Seeking to Protect Girls from Sexual Violence in Schools
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard its very first case pertaining to sexual violence in school settings on January 28 when the Center for Reproductive Rights presented oral arguments in Paola Guzman Albarracin v. Ecuador.
Paola Guzman of Ecuador was an adolescent public-school student who was sexually abused and raped by the vice-principal or her school. The sexual abuse led to a pregnancy and to a second abuse by her school doctor. As result of the violence inflicted upon her, she committed suicide three days after her 16th birthday
This case is at the heart of the Center’s work to advance girls’ and women’s rights to equality, autonomy and dignity around the world. Catalina Martínez Coral, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Center, stated, “We’re not only fighting this case to get justice for Paola–we’re also fighting for accountability and for comprehensive reform. Girls like Paola should be able to live their lives free from sexual violence and harassment, especially in school.”
In bringing this case before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, the Center seeks to establish legally binding standards to prevent sexual violence in schools and to safeguard the autonomy of girls and adolescents to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health–not just in Ecuador, but throughout the entire region of Latin America and the Caribbean.
A decision in the case is expected in 2021.
About the Case
After having been sexually abused and raped by her school’s vice-principal for a period of two years, Paola Guzman discovered at age 15 that she was pregnant. The vice-principal solicited the school doctor to perform an abortion on Paola. The school doctor told her he would only perform the procedure if Paola had sex with him. Paola committed suicide soon thereafter. Ecuadorian authorities failed to adequately investigate the circumstances around Paola’s death, and to date, no person or institution has been held responsible for her abuse and mistreatment.
This lack of accountability prompted the Center for Reproductive Rights, in conjunction with its national partner, the Center for the Promotion and Action of Women CEPAM-Guayaquil, to file a complaint on behalf of Paola’s mother and sister before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) in 2006. In February 2019, the IACHR advanced the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Decision to Have Wide Impact
Standards resulting from this case would have a wide impact, since they would apply to all members of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. The Court is part of the Organization of American States (OAS), which serves to uphold and promote basic rights and freedoms in the Americas. The Court’s jurisdiction stretches from Mexico south to Chile, with 23 countries in Central and South America accepting of its jurisdiction. A victory in this case would also be important for other reproductive rights cases in the region and in the world, especially those regarding access to abortion for girls and adolescents.
Sexual Violence Is a Human Rights Violation
As evidenced by Paola’s suicide, sexual violence can have devastating effects on survivors–including unwanted pregnancies, contraction of sexually transmitted infections, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression and other psychological harms. Sexual violence of students is also tied to poor school performance, high dropout rates, and societal isolation. These effects are exacerbated when reproductive health care services are not available to survivors.
In Ecuador, girls and adolescents are especially vulnerable to sexual violence: 32% of Ecuadorian girls report experiencing some form of sexual violence while at school. The abuse is frequently at the hands of teachers and administrators who take advantage of their positions of trust and authority. Since school authorities rarely act—and often perpetrate the violence themselves—a culture of impunity has developed throughout the country.