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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 317 | Diciembre 2007



In Memory of Cecilia Torres: Women’s Rights Defender and Femicide Victim

Gender-based violence is more than just a concept. Attacking, harassing, injuring and killing women are daily realities. Femicide is the killing of women because they are women. It, too, is a daily reality. Cecilia Torres was killed for being “a nuisance,” aware of her rights, which she defended and demanded for herself and all other women.

Grupo Venancia

Cecilia Torres Hernández was very humble but also very strong. Quite clear about what her citizenship status afforded her, Cecilia was firmly convinced that women have the right to live free of violence. She fought for this conviction and ultimately gave her life for it. She is one of 60 victims of “femicide”—the act of killing women for being women—in Nicaragua in 2007. Her determination and constancy, her insistence on demanding both her rights and those of others, made some people view her as “a nuisance.” It was that “bothersome” nature that turned her into a symbol, because in Nicaragua that’s what you get called if you’re a woman demanding your rights.

Candies, pastries, tablecloths and flowers

Tulita and Florencio had eight children. Cecilia was the sixth, born in 1952. When her two younger brothers died, she became the baby of the family again. They remember her as being like her father: happy, chatty, always telling jokes, and with a brave face in times of trouble. She was active from an early age and liked sewing, baking and making paper flowers. Her mother proudly says, “She was the most intelligent of them all. She loved learning.” But she could only study the first year at high school. Florencio thought that sending his daughters to school was like sending them out to find boyfriends. “That was my fight with him,” says Tulita, because she was quite clear that studying would help them make it through life better.

When she was 14, Cecilia married Juan and had a daughter, the first of 11 children: 7 daughters and 4 sons; only 8 of them lived to be adults. At first Cecilia and Juan lived in the community of Caratera in La Dalia, where Cecilia had been born, and after trying their luck in various places, they ended up back in La Dalia in the mid-eighties, settling in the community of Wasaka Arriba. That’s where their youngest daughter, Noemí, was born. They bought a small farm, growing beans, maize and even a little coffee.

For a while, Cecilia had a little shop in town, but decided to close it after being robbed three times. It was then that she took up something she had learned as a little girl from her mother; she started making a traditional penuche-like candy called cajeta at home and took it into the town of La Dalia to sell to drug stores and anyone who wanted to buy it. Occasionally she also baked corn-based pastries that her children helped her sell. In recent years she started getting a rash on her face due to the heat of the oven and the grease, so she stopped baking and making candies and concentrated full time on sewing curtains, tablecloths, skirts and anything else she was asked to do.

When she returned home from selling in town, she’d sit in front of the sewing machine her daughter Noemí had been given during a sewing course. She often worked until 11 at night by candlelight. She was also good at making paper flowers. “She learned better than me,” her mother recalls. “They were really beautiful.” People would seek her out to make wreaths or decorate the altar to mark the ninth-day and first anniversary mass following the death of a loved one.

An organized, happy woman

But it wasn’t enough for Cecilia to work hard to help the family get ahead. She was always involved in some organization and was therefore always in meetings. First she became a Catholic catechist, teaching children and adolescents. Then she got interested in women’s rights and joined different networks. She became a human rights promoter, repeating, “I’ve been defending my rights ever since I realized I had them.”

She was also a community midwife and health volunteer. And as if all that wasn’t enough, she coordinated with the La Dalia Implementation Commission, the mayor’s office and the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), worked with La Dalia’s maternity center and was also a member of the Ana Lucila Network of Women from the North and the Savings and Credit Cooperative in La Dalia. Were there any local meetings that Cecilia didn’t attend? Everyone remembers her as a woman who was always looking for ways to help others, particularly women; a brave, dedicated woman who wasn’t afraid to speak out and would always share her experiences during meetings.

Despite dedicating so much time to others, Cecilia always had time for her granddaughters. She did exercises with the youngest one and talked to her about everything she’d learned at the women’s meetings. With a tortilla and fresh cheese in one hand and holding her granddaughter with the other, she danced everything from cumbia to the slow rhythm of the romantic songs she loved so much.

Demanding respect for women’s rights

A year and a half ago, Cecilia and Juan decided to leave Wasaka Arriba and go live in downtown La Dalia with their daughter Noemí and her three-year-old daughter. With help from a project they bought a small plot of land and off they went. “My mom felt like she was in heaven” in La Dalia, according to Noemí. “Heaven” was having left behind problems that had started up in 2000 involving Jhonny [sic] Gutiérrez, a rural teacher. Gutiérrez had left Noemí and their little daughter and Cecilia had been demanding the legally required child support from him for three years. Even though he was a university student with a scholarship from a nongovernmental organization and had a certain position in the community as a teacher, 25-year-old Jhonny refused to recognize his daughter. So when the girl was two months old, Cecilia started legal proceedings to establish that he was her granddaughter’s father.

Cecilia spent three years determinedly fighting for a favorable sentence. She never gave up even though Noemí wanted to throw in the towel many times. She always believed justice would be done in the end. And she was right; in late 2006, the judge ruled that Jhonny was the father and had to give his daughter 600 córdobas (around US$30) a month. One month, two months, three months went by with no sign of any money. So Cecilia sued Jhonny and the judge summoned them both for a hearing in mid-April.

The child paternity case was not the origin of the ill will between Cecilia and Jhonny, however. In 2000, Cecilia had also accused him of sexually harassing her. Cecilia won the case, but after being arrested and jailed, Jhonny was released on bail.

Sorting things out the macho way

On April 3, 2007, Cecilia was in her house in Wasaka Arriba with her daughter Josefina and three granddaughters, including Noemí’s daughter. They were all in the kitchen preparing the corn flour to make the traditional Holy Week tamales. At about five in the afternoon they heard a noise at the door. Jhonny came straight into the kitchen, went up to Cecilia, threw his arm around her shoulder and said, “Look, Cecilia, I’ve come to sort things out with you.” He then took a knife from his waistband and plunged it into her stomach.

The girls ran away and hid. Josefina ran to get help for her mother, but Jhonny intercepted her, threw her to the ground and stabbed her in the abdomen as well. Despite losing a lot of blood, Cecilia managed to grab a stone and throw it at Jhonny when she saw what was he was doing to her daughter. Although it missed, it had the desired effect and distracted his attention. However, it only drew him back to Cecilia. She tried to get away, but it was useless and he stabbed her six more times before fleeing.

Her daughters, sons-in-law and neighbors helped get Cecilia to the local health center, but she had already bled to death. That day, women’s human rights promoter Cecilia Torres became one more victim of that most serious of human rights violations: femicide. Another 16 women had already appeared on that appalling list in Nicaragua, and in the days following Holy Week, 3 more were murdered. Sandra Martínez was stabbed by her partner at the foot of a tree; Ana Valeria Palma was shot in the throat by the man who said he loved her; and Heiling Valiente was also killed in La Dalia. They were all murdered by men for being women who did not unconditionally obey their orders and wishes. Cecilia was also killed for being “a bother,” a stubborn defender of her rights.

Just because they’re women

What is the difference between femicide and murder or homicide in which the victim is a woman? Although described in different ways and defined with different variants, all definitions and descriptions agree that femicide is the most extreme form of violence against women. Some prefer to use the word “feminicide” rather than femicide, considering femicide to be simply a homologue of homicide, only describing the killing of women. Use of the word “feminicide” aims to highlight the fact that this is the extreme expression of gender violence, not just the killing of a woman, but killing her because she’s a woman. But whatever the term used, the important thing to stress is that the violent death of women for being women is the result of the age-old inequality in power relations between women and men.

It is ironic in Cecilia’s case that although the state ruled in her favor in the case she brought to ensure child support for her granddaughter, it could not guarantee that the child’s rights were respected. There are no legal mechanisms to enforce a judge’s sentence in such cases, which proliferate in all Nicaraguan social classes.

Announcing her tragic death, Cecilia’s companions from the Matagalpa Women’s Network and the Ana Lucila Network of Women from the North had this to say about her case: “She refused to bow down to the obstacles and really believed her voice would be listened to. She was consistent with the idea that we women are citizens and have rights. That’s why she spoke up right to the end and made demands without finding the expected response, one that could have saved her but never came.”

In this sense, Mexican feminist Marcela Lagarde links what she prefers to call feminicide with lack of action by the state. “I identify something else,” she says, “that contributes to crimes of this kind extending over time: the inexistence of any rule of law in which violence is reproduced without limit and killings without punishment. It amounts to a fracture of the rule of law that favors impunity. Feminicide is a state crime.” For Lagarde, feminicide is committed because omissive and negligent authorities exercise institutional violence over women by blocking their access to justice, therefore contributing to the impunity. That’s exactly what we see every day in Nicaragua.

Incomplete statistics

In other Central American countries, femicide is often linked to the phenomenon of maras or youth gangs. In Nicaragua, several studies on the issue have confirmed that femicide is part of gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence. In recent years the number of femicides has been increasing due to women’s increasing awareness and the fact that more and more women are taking steps to get out of the situations of violence in which they are trapped. There are increasing numbers of “bothersome” women and still many men who get annoyed by what they see as insubordination and respond with incredible aggressiveness and violence.

Nicaragua’s statistics aren’t very reliable. There is serious under-recording, weaknesses in the processing of information and a lack of indicators to classify crimes and thus differentiate between homicides in which women are victims and genuine femicide. Almachiara D’Angelo produced one of the most recent and best done studies in 2006. In addition to collecting documentary data and information from Police Stations for Women and Children, the National Police, Institute of Legal Medicine and Public Prosecutor’s Office between 2000 and 2005, she also gathered and analyzed information from the written media for the same period.

She found that 236 women were victims of femicide in Nicaragua during that five-year period. As shown in the table below, these crimes more than doubled between 2000, when there were 29 cases, and 2005, when there were 65. Another research study, this one by the Network of Women against Violence, identified 269 cases between 2000 and the first half of 2006. In October 2007, the Special Women’s Ombudsman Débora Grandison reported 60 women murdered up to that point this year.

The studies so far identify some of the characteristics of femicides in Nicaragua. Most happen at home; most victims are between the ages of 16 and 30 and are either married or have partners; there are often other victims of the violence unleashed by the man, such as mothers, sisters and brothers or children; most of the perpetrators are between the ages of 21 and 30 and most are the victim’s partner or former partner or are otherwise related to the victim. To summarize, the home is the most risky place for women and members of their own family represent the greatest danger to them.

Another characteristic is the violent, vicious way the women are killed, often suffering sexual violence. The most common weapons used are blades such as machetes, kitchen knives, daggers or pocket knives.

A victim of the violence she fought against

Many femicides in Nicaragua are never punished because the perpetrator is never caught or is found not guilty in a court of law. This didn’t happen in Cecilia’s case; justice was done. Jhonny Gutiérrez was sentenced to 18 years and 8 months in prison for the crimes of homicide against Cecilia and attempted homicide against her daughter Josefina.

Cecilia’s sister activists in the struggle for women’s rights remember Cecilia as “a leader recognized in her community for her active struggle for justice who accompanied many women and girls when they needed her to denounce those who abuse in the name of their ‘manhood.’ These raped girls and battered women remember her today as a valiant and valuable woman.”

The broad support network that this solidarity-based struggle forged around Cecilia’s case helped ensure that justice was done. As the judge recognized in his sentence, “She was a leader in her rural district who worked with human rights organizations, ensuring that the rights of the inhabitants of that place were not violated. She was an activist in organizations that fight for women’s rights to eradicate the violence to which thousands of women in our country are subjected, many of whom even have their lives cut short by it. Cecilia’s fate was ironic given that she was an activist fighting to eradicate this kind of violence and gave her life in the kind of circumstances against which she was fighting.”

Her killing did not go unpunished precisely because she was “bothersome” and that quality served as an example. Given the many weaknesses demonstrated by the justice system, the outcry from many organized women demanding justice was the only thing that landed this committer of femicide behind bars.

Obstacle after obstacle

Negligence by state institutions started from the moment the charges were filed at the La Dalia police station. It took four hours from then before the police went looking for Gutiérrez at his house because they were investigating a cattle-rustling case at the time and didn’t have a vehicle to get out to Wasaka Arriba. Is the theft of a cow really more important than the killing of a woman? When the police finally got to the killer’s home one of his brothers said he wasn’t there and the police never crossed the threshold to make an exhaustive search of the premises.

Obstacles continued cropping up. As the murder was committed during Holy Week, there was a serious lack of coordination among the police, the prosecutor’s office and the judge. It was hard to find a prosecutor to make a formal accusation so the judge could issue the arrest warrant. The Penal Procedural Code passed in 2004 puts great importance on the prosecutor, but various municipalities in the country share one prosecutor, who is therefore not available at all times. So although women have now learned to file charges in cases of violence, there’s often nobody to receive them. According to figures from the Matagalpa Women’s Network provided by the Public Ministry, there is only one prosecutor for every three municipalities in the department of Matagalpa, where La Dalia is located. The municipality of El Tuma-La Dalia shares a prosecutor with both Rancho Grande and Waslala. The lack of a prosecutor permanently located El Tuma-La Dalia was one of the main obstacles to Jhonny Gutiérrez’s immediate capture. It took several days to issue the arrest warrant.

For the life of women,
not a single death more

As the days went by in a climate of passivity and unwillingness from the authorities, the Matagalpa women’s movement started a campaign to denounce the crime and apply pressure. It was helped by the national-level women’s movement and the campaign had an impact internationally. Marches were organized in El Tuma-La Dalia and Matagalpa under the slogan “For the life of women, not a single death more.” Forum-debates were held in La Dalia, statements were issued and a letter campaign was organized aimed at the Public Ministry and the heads of both the Police Station for Women and Children and the National Police. Meetings were held with the Police and the women even provided a vehicle and fuel to help apprehend the killer.

In most cases nothing happens, but the women’s movement exerted a great deal of pressure this time and that’s why we got results. We learned to be “bothersome” from Cecilia and we acted. First National Police Commissioner Aminta Granera took a special interest in the case and kept a close eye on police progress towards capturing the criminal. There was also institutional support from Débora Grandison, who attended the forum organized by the La Dalia Gender Commission on May 15.

Jhonny Gutiérrez was finally captured in El Cúa on June 16, nearly two and a half months after Cecilia’s killing and the attempted murder of Josefina. After so many delays and so much bureaucracy, the arrest was celebrated by the whole women’s movement, particularly Cecilia’s friends and companions.

We need better recording and
classification and more prosecutors

Jhonny Gutiérrez was tried on September 17 in the city of Matagalpa. The judge declared him guilty and applied the maximum penalty for homicide and attempted homicide for a total of 18 years and 8 months. He did not find him guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a higher sentence, judging that there was no malice aforethought and no proof of premeditation. If femicide had been classified as a crime in Nicaragua the sentence would have been much longer.

Justice may have been done in this case, but what has happened with the many other cases of femicide? There are a lot of weaknesses. The first is in the area of recording of cases, which must be improved. There are currently initiatives to promote a national femicide observatory and some international donors have shown an interest in backing them. But the government has been conspicuously silent. The second weakness has to do with education for cultural change, which is a long-term matter. The media are still not up to the challenge. As D’Angelo rightly pointed out in her study, “The sensationalist treatment of femicides by the press, newspapers, radio and television, devaluing the problem, making the victim invisible and frequently using sarcastic language, reinforces the sexist conceptions around this issue.”

Another great weakness to dealing with this crime appropriately is its lack of classification in the Nicaraguan legal framework. This was stressed in the report by the Central American Commission of Human Rights Ombudspersons, which included the participation of Nicaragua’s Human Rights Defense Ombudsperson. Some Nicaraguan legislators have expressed their opposition to classifying femicide, arguing that it would go against the constitutional principle of equality between men and women. They insist that the homicide and murder classifications are enough. However, the fact that femicide largely takes place in the family setting and at the hands of relatives must be recognized.

The arguments put forward by these legislators reflect their ignorance of the social reality we live in, where the disadvantages and inequalities women face relative to men is more than evident. This argument was used in neighboring Costa Rica when a bill proposed classifying femicide as a specific crime there. The proposal was subjected to a consultation on constitutionality, which ruled that there were no contradictions; the law was finally approved in April 2007, making Costa Rica the second country after Spain to classify femicide as a crime.

Another great weakness identified in these cases is the very existence of the new Penal Procedural Code, which despite its modernizing pretensions raises a lot of problems when we shift from the “legal country” to the “real country.” The Code has been highly questioned because the lack of means and resources for its correct application tend to lead to great disadvantages for victims during the course of the judicial proceedings. In cases of femicide, as we saw in the Gutiérrez case, the hours immediately following the crime are crucial in locating the criminal, who generally runs away, often literally getting away with murder. It is also essential to have prosecutors permanently in every municipality as it’s no use having a modern law set down on paper if no prosecutor is available.

We “bothersome” women demand justice

During those sad April days, Cecilia’s violent death sowed terror among all the women’s organizations and among female leaders in many communities. “We felt like we’d been decapitated,” as Cecilia’s colleagues from the Maternity Center described it. But the fear gradually dissipated. Many brave women have continued their daily commitment to fight for women’s rights, determined to be annoying and cause bother. They know this will put them in danger and that there could be more deaths, but their conviction, firmness and struggle to avoid any more deaths won out. They know that Cecilia is still with them.

On November 25, International Day of the Struggle against Violence against Women, the documentary “¡Ya no más!” (No more!) was presented in Matagalpa. Written and directed by Félix Zurita with support from Spanish Cooperation and that country’s Firefly Foundation, it uses images and personal accounts that are moving and at times quite shocking in a magnificent visual reflection of the tragedies caused by machismo in our country and the rest of the world. Cecilia Torres’ name is evoked during the documentary along with the names of many other women who have fallen victim to gender-based violence.

The documentary and the discussion materials that accompany it start with the following dramatic words: “Violence against women is, according to the United Nations, the most hidden and widespread human rights violation in the world. It is the main cause of mortality and disabilities among women from 15 to 45 years old and causes more deaths than traffic accidents, cancer or even wars.”

Every day more women, organizations and institutions in Nicaragua become aware of this cruel form of violence. And every day it becomes more urgent for men to understand their manhood in a different way, to understand that this is no way to live and be prepared to make the change.

Grupo Venancia is a Matagalpa-based women’s organization dedicated to grassroots feminist education and communication to help empower women and strengthen the women’s movement.

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