Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence:The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and stipulates prison terms of five to 10 years. Rapes continued to constitute most sexual crimes investigated by the National Police Directorate of Judicial Investigation. In April the Supreme Court found National Assembly member Arquesio Arias, a Guna Yala native, not guilty in both of his 2020 charges for sexual assault, alleging a “lack of evidence.” Arias was a physician in his indigenous comarca (a legally designated semiautonomous area) and was denounced by several Guna Yala women for sexual misconduct and abuse. Arias returned to his legislative seat on July 1. The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment, gender-based violence, and both physical and emotional abuse. For example, the law states that sentencing for femicide is 25 to 30 years in prison, whereas penalties for other forms of homicide range from 10 to 20 years in prison. The law was not effectively enforced. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious problem.
As of October the Public Ministry reported 13,013 new cases of domestic violence nationwide, including 12 attempted femicides and 16 femicides. The province of Panama Oeste and the Ngabe Bugle comarca led the numbers with four femicides each, followed by the Panama Province with three cases. In August, Panama City’s deputy mayor Judy Meana pressed charges against her partner for domestic violence. The alleged abuser was detained for several hours. The judge released him while requiring that the accused release his passport to the court, appear before the court’s office every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and adhere to a restraining order from Meana. The prosecutor filed an appeal, but the judge upheld the decision.
From January through August, the National Institute for Women’s Affairs continued to operate its hotline to give legal guidance to victims of domestic violence and extended its services to include mental health services for women facing stress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hours of operation were reduced from 24/7 to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. due to a shortage of professional staff to support the hotline. If a caller were at risk during the call, the operator would make a connection with the Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence within the police department. After professional staff returned to in-person work in September, the hotline services were discontinued due to staffing limitations. The institute continued to work under a budget that did not allow for victim services and assistance.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations but not between colleagues. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports (only 16 cases had been reported as of September).
Investigations at the Public Ministry continued in the 2020 case of a National Aeronaval Service (SENAN) female pilot who filed a criminal complaint for sexual harassment against her immediate supervisor. Both the man accused of the harassment and the victim were transferred to other departments and given new duties. For months during the year, many restrooms for women at SENAN remained locked due to the pending case. In these cases, women needed to obtain a key from a specific office to access their restrooms. Restrooms for men continued to be open and unlocked at all times.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
The law permits medical professionals to perform abortions only if the fetus, the mother, or both are in danger, or, in some very limited cases, if the pregnancy is the result of rape.
The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including emergency contraception.
Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men, but the law was not enforced. For example, SENAN permitted female pilots to fly only as copilots, while male newcomers with less seniority were allowed to fly as principal pilots without restrictions. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law does not mandate equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. Some employers continued to request pregnancy tests, although it is an illegal hiring practice. The law puts restrictions on women working in jobs deemed hazardous.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent legal immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians.
The Afro-Panamanian community continued to be underrepresented in governmental positions and in political and economic power. Areas where many Afro-Panamanians lived lagged in terms of government services and social investment. The government’s National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians focused on the socioeconomic advancement of this community.
As of August, the Ombudsman’s Office had received six complaints of racism. Five of the complaints involved the use of traditional African costumes at work sites. The sixth report concerned a public school that barred a student’s use of hair braids. After the ombudsman contacted the school principal regarding the matter, the student was allowed to attend his virtual classes in braids.
The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments. Lighter-skinned individuals continued to be overrepresented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists.
The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Despite the law’s requirement, the government failed to assign funds necessary for completion of the bilingual literacy project. Indigenous persons have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups.
Several of the groups faced internal governance problems, since they either did not have legally elected authorities, or the government delayed the recognition of their duly elected authorities. This complicated the receipt of government funds, including those allotted to combat the spread of COVID-19. During the year the government issued an executive degree regulating elections in the Ngabe Bugle comarca, which had been on stand-by since 2017.
The government unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities, on the basis that these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories that were excluded from the constitution when the original comarcas were designated in 1938. The traditional government authorities are organized under a national coordinating body for indigenous affairs, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples. In August the coordinating body stated that high-level government authorities had ignored their meeting requests, which they considered discriminatory, since the government held meetings with other ethnic groups and associations. The coordinating body also expressed concern that the government was stalling full implementation of the Indigenous Peoples Development Plan.
Officials from various government entities continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from indigenous communities, many of whom requested recognition of their land via collective titles. No collective land titles were granted during the year, however, and land conflicts continued to arise. Several Embera communities in Darien Province claimed that illegal settlers continued to enter their lands during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the nationwide movement restrictions, and that their complaints went unaddressed. The Supreme Court of Justice ruled the Naso comarca constitutional, and the legal process for its creation was underway. In June the Bri Bri people submitted a demand to the Supreme Court for protection of their human rights, requesting that the court overturn the denial of their application for collective title to their lands.
The Barro Blanco dam project, opposed by the Ngabe Bugle peoples, continued to operate unhindered. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations.
Although the law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous peoples had not received sufficient information to understand their rights. Additionally, due to the inadequate educational system available in the comarcas, many indigenous peoples were unaware of or failed to use available legal channels.
Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently denied indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s agricultural plantations (most of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.
Access to health care continued to be a significant problem for indigenous communities, primarily due to poor infrastructure and lack of personnel and supplies. During the year the Embera health and sanitary infrastructure collapsed under the increased influx of migrants emerging from Colombia. The Ngabe Bugle people closed the Interamerican Highway on several occasions, demanding significant improvements to their comarca’s road system. Deficiencies in the educational system deepened at all levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the public school system remained operational through virtual education, the comarcas typically had very limited access to internet and radio signals. These technological barriers prevented indigenous students from accessing educational opportunities.
Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates.
Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The law has several articles pertaining to child abuse and its penalties, which depend on the type of abuse and range from six months to 20 years’ imprisonment if the abuse falls under a crime that carries a higher penalty. Public Ministry statistics as of September reported that 3,660 children were victims of different types of abuse; the Public Ministry believed these crimes were underreported. The Ministry of Social Development maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs.
In February the Women’s, Children, and Youth Commission of the National Assembly revealed the results of a study commissioned in 2019 of children’s shelters nationwide. The 700-page report, which was not made public but was widely discussed by legislators, allegedly revealed widespread abuse, including sexual abuse, negligence, lack of supply of medications, and administrative irregularities in the shelters investigated. These shelters were managed by NGOs, supervised by the National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and Family Affairs (SENNIAF), and operated with government funding.
In late August, SENNIAF announced that between May and July, it filed eight criminal complaints for alleged abuse in shelters, in response to a legislator who alerted the media about receiving anonymous complaints detailing additional abuse cases in SENNIAF-supervised shelters. As of September, the Public Ministry had opened 27 cases, charged 13 individuals, and convicted three others.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The government prohibits early marriage even with parental permission.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering for prostitution of children, in addition to child pornography. Officials from the Ministry for Public Security prosecuted cases of sexual abuse of children, including within indigenous communities. Ministry officials believed commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics. As of September, there were no cases reported nationwide of child sexual tourism.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
Jewish community leaders estimated there were 15,000 Jews in the country. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with disabilities faced difficulty accessing education, health services, public buildings, and transportation on an equal basis with others. Government information and communication is not provided in accessible formats, and there is no law requiring such access. The law mandates that persons with disabilities have access to education and health services, including rehabilitation and therapies, public transportation, public and private buildings, sports and cultural events, and jobs without discrimination. In practice, however, accessibility was limited.
Private schools started reopening in June, but public schools remained closed during the year due to the pandemic. Public schools taught via the public SerTV radio and television stations. Only occasionally did the Ministry of Education facilitate sign language interpretation for students with hearing disabilities during classes taught on television. Schools did not address other disabilities during home and virtual schooling.
Most of Panama City’s bus fleet remained wheelchair inaccessible. Public buses in the rest of the country were small and not adapted for persons with disabilities. The Panama City Metro elevators remained closed for most of the year, according to NGO representatives. A lack of ramps further limited access to older stations, although Metro Line 2 had ramp access.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS in employment and education. Discrimination, however, continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. LGBTQI+ individuals with HIV or AIDS reported mistreatment by public health-care workers.
Employees are not obligated to disclose their condition to the employer, but if they do so, the employer must keep the information confidential. Employers may be fined for not keeping an employee’s medical condition confidential. The government was not active in preventing discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS.
There were fewer public HIV/AIDS medical treatments and supplies available, since most medical resources were dedicated to fighting COVID-19. The University of Guatemala funded stigma-free “friendly clinics” for LGBTQI+ COVID-19 patients, but activists reported that staff members in these clinics were not friendly to their visitors.
During the year there was only one appointment per month at the Ministry of Health’s facilities for the HIV viral load test. Pregnant women who needed the test were prioritized for appointments over members of the LGBTQI+ community.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQI+ persons reported harassment by public-health officials, but there were no public reports of police harassment during the year.
In June, LGBTQI+ activists organized two Pride Month parades in Panama City. Early in the month, the private Museum of Liberty and Human Rights raised the Pride flag, but days later it was vandalized by a group of “profamily” and anti-same-sex marriage activists during a protest outside the museum. Part of the museum’s board decided not to raise the flag again. As a result, five board members submitted their resignations to the board’s president in protest. The Canal Museum also raised the Pride flag but later took it down upon receiving a government request citing a law that stipulate only the Panamanian flag can be flown in government buildings. The Canal Museum is a joint private-public venture and received public funding.
The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. There was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities. Same-sex marriage continued to be prohibited by law. As of October the Supreme Court had not ruled on the 2016 class-action lawsuit requesting the article of the family code that refers to marriage as “the union of a man and a woman,” and thus forbids same-sex legal unions, be declared unconstitutional. Panamanian same-sex couples who were married abroad were not allowed to legally register their marriage. In September the Supreme Court did not admit a writ of mandamus filed by a local law firm against the Civil Registry’s decision not to register the same-sex marriage of a Panamanian citizen and his Colombian spouse held in Colombia in 2017.