Poverty, machismo and sexual violence are rife in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN) of Nicaragua. Rape cases are often ignored and convictions rarely made, while some communities feel their only option is to settle their case by a traditional justice system that can victimise those attacked.
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Maria* (pictured), 18, was raped when she was 13 and sent to live with the perpetrator. In RACCN, rape cases are often ignored and convictions rarely made. When some families try to seek justice, they may feel their only choice is to take their case to a whista (community judge) as there are no formal legal structures in place. Whistas can settle cases with a Tala Mana or “payment for blood”, where people who have committed violent crimes make a payment to their victim’s family as a form of restitution. “The whista said I should be happy to be alive and told me to accept a Tala Mana for the rape,” says Maria. “My family was offered 50,000 Cordoba (about €1,682) to settle the case. In the end, we received 5,000 Cordoba (€168) – I never saw any of the money.”
This region is among the highest when it comes to instances of sexual violence. Nicaragua’s Institute of Legal Medicine reports 88% of sexual violence victims in the country are young girls, mostly teenagers. According to Shira Miguel Downs of Nidia White, Plan International Nicaragua’s partner organisation, “As soon as a girl can carry goods on her head, it is thought she is ready for a man.” Our Girl Power Project is working with communities in RACCN, focusing on girls’ rights and highlighting the importance of child protection.
Sexual violence can lead to teenage pregnancy. The country has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America, with 28% of women giving birth before the age of 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Jennifer* (not pictured) was 14 when a 29-year-old man had sex with her. “I didn’t know how to protect myself,” she says. “I suffered violence throughout my pregnancy – at the hands of my mother and the man.” After giving birth, Jennifer went to live in a shelter for girls. “When people suffer violence, they cannot live a normal life. If people are suffering, they should break the silence and report it to the police.”
If villagers, known as Miskitos, want to travel to the main town of Puerto Cabezas to report a crime, they must take one of 2 buses that run per day. Otherwise, they have to start saving to pay the 3,000 Cordoba (€100) taxi fare for the 32-mile journey.
Plan International Nicaragua works with local authorities to reduce the risk of sexual violence in remote villages. Special Police Commissioner Carmen Poveda (above) travels to communities twice a month. She also works with local community leaders educating them on how to report crimes – rather than use the Tala Mana. “Pregnant girls as young as 12 now come to the police station,” says Carmen. “They are distressed, so we take them to the local shelter, where they can give birth.”
Miskito teenagers have never been more aware of their rights. With the support of Plan International Nicaragua’s Girl Power Project, young people such as Dorleni (left), 17, and Harly (right), 19, are educating communities about the dangers of violence.
Dorleni and Harly, with the support of Plan International, regularly visit schools and run sessions on violence prevention, using song and dance.
*Names have been changed for child protection.