Thousands of women in Nicaragua have taken to the streets to protest against legal changes that could push female victims of crime to sit face-to-face with their abusers.
Law 779, which came into effect in June 2012 and criminalises violence against women, has been under siege from conservative, religious and men's groups, who say the legislation is discriminatory towards men and is causing the breakup of families. Opponents of the law object to a section of the legislation that prohibits mediation between victims and abusers.
These groups presented a case to the Nicaraguan supreme court claiming that Law 779 was unconstitutional. The supreme court decided that it should be considered for reform and presented a proposal to the Nicaraguan parliament for a final decision. The two parliamentary commissions responsible for reviewing the reforms announced on 20 September that the reforms were approved, without any consultation with rights organisations.
The parliamentary decision is regarded as a huge blow to Nicaraguan women's groups that have spent decades lobbying for Law 779. The legislation was the first in Nicaragua's history to make violence against women illegal and was seen as a step towards gender equality. The law makes femicide illegal and protects women's physical, emotional and economic wellbeing.
Official approval of the reforms came through after a wider parliamentary vote where there were only four votes against. The changes mean the law allows mediation for crimes with penalties of less than five years. This includes 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 workplace. The only crimes that would surpass the five-year penalty were the infliction of "grave physical injuries" and femicide.
The head of the supreme court has insisted the mediation must be voluntary, can be requested or denied by either party and that women will be under no obligation to participate in mediation processes. However, these changes are widely regarded as a severe setback for women in Nicaragua, placing thousands of abused women in a position where they may face fresh victimisation and continued abuse.
Nicaragua's patriarchal society has forced women to be economically reliant on their husbands or boyfriends, and leave them charged with the responsibility of keeping the family unit together. This pressure often leads to women agreeing to mediation, even when their life could be at risk.
Last year of 85 femicides registered in Nicaragua, 13 of the victims had agreed to mediation. Women's organisations insist mediation does not protect women's lives and that Law 779 must remain intact as initially passed.
Despite the introduction of the legislation, violence against women in Nicaragua is rising at an alarming pace. Between January and August, there have been 60 femicides, 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, there is no clear indication whether an increase in reporting of violence is attributable to the law, which has made the issues more visible, with the expectation that women will now have more protection.
Instead of seeking to undermine the law, many believe the Nicaraguan government should strengthen the existing processes in place to support the law and further protect women from violence.
The Gender Network is working with Nicaraguan police officers and judges so they can properly support women who have been affected by violence, but these needs are barely met.
Women's organisations are stepping up their objections to the reforms leading to the recent protests outside the parliament buildings. They have the option of lobbying international bodies, but there is little guarantee that this would influence the Nicaraguan government.
While the Gender Network and other women's groups continue to educate Nicaraguan women about Law 779, and emphasise that mediation is not compulsory, many women still feel obliged to go through the process. This could lead to fewer violent crimes being reported.