G20, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, LGBTQ

RIGHTS-NICARAGUA: An Ombudswoman for Sexual Diversity

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Dec 15 2009 (IPS) - At last, homosexuals in Nicaragua have someone to uphold their rights: an ombudswoman for sexual diversity has been appointed to defend the rights of the gay community, estimated to number half a million people.

The new ombudswoman’s office started work this month with the remit to “recognise the constitutional rights and duties of all citizens, whatever their sexual orientation, as universal rights which must be respected,” human rights ombudsman Omar Cabezas told IPS.

The person appointed to the new post is María Samira Montiel, a young lawyer who has been an activist in the lesbian movement in Nicaragua for the past decade, and who has a high profile because of her campaigns against abuses and discrimination against people with different sexual identities.

This Central American country of 5.7 million people is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti. And although constitutionally it is a secular state, the Catholic Church has an extremely strong influence, to the point that abortion is illegal under all circumstances, even when the mother’s life is at risk, and homosexuality was regarded as a crime punishable by imprisonment until 2008.

Montiel told IPS that her brief as a public official serving a cultural minority will transcend issues like promoting same-sex marriage or adoption of children by same-sex couples, both of which are illegal at present.

“My agenda goes beyond such specific goals. I will take legal action against abusive practices and institutional discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people, and anyone else who feels they are unfairly treated because of their sexual identity,” she said.

She said that in her new post she will work for policies to guarantee access to the public health system, laws for the respect of labour rights, and an end to hostility in the public education system, among other things.

“All our lives we have lived with contempt and violence; now it’s time to end this discrimination, and for society not only to accept us, but to recognise us and respect our way of thinking,” Montiel said.

There are three lesbian organisations in the country, four men’s groups for sexual diversity, and an entire network of people who identify with the gay movement and the community’s human rights.

A central alliance is the Strategic Group for Sexual Diversity Rights (GEDDS), made up of the Safo lesbian group, the Sexual Diversity Initiative for Human Rights (IDSDH), the Nicaraguan Association of Transsexuals (ANIT) and the Centre for International Studies (CEI).

The organisations are carrying out a study titled “Una mirada a la diversidad sexual en Nicaragua” (A Look at Sexual Diversity in Nicaragua), with the support of the Norwegian embassy. Preliminary results, released in Managua, reflect a deep-rooted culture of rejection and contempt for same-sex couples who live together.

The final results of the study will be published in January. Meanwhile, it has found that discrimination and homophobia are common practices in public and private institutions, at schools and within families.

One hundred percent of non-heterosexual respondents in the study reported suffering discrimination in primary schools, high schools and universities.

At least 12 percent of GLBT people who are open about their sexual orientation have suffered physical violence because of it. Others said they dropped out of their places of study because of the discrimination they had to endure.

A report issued by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office prior to Montiel’s appointment said that the state institutions most often criticised for ill-treatment and discrimination against these communities are the police, the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry.

In the health sector, discrimination is practised by doctors in general or family practice, specialists, auxiliary staff and even security guards, who frequently treat patients with non-traditional sexual preferences abusively or off-handedly.

The study emphasises that over half of those who have come out of the closet, even just to a limited circle of people, have had to endure rejection by their own families. Many have been thrown out by their parents, and close relatives have physically attacked them.

The preliminary results highlight the leading role played by churches of Christian denominations in discriminating against the GLBT community. From different viewpoints, many churches condemn same-sex relationships as “an aberration.”

This is in spite of the deep-rooted spirituality expressed by the GLBT community, the report says.

“In spite of rejection by different churches and religions, by Catholic or evangelical church leaders, the community has not lost faith in God,” the study says.

Representatives of different confessions were, in fact, the first to protest the appointment of a special official to protect the rights of homosexuals.

The National Council of Evangelical Pastors of Nicaragua (CNPEN), on behalf of the second largest religious community in the country after the Catholic Church, issued a pastoral letter on Dec. 4 declaring its “concern over the creation of the Ombudswoman’s Office for the Defence of Sexual Diversity Rights.”

Reverend Mario Espinoza, the leader of the Council, said “the evangelical church does not agree with the creation of this Ombudswoman’s Office, because it will give free rein to immorality. Homosexuality and lesbianism are condemned in the Bible and are serious sins in God’s eyes.”

At Sunday mass in Catholic Churches, Nicaraguan families were exhorted to reject “sodomite practices” and respect the “divine commandment of marriage between a man and a woman.”

But by no means all the reactions to the decision have been critical. Human rights activists, campaigners against HIV/AIDS, women’s organisations and other social groups praised the appointment of Montiel, calling it a step towards respect for human rights and social tolerance.

Bayardo Izabá of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre (CENIDH) said the creation of a special office to look after the rights of a social minority was “a great stride forward.”

“Sexual orientation must be understood as a condition that must be protected against discrimination. States cannot restrict the protection of human rights depending on people’s sexual orientation, and this appointment is extremely important,” Izabá told IPS.

Until 2008, Nicaragua was one of the Latin American countries that kept homosexuality, referred to as “sodomy,” on its statute books, as a crime punishable by one to three years in prison.

The criminal code also penalised those who promoted, assisted or tolerated persons of the same sex living together.

Every year on International Day Against Homophobia, hundreds of people in Latin American countries like Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, and in the United States and several European cities, used to protest outside Nicaraguan embassies and consulates to express their condemnation of the country’s criminalisation of homosexuality.

Nicaragua’s new criminal code, which came into force last year, now punishes discrimination with prison sentences of six months to one year, or fines.

Preventing or hindering the exercise, by others, of a right enshrined in the constitution, laws, regulations and other legal provisions, because of their economic, social, religious, political, personal or sexual condition, is now a crime.

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