The Inter American Court of Human Rights sets standards on the gender-based violence continuum in educational settings
Guzmán Albarracín and Others vs Ecuador, adopted by the Inter American Court of Human Rights in June 2020, is historic. This is the first case in the Inter American Human Rights System that addresses sexual violence against a teenager in the public education system, and that in itself is a landmark. However, its contributions to the jurisprudence on gender-based violence goes beyond this.
Paola Guzmán Albarracín endured sexual violence, in the form of sexual harassment and abuse, for over a year starting when she was 14 years old. The Vice-Principal of the public school which she attended lured her into having sex with him in exchange for completing her academic requirements to pass the school year. She believed they were in a loving relationship, in spite of the 40 years between them, his position of power and the fact that it is a criminal offence to have sex with a minor. She became pregnant and was pressured by the Vice-Principal and the school physician to have an abortion. She took her own life leaving letters behind explaining that she felt deceived by the Vice-principal, as he had been with other women. While the Court did not acknowledge Paola´s pregnancy nor the pressure to have an abortion as proved facts, it determined that Ecuador had violated Paola´s rights to life, dignity, personal integrity, education, equality before the law, fair trial and judicial protection and to be free from sexual violence as stated in the American and the Belém do Pará Conventions.
Traditionally, much of the Court´s jurisprudence on sexual violence against women has been geared towards sexual violence as torture, sexual violence in the context of extrajudicial killings and detention and feminicide, amongst others. These cases are situated in the most evidently extreme position within the spectrum of gendered violence and discrimination. They have developed important jurisprudence around the duty to eliminate, prevent and sanction violence against women. However, either because of the backlog and increase of petitions before the Inter American Commission of Human Rights or because cases are not litigated for many reasons, the Court´s docket has fallen short in addressing everyday violence against women. This is why this case, along with others, is crucial to guide the region on how to address structural issues of discrimination that have been ignored, not because of their lack of gravity but because of their normalisation. The case sheds light on sexual harassment and abuse and its prevalence in education settings, an issue which is not portrayed by the Court as an exceptional situation, but rather as pervasive. Also, on the role of sexual and reproductive rights education as a duty to prevent sexual violence and under the right to education.
Notably, the decision builds on the Court’s jurisprudence on the right to non-discrimination. It continues to depart from a single axis discrimination analysis and embraces an intersectional discrimination analysis. As such, it understands the discriminatory nature of the violence suffered by Paola delving on her vulnerability because of her age and gender. It also determines the violation of the right to access to justice based on the use of gender stereotypes within the criminal investigation. The Court´s analysis addresses discriminatory practices in law making – the criminal offense in place at the time- and legal interpretation within the criminal law investigation. Such analysis provides guidance on substantive equality approaches to cases of gender-based discrimination and upholds the duty for States to apply a gender perspective in adjudication.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the case develops the understanding of sexual harassment and abuse as violence. The decision determines that Paola suffered a continuum of sexual violence escalating from sexual harassment to sexual abuse and leading her to take her own life. Moreover, for the Court, the lack of measures to prevent and sanction sexual violence at the school, as well as the lack of education on sexual and reproductive rights, as a duty to prevent sexual violence, placed Paola in a vulnerable situation. As such, it affirmed that the school´s omissions enabled the sexual violence and amounted to institutional violence. The Court´s understanding of her situation within a continuum of violence and affirming the school´s enabling behaviour as institutional violence are important steps in developing criteria to analyse the causes and consequences of violence and discrimination against women, as well as the role of the State, institutions and society in perpetrating, tolerating and enabling such violence and discrimination. It was about time that Paola´s mother and sister got some justice after waiting for 18 years.