Former prostitute Kenia Lopez looks out the kitchen window of La Casa de la Mujer.
|By Kelly-Anne Suarez
Photos by Matt Mariott
Kenia wanted out, but the person closest to her stood emotionally out of reach.
“I couldn’t look into my brother’s eyes, because it hurt so much, the tears would come,” the 14-year-old Nicaraguan girl said, punctuating her words with sobs. “I couldn’t tell him that his woman was prostituting me. He loved her.”
Instead, she turned to a recently released convict her father, who did six years for molesting his stepdaughter, Kenia’s sister Auxiliadora. Out poured her secret: the mid-day trips for “firewood” to the abandoned farm behind her house, the sex on her bed of rusted coils that tortured her mind, and the sound of her nephews playing a few feet away that broke her heart … she spilled it all.
He listened but believed none of it. In his culture, the shock value of such a confession lost its luster years ago.
“He told me, ‘Go, you have your handcuffs,’ ” Kenia said, looking down at her callused hands.
She returned to her shackles to endure one more month of torture.
Though Kenia ultimately escaped her life of sexual slavery, thousands of Nicaraguan children in similar situations still suffer. Prostitution is legal for children over the age of 14.
Nubia Diaz Munguia, who heads up the Police Department’s Women’s Commissariat in San Marcos, a small city in the Pacific-side department of Carazo, fails to see why anyone would object to such a statute.
“Prostitution isn’t a crime,” the chief said, slinging her arm over the back of a blue plastic chair. “It’s a way to make a living.”
She shares a laugh with a fellow officer, clacking away on a typewriter across the room. Their sky-blue uniforms pop against the walls, which are white a sore thumb among the structures of pink and lime. The color generates a cold, almost callous, air to the office.
But when children may sell their bodies, where does the line between child abuse and adult choice lie?
For Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, director of the University of Florida Center on Children and Families, child sexual abuse is anything that exposes a minor to acts of a sexual nature. This ranges from forced prostitution to showing a child a pornographic video.
What Kenia experienced is child abuse, plain and simple, Woodhouse said. If it had happened in the United States, her sister-in-law would be pursued in civil and criminal child abuse, and Kenia would be placed in the care of a foster family.
Woodhouse also points to the United Nations’ 2000 Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty drafted to protect the rights of people under the age of 18. Two years later, an amendment forbade the sale of children for prostitution and pornography.
Nicaragua did not sign it.
In this country of 5 million, minors comprise 53 percent of the population. More than 676,000 of those children are at-risk and exposed daily to violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect, according to a 2002 Nicaragua Ministry of Labor study.
Also, UNICEF estimates 92 percent of the country’s prostitutes are between the ages of 12 and 18.
Though this may shock an American, Carmela Espinoza, a psychologist for the San Marcos Health Center, is unfazed.
Since the early 1990s and the demise of the Sandinista government, cases of sexual abuse and prostitution have skyrocketed, Espinoza said. About 50 new patients surface each month in San Marcos, a town of 25,000.
From her fluorescent-lit office plastered with cartoons a nod to her clientele she points out those only are the reported cases.
In a society where 6-year-olds are asked what they did to be molested and rape victims are lectured about the length of their skirts, prosecution of such crimes is rare, the psychologist said. Particularly because the victim must have two “witnesses” sign in his or her name. Apathy and acceptance are the more frequent response.
“It’s like living in a movie a horror film,” Espinoza said.
The first time
For Kenia, molestation and prostitution blur into a blanket so oppressive, she suffocated beneath it for six years.
She has a mother’s curves, a sprinkle of freckles across a sloping nose and a tattered kitchen towel slung over her left shoulder. Her gaze is vacant, haunting, as if her soul has escaped, and her eyes are now in mourning.
She said she’s felt hollow since she was 8, when the molestation began.
Her stepfather would take advantage each time her mother, Maria, stepped out. As the abuse continued, Kenia said she ached to tell her mother but knew it would be to no avail. This wasn’t the first time her household had harbored such an atrocity. It was the third. Maria’s previous two husbands molested Kenia’s two sisters, respectively. Each time, Maria sided with her spouse.
“She loves her man more than she loves me,” Kenia said, wiping her wet cheeks. “I didn’t make her happy.”
Espinoza said the socioeconomic wreck that is present-day Nicaragua, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere next to Haiti, is a key factor in the frequency of familial abuse. Extended families pile into houses smaller than most American living rooms and share one bed.
A 15-year-old boy sleeping beside his 13-year-old sister is a dangerous situation, she said, and if molestation occurs, it paves a precarious path.
Nearly 90 percent of women who prostitute themselves were abused as children, Woodhouse said.
Once Auxiliadora Lopez, 23, discovered the situation in which her sister was trapped, she spearheaded a plan of escape. Kenia moved in with her brother Silvio, 25, his wife Juana, 24, her mother and their sons Manuel, 4, and Alberto, 5.
An awkward reunion at the swing set in Silvio’s yard would be the last time Kenia saw her mother. Four years later, she’s still married to the man who repeatedly raped her daughter.
Shortly after the move, Kenia abandoned the fourth grade, telling Lopez school was a “fad no longer in fashion.”
Kenia’s case follows the archetype education often is a casualty of abuse, Espinoza said.
Without typical childhood obligations, Kenia adopted Juana’s lifestyle. As an ama de casa a housewife she peeled vegetables, swept the mud-packed walkway, wiped her nephews’ noses and scrubbed their pants.
Her sister-in-law, however, had other chores in mind.
A working girl
Juana’s mother had two vices: alcohol and tobacco, Kenia said. Silvio only gave his wife enough to buy groceries, so she sought other avenues to acquire the cash needed to quench her mom’s cravings.
One night, at a friend’s party, an opportunity presented itself. And with a tug of Kenia’s hand, Juana snatched it. She led her 14-year-old sister-in-law to the bedroom and told her to lie down. She did, with multiple men, for two days they each handed her $2 in exchange for her dignity and childhood.
So began her three months of prostitution.
Lopez watched her sister bustle around the house, picking fruit for juice. “It’s horrible,” she said, lowering her voice. “She was taken from one hell and thrown into another.”
Every day, men aged 15 to 55 passed by her house, handed Juana 30 cordobas and stripped Kenia of her self-esteem and sanity.
She never benefited from the fruits of her slave labor; all the money went straight to Juana’s mother’s liver and lungs in the form of liqueur and cigarettes. Soon news of her new profession spread through Los Rincones, her neighborhood of tin roofs and dirt floors. During a morning stroll with Juana down the palm-canopied path, a middle-aged man leered and asked, “How much is that one worth?”
Kenia began to ask herself the same question.
Mental and emotional anguish aside, Kenia’s health was in jeopardy. She already had contracted mange a skin disease ordinarily found in animals from a client whose hygiene left much to be desired, and a respiratory problem doctors have yet to diagnose. But more frightening alternatives remained.
Cases of sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and syphilis keep climbing at the Health Center, Espinoza said, and girls in Kenia’s compromising position define high-risk. AIDS, like a grim reaper, looms in the horizon, inciting thoughts of mortality and pangs of guilt. Kenia never used a condom. Her six clients all refused, saying it felt unnatural.
She didn’t contract the fatal illness, but she did find herself in a delicate condition. Two months into Juana’s business venture, Kenia got pregnant.
What already was an emotionally charged environment exploded as Juana and her mother plotted their next step. They decided Kenia would not keep the child.
And though it pained her, she agreed. Otherwise, Kenia knew her brother would chase her from the house, and because the father’s identity was a mystery she’d end up on the streets, penniless, thrown back into the life that drove her there in the first place.
A significant roadblock remained, however: Nicaragua never legalized abortion, Espinoza said, citing the country’s strong ties to the Catholic Church. Desperate girls commonly combine the milk of the quina plant with tranquilizer pills to cause miscarriage, but thousands also turn to wire hangers to get the job done, she said.
Kenia opted for the former.
“They say an abortion is worse than giving birth, because you are weaker for it,” Lopez said. She paused as her 4-year-old daughter bounded toward her, attaching herself to her mom’s calf. Stroking the little girl’s shiny, soiled cheek, she shook her head, “I can’t talk about it. If I start, I won’t be able to finish.”
Kenia would agree. Of all the forced engagements she endured throughout her months as a prostitute, the person who haunts her most is the child she’ll never meet.
Shortly after her abortion, she dreamt of a baby angel who descended from the heavens to bestow a brief embrace. She believes the cherub is the spirit of the baby she said she murdered.
The nightmare triggered thoughts of suicide; maybe she deserved the same fate as her child, she said.
Self-destructive desires typically torment victims of abuse, Espinoza said. The guilt consumes them, causing loss of appetite and insomnia. Life loses any possible joy and leaves a void so stifling that all they want is to “disappear off the map.”
Luckily for Kenia, someone intervened.
Rumors of her sordid dealings reached La Casa de la Mujer in San Marcos, the women’s center that has provided Kenia solace since her first battle with abuse.
Director Yolanda Paladino, a woman with warm, brown eyes and a soothing hand, said she rushed to Los Rincones to check on the little girl she’d come to love like a daughter.
When she walked into the eight-by-10-foot hut, Kenia looked pretty, albeit a bit done-up for a lazy afternoon, Paladino recalled. All it took was a kind word, and she unraveled. Through her sobs, Paladino pieced together the monstrosities of the past months.
During the subsequent few days, Paladino and Lopez conspired, orchestrating a situation so vile, it would jolt Kenia’s brother Silvio into reality. On a Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by Lopez, he walked in on his little sister turning her last trick.
It was her ticket out. She escaped to a friend’s house for temporary relief while Silvio filed for divorce and sole custody of his two children.
Since her surprise salvation in late April, Kenia has found the stability her life always lacked.
Every day, she treks miles to church to pray, despite the whispers and raised eyebrows she must shrug off along the way.
“God knows I didn’t choose that life,” she said.
But Kenia’s favorite therapy rises from flour, sugar and eggs in the form of pastries.
For years, Maria swatted her daughter away from the kitchen. As scents wafted from the stove, Kenia dreamt of concocting her own creations.
La Casa stepped in where her mother failed.
Situated across from the town’s central park, La Casa, established in an abandoned jail, serves as a meeting place for women and children, Paladino said, her eyes shining through her tortoise-shell glasses she began the center in 1984. La Casa’s weathered, teal courtyard, brightened by sparse hanging plants, showcases its assets.
A women’s clinic doles out birth control, a lawyer ensures every woman has a voice and therapists reconstruct fractured souls. All services are free, and the staff is entirely composed of volunteers. The most telling feature, however, is the cluster of what Americans would label “vintage” sewing wheels and typewriters piled in the patio’s corner.
La Casa gives classes in sewing, typing, cosmetology and baking as a way to empower women who wish enter the workforce with something more to sell than their bodies.
Kenia now bakes cakes and pastries for her brother’s store and plans to find employment in a bakery as soon as her nephews no longer need watching.
When asked about Paladino, Kenia shares a rare smile, which lifts years from her hardened face.
“She’s given me my dream, and I love her because of it,” she said.
Finally, after years of abuse, Kenia’s blanket has lifted. She breathes easily knowing her body is hers and hers alone. Paladino takes pride in knowing her little girl is safe but shudders to think of the hundreds of thousands of children who aren’t so fortunate.
“People think of Nicaragua, and they think we’re at peace,” Paladino said. “There may not be war, but there is suffering.”