Over the past decade, thousands of Latin American girls and adolescents have gone to school expecting to learn and grow in a safe, trustworthy environment. Instead, these innocent children have suffered sexual violence at the hands of the teachers, school officials, and staff charged with their education and care.
On October 24, 2011, in a public hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Center for Reproductive Rights called for immediate attention to this widespread phenomenon that plagues schools throughout Latin America.
The Center, along with Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, Funderes, and Women's Link Worldwide, presented a report that examines how the cycle of sexual violence in educational institutions perpetuates. Although available data is scarce, enough evidence exists to conclude that these are not isolated cases of abuse but rather a systemic, institutionalized affliction for which all States are directly responsible.
The report focuses on four Latin American countries in which this violence in schools has proved to be a deep-rooted practice: México, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. The statistics-and the stories behind them-are horrifying:
- Between 2002 and 2007, 3,242 complaints of physical and sexual abuse in Mexico City schools alone came before the Child Maltreatment and Sexual Abuse Care Unit (la Unidad para la Atención al Maltrato y Abuso Sexual Infantil - UAMASI). In Colombia, there were 337 reported incidents of sexual violence in schools just in 2007.
- Paola del Rosario Guzmán Albarracín was 16 years old when she began suffering relentless sexual harassment from the vice-principal of her school in Ecuador. The abuse devastated her so greatly that she committed suicide. Upon discovering that Paola had swallowed poisonous white phosphorous, school authorities neither provided her with immediate care nor alerted her guardians-and she died on the way to the hospital. The vice-principal faced charges of sexual harassment, but the judge found him not guilty, justifying the decision behind the fact that Paola first approached the vice-principal, asking for an opportunity to retake an exam to improve her grades. The Center has been fighting for justice on Paola's behalf since 2006, and is in negotiations with the State to reach a settlement.
- In Bolivia, a 10-year-old girl was found dead in the sports supplies storage room of her school four days after she disappeared when her mother dropped her off one morning. The girl had been strangled, and there was clear evidence of sexual abuse. Nine years later, the police have yet to charge anyone with this horrifying murder.
These incidents are emblematic of the injustices that occur every day in Latin America. The structural factors that sustain these practices remain. Few effective systems exist in which denunciation, investigation, prosecution, and reparations take place quickly and seamlessly.
Despite laws that obligate States to act in the best interest of children, the legal system too often prioritizes the protection of the adults involved in these cases, and gender stereotypes negatively impact the necessary implementation of the laws in place. The story of the accused adult usually trumps the viability of the victim's account of sexual violence, thereby re-victimizing the child and causing irreparable harm to his or her mental health and well-being.
The few cases of sexual violence in educational institutions that do make it to court tend to stagnate in the State justice systems, which prevents adequate compensation and rehabilitation for the victim, and allows perpetrators of the violence to remain free from prosecution. Too often institution directors express their tolerance for these deplorable actions by simply transferring accused teachers to other schools, and legal exceptions that allow educational institutions to self-investigate and report incidents certainly contribute to an ineffective and unjust system that harms children far more that it helps them.
Paradoxically, this indifference and negligence occurs in environments intended to nurture the development and well-being of children, and that depend on student-teacher relationships built on trust and intimacy. Such close personal contact amplifies the risks that a child would be exposed to institutionalized sexual violence-and makes it less likely that he or she will report such incidences.
Sexual abuse in educational institutions violates international law on several grounds, including the rights to education, freedom from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, access to justice, the highest attainable standard of health and well-being, and non-discrimination.
Last week, the Center urged the Inter-American Commission to prioritize holding States responsible for institutionalized sexual abuse in schools, as well as to request information from States that will enable a thorough evaluation of the problems. The Center hopes the alarming statistics and urgent warnings will raise awareness and lead States to hold perpetrators accountable, thereby putting an end to the cycle of abuse, so that educational institutions can become safe havens for learning.