Sexual violence in Bolivian schools: a breach of the torture obligation

This month, fourteen years ago, Patricia Flores, a ten year old girl, was abducted within her public school, beaten, raped and murdered. Her body was discovered five days later by a staff member of the school by accident in the school storage deposit. In 2009, ten years later, the Supreme Court of Bolivia declared the case, including the investigative stage, to be void, thus allowing the principal suspect in the case to remain at liberty. To date, her family continues to seek justice in her name and the truth surrounding her brutal murder in 1999.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, sexual violence in educational establishments occurs in a “framework of power dynamics built upon age and/or gender differences amidst very hierarchical structures”. Additional factors such as poverty, inequality, disability, and membership of ethnic minorities intersect with gender and age and make the relationship even more lopsided and expose girls and youths who are members of these groups to even greater danger of having their rights violated. Alarmingly, the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence in schools are male teachers and male students; and girls and female youths are the victims. Both categories of perpetrator engage the responsibility of the State.

In educational institutions, parents entrust their young girls to the State and its actors with the legitimate expectation of care, schooling and importantly freedom from violence. It is a relationship of faith and confidence. It entails a reinforced obligation on State actors to ensure their protection from violations of human rights, including the right to be free from ill-treatment and torture. In the context of the confluence of rights and obligations such as the special protection that must be afforded to girl-children, the right to be free from discrimination from violence and the right to education, sexual violence occurring in educational institutions, both including and excluding rape, must prima facie amount to a violation of the prohibition against torture. Thus, in assessing the gravity of the crime particular attention must be paid to the vulnerability of the victim, in this case young school girls, the hierarchical system within the educational institution and the control of the teachers and staff over the children.

Against this background, in May of this year the Committee against Torture urged the Bolivian state to take measures to prevent and respond appropriately to the cases of sexual abuse in schools, including investigating such claims and compiling information on the level of occurrence. Victims and their families must be able to access justice and reparations and specialized health services including family planning and diagnostics for sexually transmitted diseases, among others, must be offered.  The State must, it said, ensure that those responsible for the death of Patricia be brought to justice and sanctioned appropriately. It added that it would follow with attention Patricia’s case, which is presently before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in the context of the importance of education has stated that “a well educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence.” Patricia was not only denied this, she was raped and ultimately her life and future were stolen from her by persons, as yet, unknown. As Nora Sveaass, Member of the Committee Against Torture and Co-Rapporteur on Bolivia asked the Bolivian state last month: “What can the State do to really, really ensure (the United Nations Committee against Torture) and the girls of Bolivia that they are safe in school?” Let us hope that those with the power to do so prevent the reoccurrence of such egregious acts and that they remember Patricia and all the other young girls examining the scope of the application the prohibition of torture.

Sarah Houlihan presented the shadow report prepared by Women’s Link Worldwide and the Bolivian organization FUNDERES to the Committee against Torture in Geneva on May 15, 2013. The Concluding Observations of the Committee on Bolivia were published on May 31, 2013.

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