BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The decision by lawmakers in Nicaragua to change landmark legislation on violence against women to offer victims mediation with their aggressors could put women’s lives in danger, rights group Amnesty International says.
Women’s rights campaigners in Nicaragua welcomed a law passed last year to combat violence against women, which defined specific crimes, levels of punishment for aggressors and the steps the government should take to help women seek justice.
But lawmakers in the Central American nation recently voted to amend the law to allow state prosecutors to advise women to mediate with their abusers over certain types of violence, including “lesser injuries”, psychological mistreatment and gender-related crimes that carry less than a five-year prison sentence.
“Having a law that offers mediation is a huge step backwards for women and is letting down thousands of survivors of domestic violence,” Esther Major, Central America researcher at Amnesty International told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from London.
“Instead of focusing on mediation and ways of letting abusers off the hook, the Nicaraguan authorities should look at ways of protecting women from violence and ensuring that those who abuse them face justice.”
In the United States and Europe, mediation by third parties is used in divorce and child custody cases, often only when there has not been a history of violence in the home.
Most women rights groups, along with the United Nations, say that mediation should not be used when women have suffered domestic violence and other types of abuse because it makes it harder for women to walk away from abusive partners and puts them in danger.
“It’s not a state’s role to facilitate women through mediation and allow women to go back to a situation that is potentially very dangerous for themselves and their children. Mediation tends to put women right back in a context of risk,” Major said.
“Mediation takes out acts of violence that would normally come under the criminal justice system. It sends a dangerous message that perpetrators are let off in the context of a country that has high levels of violence against women and sexual violence against young girls.”
Domestic violence is widespread in Nicaragua. According to police figures, 34.5 percent of all crimes reported last year involved domestic violence.
Women can endure physical and psychological abuse for years behind closed doors before filing a case against their aggressors, which women often only do as a last resort when they believe their lives are in danger.
“Women do not turn to the state because they want to do more talking. They turn to the state when they want protection. They don’t do that unless they are really desperate,” Major said.
PROTECTING THE ‘FAMILY UNIT’
Last month, lawmakers in Nicaragua voted by a huge majority to allow mediation in some cases involving violence against women, while emphasising women do not have to accept the offer of mediation.
Lawmakers from different political parties, the Catholic Church and evangelical religious groups in Nicaragua argued that mediation should be encouraged to preserve the family.
“There should be dialogue and the principle of giving someone a chance because it strengthens reconciliation and the creation of a healthy family,” congresswoman Juana Molina was quoted as saying in Nicaragua’s online newspaper Confidencial.
Rights groups say offering mediation places the onus on women to preserve the family even when there is violence in the home.
“The critics of the law felt it helped break up families," Major said. "But the changes made to the law are asking women to sacrifice their own safety to protect the family unit. The law does not break up families. Violence causes a woman to leave the home.”
Under Nicaragua’s 2012 law on gender-related violence, femicide was defined as a specific crime against women, carrying a prison sentence of 25 to 30 years.
While local women’s rights groups welcomed the law, the high rate of femicide in Nicaragua shows little sign of abating.
During the first six months of this year, 47 women were killed in Nicaragua, a two percent increase on the same period last year, rights groups say.