Prior to the night of July 20, 2009, Fátima Hernández was just a regular young Managua woman, busy with work and studies. She was not actively involved in the women’s rights movement or politics.
Yet, within a few months, she was unwillingly thrust to the forefront of the fight against what Amnesty International calls “endemic” sexual violence in Nicaragua.
That night in 2009, Hernández decided to go to a bar in Managua with four co-workers from the Ministry of Immigration. The group hung out, chatted, and drank some beer and soda.
Hernández believes her drink was drugged at some point in the evening. What happened next was confirmed by medical and court records: Hernández was raped and beaten by her co-worker, Farinton Reyes Larios, leaving her with injuries that required 43 days of hospitalization.
Yet it’s not what happened to Hernández that has made her a national symbol in the fight against sexual violence, rather what she did about it. After she recovered physically from the rape and assault, she embarked on a heroic struggle to achieve what she calls, “Just a little bit of justice.”
She went on hunger strikes outside courthouse and government offices, publicly denouncing her attacker and relentlessly demanding action from the reluctant police and torpid judicial system. She made so much noise that the authorities were finally forced to arrest Reyes, who was charged and convicted.
Reyes was sentenced to eight years in prison for aggravated rape in July 2010. Hernández’s struggle had been exhausting and dangerous, but it seemed that the court system, despite failing so many other victims of sex crimes, finally got it right, even if their lethargic administration of justice was motivated mostly by public pressure.
But the illusion of justice vanished quickly. In July 2011, the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court reduced Reyes’ sentence by half, setting the stage for his sentence to later be suspended altogether. That decision from the nation’s highest court was doubly devastating to Hernández, rights activists and Nicaragua’s rule of law in general, because it came with a stinging statement that downgraded Reyes’ crime from rape to “an excess in the sexual act” and said that Hernández was “permissive” in the assault.
The court’s ruling was essentially judicial talk for “She asked for it,” with a winked dismissal of Reyes’ behavior as drunken horniness.
On Nov. 22, a couple of days before the International Day to end Violence Against Women, Reyes’ sentence was suspended completely and he was set free. After initially being sentenced to eight years, he served less than 18 months.
Bewildered, Hernández could say only, “The judiciary made it clear that this is a biased government body that is more interested in protecting the rights of offenders and rapists than of those of the victims.”
Over the past two and a half years, Fátima Hernández has been called a liar and an attention-seeker. She has been accused of acting out of political motivation. She has been attacked in the street and received death threats over the phone. But she has also had support from her family, her community and members of the media. She has also had the strong support from many women’s and human-rights organizations.
And she has even found time to give back to the community. Hernández has set up her own organization to offer legal and psychological support to other abused women and girls. She remains determined that some good can still come of her ordeal.
Having been failed by Nicaragua’s dopey judicial system, Hernández and her lawyers from the Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH) will file a petition before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica before Jan. 21, 2012—just 11 days after President Ortega is scheduled to swear-in for this controversial third term as president.
Hernández’s defense lawyers will claim that the Nicaraguan State denied her justice. It may be one of the first battles the new government will face.
Hernández’s experience reaffirmed two disturbing truths about Nicaragua’s justice system: perpetrators of sexual violence often go unpunished, and victims of sex crimes are often judged more harshly than their attackers.
With no chance at fairness or justice in Nicaragua, Hernández will turn to the Inter-American Court in her continued search for “Just a little bit of justice.”