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Interview with Sofía Montenegro of the Nicaraguan Autonomous Women’s Movement

by Inter Press Service

Monday 30 June 2008

(Published in: Inter Press Service, 27 June 2008)

Nicaragua: “The Women’s Movement Is in Opposition”

Sofía Montenegro (on the left).


MONTEVIDEO, Jun 27 (IPS) - The action taken on abortion by the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua is “a betrayal” of women, who were “key allies” of the 1979 revolution. Therefore there has been a “radicalisation of the women’s movement,” which is declaring itself in opposition, activist Sofía Montenegro told IPS.

In the past few months, members of Nicaraguan non-governmental organisations have accused the government of President Daniel Ortega of persecution and threats against them, including nine women’s rights activists who face criminal charges as accomplices in the abortion undergone by “Rosita,” a nine-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated by her stepfather in 2003.

The charges are unfounded, because at that time therapeutic abortion was legal, said Montenegro, the political coordinator of the Nicaraguan Autonomous Women’s Movement.

Women’s organisations are fighting for the repeal of the October 2006 law that criminalised therapeutic abortion, said Montenegro, a former FSLN member who is one of the country’s leading women’s rights activists.

Before the law came into force, the Criminal Code permitted termination of pregnancy when the mother’s physical or mental health was in danger, including psychological harm from pregnancy arising from rape, when certified by at least three doctors.

“If this were influenza, a national epidemic would already have been declared,” Montenegro said, referring to the deaths caused by the criminalisation of any kind of abortion.

Montenegro reflected on these issues and Nicaraguan politics in an interview with IPS correspondent Ana Artigas at a Jun. 18-20 meeting of representatives of Latin American and Caribbean women’s groups and Spanish development aid agencies, on women’s rights and development aid instruments, held in the Uruguayan capital.

IPS: The Autonomous Women’s Movement has reported government harassment of some activists. What sort of things are happening?

SOFÍA MONTENEGRO: There is harassment of civil society organisations, especially those involved in the struggle for human rights. But we particularly protest the accusation against nine women activists, relating to the case of a nine-year-old girl who became pregnant after she was raped by her stepfather.

These women helped find a solution for the little girl. She had an abortion, which at the time was permitted under the constitution.

After the right to therapeutic abortion was revoked, an agency with ties to the Catholic Church and to the government brought a lawsuit against these women, which is completely groundless.

IPS: What arguments have been presented by the defence?

SM: They have repeatedly argued that the accusation is invalid and should be dismissed, but it is being upheld. And as in Nicaragua the justice system is being increasingly used for political ends, these women have a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

IPS: What about the judges?

SM: Seventy five percent are controlled by the governing party, so there is no independent justice system. The state powers are subordinated to Ortega’s will. This government has trampled on the constitution since its very first day in office.

IPS: How did therapeutic abortions come to be criminalised?

SM: The Church had always wanted to repeal that right. The appropriate conditions were created by the political opportunism of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. For electoral reasons, they aligned themselves more closely with the Church in order to neutralise its influence.

It was the votes of FSLN lawmakers, not the right, that made the repeal of therapeutic abortion possible. It was a betrayal of women, who were key allies of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution.

IPS: Could unconstitutionality be used as an argument, as it was in Colombia in order to decriminalise abortion under certain circumstances?

SM: Thirty-six lawsuits challenging the law as unconstitutional have been brought before the Supreme Court, but a year and a half has gone by and it still hasn’t issued a ruling.

IPS: Are there statistics indicating an increase in the mortality rate because of the law?

SM: It’s difficult to produce figures because information is withheld. In spite of the fact that there is a law on access to public information, the government keeps it all under wraps.

What we do have are estimates from organisations that monitor such cases, which indicate that 110 women have died since therapeutic abortions were banned. If this were influenza, a national epidemic would already have been declared. But the voices of women, of all the sensible people who have challenged the law, and of the international community have not been heeded.

IPS: Haven’t doctors reacted at all?

SM: They face a five-year prison sentence if they carry out an abortion, although 95 percent of Nicaraguans are against the ban. The black market for abortions has grown, and consequently the price of the illegal service has gone up.

IPS: But aren’t abortion practitioners subject to a five-year jail term?

SM: The state is not able to prosecute everyone — the problem is performing abortions in the public health service: they take away your license and you go to jail. As always, the problem hits poor women the hardest. Well-off women can go to Costa Rica, or even Cuba. Women in the FSLN go to Cuba for abortions.

There is an appalling double standard here. This explains the radicalisation of the women’s movement, which has declared itself a social movement in opposition. If the government won’t recognise us as citizens, we will not recognise its authority.

IPS: What are the relations between the Church and the government like now?

SM: There is a concordat between the government and one sector of the Catholic Church hierarchy, and also with Protestant churches. Ortega created a National Reconciliation Commission, presided by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.

Meddling by the Church in politics is outrageous. Although Nicaragua is a secular state, there is confusion now between state, Church and family. You could say we have reverted to the Middle Ages.

IPS: What role does the opposition play?

SM: The Supreme Electoral Council has just cancelled the legal status of two parties, the Sandinista Renewal Movement which was founded by FSLN dissidents, and the Conservative Party, by a resolution that is seen as arbitrary by civil society organisations that act as election observers. These groups say that the parties had met all the requirements to be legally registered for the municipal elections in November.

IPS: What is the Liberal Party (an FSLN ally) doing?

SM: It is subordinate to the FSLN because of the imprisonment of its leader, former president Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002, convicted in 2003 for corruption and sentenced to 20 years in prison, which he is serving under house arrest). Ortega uses the threat of incarcerating him, and Alemán gives in, in order to stay out of jail. They have a mutual need of each other, partly to establish a rather forced two-party system.

IPS: Given this scenario, what do you think might happen in the November municipal elections?

SM: The people can declare the elections void. Either there are free and fair elections, or there are none at all. A balance must be maintained, there is consensus on this. It (democracy) has cost us too much. (END/2008)