Panama’s recent protests over abusive orphanages

A young boy holding up a protest sign. Source: Bangkok Post

On February 10th, 2021, the Panama government released a report about widespread child abuse, uncovered in 14 government-funded orphanages within the country. This report, which was a result of Foco Panamá’s expose on Panama’s orphanages months prior, has been accompanied with rising rates of child abuse cases in the Latin American country.

A sign at one of the protests saying, "Justice for all children.” Source: Vice.

The outrage felt in the country led many to protest the actions. Among the crowd, many of them are young individuals who feel compelled to voice their discontent with the reports that have been made public. Along with marching in public, protestors have created signs to carry out their message for justice.

As a result of the discoveries, many individuals at the directive level from the National Secretary of Childhood, Adolescent and Family (Secretaria Nacional de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia) have been forced to resign as a result of their complicity. The organization was responsible for overseeing these institutions and providing their funding.

Although some of the top officials claim that they were not aware of what was taking place, other employees have spoken out; the abuse, far from being contained in this single incident, has been decades-long. A few of these employees shared that they were scared to come forward, fearing repercussions, such as being fired. In 2017, a general study completed by a parliamentary committee found that dozens of children had been verbally, sexually and physically abused in orphanages.

Among the abuse that was documented, it was revealed that in certain cases, abuse was targeted towards those with physical and mental disabilities. Many orphans were not fed properly, leading to malnourishment. Important medications were denied to those living with mental illness, and orphanages denied scholarship funds set aside for the children.

Another area of abuse involved the sexual exploitation of children. Boys and girls were forcibly prostituted, and in these cases, they were taken to adult events where further harm took place. Disabled children had also been left in substance abuse centers meant for adults. The committee discovered cases where children had been impregnated by their abusers, and in some of the religious schools, they were not allowed to have abortions. In other locations, there were also reports of young girls forced to have abortions.

Panamanian prosecutors have located at least 20 children who were victims of abuse at these orphanages. Chandler D’Orcy, the alternate deputy to the National Assembly, shared that the conditions that the children were living in were horrific, with no bedding and little access to proper food. She added, “It seems that the high-profile people involved in the issue, nothing is happening to them.”

UNICEF has released an official response to the child abuse coverage in Panama, sharing their concern about the situation. They have called for Panama’s authorities to conduct investigations that will help make the children who were victims to these series of crimes a priority. They also mentioned the need for a law that “guarantees the comprehensive protection of children and adolescents as has been indicated on several occasions, most recently in 2018, in the ‘Concluding Observations on Panama's combined fifth and sixth periodic report’ of the Committee on the Rights of the Child.”

Source: La Estrella de Panama

UNICEF’s call to action is centered around structural reform of child services in the country, pointing to the need for competent child care services and referring to rights that fall under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The President of Panama, Laurentino Cortizo, has expressed that those responsible for these child abuse cases must be punished accordingly. In addition to this, he spoke on the need for the Ministry of Social Development to create a bill that would increase the punishment for those caught abusing children.

In the fallout of this report, the country’s former Attorney General, Eduardo Ulloa has resigned. He shares that the events that have been made public have shocked the nation, and believes that the judicial system has proved incapable of addressing the wellbeing of the children.

These cases represent a smaller picture of various child abuse cases in Panama, a situation further exacerbated by the familial and financial circumstances of the children, especially with ⅓ of Panamanian children living below the poverty line. Given how many children are left in vulnerable living conditions, further action needs to be taken in the overseeing of child welfare in the country. Child protection has now taken on a greater presence among the social topics discussed in the country, and now political movement has taken hold.

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