Human Rights Watch Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child
Review of Guatemala
97th Pre-Sessional Working Group
We write in advance of the 97th Pre-Sessional Working Group Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (the Committee) and its review of Guatemala to highlight areas of concern regarding the government of Guatemala’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This submission addresses articles 28, 3, 6, 24, and 29 of the Convention and covers access to education, health care, and the protection of education from attack.
Access to health care, including abortion services (articles 3, 6, 24, and 29)
Pregnancy during adolescence and early motherhood are a social and health problem that affects thousands of girls in Guatemala, risking not only their health but also their ability to exercise autonomy, access to education, and other human rights. The Observatory for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (OSAR) reported 43,331 pregnancies of adolescents and girls ages of 10 to 19 years old between January and August 2023, including 1,589 in girls from ages 10 to 14. Similarly, the Ministry of Health recorded 1,220 pregnancies in girls under 14 years old between January and June 2023. Data from the Ministry of Health also indicates over 11,000 pregnancies of girls under the age of 14 in the three years leading up to June 2023. Under Guatemalan criminal law, all pregnancies of girls under age 14 are considered the result of sexual violence.
Access to maternal health care for pregnant girls is hindered by both the unavailability of needed healthcare goods and services and physical, economic and discriminatory barriers in access for patients. In rural areas, some health centers lack the necessary supplies, including prenatal vitamins, to properly care for girls. In many cases, civil society organizations make efforts to compensate for the lack of adequate public health care by providing girls with medications, financial assistance, and other support through their pregnancy. Girls and their families often must travel long distances, sometimes for hours or even days, to reach healthcare facilities where they can receive the medical treatment they need, with these journeys’ costs straining already-limited financial resources for many households.
Girls who experience pregnancies as a result of sexual violence often encounter discriminatory treatment from health care professionals. In some cases, during and after pregnancy and childbirth, girls do not receive specialized care commensurate with their age.
Pregnancies under the age of 14 carry significant risks to girls’ physical and mental health and put girls’ lives at risk. In Guatemala, abortion is criminalized, except when the life of the pregnant woman, girl, or person is in danger, and penalties vary from one to twelve years in prison. This exception is interpreted by medical professionals to only include cases where death would be immediate or imminent. Safe and legal abortion for girls under 14, whose pregnancies are a result of sexual violence, and which inherently put their lives at risk because of age, remains unavailable.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has previously called on Guatemala to decriminalize and legalize abortion and ensure access to safe abortion services, as have the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Human Rights Committee.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Guatemala:
- What measures are being taken to prevent girls’ unwanted pregnancies?
- What measures are being taken to address the unwanted pregnancies of girl survivors of sexual violence?
- What measures are being taken to ensure access to safe, legal abortion services for girls?
- What steps are being taken to ensure the availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality of maternal health care for girls during their pregnancy and childbirth, and afterwards?
Access to education, including comprehensive sexuality education (article 28)
International human rights bodies have emphasized the fundamental right of children to access education on the basis of equal opportunity. In Guatemala, challenges remain. Many girls, particularly Indigenous girls in rural areas, stop attending school by the sixth grade. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) children experience discrimination that limits their academic success or drives them out of school.
Sexual violence against children is one barrier to education. Research conducted by Human Rights Watch, which included interviews with Ministry of Education officials and non-governmental organizations, found numerous cases of sexual violence by teachers against their students, leading girls to drop out of school. According to health ministry officials interviewed, in rural areas many girls do not continue their secondary education because classes are often only taught in the afternoon, and their parents do not want them to walk back to their homes at night because of the possibility of being assaulted.
Girls often drop out of school once they become pregnant or give birth. Pregnant girls often face discrimination in schools by teachers, classmates, and their communities.
A barrier to access to education for LGBT youth is discrimination, including bullying from teachers and fellow students for demonstrating signs of non-normative sexuality or gender expression. Human Rights Watch researchers found that in some cases, this led students to drop out of school, pushing them into social and economic precarity. No law explicitly prohibits discrimination against LGBT students in Guatemala, and the education ministry has no guidelines aimed at preventing bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Comprehensive Sexuality Education
The provision of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), which should be age-appropriate, scientifically accurate, evidence-based, and culturally sensitive in accordance with established international standards, is not being effectively implemented in schools. Studies and education experts link CSE to numerous positive outcomes in young peoples’ lives, such as reducing gender-based violence and discrimination and increasing gender equitable attitudes, self-efficacy, and confidence in students. A lack of access to CSE in Guatemala fails to provide children with the tools that can, for example, decrease sexual violence, especially against girls.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education has noted that CSE “must pay special attention to diversity, since everyone has the right to deal with his or her own sexuality without being discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Yet, authorities in Guatemala have advanced a bill that uses the rhetoric of protecting children and adolescents from “gender identity disorders” as a pretext to justify a measure that would ban the dissemination of any information about transgender identity in school sex education curricula. The bill would also require media outlets to label programs with transgender content, which the bill likens to pornography, as “not recommended” for children under 18. The Congress’ Commission on Education, Science, and Technology unanimously approved the bill in December 2021.
In August 2008, at the XVII International AIDS Conference, health and education ministers from Latin America signed the "Prevent with Education" (“Prevenir con Educación”) Ministerial Declaration, pledging to include CSE in the region’s school programs.
In 2010, Guatemala took a step forward by establishing the "Prevent with Education" Charter, a formal agreement that set forth guidelines and created a Bi-Ministerial Health-Education Committee to implement the declaration’s goals. Due to persistently high teenage pregnancy rates, limited access to CSE and forced child pregnancies, the Ministries of Health and Education decided to renew the charter in 2015. It remains in force until 2025.
Despite the framework established by the Charter that focuses on a human rights approach, cultural relevance, gender sensitivity, and a comprehensive reproductive health approach, its lack of implementation, particularly in enforcing a CSE curriculum in schools, has led to barriers for children and adolescents to access to sexual and reproductive health information. In many cases, educators do not teach CSE. According to officials at the Ministry of Education and civil society organizations, teachers may be reluctant to talk about the subject matter because they view it as taboo and are uncomfortable with certain topics, such as sexual violence and sexual orientation and gender identity. In other cases, teachers fear broaching the subject because of the pushback from parents and communities.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Guatemala:
- What steps are being taken to eliminate physical, economic, discriminatory, and informational barriers to accessing education, particularly for girls in rural and Indigenous communities and LGBT youth in Guatemala?
- What measures are in place to prevent and address cases of sexual violence committed by teachers and discrimination against LGBT youth to ensure the safety of students in schools?
- How is Guatemala working to combat discrimination, stereotypes, and stigma against girl survivors of sexual violence who face forced pregnancies and against LGBT youth?
- How is comprehensive sexual education integrated into the curriculum in Guatemala, and how does it address sexual violence, forced pregnancies, and sexual orientation and gender identity?
Access to Education During Covid-19 School Closures (article 28)
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Guatemala opted for distance learning, fully closing its schools for 33 weeks and only partially opening them for 53 weeks. From March 2020 through February 2021, 4.2 million students missed at least three-quarters of classroom instruction due to school closures implemented to limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
Limited involvement by parents; limited restricted household resources, including lack of access to or ability to pay for internet, and other necessary educational goods like digital devices and textbooks; and living in rural areas without the adequate availability of or access to electricity and broadband connections created obstacles to children’s access to online learning during the pandemic. In Guatemala, only 15 percent of homes had internet access in 2021.
The education ministry set up distance-learning television programs, which students were supposed to watch, then do an exercise, and send a photo of their work to their teachers. “The program is on a channel that sometimes you can’t watch in certain areas,” said a primary school teacher in a village in Guatemala. “I have colleagues in schools in the center of [the nearby city of] Antigua, who tell me that they do meetings on Zoom or send assignments through [Google] Classroom. Those of us from the villages don’t have access to this technology.”
Teachers did not receive adequate financial and material support from the Ministry of Education, and many had to take it upon themselves to buy educational goods for themselves and their students. At the beginning of the pandemic, one teacher told Human Rights Watch she had to pay out of her own pocket for materials her students needed, including photocopies of their homework and paying for transportation to their homes to deliver it. “The government and the education ministry demand so much from us, but don’t give us the means,” she said.
Students faced limited public financial support for their education as well, which inhibited their learning, as many did not have access to phones, computers, or textbooks. Even phone storage or credit was a barrier. The teacher said: “When [my students] had questions, many would call me and then say, “Miss, call me back, I don’t have any credit!”
The primary school teacher said her efforts to provide mostly offline distance learning did not work for her students whose parents had very low literacy and could not support their children: “My challenge is that there are children who are waking up late, not doing their assignments, and they’re falling behind.” In July 2020, she estimated: “I would say that 40 percent are doing homework and studying.”
Covid-19 school closures left working parents—including teachers—needing to identify alternative child supervision options during the day. In a global report, Human Rights Watch found that many teachers who were also parenting during the lockdown experienced additional stress, increased workloads, and additional costs of teaching from home and overseeing their children’s learning.
A primary school teacher interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who was widowed and taking care of her two daughters at home, said she could not always find the time to help her daughters with learning: “They gave us instructions as teachers that we have to work from 7:30 to 12:30, resolving any issue, creating work materials, but not helping our children, nor doing anything else.”
The teacher described limited financial and material support for teachers, her students, and her daughters, at the cost of her students’ and daughters’ learning. “For their virtual classes, one of my daughters has to use a phone and the other the computer, so in those moments, I can’t use either of them.” She continued: “My students often send me questions by phone, and I can’t answer because my daughter is using it. I often have to interrupt her so I can take a student’s phone call.”
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Guatemala:
- What specific measures has the government taken to remedy lost learning time during Covid-related school closures of all children, including those from rural areas and low-income backgrounds?
- How is the government taking steps to address the learning inequities between children from low-income and higher-income households that resulted from disparate access to goods necessary for remote education, including digital devices and the internet.
- How has the education ministry monitored students’ attendance and participation at school following school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic?
- What resources or support has the government or education ministry provided to students and teachers following the return to in-person classes?
Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Guatemala to:
- Prioritize increased public investment in the development of robust and universally accessible public educational institutions and programs. Allocate sufficient funds to ensure functioning public educational institutions and programs that are available for all students, particularly those in rural areas, are free from access barriers, whether physical, economic, discriminatory, or informational, and of sufficient quality to respond to the needs of students. In addition, remedy existing disparities in educational access and outcomes by strategically allocating additional educational resources to improve the availability of and access to education for children from socially and economically marginalized and low-income communities, children traditionally at risk of exclusion from education, and those shown to have been particularly affected in their education during the pandemic, including children from low-income backgrounds and children from rural areas.
- Now that schools are open, enable schools to assess students’ level of learning in each subject, and provide needed support to improve levels, including through free extra tutoring and counselling, as necessary.
- To the extent that online learning is used beyond Covid-19 school closures, develop or expand device affordability and availability initiatives for schools and families, with support targeted at the most marginalized children, and adopt measures to ensure access to affordable, reliable, quality, and accessible internet, including targeted measures to provide free, equitable access to the internet for educational content, and in a manner that protects children’s privacy online.
Protection of Education from Attack (article 28)
The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. Guatemala endorsed the declaration in May 2019.
As of July 2023, Guatemala was contributing 164 troops to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These troops are required to comply with the UN Department of Peace Operations’ UN Infantry Battalion Manual (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.” The Democratic Republic of the Congo has witnessed hundreds of attacks on schools in recent years.
Human Rights Watch encourages the Committee to:
- Congratulate Guatemala for endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration.
- Ask the government of Guatemala whether protections for schools from military use are included in any policies, rules, or trainings for Guatemala’s armed forces, and in particular, whether pre-deployment training for Guatemalan peacekeepers includes the ban on using schools in military operations.
- Recommend that the government incorporate the declaration’s standards in domestic policy, military operational frameworks, and legislation, and share any good practices with other countries in the region and elsewhere.
 Records of births and pregnancies in teenage mothers – Year 2023. Source: OSAR Guatemala. https://osarguatemala.org/registros-de-nacimiento-y-embarazos-en-madres-adolescentes-ano-2023/ (Accessed October 31, 2023).
 Data from public information request to the Ministry of Health. 2023.
 The Guatemalan Penal Code, Decree No. 17-73, Title VII, Chapter III, Article 173. https://oig.cepal.org/sites/default/files/1973_codigopenal_guatemala.pdf
 The Penal Code, Decree No. 17-73, Title VII, Chapter III, Articles 134-140 (1973). https://oig.cepal.org/sites/default/files/1973_codigopenal_guatemala.pdf
 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations on the Combined Fifth and Sixth Periodic Reports of Guatemala, CRC/C/GTM/CO/5-6, February 28, 2018, http://docstore.ohchr.org/SelfServices/FilesHandler.ashx?enc=6QkG1d%2FPPRiCAqhKb7yhsk70ICkwAKxw8HLJU1yka3mHDarggNcbVc xItqP9kX9RjXytQOdtZXmWIPAg4bUZXg07nLoj1w0OyBk8g8juu7nqtu0UuVwDNpvl2%2FBXTpKJ (accessed October 12, 2022); UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations on the Combined Eighth and Ninth Periodic Reports of Guatemala, CEDAW/C/GTM/CO/8-9, November 22, 2017, https://documents-ddsny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N17/394/08/PDF/N1739408.pdf?OpenElement (accessed October 12, 2022); UN Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations: Guatemala, CCPR/C/GTM/CO/3, April 19, 2012, https://documents-ddsny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/420/98/PDF/G1242098.pdf?OpenElement (accessed October 12, 2022).
 Human Rights Watch, “It’s What Happens When You Look Like This” Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People in Guatemala, pp. 38-41 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2021/03/“It’s%20What%20Happens%20When%20You%20Look%20Like%20This”_0.pdf.
 UN Human Rights Council, Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Vernor Muñoz, U.N. Doc. A/65/162, July 23, 2010, https://undocs.org/A/65/162 (accessed October 26, 2023), para. 23.
 Congress of Guatemala, "Iniciativa que dispone aprobar Ley para garantizar la protección integral de la niñez y adolescencia contra los trastornos de la identidad de género,” No. 5940 (introduced July 12, 2021), https://www.congreso.gob.gt/detalle_pdf/iniciativas/5787#gsc.tab=0.
 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Institute for Statistics, “COVID-19 Education Response” (country dashboard webpage), 2022, https://covid19.uis.unesco.org/global-monitoring-school-closures-covid19/country-dashboard/ (accessed October 10, 2023).
 UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), COVID-19 and School Closures: One Year of Education Disruption (New York: UNICEF, 2021), https://data.unicef.org/resources/one-year-of-covid-19-and-school-closures/ (accessed October 16, 2022), p. 9.
 World Bank, UNICEF, and UNESCO, Dos años después: Salvando a una generación (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2022), https://www.unicef.org/guatemala/media/4676/file/dos%20a%C3%B1os%20despu%C3%A9s,%20salvando%20a%20una%20generaci%C3%B3n.pdf (accessed September 27, 2022).
 Human Rights Watch interview with teacher, San Juan Gascon, Antigua, Guatemala, July 7, 2020.
 Human Rights Watch, “Years Don’t Wait for Them”: Increased Inequalities in Children’s Right to Education Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2021), https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/05/17/years-dont-wait-them/increased-inequalities-childrens-right-education-due-covid#_ftn109.
 Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed October 18, 2023).
 Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf (accessed October 18, 2023).
 The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), “Safe Schools Declaration Endorsements” (webpage), 2023, https://ssd.protectingeducation.org/endorsement/ (accessed October 18, 2023).
 United Nations Peacekeeping, “Troop and Police Contributors” (webpage), https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/troop-and-police-contributors (accessed October 18, 2023).
 United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual, 2012, section 2.13.
 See for example GCPEA, Education Under Attack 2022, https://protectingeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/eua_2022.pdf (accessed October 18, 2023), and UNICEF, “Conflict in eastern DRC is having a devastating impact on children’s education,” March 29, 2023, https://www.unicef.org/drcongo/en/press-releases/conflict-eastern-drc-having-devastating-impact-childrens-education (accessed October 18, 2023).