4 October 2013 | by Emily Schechter
The women of Nicaragua are angry, and they have every right to be. Thousands of them from across the country have taken to the streets of the capital, Managua, over the past few weeks to protest against proposed changes to a landmark law.
Changes to Law 779 - the Integral Law Against Violence Towards Women - could force abused women to face their abusers in a new mediation process. On Friday 20 September 2013 their worst fears were realised, when the Nicaraguan Parliament announced they have accepted these reforms.
'It is our right to live free from violence.' Photo credit: Si Mujer
Opponents of Law 779
The law, which only came into effect in June 2012 and makes violence against women illegal, has since been under siege from conservative religious and male groups. They claim the law is discriminatory towards men and is causing the break-up of families.
Opponents of the law have been unhappy with a section of the legislation that currently prohibits mediation between victims and abusers under any and all circumstances. Earlier this year, these groups presented a case to the Nicaraguan Supreme Court claiming that Law 779 is unconstitutional.
Reforming Law 779
At the end of August the Supreme Court decided that it should be considered for reform and proceeded to present their initiative to the Nicaraguan Parliament for a final decision.
The two parliamentary commissions responsible for reviewing the reforms announced on Friday 20 September that the reforms were approved, without any consultation with women's organisations, despite their insistence.
Implications of changes to Law 779
Photo credit: Si Mujer
This news has come as a huge blow to the Nicaraguan women's and feminist organisations that have spent decades lobbying for Law 779.
It was the first law in Nicaragua's history to make violence against women illegal and was a great victory for women in a male-dominated society.
The law makes femicides (the intentional killing of women) illegal and protects women's physical, emotional and economic well-being.
The official approval of the reforms came through last week after a wider parliamentary vote where there were only four votes against.
The changes will mean the law allows mediation for crimes whose penalties are less than five years.
This will include cases of domestic violence where the physical injuries are considered 'light', as well as psychological violence, sexual harassment and assault either at home or in the work place. The only crimes that would surpass the 5-year penalty are 'grave physical injuries' and femicides.
The head of the Supreme Court insists that the mediation must be voluntary and can be requested or denied by either party. Women won't be obligated to participate in mediation processes.
However, these changes are a devastating set-back for women in Nicaragua, placing thousands of abused women in a position where they may face re-victimisation and continued abuse.
In a patriarchal society where women are seen as second class citizens, and are often economically reliant upon their husbands or boyfriends, women are charged with the responsibility of 'keeping the family together'.
This pressure often leads to them agreeing to mediation processes even when their life could be at risk.
Last year 85 femicides were registered in Nicaragua. 13 of those women had agreed to mediation.
Women's organisations insist that mediation does not protect women's lives and that Law 779 must remain intact as initially passed.
Violence against women continues to increase
Christian Aid is working with The Gender Network based in Nicaragua to help promote good gender practices and public policies in order to achieve a more equal and fair society.
Its work, and the work of other women's rights organisations in Nicaragua, has been vital to keeping the public informed about the importance of Law 779 and the damage that mediation could cause.
Despite the introduction of the law, violence against women in Nicaragua continues to increase at an alarming pace. Between January and August this year 60 femicides have been registered, a 19% increase on the same period in 2012.
Women's organisations attribute this to the fact that Law 779 is not being implemented correctly.
However, it is difficult to tell if the increase in reporting is because the law has made the issues more visible and there is a feeling that women will now have more protection, but now this protection is under threat.
What can be done?
Instead of seeking to undermine the current law, the Nicaraguan Government should be working to strengthen the existing processes in place to support the law and further protect women from violence.
The Gender Network's efforts have been integral to the implementation of the law, working directly with police officers and judges to strengthen their gender sensibilities and capacities so they can properly support women who have been victims of violence, but more needs to be done.
In light of these recent developments, women's organisations are now stepping up their objections to the reforms.
Just a few days after the announcement hundreds of women protested in front of the parliament buildings. There is a sense that these protests and public denunciations will continue as, unsurprisingly, women's organisations are furious.
There is the option of lobbying in front of international bodies, but there is little guarantee that this would influence the Nicaraguan Government.
Mediation is not compulsory
Unfortunately the passing of these reforms returns Nicaraguan women to the status of second class citizens, as their government refuses to assume responsibility for their rights and protection.
In the face of these reforms it will be imperative that The Gender Network, and other women's groups, continue to educate Nicaraguan women about Law 779, emphasising that mediation is not compulsory.
It is a very real possibility that many women will feel that they are obliged to go through the mediation processes, which could certainly result in fewer violent crimes being reported. The culture of impunity around violence against women in Nicaragua will continue.
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Emily's blog was also published on the Guardian Development site
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