MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Susana* was regularly raped by her grandfather over a period of seven years. She didn’t tell anyone about it until she became pregnant at the age of 14.
Susana lived in a rural community in Jinotega, in the north of Nicaragua. After being abandoned by her father at the age of 7, her mother left her with her grandparents, and that was when the abuse began.
She did not go to school, and every morning her grandmother sent her to the fields to deliver food to her grandfather. One day he raped her.
“I saw him sharpening a machete. I was terrified. He took all my clothes, and he said to me: ‘If you don’t let me do it, I’ll chop your head off and I’ll throw it to the dogs,’” she said.
“I was tiny; I was petrified, so I didn’t tell anyone.”
When Susana eventually became pregnant, she was desperate to end the pregnancy. But abortion is banned in Nicaragua, even in cases of rape or incest.
Nicaragua is one of five countries to outlaw abortion in all circumstances. Chile made headlines for lifting its total abortion ban on Aug. 21, leaving Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic as the only Latin American countries to completely prohibit the procedure – even when a woman or girl’s life is in danger, or she has been raped.
“My grandfather [abused] me wherever he wanted. Even when I was nine months pregnant he raped me,” she said. “I was going to drink an agricultural potion because I didn’t want the child. I never wanted it.”
When her pregnancy revealed the abuse, Susana was taken into custody by her uncle. The uncle denounced what her grandfather had done, but still her abuser escaped punishment.
Susana, now 16, is raising a child she did not want, and her remaining family, who live in extreme poverty, are faced with caring for them both.
Children Forced to Become Mothers
Susana’s story is part of “Stolen Lives,” an investigation by Axayacatl, a women’s organization, into teen pregnancies arising from child rape. It found that while girls had to go through with pregnancies to avoid prosecution, their abusers often escaped punishment entirely.
“Through this research directed at girls and adolescents, we sampled 30 cases,” Maria Eugenia Delgadillo, a program coordinator at Axayacatl, told News Deeply.
“The kids had psychological and social damage, and we see growing impunity: of the 30 aggressors, only two were imprisoned.”
“We identify the revictimization that they have, as society observes and judges them,” she says of the child rape survivors.
“It is worse when they are forced to become mothers. They are kids raising other children.”
Nicaragua has Latin America’s highest rate of teenage and child pregnancy: a 2013 study by the United Nations Population Fund found that 28 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 had children before the age of 18 – a figure surpassed only by countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Delgadillo says forcing children to become mothers is a violation of their human rights. “Women here are being victimized in two moments: when the man commits the abuse, and when the State of Nicaragua denies them protection,” she says.
Nicaragua used to allow abortion in limited circumstances – such as when the pregnant woman’s life is at risk or when the pregnancy is a result of rape. But a total ban was laid down in 2006, when incoming president Daniel Ortega campaigned to end what is known as “therapeutic abortion” to win key support from the Catholic and evangelical churches in that year’s election.
Ortega’s Sandinista National Front went on to formally criminalize the termination of pregnancy in the Nicaraguan penal code, introducing one- to three-year prison sentences for women and girls who request or obtain abortions, and for physicians who provide them.
Physical and Emotional Torture
Leslie Briceño was one woman who nearly lost her life because she was denied an abortion. In 2010, she was admitted to hospital with uncontrollable abdominal pain.
There, she discovered that she was pregnant, but the embryo was embedded in her left ovary, not in her uterus. The condition, called an ectopic pregnancy, can be life-threatening if the growing embryo causes the ovary to burst, leading to internal bleeding.
Although she was in intense pain and needed immediate medical attention, Briceño’s doctors said they couldn’t help.
“The doctors said that because of what the law established, they couldn’t attend to me – the only thing they could do was wait until the embryo died.”
“I remember it was clear that my life was in danger, I knew what an ectopic pregnancy was. I was only waiting for death,” Briceño said.
Briceño says her life was saved only by chance. “The explanation I got from the doctors was that the embryo had ruptured, but they were able to control the hemorrhage,” she said.
“It was the most terrible situation … I spent all those hours with all that physical and emotional torture, knowing that death was at my doorstep.”
As a single mother, Briceño had only one thing on her mind throughout her ordeal: the well-being of her 9-year-old son. “I had already assumed that I was going to die. I told my mother to take care of my son,” she said.
The Campaign for Decriminalization
Seven years have passed since Briceño’s ectopic pregnancy, and now, in addition to her day job in public relations, she has become a symbol of the fight against the criminalization of abortion in Nicaragua. In 2015, she was part of a group of citizens who delivered a formal petition to the government, known as an initiative of law, to decriminalize therapeutic abortion.
“We drew up the proposal, and we fulfilled all the requirements of law to present it in the National Assembly,” Briceño said.
“We introduced it two years ago, and as the legal representative of this committee, I followed up, but they never gave us an answer, until they said on public television that the initiative was closed.”
A Global Leader in Gender Equality?
Delgadillo, the Axayacatl program coordinator, points to an irony in Nicaragua’s global reputation. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Nicaragua as10th in the world for gender equality. It is the highest ranking in Latin America, and ahead of industrialized countries such as Germany, which is ranked 13th, Canada, which is at 35th, and the U.S. at 45th.
Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, publicly celebrate this ranking, without addressing the fact that some of their administration’s forces raped children to give birth, and put the lives of women like Briceño in danger.
“This is not Nicaragua,” Briceño says of her country’s rosy international image.
“The reality is that women are left with no option but death. This ranking is a slap in the face for us.”