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Panama: Set Transgender-Sensitive Quarantine Guidelines

Gender-Based Quarantine Leading to Arbitrary Arrests, Fines

Police officers are pictured during the curfew as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Panama City, Panama, March 31, 2020.  © REUTERS/Erick Marciscano
(Washington, DC) – President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen of Panama should issue transgender-sensitive guidelines and procedures to help ensure nondiscriminatory enforcement of Panama’s gender-based quarantine, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent today.

On April 1, Panama put into effect a gender-based quarantine schedule in response to Covid-19, requiring women and men to remain quarantined on alternate days. However, transgender people are being singled out for profiling by police and private security guards and in some cases have been arrested and fined or prevented from buying essential goods. This is happening regardless of whether they attempt to follow quarantine measures based on the sex marker on their ID or do so based on their gender identity.

“Transgender people in Panama are being humiliated and accused of breaking the law under the quarantine policy simply for being themselves,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Panamanian government should ensure that quarantine measures are implemented in a way that respects transgender people’s dignity.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed nine transgender people who experienced discrimination when they left their home for essential needs according to the sex marker in their national identification card, in compliance with the Health Ministry rules. Human Rights Watch also documented three cases of transgender people who suffered discrimination when they left their homes on days in accordance with their gender identity.

International human rights law requires efficient, inexpensive, and straightforward procedures to allow legal recognition based solely on the “the free and autonomous decision of each person.” But the National Civil Registry Agency in Panama’s Electoral Tribunal requires transgender people to undergo sex reassignment surgery before they can modify their legal gender on official documents. Under Article 121 of the Civil Registry Law, a medical doctor must certify that their elected gender “corresponds” to the applicant’s physiology.

In one case Human Rights Watch documented, on April 9, a day designated for men to conduct essential business, police in Panama Province detained Mónica, a transgender woman, when she attempted to enter a supermarket. Police took her to Casa de Justicia Comunitaria de Paz Pedregal, a nearby station, where officers inappropriately touched her breasts and mocked her about being a man during a body search. They also threatened to put her in a cell with 200 men. Mónica paid a US$50 fine to be released. “The [Covid-19] measures have empowered police to discriminate and we, transgender people, need urgent help,” Mónica told Human Rights Watch.

Policies that essentially force transgender people to stay at home are unlawful and an unjustified restriction of their freedom of movement. Restrictions on this right are permitted but must have a proper legal basis, be for a legitimate purpose, and be proportionate, including in their impact in practice. Restrictions may not be discriminatory, including on the basis of gender identity or expression.

President Cortizo Cohen should adopt and publicly announce transgender-sensitive guidelines to clarify that Panamanians should follow the gender-based quarantine in accordance with their gender identity or expression. The government should adopt a directive for state agents and call on private entities to respect Panamanians’ gender identity and expression. The government should create a complaints procedure that would lead to sanctions against state agents and private entities who discriminate. 

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