Inter-American Court Issues First Judgment on Sexual Violence in School

judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Credit: IACtHR

Earlier this month, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) published its first judgment to identify States’ obligations to prevent and redress sexual violence in schools. See I/A Court H.R., Guzmán Albarracín and Others v. Ecuador. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 24 June 2020. Series C No. 405 (Spanish). The case concerned Paola del Rosario Guzmán Albarracín, who was sexually abused by her public high school’s vice principal as a teenager and died by suicide in 2002. In finding Ecuador responsible for multiple human rights violations, the IACtHR stated that children have a right to an educational environment that is safe and free from sexual violence, which States must take proactive steps to protect, including by creating simple complaint processes. [IACtHR Press Release (Spanish)]. The Court also emphasized the importance of sexual and reproductive education as part of the right to education. [IACtHR Press Release (Spanish); Center for Reproductive Rights Press Release]. In addition to condemning Ecuador’s policy and investigative shortcomings, the IACtHR held the State directly responsible for the school officials’ actions in carrying out and condoning the sexual abuse and in not seeking medical assistance for Paola Guzmán. See I/A Court H.R., Caso Guzmán Albarracín y Otras Vs. Ecuador: Resumen Oficial Emitido por la Corte Interamericana (Spanish) (hereinafter Summary).

Facts of the Case

At age 14, in 2001, Paola del Rosario Guzmán Albarracín was a student in a public school directed by the Ministry of Education when she asked her school’s vice principal for academic help. See IACHR, Merits Report No. 110/18, Case 12.678, Paola del Rosario Guzmán Albarracín and Relatives (Ecuador), 5 Oct. 2018 (hereinafter Merits Report). He coerced her into a sexual relationship, and repeatedly sexually abused Paola over a period of two years. School officials were aware of the situation and of the vice principal’s similar interactions with other students. See Summary, p. 2. In late 2002, Paola came to believe she was pregnant; the school doctor told her he would terminate the pregnancy in exchange for sex. See Merits Report, para. 7. She consumed poison and died after the school officials refused to seek medical help for her. See Summary, p. 2. Despite the family’s efforts toward accountability, Ecuadorian courts dismissed the criminal case and archived the civil case (without securing the ordered compensation from the vice principal), after the vice principal fled. See Summary, pp. 2-3.

In Ecuador, as in some other countries, the legal age of consent to sex is 14, and sexual abuse in schools is common. [Guardian; The Week]

Procedural History

In 2006, the Center for Reproductive Rights and CEPAM-Guayaquil filed a petition against Ecuador before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). See IACHR, Admissibility Report No. 76/08, Petition 1055-06, Paola del Rosario Guzmán Albarracín (Ecuador), 17 Oct. 2008, para. 1. In 2008, the IACHR admitted the petition. See id. When the IACHR held a merits hearing in the case in 2015, Ecuador did not send representatives to participate. [Center for Reproductive Rights: Hearing]

The Commission’s 2018 merits report found Ecuador responsible for violating Paola’s rights to “life, humane treatment, honor and dignity, special protection of the State for a girl, equality and nondiscrimination, education, health, and a life free from violence, established in Articles 4.1, 5.1, 11, 19, 24, and 26 of the American Convention on Human Rights…; in Article 13 of the Protocol of San Salvador, and Articles 7.a and 7.b of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish, and Eradicate Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará).” See IACHR, Merits Report No. 110/18, Case 12.678, Paola del Rosario Guzmán Albarracín and Relatives (Ecuador), 5 Oct. 2018, para. 155. With respect to Paola’s family members, the IACHR concluded that Ecuador had also violated their rights to humane treatment, due process, judicial protection, and equality and non-discrimination under the American Convention, in conjunction with the State’s obligations under Article 1.1 of the American Convention and Article 7 of Convention of Belém do Pará. See id. at para. 186.

The IACHR recommended that the State: provide “full reparation” and free medical and mental health care as desired by the family members, carry out the relevant investigations and criminal proceedings with due diligence, impose appropriate penalties on the State officials responsible for the impunity in the case, and adopt non-repetition measures including regulations and oversight mechanisms to respond to sexual abuse in schools. See id. at para. 187. Ecuador failed to submit its report on implementation of the IACHR recommendations within the two-month period. See IACHR, Referral to IACtHR of 7 Feb. 2019 (Spanish).

In February 2019, the IACHR referred the case to the Inter-American Court, which held its own hearing in January 2020. [Guardian] Before the Court, Ecuador recognized its international responsibility for failing to adopt measures to prevent sexual violence in Paola’s school and for failing to act with due diligence in its investigation of the allegations. See Guzmán Albarracín and Others v. Ecuador, Judgment of 24 June 2020, para. 16.

The Court’s Judgment

Although the Court could not determine whether Paola had been pregnant at the time of her death, on the basis of the other facts alleged, it held Ecuador responsible for violating the human rights of Paola and her family members. With regard to Paola, the Court found the State had violated her rights to life, humane treatment, protection of honor and dignity, and education under the American Convention on Human Rights and Protocol of San Salvador, in connection with its obligation to respect the rights of the child. It also held that Ecuador had not complied with its obligations not to commit, and to prevent, violence against women, under the Convention of Belém do Pará. See id. at para. 276(1).

Importantly, the Court recognized a State obligation to protect girls and adolescents from sexual violence in schools, including by monitoring the situation, developing policies of prevention, and establishing simple mechanisms for accountability. See id. at para. 120. In its analysis, the Court examined the role of patriarchal norms, gender stereotypes, the power imbalance between students and educators, and multiple discrimination in sexual violence against girls and adolescents. See, e.g., id at para. 142. The Court held Ecuador responsible for not taking action to address the known problem of sexual violence in schools. See id.

With regard to the inadequacies in the investigation and punishment of the responsible individuals, the Court held Ecuador responsible for violations of the rights to due process and judicial protection, in connection with the right to equal protection and non-discrimination, as well as its general obligations to respect and protect rights under the American Convention and Convention of Belém do Pará. See id. at para. 276(2). Interestingly, the Inter-American Commission had asserted a violation of Article 24 (equal protection and non-discrimination) of the American Convention, but the petitioners had not. See id. at para. 7.

With regard to Paola’s mother and sister, the Court found violations of their rights to humane treatment. See id. at para. 276(3).

The Court held Ecuador was not responsible for some of the alleged violations. It concluded the treatment of Paola and her family had not amounted to torture, and that there had been no violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. See id. at para. 276(4).


With regard to reparations, the Court ordered Ecuador to provide free psychological or psychiatric treatment to Paola’s mother and sister; publish the judgment; officially recognize its responsibility; award Paola a posthumous high school degree, subject to the family members’ wishes; declare a national day against sexual violence in schools; identify and adopt measures to address sexual violence in schools; pay damages and costs; and report to the Court on its compliance with the judgment. See id. at para. 276.

Additional Information

The Inter-American Court’s judgment builds on decisions and statements from other supranational human rights bodies that have previously addressed sexual violence in schools. Other relevant judgments include the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights’ 2014 judgment holding Ireland responsible for its failure to protect a nine-year-old girl from sexual abuse by a teacher, due to its inadequate supervision of schools – despite the known risks of such abuse – and because of the lack of an effective complaint mechanism. See ECtHR, O’Keeffe v. Ireland [GC], no. 35810/09, ECHR 2014, Judgment of 24 Jan. 2014.

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