An international court hearing that involves the alleged sexual abuse of an Ecuadorian schoolgirl between the age of 14 and 16 by her deputy head could transform girls’ rights across Latin America.
In a region where 30% of students between 13 and 15 claim to have experienced sexual harassment while at school, it is hoped that the case, heard on Tuesday at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica, will establish the first international standards to protect girls from coercion and sexual violence in school.
The case revolves around the 2002 death of 16-year-old Paola Guzmán Albarracín, an Ecuadorian schoolgirl who had been allegedly sexually abused by her deputy head after she had gone to him to ask for academic help. He was 65.
When, at 15, Paola discovered she was pregnant, the school doctor agreed to perform an abortion on the condition that she have sex with him, it is alleged.
Paola subsequently attempted to take her own life, yet the school failed to get immediate medical help. When her mother was finally informed many hours later, Paola was rushed to hospital, but the doctors were not able to save her.
In 2006 the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed a case at the IACHR to hold the Ecuadorian authorities accountable for failing to investigate the circumstances leading to Paola’s death. To date, no one has been held responsible for what happened to her.
“Paola Guzmán’s case will allow the Inter-American Court on Human Rights to decide on the rights that all women have to autonomy and how this autonomy is the fundamental pillar of our sexual and reproductive rights,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the CRR.
“This is a symbolic case: Paola represents many girls in the region who are living, or have lived, through this situation already, and by representing this case we are trying to get justice for Paola’s family, as well as flag to the continent that this is a systematic and structural problem and we need to address it.
“This is why this case is so important for the region. It is the first case the court has ever heard on sexual abuse against girls in a school setting and consequently it is the first opportunity the court will have to create standards around these issues, such as capacity and consent. And what it decides will be binding for all 23 member states of the court,” she said.
The court’s jurisdiction stretches all the way from Mexico down to Chile, and a victory could set a precedent for other reproductive rights cases in the region and beyond, said Martínez, especially those regarding access to abortion for girls.
In Ecuador, where the age of consent is 14, girls and adolescents are especially vulnerable to sexual violence: 32% of girls report experiencing some form of sexual violence while at school. Teachers and administrators often take advantage of their positions of trust and authority, yet school authorities rarely act – a failure that perpetuates the existing culture of impunity, according to the CRR.
“When a girl is facing sexual harassment, sometimes she doesn’t even know she is a victim of harassment, and this was the case with Paola: she thought she was in a relationship with the vice-principal and that she was in love with him,” said Martínez.
“But he was 65 and he was an authority figure. Even if the legal age of ‘consent’ in Ecuador is 14, it isn’t possible that this was a ‘love relationship’ – as the state of Ecuador claims – because the power dynamic between them means that this was always a situation of harassment and abuse.”
Neither the vice-principal, nor the school doctor, has ever faced justice for their actions leading up to Paola’s suicide, said her mother, Petita Albarracín, proving that “the state should have protected her, but it didn’t”.
“I don’t want to see any more Paolas. I’ve been fighting for nearly 18 years for my daughter because we have not achieved anything in my country,” said Albarracín.
“I can’t believe that anyone could state that an adolescent girl like Paola could be in love with a 65-year-old man. My daughter was manipulated by this man, there was no love there.
“If they blame her, they are blaming her because she is a woman.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.