Americas' human rights court hears deadly sexual violence case from Ecuador

By Anastasia Moloney, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, Jan 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Ecuadorian mother who said her 16-year-old daughter killed herself after being sexually abused by staff in school took her 18-year battle for justice to the top Americas court on Tuesday in the region's first case of its kind.

Paola Guzman was sexually abused by a vice-principal from the age of 14 and became pregnant, and the school doctor told her he would perform an abortion if she had sex with him, her lawyers said.

The girl swallowed a toxic chemical, telling her friends on her way to school, but teachers told her to pray for forgiveness instead of getting timely medical help, they said. She died later in a hospital.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, holding a hearing in Costa Rica where it is based, will determine if Ecuador was responsible for failing to prevent and protect Guzman from sexual violence in a state school and failing to provide her with proper medical care.

It is the first time the court has considered a case involving sexual violence in a school, according to the Guzman family attorneys, and its rulings are binding.

Guzman's mother Petita Albarracin said Ecuador did not investigate her daughter's abuse properly and did not punish those involved.

"She was desperate ... the abuse my daughter suffered, she lived through at school," Albarracin said, wiping away tears in an emotional testimony at the court hearing.

"The man was 65-years-old," she said, referring to the vice-principal.

At the public hearing, prosecutors representing the Ecuadorian government acknowledged that the state did not have policies in place that would prevent such a case from occurring.

They said the state had not carried out an "adequate and effective" investigation into the case and said Ecuador was committed to implementing measures to make sure it would not happen again.

One of the three prosecutors offered Guzman's mother a public apology on behalf of the Ecuadorian government.

In Latin America, three out of 10 students aged 13 to 15 have experienced sexual harassment in schools, according to the United Nations children's agency UNICEF.

Guzman swallowed white phosphorus, a chemical used in weaponry, fertilizer and cleaning compounds, and died in 2002 when she was 16-years-old.

Her mother has been waging a legal battle since then, seeking to bring those responsible to justice. She also is seeking financial compensation.

Guzman's case originally was dismissed by a court in Ecuador, prompting lawyers to turn to a regional court, an autonomous body of the Organization of American States, which rules on whether a government has violated human rights.

"Sexual harassment and violence in schools is a reality," said lawyer Catalina Martinez, regional director for Latin America at the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of two groups representing Guzman.

"The judicial and school system treated this case as an adolescent in love. It wasn't a relationship," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

They want the court to order Ecuador to implement measures to protect girls from sexual violence in schools.

"We need to address this with public policy, so that there are no more Paolas in the region," Martinez said.

The court is expected to rule on the case within a year. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, additional reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Katy Migiro and Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)