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Letter to the President of Panama calling for the protection of transgender people during the quarantine

Washington, D.C., April 23, 2020


H.E. Laurentino Cortizo Cohen
President of the Republic
Panama City – Panama


Dear Your Excellency,

We respectfully write to express our concern over some cases of discrimination that have recently occurred on the part of police and private security guards against transgender people in the context of Panama’s gender-based quarantine currently in force.

Transgender people have a gender identity or expression that may not match the “female” or “male” sex marker on their identification document. Because the quarantine measures implemented by the Ministry of Health on April 1 require women and men to remain quarantined on alternating days, transgender people are being singled out for profiling by both police and private security guards, and have in some cases been arrested and fined or prevented from buying essential goods.

Since documenting an early incident of discrimination on April 1, in which a transgender woman was detained and fined for going out on a day designated for women, Human Rights Watch has interviewed more transgender people who have experienced discrimination under the quarantine regime over the past 22 days.

In the majority of cases, we found that discrimination occurred even though individuals left their homes for essential needs on the day that accorded to the sex marker in their national identification card, in compliance with the rules established by the Ministry of Health. These people opted not to go out on the day that accorded to their gender identity to avoid conflicts with authorities. Some of the cases we documented include those of:

  • Mónica, a transgender woman in Panama Province, who was detained by police when she attempted to enter a supermarket on a day designated for men. Police inappropriately touched her on the breasts and mocked her about being a man during a body search at Casa de Justicia Comunitaria de Paz Pedregal (Human Rights Watch interview with Mónica, April 10, 2020);
  • Heber, a transgender man in Colón Province, who was denied entry into a supermarket by police officers on a day designated for women. The officers ridiculed him by explaining that they would not explain to other women in the queue “what he was” and laughed at him (Human Rights Watch interview with Heber, April 7, 2020); 
  • “Sofía” (pseudonym), a transgender woman in Panama Province. When she attempted to enter a supermarket on a day designated for men, a police officer told her in front of male customers that she would not be allowed in because she is “too feminine” (Human Rights Watch interview with “Sofía,” April 8, 2020);
  • Adriana, a transgender woman in Panama Province. While she was waiting in a queue to enter a bank on a day designated for men, a private security agent told her that she was “dressed inappropriately” for the day and that she had to speak with another security agent, an employee, and a manager before being allowed to complete her transaction (Human Rights Watch interview with Adriana, April 9, 2020);
  • Ariah, a transgender woman in Los Santos Province. When she attempted to enter a supermarket on a day designated for men, a police officer questioned her in front of other customers about whether she was a man or a woman and told her that she should have gone out on a day designated for women (Human Rights Watch interview with Ariah, April 14, 2020);
  • Li, a transgender man in Panama Province, who was denied entry to a supermarket on a day designated for women. A security guard told him that women in the store would think Li was “a pervert” if allowed inside and that he should “try his luck” on a day designated for men (Human Rights Watch interview with Li, April 15, 2020);
  • Pamela, a transgender woman in Panama Province, who was denied entry to a supermarket on two separate occasions on days designated for men, once by a police officer and once by a private security agent, on the grounds that she is “too feminine” (Human Rights Watch interview with Pamela, April 16, 2020).
  • Miranda, a transgender woman in Panama Province. While she waited to enter a supermarket on a day designated for men, two private security agents told her to go home and, when she showed them her identification, one of them said, “You [transgender people] just want to come to the supermarket every day” (Human Rights Watch interview with Miranda, April 21, 2020);
  • Danny, a transgender man in Panama West Province. While he was shopping in a supermarket on a day designated for women, an employee accused him of “wanting to be man” (Human Rights Watch interview with Danny on April 21, 2020).

Human Rights Watch has also documented three cases of transgender people who suffered discrimination when they left their homes on days in accordance with their gender identity (rather than with the gender marker on their national identity card). Our research therefore suggests that transgender people face discrimination irrespective of whether they adhere to the sex marker on their national identification, or their gender identity. On April 16, 2020, Panama’s Ombudsman's Office acknowledged reports of such discrimination.

Contrary to international human rights norms, in Panama, modifying legal gender on official documents requires sex reassignment surgery, placing transgender people in Panama in a particularly precarious and vulnerable situation. All the individuals mentioned above, as well as trans activists, have expressed to Human Rights Watch profound fear of humiliation, discrimination, and arrest if they leave their homes for groceries, medicine, or other essential services. Some have opted not to leave their homes at all, instead relying on friends or paying couriers to do their essential shopping.

International human rights standards recognize that in the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies, like Covid-19, governments are legally justified in restricting some rights, including the freedom of movement if necessary to respond to the emergency. However, governments should not allow law enforcement or private entities to use emergency measures as an excuse to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their gender identity or expression. The harms of such discrimination are even more acute when they deprive transgender people of life-sustaining necessities like food and medicine.

Regarding this issue, there are other governments in the region that have approved measures to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. For example, in Peru, the decree establishing a gender-based quarantine had a non-discrimination clause and President Martín Vizcarra followed that up with trans-inclusive statements. Peru has since scrapped the gendered measures, claiming they were ineffective. In Bogota, the decree establishing the gender-based quarantine explicitly included trans-sensitive provisions, and the head of the Bogota Metropolitan Police affirmed that transgender people could comply with the quarantine in accordance with their gender identity. Until now, authorities in Panama have not adopted any measures or issued any statements to prevent discrimination against transgender people.

We respectfully urge your government to adopt policies consistent with Panama’s international legal obligations, aimed at protecting the dignity of transgender people in Panama. Such policies should be publicly announced and include the following points:

  • Authorization for Panamanians to comply with the gender-based quarantine in accordance with their gender identity or expression;
  • A directive for law enforcement agents reiterating the obligation to respect Panamanians’ gender identity and expression, and the same for private entities and their security agents; and
  • An official complaints procedure for Panamanians to report incidents of discrimination on the basis gender identity or expression committed by state agents or private entities that would lead to sanctions for perpetrators.

Thanking you in advance for your attention to this matter, and we wish to take the opportunity to express to you our highest consideration and esteem.

José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director
Americas Division
Human Rights Watch

Graeme Reid
Director
LGBT Rights Division
Human Rights Watch

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