Women find a safe haven from abuse in Nicaragua

By Josefina Salomon, Amnesty International delegate in Nicaragua

From the outside, it is simply a green house with two windows, a tall metal white fence and a nice front garden, about 20 minutes from down-town Managua.

But inside, a group of brave women have battled to confront a scandal of epidemic proportions by standing up against sexual violence.
Abigail meets me at the door with a broad smile and the keys for the two locks that keep the outside out.

“Come in, come in, welcome to our home,” she says.

Inside, two girls laugh watching a soap opera in a living room painted in bright colours. Upstairs, there are seven rooms that often host many more people than there are beds. The newest guest came in last night.

For many women this is the first door they knock when they take the decision to escape from the abuse they receive at home, when the beatings and sexual violence are simply too unbearable.

Abigail, herself a survivor of sexual abuse, runs this refuge and has been working with survivors of violence for more than 20 years.

I met her a couple of days ago, at an event hosted by a women’s centre where many survivors shared their experiences and hopes with our delegation, which has been in Managua to press presidential candidates over the alarming rates of sexual violence against women and young girls in the country.

According to official figures, between January and August 2010; 1,259 women reported having been raped. Two-thirds were girls under 17 years old.

Local human rights activists, however, believe the true numbers are much higher. Many women and girls do not report the abuse they suffer and most of those who commit the crimes are never taken to justice.

Abigail and her colleagues meet many women every week. A 22-year-old mother-of-three whose hand and ear where cut off by her partner, a nine-year-old girl who was raped by her father.

“We have had so many women. The stories that shock me the most are the ones involving young girls. Those are the most difficult situations. Those that are so horrible that we cannot even imagine they take place and it is incredible to see the strength they have to recover and move on with their lives.”

Abigail takes me to the kitchen. “My favourite place in the house,” she says.

We sit at a large table, surrounded by multicoloured chairs. This is the place where the first meetings with the women happen, where the first conversations take place.

When they arrive, women hand over their mobile phones to prevent anyone from tracking them down.

Then, the women start what Abigail calls “a process of recovery”. Psychologists, doctors and lawyers work with them to help them recover their sense of self-worth, their health and to take their cases through the justice system.

“As soon as they arrive, we start working on their future, where they want to go, what they want to do with their lives. It is a daily exercise for them to see their lives outside of this particular place.”

Women usually stay here between three and nine months, “until they can move on with their new lives,” Abigail explains.

I’ve met many women like Abigail in Nicaragua. Many survivors of rape and sexual violence themselves are now the women at the forefront of a battle against ill conceived laws, indifference, lack of interest and, simply, cruelty.

The stories of abuse never seem to end and the questions are always the same: What are the authorities doing about this? What are people doing about it?, What are you going to do about it?

I leave the refuge wondering how Abigail and so many other women do it to fight this battle against indifference and injustice, where they find the courage to continue and the strength to hear the stories that most of us would find too hard to understand.

“I do this because I want to help women get out of the situations they are in, to see me as an ally, someone who has gone through the same situation as them, someone who understands,” Abigail says and turns the key of the big lock in the white door in the green house.

If you too want to show your support with Nicaraguan women and girls, take action here

Read more:Visiting brave girls and women survivors of sexual violence in Nicaragua (Blog, 28 July 2011)