Realizing Children’s Rights in Nicaragua
Nicaragua has worked hard to establish a comprehensive child protection framework despite a storied history of colonial rule and civil unrest. Notwithstanding the ratification of numerous landmark international treaties, legislative gaps and environmental challenges continue to inhibit the full realization of children’s rights.
Children’s Rights Index: 7,35 / 10
Red level: Difficult situation
Population: 6.6 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 29.5%
Life expectancy: 74.48 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 16‰
Nicaragua at a glance
The Republic of Nicaragua (República de Nicaragua) is the largest country in the Central American isthmus, but also one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Managua is the country’s capital and largest city. The country’s name is derived from Nicarao, chief of the Indigenous communities living around Lake Nicaragua during the 15th and 16th centuries. Nicaragua shares a border with Honduras to the north, Costa Rica to the south, the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west (Parker et al, 2021).
Nicaragua was inhabited by various Indigenous peoples before colonization at the hands of the Spanish in the 16th century. During a period of Spanish order, the ‘Mosquito Coast’ section of the country came under British rule between 1740-1786, before ultimately becoming an autonomous territory in 1860. Nicaragua’s unique history makes it the only country in Latin America to be colonized by the Spanish and the British.
Nicaragua has a storied history of civil uprisings and revolutions. In 1811, drawing inspiration from the El Salvador and Mexican revolutions, the country began to revolt against Spanish rule, culminating in independence from colonial rule in 1821. In 1838, following a period of co-centralised government with neighbouring countries known as the Provinces of Central America, Nicaragua became an independent country.
In 1978, civil war broke out in Nicaragua, catalyzing a five-decade-long dictatorship which left the country in a precarious situation. Poverty and food insecurity remain significant problems in Nicaragua stemming from the country’s political insecurity half a century ago (SOS Children’s Village).
Nicaragua is home to several Indigenous peoples, including the Miskitos who predominantly live on the Caribbean Coast, the Ramas and the Sumos. The official language of Nicaragua is Spanish; however, Miskito, Creole, Sumo and Rama are commonly spoken by Indigenous peoples (SOS Children’s Village).
Nicaragua has three distinct geographical regions: the Pacific lowlands, the Amerrisque Mountains (north-central highlands) and the Mosquito Coast (Atlantic lowlands/Caribbean lowlands). Nicaragua is home to the two largest freshwater lakes in Central America, Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua (Parker et al, 2021).
In 2020, Hurricane Eta hit Central America, leaving 4.6 million people affected, including 1.8 million children across Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Belize. In Nicaragua, 170,000 adults and 75,000 children were left requiring humanitarian assistance. The hurricane made landfall, with the storm moving inland causing destruction across several other Central American countries. Heavy rainfall led to life-threatening flash floods, flooded rivers and landslides. Families lost their homes and their livelihoods (UNICEF, 2020).
Nicaragua’s location within Central America means it hosts an abundance of biodiversity. It is home to a large variety of plant, amphibian, reptile, mammal, bird and fish species. Forests cover one-third of the country and there are approximately 78 protected areas in Nicaragua which include wildlife refuges and nature reserves (Parker et al, 2021).
Status of children’s rights 
Nicaragua has committed to several international instruments for the protection of children’s rights. In 1990, the government ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child(CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1981. The government ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1980.
Nicaragua ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (known as the Belém do Pará Convention) in 1995. Nicaragua, as a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), is bound to the Inter-American System of Human Rights.
Nicaragua, as a member of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), adopted the Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development.
In 2016, the Montevideo Strategy for Implementation of the Regional Gender Agenda was also approved by the ECLAC countries. This Agenda encompasses commitments made by the regional governments on women’s rights, autonomy and gender equality during the last 40 years of the Regional Conferences of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Agenda reaffirms the right to a life free of all forms of violence, including forced marriage and forced cohabitation for girls and adolescents.
The government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict in 2004 and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in 2005.
Addressing the needs of children in Nicaragua
Right to education
Following the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) victory during the presidential elections of 2006, the new minister of education issued a decree to outlaw school fees, making it a constitutional right for all children in Nicaragua to access education for free. This led to an increase in education enrolment and attendance (Shier et al, 2013).
Despite education being free in Nicaragua, there are many barriers that exist to children accessing education, particularly for children living in rural areas. Extreme weather conditions remain one of the biggest barriers to children accessing education. During the rainy season, frequent damage to school infrastructure and travel routes to school makes education inaccessible for many children (WE Charity, 2020).
Right to health
Nicaragua is a low-income, food-deficit country. It is one of the poorest countries in Latin America: food insecurity and poverty are linked, causing 17% of children under the age of five to suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Natural disasters such as hurricanes, drought, flooding, earthquakes and climate change, coupled with poverty have led to an increase in food insecurity (World Food Programme, 2022). The National School Meal Programme and the Mother-and-Child Health Activities are supported by the World Food Programme (WFP). These initiatives enable vulnerable children to access free hot, nutritious meals at pre-school and primary school levels (World Food Programme, 2022).
Right to clean water and sanitation
During natural disasters, water and sanitation services are the first to affect families. Since Hurricane Eta hit Nicaragua in 2020, children have been affected by limited access to water, hygiene and sanitation facilities. After Hurricane Eta, WaterAid, an international non-governmental organization, launched a rapid response effort in Bilwi and Puerto Cabezas, which was the epicentre of the hurricane. WaterAid worked alongside local authorities to deliver water, water filters and hygiene kits to shelters and repair water and sanitation facilities in health centres (WaterAid, 2020).
Despite Nicaragua being known as “the land of lakes and volcanoes,” much of the natural biodiversity has been contaminated by farming, mining, deforestation soil erosion. The large lakes and prolonged rainy seasons make for adequate freshwater sources; however, a majority of this water is inaccessible and unsafe to drink.
This, coupled with conflict in the country has led to a decrease in government investment in public services. Due to this, more than one million people do not have access to clean drinking water and 1.4 million people do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities (WaterAid, 2020).
In rural parts of Nicaragua, 60% of people have access to basic water services and 62% have access to basic sanitation services. Organizations such as Water For People, work with district governments in Nicaragua where they pioneered the microfinance for sanitation improvement approach. This initiative was aimed at building partnerships with local microfinance institutions that offer loads for sanitation improvements. These loans would allow families living in poverty the opportunity to invest in safer and adequate sanitation services (Water For People, 2021).
Right to identity
An estimated 15% of children born in Nicaragua lack birth certificates (US Department of Labour, 2020). In 2007, UNICEF launched a national campaign, “I Exist (YoExisto)” which was aimed at protecting children’s right to preserve their name and nationality (Social Institutions and Gender Index, 2019).
Under Article 27 of the Constitution of Nicaragua, all women and men are considered equal before the law. This includes a prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, language, nationality, political belief, origin and socio-economic status. Under the Law of Citizenry Identity, women (both married and unmarried) share the same rights as men in applying for their (and their children’s) national identity cards(Social Institutions and Gender Index, 2019).
Risk factors -> Country-Specific Challenges
Nicaragua has ratified all key international child labour conventions including the International Labour Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138); Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182); the UN CRC, Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons, UN CRC Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and UN CRC Optional Protocol on Armed Conflict.
Notwithstanding the establishment of relevant laws and regulations, gaps still exist enabling children in Nicaragua to be subjected to the worst forms of child labour.
This occurs despite the country’s establishment of a compulsory education age (US Department of Labour, 2020). Children in Nicaragua are subjected to child labour, particularly in the agriculture sector, harvesting coffee, bananas, tobacco, sugarcane and collecting shellfish. Children are also subjected to forced labour in other industries such as domestic work, work in transportation as couriers, work in the travel and tourism industry, street work, vending, washing cars and performing at traffic stoplights (US Department of Labour, 2020).
Nicaragua is a destination country for child sex tourism, predominantly for tourists coming from Canada, the United States and Western Europe. A majority of children subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in Nicaragua are from the Granada, Managua and Caribbean Autonomous Regions. Children living in rural areas, migrant children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (also known as the Northern Triangle countries), are particularly vulnerable to child labour and commercial sexual exploitation (US Department of Labour, 2020).
Adolescent pregnancy and child marriage
Nicaragua has the second-highest fertility rate among adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNICEF et al, 2018). In Nicaragua, the adolescent birth rate 2015-2020 was 103 per 1,000 adolescent girls aged 15-19. Within the same time period, 28% of girls gave birth before the age of 18. The highest rates of adolescent pregnancy are found in the northern region of Nicaragua, Jinotega (UNICEF, 2021).
In 2012, data from the National Institute for Development Information and the Ministry of Health indicated that 35% of girls in Nicaragua were married or in a union before the age of 18, 10% before the age of 15 and 19% of boys were married or in a union before the age of 18 (Instituto Nacional de Información de Desarrallo, 2014).
In 2014, the Family Code (Law 870) was enacted, under Article 54, the legal minimum age of marriage in Nicaragua was raised to 18 years for both men and women. However, under Article 54, children can be married from the age of 16 with consent from a parent or legal guardian (Social Institutions and Gender Index, 2019).
In Nicaragua, there are several drivers of child marriage such as poverty, education, adolescent pregnancy, gender norms and the law. In 2013, it was estimated by the Population Council of Nicaragua, approximately 55% of girls married were in very impoverished rural areas, compared to 36% living in wealthier urban areas.
Gendered poverty and patriarchal structures that exclude girls from education and employment, leave girls more vulnerable to early marriage. For families living in poverty in Nicaragua, child marriage is viewed as an alternative way for families to earn money through dowry received from marriage. Parents see their daughters as an economic responsibility.
Sexual and gender-based violence
Nicaragua has one of the highest rates of sexual violence against women in the world. In 2010, in Nicaragua’s concluding observation, the Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern at the increasing rates of child abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and gender-based violence. The Committee raised concern at the high levels of sexual abuse and the rape of young girls, often falling pregnant at the hands of their perpetrators, most of whom were family members (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2010).
In 2013, forensic doctors in Nicaragua examined 6,069 victims of sexual violence. Of these victims, 82% were children, 3,065 were aged 0-13 and 1,897 were aged 14-17. Nine out of 10 victims were female and more than 80% of the victims knew their abuser. High rates of sexual violence are linked to increasing rates of adolescent pregnancy, maternal mortality and child marriage (Lakhani, 2014).
As a result of international pressure to address human rights violations against women and girls, in 2012, the government passed Law 779. This was one of the most celebrated anti-violence laws across the region. Law 779 outlawed gender-based violence, femicide and established specialized police units for women and courts that sought to prosecute crimes of gender-based violence (Lakhani, 2014).
In Nicaragua, victims of sexual and gender-based violence face several obstacles in reporting crimes, often leaving them to suffer in silence. A majority of girls, fall victim at the hands of their family members or men that they know, often making it more difficult for them to report. Patriarchal attitudes and sex being taboo subjects in Nicaragua, inhibit girls from speaking out on the abuses they face (Amnesty International, 2010).
Written by Vanessa Cezarita Cordeiro
Internally proofread by Aditi Partha
Last updated 3 July 2022
Committee on the Rights of the Child. (2010, October 20). “Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 44 of the Convention. CRC/C/NIC/CO/4). Retrieved from United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, accessed 28 July 2022.
Shier, H., Padilla, M., Torres, N., Lopez, L., Torres, M., Castillo, Z., Alvarado, K. (2013). “Claiming the right to quality education in Nicaragua.” Chapter Ten, pp 188-202. Retrieved from Children’s rights and education: International perspectives, accessed 19 June 2022.
UNICEF, UNFPA, OrganizaciónPanamericana de la Salud and Organización Mundial de la Salud. (2018). “Acelerarelprogresohacia la reducción del embarazoen la adolescenciaen América Latina y el Caribe.” Retrieved from OrganizaciónPanamericana de la Salud, accessed 22 June 2022.
UNICEF. (2020, November). “Urgent appeal for children and families affected by Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America.” Retrieved from UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean, accessed 19 June 2022.
 This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Nicaragua; indeed, one of many challenges is the scant updated information on the children in Nicaragua, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.