(New York) – Thousands of children and adolescents have suffered school-related sexual violence in Ecuador since 2014, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While Ecuador has taken important steps to tackle the issue and expedite justice since 2017, its policies and protocols are still not adequately carried out by many schools, the prosecutor’s office, and the judiciary.
The 75-page report, “‘It’s a Constant Fight’: School-Related Sexual Violence and Young Survivors' Struggle for Justice in Ecuador,” documents sexual violence against children from preschool through higher secondary education, and the serious obstacles young victims and their families face when seeking justice. Human Rights Watch found that teachers, school staff, janitors, and school bus drivers have committed sexual violence against children of all ages, including children with disabilities, in public and private schools. Ongoing cases show that sexual violence against students continues.
“Ecuador has failed to protect many children and adolescents from school-related sexual violence, impacting their whole lives, including their rights to education, to redress, and their sexual and reproductive rights.” said Elin Martinez, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author. “Serious gaps in Ecuador’s education and justice systems leave many children and adolescents unprotected, exposed to horrific abuses, stigmatized for reporting abuse, and at risk of re-traumatization.”
According to government data analyzed by Human Rights Watch, between 2014 and May 2020, 4,221 students suffered school-related sexual violence. From February 2019 to September 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed 83 people, including survivors and their families, lawyers, and prosecutors, and analyzed 38 cases and official data on school-related sexual violence.
Cases documented involved rape and sexual abuse, including forcing children to perform sexual acts on school premises or outside school grounds. Students also sexually abused, harassed, and carried out online sexual violence against fellow students. Some survivors faced harassment, bullying, and intimidation after reporting the abuses, from teachers, principals, abusers’ families, and parent-school associations.
Sexual violence has been a long-standing pervasive problem in Ecuador’s educational institutions. The scale only became public in 2017, when the National Assembly set up a cross-party commission to investigate school-related sexual violence cases, after an outcry from families affected.
The commission, named AAMPETRA after a case involving sexual abuse of 41 children at the Academia Aeronáutica Mayor Pedro Traversari, a private school in southern Quito, evaluated actions taken by state institutions to prevent and stop abuses in schools and provide adequate access to justice, focusing on cases between 2013 and 2017. It found that former ministers under President Rafael Correa’s government failed to address sexual violence.
In July 2017, the incumbent government of President Lenín Moreno disclosed data showing high levels of sexual violence in schools, and declared a zero-tolerance policy. It adopted a binding protocol requiring teachers, school counselors, and other staff to report allegations of sexual violence within 24 hours. It created a comprehensive database and tool to track the reporting of cases, investigations, and prosecutions.
But Human Rights Watch found severe gaps in carrying out this policy and ensuring adherence to its binding protocols. The effort is significantly affected by the serious shortage of school counselors and psychologists, who are instrumental in detecting and reporting cases. In some schools or districts, counselors have little support, and teachers, school officials, and district authorities discourage them from filing complaints. The government also appears to have failed to enforce its policies in private schools.
Many children, and their families, also faced serious hurdles when seeking justice. Judicial proceedings are often delayed and not always conducted in children and adolescents’ best interests. Data from the Prosecutor’s Office analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows that between 2015 and 2019, only three percent of reported cases of sexual violence went to trial. Most families felt that they had to fight for justice, sometimes exhausting their financial resources, affecting the entire family’s mental health and well-being.
In 2020, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard the court’s first case on school-related sexual violence. It found Ecuador responsible for abuses against Paola Guzmán Albarracín, a secondary school student raped by her school’s deputy principal for over a year. She took her own life in 2002. The court ordered Ecuador’s government to provide full reparations to Paola’s family and hold a high-level public ceremony to publicly recognize its international responsibilities by December 2020.
Prior to leaving the presidency in May 2021, President Moreno should ensure that all measures the Inter-American court ordered in June take effect or are on course within the time periods prescribed by the court, Human Rights Watch said. Moreno should also promptly provide a public apology to all survivors of school-related sexual violence. Moreno’s government should swiftly establish a national reparations fund for survivors of sexual violence, with a monitoring system to ensure that government institutions fully comply with national court orders.
Ecuador should adopt a long-term zero tolerance state-led agenda, with a strong emphasis on preventing further cases, and adequately responding to those that do occur, Human Rights Watch said. The government should increase resources to prevent and respond to sexual violence in educational institutions and restore budgets for its national policies to prevent gender-based violence and teenage pregnancies.
It should also increase and ensure support for school counselors and psychologists, ensure that all public and private schools are equally accountable for reporting cases of sexual violence, and guarantee that all allegations are adequately investigated. Judicial institutions should ensure that proceedings properly accommodate children and adolescents and support their families, upholding their rights to a fair trial and restorative justice.
“Ecuador’s actions in recent years to acknowledge and address sexual violence in its schools are important, but it should also focus on preventing further abuses,” Martinez said. “All teachers, and school and government officials need to protect students, and ensure that children and adolescents feel safe in schools to make zero tolerance a reality.”