Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years, or eight to 10 years under aggravating circumstances, such as use of a weapon. The government generally implemented criminal aspects of the law better than protection aspects of the law. Rapes constituted the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the PNP and its Directorate of Judicial Investigation. NGOs reported that many women were reluctant to report rapes due to fear of retaliation, perceived low likelihood of a response, and social stigma.
The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment and both physical and emotional abuse and provides for prison terms of up to 30 years for murder. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious and underreported crime. Statistics varied widely between reporting authorities, as prosecutorial discretion contributed to an uneven application of laws and statistics surrounding domestic violence.
The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program “Mujer Conoce tus Derechos” (Woman, Know Your Rights), which included a wide distribution of flyers featuring women of different ages, professions and ethnic groups, with a quotation expressing their views on gender problems.
There is a lack of shelters for victims of domestic abuse. The government, through the National Institute for Women Affairs, operated a shelter in Panama City for victims of domestic abuse and offered social, psychological, medical, and legal services.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine, because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, and pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable. The lack of formal reports was attributable to the absence of a follow-up protocol after initial complaints are filed, the difficulty of providing proof in the absence of third-party witnesses, the lack of favorable results in the few past cases, and the likelihood a woman filing a complaint would be fired.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and manage their reproductive health; they also have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. The law provides for medical professionals to perform abortions only in the case of danger to the fetus or to the mother.
Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law mandates equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. The Ministry of Social Development and the National Institute of Women promoted equality of women in the workplace and equal pay for equal work, attempted to reduce sexual harassment, and advocated legal reforms. Although an illegal hiring practice, some employers continued to request pregnancy tests.
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. The National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and the Family estimated the registration level of births at 92 percent.
Child Abuse: The Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) 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 seven provinces and continued a program that used pamphlets in schools to sensitize teachers, children, and parents about mistreatment and sexual abuse of children.
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: Officials continued to prosecute cases of sexual abuse of children in urban and rural areas, as well as within indigenous communities. Officials believed that commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics.
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 travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
Jewish community leaders estimated there were 15,000 Jews in the country. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel and other transportation, access to health care, the judicial system, and the provision of other state services; however, the constitution permits the denial of naturalization to persons with mental or physical disabilities. The law mandates access to new or remodeled public buildings for persons with disabilities and requires that schools integrate children with disabilities. Despite provisions of the law, persons with disabilities experienced discrimination in a number of these areas.
Panama City’s bus fleet was not wheelchair accessible. Metro elevators were frequently locked and could not be used. A lack of ramps further limited access to the stations. Most businesses had wheelchair ramps and accessible parking spaces as required by law, but in many cases they did not meet the government’s size specifications.
Some public schools admitted children with mental and physical disabilities, but most did not have adequate facilities for children with disabilities.
In April the Ombudsman’s Office submitted a complaint against a public junior high school for not providing an appropriate curriculum to a 16-year-old student with learning disabilities. As of August the Ministry of Education Integration Directorate had not resolved the issue, and the teenager continued to miss school.
Few private schools admitted children with disabilities. The high costs of hiring professional tutors to accompany children to private schools–a requirement of all private schools–burdened parents of students with disabilities.
The government-sponsored Guardian Angel program continued to provide a monthly subsidy of 80 balboas ($80) for children with significant physical disabilities. To qualify, the parents or guardian of a child must be living in poverty and must submit a medical certification specifying the degree of the disability and the child’s dependency on another person. Authorities conducted home visits to ensure the beneficiaries’ guardians used the funds for the intended purpose.
As of March the National Secretariat for the Social Integration of Persons with Disabilities (SENADIS) had issued 324 new certifications that, in the form of an identification card, allowed persons with disabilities to receive discounts on medications, health services, utilities, transportation, and entertainment. Recipients reported that private medical facilities and pharmacies honored the discounts but that entertainment establishments lacked awareness about the certifications.
In May, President Varela signed Law 15 to expand the rights of persons with disabilities. The law establishes that disability issues are not only a matter of public health but also a human rights concern. It mandates the government to coordinate internally to assign more program funds to disabilities issues, to provide timely medical attention to persons with disabilities and to waive import taxes on medical equipment.
In June the Ministry of Labor provided job-skills training to persons with disabilities. As of September, 59 local companies reportedly hired 64 persons with disabilities through Ministry of Labor-sponsored job fairs.
SENADIS continued to operate the Family Businesses Project, which assisted low-income families with members with disabilities to start microbusinesses. By July the government provided 50 balboas ($50) per month to 59 new beneficiaries. Throughout the year the government also donated rehabilitation equipment to low-income persons with disabilities.
Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent immigrants and the Afro-Panamanian community. Cultural and language differences and immigration status hindered the integration of immigrant and first-generation individuals from China, India, and the Middle East into mainstream society. Additionally, some members of these communities were themselves reluctant to integrate into mainstream society.
The Afro-Panamanian community continued to be underrepresented in positions of political and economic power. Areas where they lived conspicuously lacked government services and social investment. In October the National Assembly passed a bill to create a National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians to focus on social and economic advancement of that minority group. The bill also provides for a mechanism for the secretariat to work with the national census to ensure an accurate count of Afro-descendant residents in the country.
The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; few complaints were filed. The Ombudsman’s Office intervened in several cases before students with Rastafarian braids were permitted entry into public school classrooms.
There were reports of racial discrimination against various ethnic groups in the workplace (see section 7.d.). Lighter-skinned persons continued to be disproportionately represented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists.
The terms for board members of the National Council for the Afro Ethnic Group, an organization created in 2005 by an executive decree to combat discrimination against Afro-Panamanians, expired, and they did not have successors as of August. The government appointed a paid manager to work for the council, but the national coordinator reported a lack of communication between the manager, the council, and the national coordinator for the country’s black organizations.
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. Indigenous individuals 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. Traditional community leaders governed legally designated areas for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups. The government did not recognize such areas for the smaller Bri Bri and Naso communities. In June companies building a dam project signed an agreement with Ngabe communities to resume the construction of 26 housing units to be used to resettle residents from the dam area following the IACHR’s review of the case.
There were multiple conflicts between the government and indigenous groups regarding decisions affecting indigenous land and autonomy. In April the Guna General Congress declared in a letter to President Varela that it was breaking relations with the Panamanian government. Guna authorities also demanded that the National Migration Service and the Maritime Authority vacate their offices inside the Guna Yala comarca. Guna leaders claimed the Maritime Authority’s ruling in favor of an Austrian tourist who refused to pay tax for using scuba gear in a prohibited area of the comarca represented government interference with indigenous autonomy. Also in April the National Assembly approved a law establishing the right of indigenous groups to public consultation and free and informed consent of legislative and administrative measures, programs, and plans that affect their collective rights. The Supreme Court also voided a 2010 executive decree, which allowed traditional authorities of the Ngabe Bugle to choose their electoral system.
The Ngabe Bugle and the Naso continued to clash with the government over the issue of hydroelectric plants on territorial lands, including over the Barro Blanco dam project, which would flood approximately 14 acres of “annexed lands,” as well as submerge a pre-Columbian petroglyph that practitioners of the main Ngabe Bugle religion, Mama Tatda, worship. In May the government’s support of Generadora del Istmo, S.A.’s (GENISA) conducting a test fill of the Barro Blanco dam reservoir resulted in a wave of protests in the Ngabe Bugle comarca and Panama City that briefly closed major highways and resulted in the arrests of several protest leaders. In late August the government signed an agreement with the Ngabe Bugle leader to place GENISA as the plant operator; allocate 50 percent of the jobs created by the project to indigenous workers; and terminate all other concessions on the Tabasara River, with future concessions within the region to be approved by a plenary of Ngabe Bugle congresses at the local, regional and supraregional level.
The Ngabe Bugle people in the area of Bocas del Toro also protested against the Chan 2 thermoelectric projects and demanded their cancellation.
Although the country’s law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous persons misunderstood their rights and, due to their inadequate command of the Spanish language, failed to employ legal channels when threatened.
Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently did not afford 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 sugar, coffee, and banana plantations (the majority of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Employers were less likely to provide adequate housing or food to indigenous migrant laborers, and indigenous children were much more likely to work long hours of farm labor than nonindigenous children (see section 7.d.). The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.
Education continued to be deficient in the comarcas, especially beyond the primary grades. There were not enough teachers in these remote and inaccessible areas, with many multigrade schools often poorly constructed and lacking running water. In April the government began a project to eliminate “escuelas rancho” (rural impoverished schools) with an overall budget of 100 million balboas ($100 million). Access to health care was a significant problem in the indigenous comarcas, as reflected in high rates of maternal and infant mortality and malnutrition. The government continued to invest in transport infrastructure by repairing roads in the comarca to improve access to basic services.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and there was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities (see section 7.d.).
The PNP’s internal regulations describe homosexual conduct by its employees as an offense. Harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons by security forces was a major complaint of the New Men and Women of Panama, the main LGBTI organization, but formal complaints were rare due to the perception that the reports were not taken seriously or that complaints could be used against claimants in the absence of nondiscrimination legislation. On July 2 gay rights advocates organized and participated without impediment in the 12th annual gay pride parade. Panama City Mayor Jose Blandon and his family led the march for the second consecutive year with a record attendance of 4,000 participants.
The country does not recognize any relationship between LGBTI partners in terms of health care, parental rights, property rights, or any publicly provided services.
In August a homemade video showing a mother physically abusing her minor son for his alleged homosexual tendencies went viral. With the public’s assistance, the National Secretariat for Children Issues (SENNIAF) identified the mother and took her into custody, but a SENNIAF official angered LGBTI groups when referring to the minor’s alleged homosexual tendency as a “deviation” on national television.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS in employment and education, but discrimination continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. The 2015 MIDES National Network for the Continued Integral Attention of Persons with HIV/AIDS continued during the year. MIDES collaborated with NGO PROBIDSIDA to conduct HIV/AIDS outreach to students in public junior and high schools. During the year PROBIDSIDA also worked with the Ministry of Public Security “Barrios Seguros” program to provide HIV/AIDS training and free testing services to at-risk youth from vulnerable communities. Youth who tested positive received medical treatment.
LGBTI citizens reported mistreatment by health-care workers, including unnecessary quarantines. PROBIDSIDA reported a case of discrimination, whereby co-workers did not want to work with an HIV-positive employee, resulting in his transfer to multiple departments. As of August PROBIDSIDA was working with health authorities to resolve the case.