Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, with prison terms of five to 10 years. The government generally implemented criminal aspects of the law better than protection aspects. Rapes constituted the majority of sexual crimes investigated by the PNP and its Directorate of Judicial Investigation.
The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment and both physical and emotional abuse. The law states that sentencing for femicide is a mandatory 25 to 30 years in prison. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious crime. In August the PNP initiated the Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence with 190 agents trained to work these cases. As of June there were 7,773 reported cases of domestic violence nationwide.
The Ombudsman’s Office continued its program Mujer Conoce tus Derechos (Woman, Know Your Rights), which included a wide distribution of flyers. The government, through the National Institute for Women’s Affairs, operated shelters for victims of domestic abuse and offered social, psychological, medical, and legal services. The secretary general of the Ombudsman’s Office and the director of the Panamanian Observatory Against Gender Violence claimed the number of shelters was insufficient.
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, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
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. Although an illegal hiring practice, some employers continued to request pregnancy tests.
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. In February President Varela signed a law prohibiting harassment and racism. The prior law sanctioned sexual harassment but not labor harassment or bullying. The law mandates equal rights for labor and measures to prevent discrimination as well as respect of the norms established in the international human rights conventions signed by the country. It establishes fines for employers or immediate supervisors who fail to follow the law and instructs the Ministries of Education, Social Development, and Labor, in conjunction with the University of Panama, to develop educational programs for the awareness of these rights.
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 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 and continued a program that used pamphlets in schools to sensitize teachers, children, and parents about mistreatment and sexual abuse of children. In March President Varela signed a law amending the penal code to increase sentences for convicted pedophiles. Sentences went from five-10 years to seven-12 years in prison. If the crime is committed by a clergyperson, relative, tutor, or teacher, the penalties increased from eight-12 years to 10-15 years in prison.
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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.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; 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.
Most of 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. Few private schools admitted children with disabilities, as they are not legally required to do so. The high cost of hiring professional tutors to accompany children to private schools–a requirement of all private schools–precluded many students with disabilities from attending.
In January the National Secretariat for Disabilities Issues publicly admitted a shortfall of 2.5 million balboas to conduct the Second National Census on People with Disabilities, which was two years behind schedule. The first census took place in 2006.
The government-sponsored Guardian Angel program continued to provide a monthly subsidy of 80 balboas 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.
In June and July the Ministry of Labor hosted weekly job fairs for persons with disabilities.
Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians. Newly arrived Venezuelans noted prejudice in popular culture and in recent laws passed by the legislature restricting labor participation and length of visa stays. 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 reluctant to integrate.
The Afro-Panamanian community was underrepresented in positions of political and economic power. Areas where they 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. The secretariat was designed to work with the national census agency to ensure an accurate count in 2020 of Afro-descendant Panamanians.
The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments; no 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. Lighter-skinned persons 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. 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 in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas (legally designated semiautonomous areas) for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups. The government also unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities. Government institutions recognized these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories not included when the original comarcas were created. Government officers continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from the community, and many requested recognition of their land via collective titles.
In March members of the Embera and Wounaan communities protested for collective land titles in front of the Ministry of Environment. To resolve the issue, the ministry granted eight territories, home to more than 5,000 persons, conditional land titles pending inspections by the National Authority of Land Administration. Several indigenous organizations along with NGOs requested a hearing at the IACHR to analyze the collective land title claims and the protection of indigenous communities. Part of the land of the 17 communities still awaiting titles fell within protected areas, which delayed ministerial approval.
Other land-titling conflicts continued to arise. In April the Embera Wounaan demanded the eviction of nonindigenous settlers occupying their land illegally, in compliance with a ruling from the Supreme Court. In July an incident between the indigenous Guna community from the Wargandi comarca in Darien and local settlers left one person dead and one injured. In October the National Assembly’s Indigenous Issues Committee approved a law to create a comarca for the Naso people. In September the Bri submitted a claim to the Supreme Court demanding the protection of their human rights. In 2015 the Bri Bri requested collective title for their lands in Bocas del Toro but as of November had not received a reply. This action was in response to a protest outside the Ministry of Environment’s regional office by local farmers, who contended the Bri Bri land claim included land farmed by approximately 300 local farmers and therefore the title should not be granted. The Bri Bri claim was analyzed in the October IACHR hearing, but the government requested more documentation and clarification of the specifics of the land claim.
The Ngabe and Bugle continued to oppose the Barro Blanco dam project, which became operational in April 2017. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations. The Ngabe-Bugle and the government continued to negotiate details of the dam’s operation.
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 use available legal channels.
In May the Ministry of Government presented its 15-year National Indigenous Peoples Development Plan, backed by a 25-year, $80 million loan from the World Bank. The plan includes goals to increase development investments for indigenous territories and to deliver public services within the comarcas.
In August members of the Guna community protested outside of the Electoral Tribunal against alleged discrimination. According to the group, community members were forced to remove a traditional nose piercing before taking their national identification photograph. After the incident the Electoral Tribunal instructed regional offices that they could not force a citizen to remove the piercing, according to a 2000 law that protects the right to traditional garb.
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 (the majority 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.
Education deficiencies continued 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 teachers and indigenous communities in the Ngabe comarca began periodically protesting the poor roads and education in the comarca by closing the Interamerican Highway as well as other roads. In September a group of Ngabe closed the highway for more than 10 hours to protest the delay in the construction of a road to their communities that would connect the 1,200 inhabitants and 12 schools. Police forcibly removed the protesters from the highway. Nine police officers were injured and 12 Ngabe arrested, some with injuries. This sparked a 60-day strike in 43 of the schools in the comarca as teachers demanded better work conditions, including safety bonuses, better life insurance, and improved roads. Access to health care was a significant problem in the indigenous comarcas, despite government investment in more health infrastructure and staff. This was reflected in high rates of maternal and infant mortality and malnutrition. The government continued to execute the Indigenous Development Plan jointly developed with indigenous leaders in 2013.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
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.
The PNP’s internal regulations describe consensual same-sex sexual conduct by its employees as against policy and potentially grounds for dismissal. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) human rights organizations reported harassment of LGBTI persons by security forces as a source of serious concern.
On June 29, LGBTI activists organized the 14th annual Pride Parade without impediment. Unlike in previous years, there was no anti-Pride Parade countermarch.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS in employment and education. Discrimination continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. LGBTI individuals reported mistreatment by health-care workers, including unnecessary quarantines.
In August President Varela signed a law prohibiting labor and other types of discrimination against persons with sexually transmitted diseases and their immediate relatives and mandating employers to follow International Labor Organization (ILO) recommendations on how to manage employees with HIV. Employees are not obligated to disclose their condition to the employer, but if they do so, the employer must keep the information confidential. The law also mandates that persons seeking to wed must submit to the civil court a physician’s note certifying they each had an HIV test recently. The test results are not to be made known to the court, but the judge must ask both parties if they know the results of the other’s test. Marriage cannot be impeded if the results are positive. Several LGBTI activists complained that forcing the disclosure of the results to the other individual violates privacy rights.
The government’s National Network for the Continued Integral Attention of Persons with HIV/AIDS continued during the year. The Ministry of Social Development collaborated with the NGO PROBIDSIDA to conduct HIV/AIDS outreach to students in public junior and high schools.
In a joint effort with LGBTI NGOs, the UN Development Program, and the National Program for HIV/AIDS, the Ministry of Health conducted HIV/AIDS tests within the LBGTI community in several provinces. During the year PROBIDSIDA also worked with the Ministry of Public Security “Barrios Seguros” (Safe Neighborhoods) program to provide HIV/AIDS training and free testing services to at-risk youth from vulnerable communities. Individuals who tested positive received medical treatment.