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Amicus Curiae in the case of Guzmán Albarracín y otros Vs. Ecuador

Subject: Human Rights Watch Amicus Curiae in the case of Guzmán Albarracín y otros Vs. Ecuador

  1. Purpose and Summary

Human Rights Watch respectfully requests that the Honorable Inter-American Court of Human Rights accept us as Friends of the Court, so that we may submit for consideration this statement briefly summarizing Human Rights Watch research and legal analysis of children’s rights issues relevant to the case of Guzmán Albarracín vs. Ecuador. 

The case before the court pertains to the sexual exploitation and abuse of Paola Guzmán Albarracín by state officials in the public school she attended. Guzmán Albarracín became pregnant after her school’s vice principal sexually abused her, following which he asked her to get an abortion in the school’s medical service. When she sought an abortion from the school’s doctor, he agreed to help her only if he had sex with him. Guzmán Albarracín died by suicide in 2002 at age 16. 

This case therefore raises important questions for the Court about the nature and scope of states’ obligations under the Inter-American human rights treaties to take necessary measures to effectively prevent, investigate, prosecute, punish and remedy sexual violence against girls in school. We note that the Inter-American Commission found the facts gave rise to violations of articles 4.1, 5.1, 8.1, 11, 19, 24, 25.1 and 26 of the American Convention on Human Rights, article 13 of the Additional Protocol on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“Protocol of San Salvador”), and article 7 of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (“Convention of Belém do Pará”). With this submission, Human Rights Watch wishes to highlight key findings from our research and offer brief analysis of international human rights law relevant to this case that we believe could assist the Court in its determination of the above issues. In particular we would like to draw the Court’s attention to the close relationship between sexual violence against girls and the lack of access to comprehensive sexuality education, and the broad impact both have on girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services and enjoyment of their rights. 

  1. Background on Human Rights Watch and Our Interest in the Case

Human Rights Watch is an independent nongovernmental organization that has been dedicated to protecting human rights since 1978. Human Rights Watch conducts research and advocacy on human rights in more than 90 countries worldwide. 

Human Rights Watch has conducted research on the right to education in over 40 countries.[1] We have also documented the consequences of school-related sexual and physical violence, and its impacts on girls’ education, in Ecuador, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.[2] In addition, we have investigated and reported on the denial of adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health rights, including a lack of access to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and adolescent-friendly reproductive health services, including in Tanzania, Senegal, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Japan.[3] 

As part of its mandate, Human Rights Watch uses judicial and quasi-judicial tools of regional and international law to contribute to protecting and promoting human rights. That commitment has motivated this specific Human Rights Watch petition.

  1. Human Rights Watch Findings on the Consequences of School-Related Sexual Violence

Human Rights Watch research, noted above, shows that all forms of school-related sexual violence are detrimental to children’s and adolescents’ right to education, and have a particular impact on girls’ retention in school.[4] School-related sexual violence impacts children’s and adolescents’ education in a myriad of ways: it greatly affects their ability to learn, to trust teachers and school officials, and to feel safe while on school premises. Children, particularly girls, may drop out of school following incidents of attempted or actual sexual violence, especially when they result in pregnancy.

In countries where Human Rights Watch has conducted research on sexual violence in schools, we have found that factors which undermine protection against sexual violence in education include a limited understanding on the part of students, teachers and school officials alike of what constitutes inappropriate and unlawful behaviour, a lack of information by children of how to report cases, and the absence of an adequate, confidential reporting mechanism for children to report abuse.[5] These factors should be addressed together with provision of comprehensive sexuality education when identifying the measures of protection children in school are entitled to under international human rights law.

  1. Human Rights Watch Findings on Access to Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Adolescent Reproductive Health Services

Human Rights Watch research in countries like the Dominican Republic, Poland, Senegal and Tanzania, also shows that the lack of comprehensive sexuality education, embedded in national curricula, and adequately taught in schools, and the lack of adequate, confidential access to adolescent-friendly reproductive health services, leaves children and adolescents without the information they need to make informed decisions about their sexuality and reproduction, that can in turn make them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, and unsafe abortion. 

In countries where we have found CSE to be lacking, children and adolescents also often have very limited access to reproductive health services. The impact of such limited access is exacerbated in times of crisis such as when a child has been exposed to sexual exploitation and violence, and the need for informed, timely access to care is all the more acute. 

International technical guidance published jointly by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other United Nations (UN) agencies explains that comprehensive sexuality education is “a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality,” based on a human rights approach, and equips young people with the skills to make safe, responsible, and consensual sexual choices free of coercion or abuse.[6] UN agencies have recommended that national authorities design comprehensive national curricula to ensure students can access this information within educational contexts. Such teaching is essential to ensure that children understand what constitutes sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and that such behavior is never acceptable, and that teachers or adults in a position of authority commit a sexual offence when they seek to procure or engage in any form of sexual relationship with their students, harass them, or sexually exploit them in exchange for money, grades or other payments in kind.[7] Comprehensive sexuality education programs can also create a pathway for students to safely report abuse and seek help from trusted adults.[8] 

  1. Human Rights Watch Analysis of International Law

With this case, the court has an opportunity to consider how Article 19 of the American Convention (every minor child has the right to the measures of protection), together with article 13 of the “Protocol of San Salvador” (right to education) and articles 3, 7, 8, 9 of the “Convention of Belém do Pará, relate to states’ obligations to prevent and address sexual violence in schools, and to ensure that children and adolescents have access to comprehensive information and services related to their sexual and reproductive health both in school, and outside of school.  

Right to Education

The right to education, freedom from violence, including sexual violence, and the right to receive comprehensive information about sexual and reproductive health are protected in several core regional and international treaties. These include the Convention of Belém do Pará, and the Protocol of San Salvador, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).[9]

The right to learn in a safe environment is a key component of the right to education.[10] States obligations regarding quality education include protection from violence, and a focus on the inherent dignity of the child and the child’s right to development.[11] In the American Convention, the source of the obligation can be found in article 19 which requires provision of protection measures for children from families, society and the State, and the CRC sets out a particular obligation that governments protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse.[12]  

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has called on states to make investments in strategies, and to take all measures, to eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote positive gender relations and social norms; address sexual and gender-based violence, including within schools; and promote positive role models, and to ensure children are able to express their opinions on these matters.[13] 

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has called on states to adopt and enforce law, policies and procedures to prohibit and tackle school-related violence against girls and women. The Committee has directed states that laws should explicitly prohibit verbal and emotional abuse, stalking, sexual harassment and sexual violence, physical violence and exploitation.[14] This Committee has also called on states “to continue to take all necessary action, including the dismantling of patriarchal barriers and entrenched gender stereotypes, to guarantee and to ensure that girls are able to enjoy their basic human right to education in every region of the world.”[15]

Adolescents’ Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights 

Right to Information

Adolescent children’s right to information about sexual and reproductive health is guaranteed under international law. The right to information is set forth in numerous human rights treaties,[16] and includes both a negative obligation for states to refrain from interference with the provision of information by private parties and a positive responsibility to provide full and accurate information necessary for the protection and promotion of rights, including the right to health.[17] 

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights notes the interdependence of the realization of the right to sexual and reproductive health, with the right to education and the right to non-discrimination and equality between men and women, which, when combined, entail a “right to education on sexuality and reproduction.”[18]

The Committee on the Rights of Child has recommended that states adopt:

Age-appropriate, comprehensive and inclusive sexual and reproductive health education, based on scientific evidence and human rights standards and developed with adolescents, should be part of the mandatory school curriculum and reach out-of-school adolescents. Attention should be given to gender equality, sexual diversity, sexual and reproductive health rights, responsible parenthood and sexual behaviour and violence prevention, as well as to preventing early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.[19]

The Special Rapporteur on Education has stated “protection of the human right to comprehensive sexual education is especially important in ensuring the enjoyment of women’s right to live free of violence and gender discrimination, given the historically unequal power relations between men and women.”[20] 

Right to Access Services

Access to confidential, non-stigmatizing sexual and reproductive health services is essential to fulfilling the right to health for adolescent girls and young women. Unequal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services amounts to discrimination, according to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.[21] 

The Committee has affirmed that:

All adolescents should have access to free, confidential, adolescent-responsive and non-discriminatory sexual and reproductive health services, information and education, available both online and in person, including on family planning, contraception, including emergency contraception, prevention, care and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, counselling, pre-conception care, maternal health services and menstrual hygiene.

The committee added, “There should be no barriers to commodities, information and counselling on sexual and reproductive health and rights, such as requirements for third-party consent or authorization,” and “particular efforts need to be made to overcome barriers of stigma and fear experienced by, for example, adolescent girls, girls with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex adolescents, in gaining access to such services.”[22]

  1. Conclusion

This case presents the Court with an opportunity to generate an important precedent in relation to government’s inter-dependent obligations to guarantee children and adolescents’ right to be afforded protection when realizing their right to education, their right to a quality education that includes comprehensive sexuality education, and their right to access to information on their sexual and reproductive rights, both as a tool to prevent violence and for children and adolescents to make informed decisions and exercise and enjoy their sexual and reproductive rights. As mentioned above, inadequate sexuality education in schools, and inadequate access to confidential, adolescent-friendly reproductive health services leave children and adolescents without the information and support they need to make informed decisions about their sexuality and reproduction, that can in turn make them vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, and unsafe abortion.

For the above reasons, Human Rights Watch respectfully invites the Court to consider three key conclusions in its deliberations, based on the arguments and the international human rights standards presented above: 

  1. Implementing comprehensive sexuality education, in line with UN technical guidance, is part of states’ obligations to take necessary measures to effectively prevent and remedy sexual violence. Comprehensive sexuality education should be based on a human rights approach and embedded in national curricula to equip young people with the skills to make safe, responsible, and consensual sexual choices free of coercion or abuse;
  2. When adequately taught in schools, comprehensive sexuality education can also create a pathway for students to safely report abuse and seek help from trusted adults;
  3. Teachers, education officials or adults in a position of authority commit a sexual offence when they seek to procure or engage in any form of sexual relationship with their students, harass them, or sexually exploit them in exchange for money, grades or other payments in kind.

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Scared at School” – Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools,” March 2001, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/safrica/; “I Had a Dream to Finish School” – Barriers to Secondary Education in Tanzania,” February 2017, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/02/14/i-had-dream-finish-school/barriers-secondary-education-tanzania; “It’s Not Normal” – Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools in Senegal, October 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/10/18/its-not-normal/sexual-exploitation-harassment-and-abuse-secondary-schools-senegal.

[3] See Human Rights Watch, “I Felt Like the World Was Falling Down on Me,” Adolescent Girls’ Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Dominican Republic, June 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/06/18/i-felt-world-was-falling-down-me/adolescent-girls-sexual-and-reproductive-health; “The Nail That Sticks out Gets Hammered Down,” May 2016, https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/05/05/nail-sticks-out-gets-hammered-down/lgbt-bullying-and-exclusion-japanese-schools; “Just Let Us Be,” Discrimination Against LGBT Students in the Philippines, June 2017, https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/06/21/just-let-us-be/discrimination-against-lgbt-students-philippines.

[4] For the purpose of this amicus curiae, Human Rights Watch uses the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of sexual violence as “[a]ny sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting.” World Health Organization, “Violence against women,” November 2017, 

https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women. WHO defines sexual exploitation as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, threatening or profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.” World Health Organization, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Prevention and Response, Policy and procedures,” March 2017, http://www.who.int/about/ethics/sexual-exploitation_abuse-prevention_response_policy.pdf.

[5] Human Rights Watch, “It’s Not Normal: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools in Senegal”. In Senegal in particular Human Rights Watch identified three key factors which undermine the reporting of sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse against students by their teachers and other school staff: cultural perceptions that girls and young women are responsible for their teachers’ advances, including an entrenched practice of blaming students for acts perpetrated against them; the lack of clarity on what comprises sexual exploitation and sexual abuse; and a concern over losing teachers given the deficient numbers in teaching staff.

[6] See, UNESCO, “UN urges Comprehensive Approach to Sexuality Education,” January 10, 2018, https://en.unesco.org/news/urges-comprehensive-approach-sexuality-education; UNESCO, UNICEF, et al, International technical guidance on sexuality education – An evidence-informed approach,” 2018, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000260770, pp. 12, 16, 24 and 34.

[7] Human Rights Watch, “It’s Not Normal: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools in Senegal,” pp. 19, 24, 28 – 33, and 77; “Leave No Girl Behind in Africa,” Discrimination in Education against Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers, June 2018,

https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/06/14/leave-no-girl-behind-africa/discrimination-education-against-pregnant-girls-and, pp. 21, 26 and 42.

[8] UNESCO, UNICEF, et al, International technical guidance on sexuality education – An evidence-informed approach,” pp. 24, 54 -55, and 84.

[9] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force January 3, 1976, ratified by Ecuador on March 6, 1979, art. 13; Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990, ratified by Ecuador on March 23, 1990 art. 28.

[10] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 13: Right to Education (article 13 of the Covenant), UN Doc. E/C.12/1999/10 (1999), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2f1999%2f10&Lang=en, par. 31; Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 13 (2011) – The right to the child to freedom from all forms of violence, UN Doc. CRC/G/GC/13 (2011), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f13&Lang=en,

paras. 7, 13, 16, 62. United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The right to education – Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Mr. Vernor Munoz Villalobos, E/CN.4/2005/50, December 17, 2004,

https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G04/171/40/PDF/G0417140.pdf?OpenElement, paras. 119, 120.

[11] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 1 (2001) – Article 29(1): The Aims of Education, UN Doc. CRC/GC/2001/1 (2001), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fGC%2f2001%2f1&Lang=en, para. 8. UNESCO and United Nations Girls’ Initiative, School-related gender-based violence is preventing the achievement of quality education for all, Policy Paper 17, March 2015, http://www.ungei.org/srgbv/files/232107E.pdf.

[12] CRC, art. 34.

[13] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 13 (2011) – The right to the child to freedom from all forms of violence, paras.39 and 69; Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment 12 –The right of the child to be heard, UN Doc. CRC/C/GC/12 (2009), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f12&Lang=en, paras. 105 and 109.

[14] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation No. 36 (2017) on the rights of girls and women to education, CEDAW/C/GC/36, November 27, 2017, http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/TBSearch.aspx?Lang=en&TreatyID=5&DocTypeID=11, para. 69 (a).

[15] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “CEDAW Statement "Protection of Girls’ Right to Education" Adopted on 19 October 2012 during the 53rd session,” October 2012, https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/statements/CEDAWstatementGirlsEducationAsAdopted.pdf, p. 1.

[16] See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, art. 19(2) and American Convention on Human Rights, art. 13(1). See also Claude-Reyes et al. v. Chile, Inter-Am Ct.H.R., Series C. No. 151, Judgment, September 19, 2006, para. 264.

[17] See International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), art. 2(2). See also CESCR General Comment No. 14 on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, UN Doc. E/C.12/2000/4 (2000); and CESCR General Comment No. 22 on the right to sexual and reproductive health, UN Doc. E/C.12/GC/22 (2016), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2fC.12%2fGC%2f22&Lang=en.

[18] See International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, arts. 12, 13, 14 and arts, 2(2) and (3). Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 22 (2016)), para. 9. The Committee on the Rights of the Child also notes that adolescent’s ability “to access relevant information can have a significant impact on equality. See Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence, UN Doc. CRC/C/GC/20 (2016), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fGC%2f20&Lang=en, para. 47.

[19] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence, para. 61.

[20] United Nations General Assembly, Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, UN Doc. A/65/162, July 23, 2010,

https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N10/462/13/PDF/N1046213.pdf?OpenElement, para. 32.

[21] Committee on the Rights of the Child, General comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence, paras. 59 and 61.

[22] Ibid., para. 60.

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