cover up their ignorance about the difficult and dramatic role of mothers when their daughters are abused under their own roof, have called María an “accomplice or necessary accessory and when we find out which it is we’ll apply the strongest penalty.” Experience teaches us that when sexual abuse occurs within the four walls of the home—which is precisely where some 68% of the cases occur, according to a study of the National University of León—the mother is another of the abuser’s victims. Putting ourselves in her shoes, understanding this crime through her eyes could help shake us out of our resignation.
Rosa was raped and made pregnant in Costa Rica when she was little and the pregnancy threatened her life. Two years later history repeated itself, but this time she gave birth. Experience shows that sexual abuse in childhood predisposes children to new episodes that they don’t always see as abuse, because they feel unable to say NO or establish limits to apparently affectionate seduction without violence. Sexual abuse weakens the confidence that girls, and also women, have in themselves and can provoke precocious and promiscuous or else severely repressed sexual behavior. Understanding this, knowing how to detect what lies behind such attitudes could shake us out of our resignation and our tendency to blame the girls or hold them responsible.
The charges of sexual abuse of girls increased nearly 100% in Nicaragua between 1998 and 2006. But our society’s new awareness of the need for the victims to “break the silence” is greater than the need to listen to those who break it. Accompanying people who suffer abuse, opening our ears to understand what they’re saying, casting off the role of mute witnesses to the sexual abuse we know is committed by politicians, teachers, priests and pastors, fathers, stepfathers and other relatives in the home and neighborhood could transform the resignation into action.
Sins in the land of impunityExperience also shows that a father or stepfather who abuses one of his daughters will probably abuse all of them. It teaches that men who satiate their miserable sexuality with little girls—or boys—tend to collect cases. And the more power they have, the longer the list. Social tolerance of these chains is enormous; it is understood fatalistically as something inevitable.
Also enormous is the impunity with which we in Nicaragua have swept celebrated sexual abuse cases involving important public figures under the rug of impunity. That tolerance, which translates into a kind of collective self-repression, offends us personally and shames us as a society. How much responsibility for the perpetuation of sexual abuse is attributable to each of us when we decide to block it out of our mind?
All the messages that characterize sexual abuse as “weakness” and “human frailty” only help consolidate tolerance and impunity. So do statements that “to err is human” and that such “errors” don’t compromise institutions or even the “holy” church when the criminals are its priests. Impunity is abetted by a kind of religiosity that is slowly making inroads in Nicaragua, one that promotes a perverse alchemy of changing crimes into sins. There are Christian groups of different stripes in which people confess to “sins” with much shouting and breast-beating, then proclaim that all this ended when they “accepted” Christ and were forgiven. Glory be to God! Really? To what God?
The “sins” that are frequently proclaimed—extortion, theft, swindle, violence against women, sexual abuse—are actually crimes punishable by law. They should be heard by courts and not absolved in church services, television programs or confessionals. This religiosity that dresses up as Christianity and justifies itself in memorized biblical verses is infamy: it favors social tolerance and consolidates the deeply rooted culture of impunity.
Objectives in the political realm…From the minute María publicly charged Francisco with the rape of her daughter Rosa, the state institutions tried to rise to the occasion of a case that was and continues to be infinitely more emblematic than the hundreds of other cases that go unattended every day, stuffed into the drawers of state neglect and receiving no justice in the courts. But it was also obvious from the declarations and actions of some officials of those same institutions that the government—whose strategy is to replace the civil society we have today with a party society—would try to make political hay with this second chapter in Rosa’s story. The aim was to undermine the NGOs in the Network of Women against Violence, seeking to investigate them, process them and even hold them responsible for covering up Francisco’s crime and for ineptitude in attending to Rosa.
...and progress in the realm of resistanceDespite this negative context, Rosa has also received surnames from places in the realm where we find resistance, initiatives and even hope. Rosa’s second incursion onto the national stage has forced us to speak, think about and discuss sexual abuse again and to look for ways of getting out of this morass. In so doing, we have discovered that things aren’t quite the same as they were in 2003, that we have made progress despite our tremendous cultural baggage. We’re making progress through words, growing by talking. Everything related to sexuality has been traditionally silenced, so speaking openly is necessary if we are to reflect properly. It is often the first step to healing.
There are examples that give us hope. After Italian-Nicaraguan priest Marco Dessi was sentenced in Italy for charges of sexual abuse against young boys brought by his victims in Chinandega, the unheard of, the unimaginable happened: other young men who had been abused by the same man when they were children came forth publicly in Managua in April, acknowledging their story, speaking of the abuse and calling on society to understand this tragedy and put a stop to it. Sexual abuse against boys is still at the deepest and most silenced stratum of Nicaragua’s cultural foundations. In the kingdom of men this is never, ever talked about, particularly if the perpetrator is a priest. But something is changing: we’ve taken a significant step forward this year with the Dessi case—one the religious hierarchy has refused to comment on, but which these youths and some of the media did talk about.
More will come, because many cases are kept locked up in a chest with three keys: shame, pain and fear. In the United States thousands of such cases have now come to light, not because this type of abuse is any more common there, but because more survivors have succeeded in turning these three keys. The wall of fear is crumbling in Nicaragua, and when it falls, we will see the faces of abuse in unsuspected places.
Also unusual and extremely hopeful is this year’s inauguration of the work of “Aguas Bravas” (raging waters) in various parts of Nicaragua. This organization, which first developed in Germany, is now firmly establishing itself here with Nicaraguan faces and a Nicaraguan office and envío will soon be publishing an article about its identity and the context in which it will be developing. “Aguas Bravas” promotes the organization of self-help groups for adult women who survived sexual abuse in their childhood. It is spreading the idea that by sharing their histories and accompanying each other in naming what they lived and have kept hidden until now, these women can heal themselves and recover their dignity, joy and capacity to develop both themselves and this Nicaragua that so needs them.
Your name, RosaLife will go on. Francisco will be tried in October and the sentence that awaits him is predictable. Rosa and her mother María have a whole life ahead of them to try to make some sense of it all. They’ll continue breathing the cultural air that perversely blames them when they are the victims. And they’ll continue resisting. And the rest of us will continue to learn, either by choice or with heels dug in, surrounded by a vast garden of too many damaged roses.
Sweet Rosita, we don’t want to continue talking about your life, because it belongs to you. But we do want to thank you for having again—without knowing it, without meaning to—helped Nicaragua take a good look at itself through the mirror of what happened to you. For that and so many other things, we will keep your name intact.
María López Vigil is the editor in chief of envío.