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Ecuador's Uptick in Violence Heightens Risks for Schoolchildren

Investigate Sexual Violence Against Students, Protect School Staff

Students return to school after the government of Ecuador temporarily suspended in-person lessons in response to a series of violent events at the beginning of the year in Quito, Ecuador, January 24, 2024.  © 2024 FranklinJAcome/Agencia Press South/Getty Images

The escalation of violence and organized crime activity throughout Ecuador is having a dire impact on children’s rights. A temporary switch to online learning, as well as threats by criminal groups, have particularly impacted their right to learn in a safe environment.

After President Daniel Noboa declared on January 9 an “armed conflict” against gangs, Ecuador’s education ministry temporarily suspended all in-person classes and switched to online learning across the country, affecting nearly 4.3 million children, according to UNICEF. In previous months, the ministry had already transitioned to online learning in cities like Guayaquil and Durán, among the worst affected by gang violence.

But as the world learned during the Covid-19 pandemic, online learning can expose children to sexual violence both online and offline.

Civil society representatives I interviewed over the last year said that online learning makes it difficult for school staff to detect sexual violence cases among children and for children to report these incidents. The education ministry’s protocols guide staff on identifying symptoms of violence in survivors, which may be difficult to do if children are not regularly in contact with school staff.

In some of Ecuador’s provinces, during online classes, unknown, masked individuals—in one case armed—reportedly entered online classes to threaten students and teachers.

As of last week, all schools are back in person, but the heightened organized crime activity is making it harder to address sexual violence.

Ecuador has long had high levels of impunity for people who commit sexual violence against children. Young survivors and their families are often threatened into silence by perpetrators, who then may avoid reporting or withdraw complaints. Sexual violence cases may also be underreported due to threats or extortion against school staff, who may fear repercussions or lack of support from authorities if they do report such offenses.

According to one civil society representative who worked in Guayaquil's schools, when perpetrators are linked to drug trafficking or other crimes—as when organized crime is involved—victims do not wish to report violence against them.

Whether Ecuador’s children are learning online or offline during this period of instability, children have a right to learn in a safe environment. The government should ensure that survivors can safely report sexual violence, that threats and violence against staff who report cases are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted, and that survivors are able to find justice.

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