Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front party exercises total control over the country’s executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega awarded himself a fourth consecutive term in November elections after arbitrarily jailing nearly 40 opposition figures, barring all credible opposition political parties from participating, blocking legitimate international observation efforts, and committing widespread electoral fraud. Independent observer groups and international organizations characterized the electoral process as seriously flawed, lacking credibility, and defined by historically low voter turnout. The 2021 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and eliminated restrictions on re-election of executive branch officials and mayors. Observers noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.
The Nicaraguan National Police is responsible for internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Both report directly to the president, pursuant to changes in the police and army code in 2014. Parapolice, which are nonuniformed, armed, and masked units with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the national police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detentions; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including threats of violence, unjustified arrests, censorship, criminal libel suits against journalists; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, and operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious corruption; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.
The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 355 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. The government did not address instances of widespread corruption. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.
Police, parapolice, and individuals linked to the Ortega regime carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence toward perceived enemies of the regime, such as former political prisoners and their families, farmworker activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, private-sector leaders, and Catholic clergy.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes all forms of rape of men or women, regardless of the relationship between the victim and the accused. Sentences for those convicted of rape range from eight to 12 years’ imprisonment. The law criminalizes domestic violence and provides prison sentences ranging from one to 12 years.
The government failed to enforce rape and domestic violence laws, leading to widespread impunity and reports of increased violence from released offenders emboldened by their release. The NGO Catholics for the Rights to Decide reported that there were 46 femicides as of July, most of them committed after the victims suffered sexual violence. The government continued to use FSLN-led family cabinets and CLSs in mediation processes in cases of domestic violence. Both processes were politicized and did not operate according to the rule of law. The government employed limited public education, shelters, hotlines, psychosocial services, and police training in nominal and unsuccessful attempts to address the problem.
Observers reported a general increase in sexual crimes and violence against women during the year; however, data were unreliable. NGOs working on women’s issues reported that violence against women remained high and that police generally understated its severity. The government did not coordinate with women’s rights NGOs and actively blocked their operations and access to funding.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and those convicted face one- to three-year sentences in prison, or three to five years if the victim is younger than 18. No information was available on government efforts to prevent or prosecute complaints of sexual harassment.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
While there were no cultural barriers that adversely affected women’s access to health-care services, rural women’s access to health care during pregnancy and childbirth was hindered by long distances to appropriate health-care facilities in scarcely populated areas with poor transportation infrastructure. Women in some areas, such as the RACN and the RACS, lacked widespread access to medical care or programs, and maternal death affected poor rural women more than their urban counterparts. This also affected indigenous and Afro-descendant women in the RACN and the RACS more than nonindigenous women in other regions. In addition, adolescents often faced social stigma when seeking contraception methods.
The government provided limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. The Ministry of Health had a standing protocol for the provision of health services to survivors of sexual violence, which included the provision of emergency contraception within five days of the assault as well as treatment of HIV or sexually transmitted diseases. Women’s rights organizations, however, claimed the Ministry of Health did not always provide this treatment due to fear of subverting the government’s strict prolife policy, directed by the president and vice president. While no legal barriers impede adolescent girls’ access to education due to pregnancy or motherhood, economic hardships and a lack of social safety nets to protect young mothers often impeded continued education for pregnant girls or young mothers.
Discrimination: The law provides for gender equality in access to education, labor rights, and civil rights. Nevertheless, women often experienced discrimination in employment, obtaining credit, and receiving equal pay for similar work, as well as in owning and managing businesses. While the government enforced the law effectively in the public sector, women in positions of power faced limitations, and their authority was limited compared with that of men. For example, despite a law that requires equal participation of men and women in elected positions, male political party leaders often made decisions on public policy without internal debate or input from female political leaders. Enforcement was not effective in the private sector or the larger informal sector.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. Local civil registries register births within 12 months, although many persons, especially in rural areas, lacked birth certificates. Registration in rural areas was difficult due to structural constraints, and the government took no measures to address this, resulting in a growing number of de facto stateless persons in the country. Persons without citizenship documents were unable to obtain national identity cards and consequently could not vote and had difficulty participating in the legal economy and conducting bank transactions. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership.
Child Abuse: According to the criminal code, prison sentences for rape committed against minors range from 12 to 15 years and for child abuse from seven to 12 years. Government efforts were insufficient to combat child abuse and sexual violence against minors. High rates of sexual violence against teenage girls contributed to high rates of teenage pregnancy, according to UNICEF.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for men and women, or 16 with parental authorization. There were credible reports of forced early marriages in some rural indigenous communities. UNICEF’s 2019 State of the World’s Children, the most recent data available, reported 35 percent of women 20 to 24 years of age were married or in a union by age 18, and 10 percent were married by age 15. No information was available on government efforts to address or prevent forced and early marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation in general and designates enticing children or adolescents to engage in sexual activity as an aggravating condition. The government generally did not enforce the law pertaining to child sex trafficking. Penalties include 10 to 15 years in prison for a person who entices or forces any individual to engage in sexual activity and 19 to 20 years in prison for the same acts involving children or adolescents. The law defines statutory rape as sexual relations with children ages 14 or younger.
The law also prohibits child pornography, and the government generally enforced it. The penalty for inducing, facilitating, promoting, or using a minor for sexual or erotic purposes is 10 to 15 years in prison.
The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The law imposes a penalty of five to seven years in prison for those convicted of child-sex tourism.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .