Sexual abuse of children is a Nicaraguan pandemic
These two psychologists, both survivors of childhood sexual abuse,
share their experiences and lessons learned in the Aguas Bravas Foundation,
which this year celebrates 10 years accompanying other women survivors
of sexual abuse in Nicaragua.
Nora Ligia Rugama y Georgina Molina
A team of eight women—four of us psychologists who are survivors of sexual abuse and have become experts on the subject and four other women, not necessarily survivors, who have been handling the administration—have been working in Aguas Bravas for 10 years now, accompanying women who were sexually abused as children. Some of those women saw Aguas Bravas as a “shelter” at first, but it developed into a space where most first broke their silence, allowing them to feel like whole people and citizens again, or more likely for the first time.
It means “raging waters”
We imported our name, Aguas Bravas, from Germany. In 1998, while on a trip here, Brigitte Hauschild, a longtime German solidarity activist with Nicaragua, remembered a history buried deep in her memory: sexual abuse she had gone through at home as a little girl. Attempting to seek therapeutic help, she discovered there was nowhere in Nicaragua to begin the process that would help her find the pieces of her puzzle and reconstruct it. She returned to Germany and found that space in Wildwasser-Berlín, a mutual support group of women who had experienced the same thing. She spent several years there, working through her history and coming out the other side.
When she returned to Nicaragua, she decided to start something similar here. Aguas Bravas is the Spanish translation of “Wildwasser,” the organization that had helped her so much. The name—raging waters in English—doesn’t mean we’re furious at what happened to us. It has a more symbolic meaning: that we are strong and able, as strong as the waters of a rushing waterfall, strong enough to get past that trauma, yet as calm as the foam formed by those turbulent waters. Feeling strong and able is deeply significant for those of us who have experienced the horror of sexual abuse.
A big surprise changed the initial plan
The plan at first was to promote groups similar to those that have been so effective in Germany. With that in mind, Brigitte held workshops in 2007 to train 220 women psychologists and psychology students working in centers created by the Network of Women against Violence around the country on the issue of sexual abuse. The objective was to create a space in all those centers where they could identify women survivors and offer them the possibility of joining a mutual support group, using a similar methodology practiced in Wildwasser adapted to the Nicaraguan context. But what she discovered in the training sessions surprised her: the majority of those same psychologists, 103 to be exact, including the two of us, revealed our own experience of sexual abuse, most of us for the first time ever.
Seeing this, Brigitte realized it was impossible to achieve the initial objective. How were we going to invite other women to form groups led by us if we still had open wounds ourselves; if we still felt shame, guilt and fear about a reality we had bottled up ever since? We realized that, although we were psychologists, we couldn’t give other people something we hadn’t given ourselves. We recognized we would have to form the first mutual support group ourselves. And so 14 of us who broke the silence in those workshops started the first group exactly 10 years ago, in May 2007, with Brigitte accompanying its development using her experience from Germany. For the first time we felt we were in a safe and open space where we could speak the same language with other women who had gone through what we had. For us, Brigitte was the living example that we too could live a happy, normal life with goals, with dreams.
Wherever you scratch, you find sexual abuse in families
Months later, in August, Aguas Bravas opened its doors to accompany other women either in groups or in any other form that would help them recover. Each year Aguas Bravas also organizes an experience-sharing arena for therapists working on sexual abuse in their consultancies and with fifth-year psychology students, always using the same technique. What we saw at the beginning has been repeated again and again over the years: a good number of the therapists participating in those spaces recognize or remember, or say out loud for the first time, that they too were sexually abused in their childhood, in their own homes.
We trained 100 women psychologists between 2009 and 2012 and were continually struck by the fact that one in every two of them revealed during the sessions that they had suffered sexual abuse. And the other half?
In our most recent training workshop this year, 10 of the 28 women who participated asked for an appointment at the end, a clear signal they need and want to work on their own history. This repeated experience has taught us that wherever you scratch you’ll find sexual abuse in families.
Working within and reaching out
The Wildwasser groups in Germany aren’t accompanied by a psychologist; they’re self-help groups. But that’s not possible in Nicaragua. Here they only work well if they’re accompanied by a survivor, preferably a psychologist, who has finished her own recovery process. But very few of us have those characteristics.
The two of us have worked in Aguas Bravas for 10 years now, initially using individual therapy to accompany the women who come to us for support. We’ve succeeded in encouraging the most decided among them to initiate a sometimes lengthy process that involves eventually joining a mutual support group. We’ve barely managed to form two a year, with about a dozen women in each one.
Between 2007 and 2014, we were the only two founders offering individual therapy. Two other psychologists from outside also helped and in that time some 100 women came to us each year. More women have come since 2015, now that four psychologists from Aguas Bravas are offering individual therapy. In the first five months of 2017 alone, some 80-90 women have sought us out.
But in that same decade we’ve also reached out, teaching and sensitizing the general public to this issue. We go anywhere we’re invited and have talked to teachers, children, different community assemblies in a number of departments in the country, and of course psychology students at the Central American University in Managua. We consider it particularly strategic for psychology professionals to understand sexual abuse in all its dimensions and know how to provide quality accompaniment to those who have gone through it.
What are they looking for?
The vast majority of women come to finally break the silence. They’ve either never talked about the sexual abuse they suffered or did so but weren’t believed. Not one woman has come with any interest in learning how to file a judicial charge. Not one. The majority don’t even know that sexual abuse is a crime punishable by law, and in any case the statute of limitations on sexual abuse in Nicaragua is only five years and most of these women suffered their abuse years earlier.
They come with the idea of getting help to put a stop to the emotional pain they’ve been living with all these years. There may be a statute of limitations on the crime, but there’s none on that pain provoked by sexual abuse. Women come wanting to understand what happened to them, why they feel so bad, why they can’t sleep, and in some cases why they want to take their own life. They don’t yet know there’s any link between the difficulties they feel and experience in their daily life and the sexual abuse they suffered as children. They can’t measure the impact that early sexual abuse has on their relations with their partner and on their family relations, much less on their broader social relations. If we had to summarize it in a single sentence we’d say that the women simply come with the hope of ending their suffering.
The demographics of those who seek us out
Most women who come to Aguas Bravas are from a very poor social background; some don’t even have the 2.5 córdobas to pay the bus fare to get there. They tend to range between 25 and 45 years old, and most of them are experiencing violence at home today on top of having survived sexual abuse as children. With these women, we first have to tackle how to resolve that contemporary violence before working on their childhood sexual abuse, because there’s no way to convince them to trust in themselves if aggression is waiting for them when they get home. The majority of women who come also have children.
Back when there were Women’s Police Stations—whose closure has been a huge rollback—we worked with the community defenders responsible for attending to women suffering physical violence. Many told us they too had been sexually abused as children. Because we have no study to underpin it, we can’t state that women who suffer physical violence as adults also suffered sexual abuse as children, but we think academia ought to research that possible link.
Women also come to us who are even still living under the same roof as their original aggressor. In those cases it’s much more complex to work on their history because the sexual abuse may have ended, but that person still controls and subjugates them. It has become transformed, exercised in a different way, but it’s still abuse of power.
Why the high “dropout” rate?
Only about 20% of the women who come to us and initiate individual therapy stick with it. We see that same dropout rate in the support groups. We’re the only two out of the first group of 14 who saw it through to the end. The others either didn’t have the minimal financial resources to do so or had too many burdens in their daily life, leaving them without the wherewithal to keep on going. It hurts to see that not all women have the personal resources or enough backing from their family to get all the way through such an important process.
We can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we’ve seen supportive families. And when they do support the woman, it’s conditional. They say, “Okay, one year, and that’s it.” Once the year’s up, they start asking, “A whole year and you’re still going there?” Or the husband will call us and ask “What’s going on with my woman? She doesn’t bring me a glass of water when I ask for it any more. You’re changing her! You’re making me lose her!”
If it’s hard for a woman to get all the way through an individual therapy process with so many obstacles and in a society that doesn’t support her, it’s even more complicated for her to join a mutual support group, which was Aguas Bravas’ initial objective. She might come once or twice, then not return because of her economic conditions, because her life is so destructured she can’t follow through on a process, because she has children as a result of the sexual abuse, or because she’s an alcoholic, addict or sex worker… all that goes into making it so difficult to form groups.
Germany and Nicaragua are very different
Once a group is formed, our task is to encourage the women to ask themselves questions, to dig deep, to interpret their daily life and their past with critical thinking. And that’s no easy feat in Nicaragua because we were never taught to think, to question, to interpret, either in the family or in school. We’re only taught to obey orders and keep quiet. That doesn’t even allow us to wonder whether what happened to us is normal or not, because we don’t dare cast doubt on what they’ve always taught us.
It’s different in Germany. Women come to a survivor’s group there with a much clearer awareness of their rights and speak more freely about sexual abuse, understanding it as a violation of their rights. When we visited Germany we saw that the women were questioning things that don’t even enter our heads here; they asked questions we don’t know how to ask. Their educational system has prepared them for that, whereas in Nicaragua there’s a lack of self-drive to benefit from the support group methodology.
We went to Germany to learn what they do there and came back to Nicaragua saying we’d seen the future because there are Wildwasser groups in 33 cities around the country. We need that in Nicaragua. In Germany social security also covers the cost of women’s therapeutic sessions, or in fact the costs of any individual who wants to consult a psychologist. It’s a guaranteed right.
Another thing that surprised us there is that the central government has someone dedicated just to dealing with issues referring to sexual abuse. It came about because in 2010 a group of men broke the silence to talk about the sexual abuse they had suffered in boarding school, which generated such a big scandal the government had to do something. Today this person coordinates a commission made up of survivors who do voluntary work, particularly to create awareness about the issue in German society. It’s still hard to imagine something like this happening in Nicaragua. With a lot of gratitude and also embarrassment we told the people we met in Germany that our therapeutic work is only possible thanks to resources from German and Austrian organizations and the German government itself, because the State takes no responsibility in Nicaragua.
Our therapy is feminist
In Aguas Bravas we look at the damage sexual abuse does to women’s integrity and their life, not to their virginity. We don’t categorize or change the therapy based on how serious the abuse was; whether there was rape with penetration or not. Such differentiations underping what we’ve been taught: that our worth is only based on whether or not we’re virgins.
When women come to Aguas Bravas after experiencing abuse in their homes, they want to end the suffering, but they have an almost magical hope, as if it were possible to leave behind in a matter of months everything they lived through. Obviously that’s impossible. Overcoming the aftereffects of sexual abuse is neither easy nor quick. Our experience is that it usually takes a woman around three years even in a favorable context, minimally one that doesn’t undermine her efforts, although some need more time.
When they enter the consulting room for the first time they ask, “Where do I sit?” Our answer is always , “Wherever you want; it’s your choice.” For many women, this gives them the sensation of having rights, an opinion, the ability to choose for the first time in their life. These were possibilities denied them by the sexual abuse because the aggressor never asks, or if he does it’s always in a context of control, domination and subjection.
Our therapeutic method is the same whether the woman is 18 and the abuse occurred a few years ago or she’s 60 and it happened a long time ago. We always begin by working to help generate a feeling of security and trust. We assure them they don’t have to tell us their painful story at the beginning: “Today we’re going to talk about other things.” Would you tell such a story to a complete stranger? We don’t discuss the abuse in depth until we’ve earned their confidence.
When the abuse does begin to be discussed, we often note how the women speak of “that person”; they don’t call him “the aggressor.” More often than not we’re the ones who have to draw out the idea of aggression. They’re utterly ambivalent toward their aggressor, which is logical. Using the word brings back the fear, the helplessness, making them re-experience everything they felt when they were abused. It’s also difficult because the aggressor is frequently someone very close, even someone they love, such as their father, their brother…
Sexual abuse produces extreme opposite behaviors
One of the first questions we ask women at the beginning of their therapy is “Whom do you trust?” The most common answer is “no one.” And it’s not paranoia. One of the most common scars left by sexual abuse is an inability to trust others. The education we receive as little girls is that we should trust our parents most of all because they will protect us and care for us, but if the abuser is part of the family, right in the home, it means they are living in a constant state of mistrust, in a hell. We tell the women that it’s not fair to have to live like that; that they deserve to live in peace.
Something that worries them a lot and keeps them on edge is their children, particularly their daughters. They’re anguished by the thought that the same thing could happen to them.
Women who’ve been sexually abused don’t enjoy their maternity and act in one of two opposite ways with their children. We’ve had women who are on top of them all the time and others who let them go anywhere and with anyone. One woman told us: “My daughter has to be no more than seven meters from me at all times.” How can that little girl live with such extreme overprotection? Others want them so independent that they’re already free to decide what they want to do and who to go with by the age of three.
It’s very common for sexual abuse to cause aftereffects with such opposite extremes. We are both survivors, but with very different traumatic aftereffects: one of us slept 12 hours and woke up tired while the other suffered insomnia and also got up tired. One spent her time laughing like a clown the whole time and the other was withdrawn. We studied together, but never talked about what had happened to us. It wasn’t until we heard these issues discussed that we realized we were the way we were because we were survivors. And we both had the same experience when we told our mothers, who it turned out had been through the same thing, as had their own mother and grandmother…
Were our mothers and grandmothers complicit in the sexual abuse that occurred in their home? No, they had no ability to even detect it, much less prevent or confront it. How do you deal with something if you don’t even know how to name it? Nearly all of the women who come to us ask why their mother did nothing to stop it. Our first answer is to let them know they can allow themselves to be angry with their moms. Later we teach them that their mother didn’t have the tools to take care of them. We also help them understand that their own sons and daughters need to learn that they have rights.
We’ve proven that women undergoing a therapeutic process can develop the ability to prevent sexual abuse in their homes. Working through their histories enables them to develop an internal security that allows them to intervene when they see a little boy or girl in an abusive situation and acquire tools to prevent it. So by working with them we’re also working on prevention.
Even as victims, they feel shame
The shame that surfaces when we propose creating groups for women survivors to discuss sexual abuse with each other is unbelievable. Many of the women we work with will tell you with no embarrassment at all that they used crack or heroin, or were an alcoholic… and struggled through it. But when we suggest they talk about sexual abuse they say: “No, not that.” We know there’s an emotional component involved in addiction, but the stigma about sexual abuse is so huge that it’s easier to say “I’m a recovering alcoholic and am trying to stick with it” than to say “I suffered sexual abuse” given the mark that experience leaves on them.
In addition to the fear involved, we also see shame when we start working with them about personally confronting the aggressor and calling him to task. Most often they want to be accompanied by a man, and the bigger and stronger the better.
When a woman comes to terms with the fact that she doesn’t need a man and can ask for help from the other women in her group, or when she says “I’m going alone,” it’s proof she’s made so much progress in her self-assurance and confidence that she’s nearly ready to leave Aguas Bravas. And we’re happy to see them go. Many tell us: “I know you’ll always be here for me, no matter what, but I feel I’m ready now.” They realize it themselves, because they can feel the self-assuredness to face the world and not only survive, but live a full life. And that’s precisely what we’re trying to generate in them: autonomy, independence and the recognition that they have rights and are full citizens.
Body work is needed to integrate the emotions with the memories
Once the women have developed greater emotional strength we also offer work on their body. At Aguas Bravas we do bio-energetic therapy and bio-dance. But some women do theater, reiki or yoga, or get massages on their own, depending on their economic conditions. Survivors always need to do some body work because the first impact of sexual abuse is in the body and that’s where the sensations of abuse we later forget or have to disassociate ourselves from to survive the trauma remain trapped. Without working on the body it’s very hard to integrate the emotions with the memories. And remembering the sexual abuse is necessary.
Remembering doesn’t mean having to have all the scenes clear, like recalling a movie we’ve seen. Remembering involves transcending the barrier of amnesia and feeling the pain the sexual abuse caused us, which we had to freeze out at the moment of the abuse or else it would have killed us. What else can a little girl do with the fear, anger and suffering caused by what’s being done to her?
Most people flee a stressful situation. What do we do if a dog chases us? We run. And that’s what we wanted to do when we were abused, but how does a little child run from dogs when they are the father, stepfather, a brother, an uncle or a grandfather…? We had no option. That’s why it’s always necessary to work on corporal work in therapy as well.
Disentangling sexual abuse from sexual pleasure
We also work on the way pleasure and love have become tangled up for these women. Pleasure is associated with sexual abuse for almost all of them; deconstructing it is difficult and takes a long time.
Those of us who have been sexually abused also have a distorted sense of love as it’s associated in our mind with the violence and trauma caused by someone who supposedly loved us. Reassigning meaning to affective touching and feelings of love is one of the most important things women learn in the therapeutic process.
Nicaragua’s heavy on religion…
Many women come to us after seeking help elsewhere and tell us that the other therapist counseled them to “Just forget about it; that’s in the past,” or “You’re being dramatic; you should let go of it.” One woman’s therapist told her it was her fault she was still feeling pain because she wasn’t allowing the Baby Jesus to be reborn in her heart every December 24 and thus learning to forgive.
Sexual abuse has so deeply destructured so many women and there is so much ignorance among professionals in Nicaragua that the “therapy of forgiveness” is often imposed on the treatment of such a grave crime. As if you can forgive the aggressor in 15 sessions and that will free you. If we tried to apply that therapy in Germany, we might end up in jail! But we don’t have a secular society here or a college of psychologists that requires certain criteria of its professionals. Since so many women come to us saying “what happened to me is the cross I have to bear” and are burdened with religious ideas that trigger even more guilt, we treat their religious ideas as responsibly as possible, but insist that sexual abuse is a crime and a human rights violation. If a woman wants to forgive her aggressor, that’s her choice, but it’s not nor can it be our therapeutic objective.
The religious question many women ask is: “Where was God when my father [or brother or uncle or grandfather] was abusing me?” It’s hard to know what to tell them, but we say: “God was suffering alongside you.” This obviously assumes that we have to work with them to deconstruct the concept of God as all-powerful, because it implies that God could have used that power to stop the abuse.
We also work to deconstruct the image of a masculine God. We tell them it’s possible to see God as feminine. Presenting God as a protective mother helps them see and feel a more friendly God. These ideas have to be addressed along with the ones they believe or don’t believe when they arrive. Very few women have come to Aguas Bravas fully agnostic. We’re convinced we have to work through their religious ideas with them to promote their spirituality, and that they need to profoundly examine some of the fundamentalist religious practices they bring with them that could be self-destructive, such as fasting to cleanse feelings of blame or guilt.
…and light on therapeutic professionalism
It’s really incredible how the face of the women we’re working with changes when we tell them “I was once sitting where you’re sitting now,” that we know what abuse is because we’ve lived through it too. Their defenses drop somewhat as well. They feel it as a plus because we’re saying “I understand what you’re going through.” We believe that plus is what has given Aguas Bravas such staying power, and has helped women stick with it.
It’s not the same as telling them we’re psychologists. They may have experienced re-victimization from another psychologist and we have to apologize for that mistreatment, although we know the psychologist probably did what she could with the little they taught her in the psychology major.
It’s very different when we give talks on sexual abuse in academic spaces, where saying we’re survivors is perceived as something negative because they think we have a bias that’s leading us to say what we’re saying.
By earning the woman’s confidence and making her feel safe, we’re doing the opposite of what they taught us in academia. We were taught we have to wear the white therapist’s coat so the patients understand that they’re the sick ones and those of us sitting on the other side of the desk are the healthy ones. When women wonder if we genuinely care about them we know what to answer. We’ve come to understand that what heals is the affective link the woman weaves with us, the trust she’s going to be able to build on and that will later be transformed into trust in herself, a self-confidence she’ll take with her wherever she goes.
There’s a lot of ignorance among our professionals about working on the aftereffects sexual abuse leaves in survivors. Some women have come to us after psychiatrists have totally medicated them to suppress their depression, but what that only prevents them from getting to the root of that depression, which is precisely the sexual abuse buried deep in their memory. In such depression cases, either they still haven’t dug down to the bottom of their history, or the therapist doesn’t yet have a trained eye to recognize that in all likelihood it stems from sexual abuse.
One woman we saw went to a therapist who told her to find the pills she should take on the internet. Another woman was told by her therapist to “Blow up a balloon, put everything bad from your life in it and let it float away.” That’s re-victimization, and it’s the product of a general lack of knowledge. In five years of psychology studies here they never talked to us about sexual abuse. All we had was one class in which they just explained some theoretical concepts. Why? Because this issue isn’t talked about anywhere… not at home, at school, in church, or even in the spaces where it’s supposed to be studied. There’s an urgent need to remove the taboo on this subject in Nicaragua.
The health system isn’t any better
On top of the professionals’ lack of adequate training, the health system also provides an inadequate response that actually intensifies the traumatic aftermath of childhood sexual abuse because it’s incapable of treating this frequent and complex problem adequately. It’s very hard for psychologists working in public health centers to deal with its traumatic aftereffects.
Two out of every three women who have come to us have tried to kill themselves, or at least considered that option, the two of us included. Yet we’ve gone to up to seven hospitals accompanying sexually abused women who attempted suicide, and they all closed their doors to us, saying, “If she wanted to do that it’s her problem.” Or “She’s crazy.”
The women who have admitted to us that they had thoughts of suicide have done so with self-abasement: “I’m not even good enough to kill myself. I lacked the courage to do it.” It’s painful to hear this because those words synthesize the guilt, shame, insecurity and lack of self-esteem we always find in them.
The most difficult cases are women who come stating steadfastly that they are survivors, but have no memory of the sexual abuse. How do they know they’re survivors? Some say to us: “I attended your workshop, I listened to you and when I got home I started crying and couldn’t stop and the next day I thought ‘I’m going to kill myself right here.’” When we talk to them they have all the criteria of the traumatic aftereffects: insecurity, difficulty with interpersonal relations, an inability to say no, fear, sleep problems… but they have no memory.
In cases like those, we know there has to have been some sort of sexual abuse in their past and that this mental vacuum is a defense mechanism to tolerate the pain caused by that crime. Many survivors reduce their pain to its minimum expression just to get through the day, particularly when the abuse began at a tender age. It’s a very intelligent response for a little girl, because what else can she do if she can’t escape the place where the abuse is occurring?
A multiply wounded country
Our experience in Aguas Bravas has led us to agree with what Nicaraguan psychologist Martha Cabrera has repeated so often in talks here and in other parts of the world: ours is a multiply wounded country. [See the two envío articles by Cabrera on this topic: “Living and Surviving in a Multiply Wounded Country,” December 2007, and “The painful load we Nicaraguans carry,” October 2014.] Very often when a woman has sought us out to talk about the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, we soon discover in the therapy that she was also raped more than once during the war, was abandoned by her mother, doesn’t know who her father is and has been discriminated against for being poor, or some similar gamut of traumas. As a consequence she’s usually living with multiple psychosomatic disorders. The complexity of these multiple pains isn’t adaptable in the way we’d wish for them to the work styles of the projects promoted by cooperation, such as mutual support groups.
The effects on women who have gone through so much impact on the most basic aspects of life, such as sleeping, eating, breathing… Sexual abuse alone also affects these same basic aspects that ensure our body functions well every day. If we don’t have them in good physical working order, how can we be expected to participate in the more complex parts of life?
Every day we see how sexual abuse gravely affects women’s capacity to develop as healthy adults able to set limits, to see ourselves as persons with rights and to exercise them. How are we going to participate in our family, our community organization, in the changes our country needs?
Sexual abuse is one more example of the many kinds of violence in Nicaragua, including mistreatment of children, femicide, ecological destruction and much more. But how are these women going to reflect on and struggle against these national realities with any kind of awareness if they don’t even recognize their own reality? How, for example, are they going to defend such a critical common good as water, recognizing that it’s being lost?
Our society justifies the aggressor and blames the victim
In these 10 years of training sessions with psychologists and of therapy with the women who seek us out, we’ve come up against very deeply rooted social concepts that we have to question: justifying the aggressor as a sick person; blaming the mother for the abuse her daughter suffered; the healing power of religion, especially forgiveness… Even the great majority of psychology students and professionals agree with these representations. Out of any 25 students we talk to, 20 insist that “mothers are accomplices,” “children lie,” and “sexual abusers are sick.”
And something we never expected is attributing sexual abuse to problems between the couple, agreeing with those who argue that “the man abuses his daughter because of the mother’s sexual frigidity.” In other words, they agree with everything that justifies the aggressor and blames the victim.
We very seldom find mental health students or professionals, much less the general public, who understand sexual abuse as an exercise of power in which control, domination and subjection predominate. Equally seldom do they understand that sexual abuse is the erotization of power and that the prevailing construction of masculinity gives men social permission to sexually abuse any little girl.
Who is to blame?
Psychiatrist and researcher Judith Herman, who has written extensively on the understanding and treatment of incest and post-traumatic stress, sums up the social impact of sexual abuse with this idea: the only thing the aggressor asks is that we do nothing, and by doing nothing we end up taking his side. The victim, or survivor, on the other hand, asks us to listen to her, support her, be her empathetic witness.
If sexual abuse is a pandemic in Nicaragua, and it surely is, that’s what the thousands and thousands of women survivors are asking of us today. But it’s very hard for this society to do that. When we talk about the dengue or chikungunya epidemics, we know to lay the blame on the mosquitos that carry the disease, bite people and infect them. But when we talk about the sexual abuse epidemic, we’re effectively pointing the finger at a person: a family member, lawyer, teacher, priest, politician, even a President… And we most often respond with doubt: Are you sure? What were you doing? Are you sure you didn’t ask for it? What you were wearing?
Everyone agrees we have to exterminate the mosquito that made us sick, but what do we do with the sexual aggressor? That’s why so many people don’t want to hear when we mention this epidemic, even when what the aggressor does is an open secret in the families and communities. But it’s one thing to know the open secret of sexual abuse, and quite another to take a stand on it since it touches the personal, social and even political aspects of life. Taking a stand implies pointing the finger, and not all of us have the strength to do that or even want to do it, for various reasons.
That’s why it’s important for women to learn to give things their name in the therapy process. When they first come they tend to talk about “that thing” that happened. They have to learn to name it, to say what happened to them. They need to be able to say that what is so hurtful to them is called sexual abuse and the person who did it, no matter who it was, is a sexual aggressor.
Sexual abuse is indeed a pandemic here
Our 10 years of experience confirm the data from Nicaragua’s Legal Medicine Institute: sexual abuse is a pandemic in Nicaragua and the majority of these tragedies happen right in the home, with men making up 97% of the abusers. Legal Medicine also reports that most of these men are close relatives of the abused child. Exceedingly few women come to us who don’t confirm these patterns. In other words, it’s not inaccurate to say that the majority of homes in Nicaragua are incestuous.
In most of the cases we’ve seen, the sexual abuse went on for years and most frequently there was more than one aggressor. Given that most of the men involved are close family members, women avoid talking about their aggressor, and when they finally do, it may be just about their father. But as the therapeutic process unfolds, they frequently eventually remember they were also abused by another relative or male the household knows well…
From our work we’ve also concluded that sexual abuse is a trans-generational pandemic. In many families, including our own, various generations of women have gone through it and kept it quiet. Experience has taught us that when we work with a new group it’s almost better to ask who it hasn’t happened to.
It isn’t limited to girls
The message we want to take to every corner of Nicaragua is that sexual abuse can be healed and that it’s the aggressors who need to feel shame and guilt, hopefully so they can learn to experience their masculinity another way. In Germany, 10 years after Wildwasser was formed, those men we mentioned who had been sexually abused when they were children created their own organization. We hope a similar space will emerge in Nicaragua because sexual abuse isn’t limited to girls. We have women who’ve told us that after three years of working on their own histories, their husbands admitted the same thing had happened to them when they were children. According to the cases the Institute of Legal Medicine sees, childhood sexual abuse in Nicaragua is nearly balanced between the sexes: 52% girls and 48% boys. But we should of course bear in mind that only a small percentage of sexual abuse cases are denounced.
Whatever the actual figures are, men also need to work through their own histories. We don’t want to demonize men because obviously not all are aggressors. What we want is for them to also break the silence and work with other men to construct other masculinities.
We also think it’s very important to have more spaces than just ours for children who have experienced sexual abuse. They need to be accompanied while still young to avoid the aftereffects of the abuse becoming an even greater and deeper burden when they’re adults.
The government’s responsibility
If these aren’t isolated cases and it is indeed a pandemic, both State and society should have to do something. By doing and saying nothing, consecutive governments have telegraphed the message that it’s not important, it’s in the past, life just goes on, it’s not a crime that deserves justice or merits such a scandal…
And what is the current government doing? It’s implicitly condoning sexual abuse by opening more maternal centers for pregnant girls, knowing that many of them are pregnant because they were raped. That’s as cruel as the legislation that says the problem is solved if the aggressor marries the girl when she’s 14. It’s also cruel that a girl of 11, 12 or 13 is forced [by the law criminalizing therapeutic abortions] to bear a child who has the right to feel its mother’s love and caring when she can’t give it because she only sees her abuser’s face in the child.
This government is teaching boys and girls what to do when there’s an earthquake, so they understand what’s happening, what to call it and what they have to do. But they aren’t being taught to know what they should do when their father or older brother touches them inappropriately. They don’t even know what it’s called.
Such total disinterest in this issue explains how a man previously accused of sexually abusing his stepdaughter is our current thrice-elected President [he escaped trial because of the statute of limitations]. This not only says a lot about the man; it speaks volumes about the stance society has taken on this widespread problem.
Child sexual abuse, much of it incest, is a public security and public health problem and it should be a priority on the national agenda, along with sex education.
Aguas Bravas is a nourishing space and a response to the silence
In addition to breaking the silence and feeling believed, women find that Aguas Bravas gives them the possibility of being the agent of their own change, of living fulfilling lives. They find a professional team whose training is based on their own experience. We offer them a nourishing space. They often admit they thought they would find sad, depressed women here, but instead they see women who are happy. It’s a positive surprise for them, one they receive gratefully.
Reflecting on the birth of Aguas Bravas a decade ago, we’ve concluded that we’ve been a response to the silence. The silence of a State unwilling to invest resources so sexual abuse begins to disappear from our country. The silence of a society that doesn’t want to see or talk about this problem, or even listen to those who do want to break the silence. We broke it. If the two of us hadn’t worked through our own history we wouldn’t be here today, we couldn’t talk in this way. Today we feel proud, strong and able to talk about something that has to be talked about in Nicaragua, that deserves to be put on the table and not hidden away in so many homes like a dirty rag.
In synthesis our proposal is based on telling these women: “You can do it too. You’re capable of healing the sexual abuse. So far you’ve survived; now you can start to live.”