Committee on the Rights of the Child considers the report of Panama

26 September 2011

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has considered the third and fourth combined reports of Panama on its implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Presenting the report, Niurka del C. Palacios, Vice-Minister of Social Development, said that the topic of childhood was fundamental and Panama was fully engaged in protecting children’s rights; it was a priority for the Panamean State. In 2011, 34 per cent of the population was under 18. Over the past five years the economic growth of Panama had reached 8 per cent, which was one of the best rates in the region. This had allowed Panama to increase the focus on programmes for children and youth. However the Government was aware that there was still work to do.

The Committee had recommended that a global law on children and adolescents be adopted. This had led to a bill that would soon be discussed in Parliament. For families with financial difficulties the Government provided help with buying food. Panama wanted to break the cycle of poverty so that indigenous peoples could be part of the national development. Moreover, bilingual education was ensured in those towns, with a special emphasis on the teaching of the mother tongue. With regard to civil rights and freedoms, a bill had been drafted that would give refugees from neighbouring countries in conflict the status of permanent resident. Panama had developed a programme to increase birth registrations. With regard to education, Panama had reached the Millennium Goal of education for all at the primary level. Now Panama had to deal with school drop-outs.

Experts raised questions concerning, among other matters, the bill on a comprehensive childhood plan, the early childhood programme, education and health for children, especially for indigenous peoples and peoples of African descent, the legal age for marriage, the issue of curfews and youth in custody, corporal punishment, the regression of children’s rights in some areas such as adoption, juvenile justice and protection for pregnant teenagers, the fight against child labour in cooperation with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labour Organization, birth registration and freedom of expression.

In concluding remarks, Marta Mauras Perez, the Committee Member acting as Co-Rapporteur for Panama, regretted that there was not enough time in the meeting to discuss subjects such as migrant children, especially girls coming from Colombia. Some subjects had been dealt with too quickly, such as care in the community, getting children out of institutions and health. However many other questions had been answered. She hoped that there would be a public debate on the importance of children’s rights. There needed to be a leadership commitment to make progress in that field. Also, the Committee hoped to very soon receive the initial report on the additional protocol ratified by Panama and that would be another opportunity to engage on the issue with the State party.

The delegation of Panama included representatives of the Ministry of Social Development; the National Secretariat of Childhood, Adolescence and Family; the Superior Tribunal of Youth and Adolescence; the National Institute for Statistics and Census; the Governmental Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies; the Supreme Court of Justice; the Ministry of Labour; the Office of Indigenous Policy; the National Office against Child Labour and for the Protection of working Adolescents; the Department of Social Development under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of the Permanent Mission of Panama to the United Nations in Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will take place on Wednesday, 28 September 2011, when the Committee will examine the combined second, third and fourth periodic reports of the Seychelles (CRC/C/SYC/2-4).

Report of Panama

The combined third and fourth periodic reports of Panama (CRC/C/PAN/3-4) noted that emphasis was placed on the legislative, administrative and programmatic measures that Panama developed in the period 2003 to 2007 in order to implement the rights recognised through the ratification of the Convention.

The following salient measures were taken in the legislative area: Enactment of various rules aimed at ensuring the exercise of the rights of the child, especially in relation to health; strengthening of provisions recognizing the right to name and nationality; special protection of children and adolescents from all forms of exploitation; recognition of the rights of children with disabilities and of indigenous population groups; and adoption of rules designed to ensure the sustainability of the social policies currently implemented.
In the area of public policies, mention had to be made of the development of programmes for overcoming social inequalities, such as the Opportunities Network Programme, the Child Labour Eradication Programmes, the National Health Plan for Children and Adolescents, the National Immunisation Programme, the Primary Health Care Coverage Enhancement Programme and the National Plan for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities.

Despite those achievements, the data compiled revealed the need for joint efforts to ensure the adoption of a comprehensive system for the recognition and protection of the rights of children and adolescents in accordance with the obligations assumed under the Convention. It was therefore urgent that Panama adopted an Act for the comprehensive protection of children and adolescents and created a specialised agency responsible for coordinating and organizing the national policy for children and adolescents.

Presentation of the Report of Panama

NIURKA DEL C. PALACIOS, Vice-Minister of Social Development, said that seven years had passed since the last presentation in front of the Committee. The President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, sent his greetings to the Committee. The topic of childhood was fundamental and Panama was fully engaged in protecting children’s rights; it was a priority for the Panamean State. In 2011, according to demographic estimations, 34 per cent of the population was under 18 years of age. This was a reduction of three per cent in comparison to the year 2000. In the past five years, the economic growth of Panama had reached eight per cent, which was among the best rates in the region. This had allowed Panama to increase the focus on programmes for children and youth; yet the Government was aware that there was still progress to do.

With regard to the general measures of application, the Committee had recommended that a global law on children and adolescents be adopted. This led to a bill that would be discussed in Parliament. With regard to general principles, 30 per cent of the territory of Panama was dedicated to indigenous peoples and the collective system of land-owning was respected. For families with financial difficulties the Government provided help for buying food. Panama wanted to break the cycle of poverty so that indigenous peoples could be part of the national development. Moreover, bilingual education was ensured in those towns, with a special emphasis on the teaching of the mother tongue.

With regard to civil rights and freedoms, a bill was drafted so that refugees from neighbouring countries in conflict could be given the status of permanent resident. This concerned 975 persons that currently had the status of temporary humanitarian situation. Panama had developed a programme called “Registrame, hazme visible” in order to increase birth registrations. Also, Panama was developing programmes to safeguard the rights of all children to live in their families. Panama supported the development of an environment for families that would ensure the best for children. There was a programme for parents to help inform them about the rights of children and learn how to better respect them. There was a programme for families with special needs and those who were socially vulnerable. There were also programmes for abandoned children to help them exercise their right to have a family, which included adoption programmes as well as tutelage.

Since the year 2007, the Panamean Republic had a national secretariat that dealt with disabilities. The Government had started inclusive education programmes for children with disabilities and the infrastructures of schools were being adapted. The Government had services for pregnancy assistance and for children under the age of five. There were also national immunization programmes that made vaccinations compulsory in order to ensure a better health level for children. In matters of health, the Government had opened new centres in rural and indigenous areas.

With regard to education, Panama had reached to Millennium Goal of education for all at the primary level. Now Panama had to deal with school drop-out rates.

In matters of juvenile justice, the Government had a plan for the improvement of the custodial centres. A new centre, with a 12 million US dollar budget, would be built; new rehabilitation programmes were being drafted.

Questions by the Experts

JORGE CARDONA LLORENS, the Committee member acting as the Rapporteur for Panama, said that the Committee was looking forward to a fruitful debate. Once the delegation had the recommendations there would be opportunity for more dialogue with social partners and civil society. Did Panama have anything planned to discuss the results in this report, and did Panama plan to distribute the results? The Committee heard that some sectors had maybe misinterpreted the Convention. It was important to discuss it with society. Many projects were underway, such as a law on family. In Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Uruguay those integral laws already existed. The fact that children’s rights were dealt with in different sections and ministries could cause a problem.

Moreover, some laws needed to be amended such as the law on marriage age (currently age 14 for girls). In Panama many girls married between the age of 14 and 16 years. The Committee would like to see that average age rise, and see Panama adopt the same marriage age for boys and girls. In general, the best interest of the child should be respected.

Custodial re-socialization establishments existed in Panama, but Panama should support families more in order to reduce the number of children in those establishments. Security should also be ensured so that children would not be on the street. On the subject of curfews, they were different according to area; which was discriminating. Also, there was no study on the rights of the child. Corporal punishment was still allowed which was regrettable, and the Committee would also have questions about the situation of children in detention.

MARTA MAURAS PEREZ, the Committee Member acting as the Co-Rapporteur on Panama, said that the Committee was concerned about the signs of regression in some areas; such as adoption, juvenile justice and protection for teenage pregnancies. The reasons for the disappearance of the national consul for children and adolescents were not clear to the Committee. Instead a national secretariat for family had been created but it did not have the resources or the national coverage to be a national coordinator. The position of early childhood consul was created, which actually put on the side the majority of children. Why did those changes take place? What institute was now in charge for the national coordination for children under 18 years old? As for the national action plan, which was assessed in 2007, had it been extended?

The budgets for health and education were not very clear either; the Committee wished to have more details and more data.

The Committee was pleased that Panama had signed the agreements on environment in the indigenous areas.

An Expert asked about data collection and wished to see more information on the particularly vulnerable sectors of the population. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was concerned about the 2000 census, as it lacked numbers on the demographic decomposition. Was Panama planning another census? Did Panama get help from UNICEF for data collecting? Also, the birth registration of Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples should be more systematic.

The Committee was also concerned about the complacency of the police forces in the detention centres. They commented that the reports for the additional protocols were long overdue and wished to see them submitted soon.

Important International Labour Organization Conventions had not been ratified or were not respected. The Committee wished to see the working age in Panama raised.
One Expert had questions on articles 13 and 14. It was not enough to include freedom of expression in the Constitution. How did it apply to the children, and how was that right respected? Was there a monitoring system, including for the area of the family? Did children have access to the media? Were there programmes for children with disabilities? What limitations were there on freedom of expression? With regard to freedom of religion and conscience, did the State party provide funding for religious education? Were there limitations for wearing religious clothing in schools? With regard to children deprived of liberty, did they have access to books of their religion and did they have the visit of representatives of their religion?

Children born to refugees often faced administrative issues. There were positive steps taken to fight discrimination in Panama. Yet, African Panameans and indigenous peoples still faced a lot of obstacles in exercising their rights. There was strong inequality of social and economic rights, particularly in education, health and sanitation. What had the Government done to address those issues?

An Expert was pleased to hear about the schools with a bilingual curriculum. However, she mentioned that children with disabilities were excluded from public life – they were not listened to.

How was the Convention on the Rights of the Child disseminated? Was there information for the children, as well as for students in university?

On the subject of freedom of expression, there had been reports stating that the Government bought advertising space and in return they demanded that articles be written lauding the Government. What did the Government have to say about this? With regard to sexual and reproductive health for teenagers, what programmes were undertaken?

On cooperation with civil society, the Committee could commend the State party because it gave subventions to about 70 non-governmental organizations. The value of civil society and organizations was that they contributed to finding solutions. Was civil society involved in policy formulation and awareness-raising? What role did the non-governmental organizations play in writing this report?

The Committee was concerned about the lack of progress in matters of corporal punishment. The report went around this issue by talking about domestic violence. Cases of mistreatment of children, and even adolescents, were rising. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women had in February 2010 already raised the issue. Did Panama plan to adopt legislation to abolish corporal punishment? What measures were there to address domestic violence and corporal punishment? What policies were there to raise awareness about the fact that non-violent measures were in the best interest of the child?

Concerning birth registrations, the laws of 2006 and 2007 were welcome. The national birth registration campaigns were also positive. Yet the people in border and rural areas, as well as indigenous peoples and people of African descent still had many issues in accessing those services. Did the State party plan to create mobile offices?

The legal age of marriage for women was 14 and for men 16. Yet at 14 one was still a child. This caused issues such as underage pregnancies. It interfered, for example, with their right to education. The age for sexual consent was also 14. Did the State party plan on changing those two age limits?

The national council for children and adolescents was abolished and replaced, but what was the difference between the two bodies? Why was early childhood now separated and under the office of the First Lady? The Committee was concerned by its institutional sustainability. What was the budget of the office of the First Lady? Also, how was the impact of the budget for children and adolescents measured if there was no comprehensive plan and approach?

Persons of African descent represented 9.2 per cent of the population, which was quite important. Yet it seemed that they were still invisible.

Response by the Delegation

There was opposition in Parliament to pass a comprehensive law on childhood because some groups stated that it would give too many rights to children within the family. However there was a comprehensive plan for early childhood. But the plan of creating a comprehensive project for childhood was not abandoned. The First Lady’s office started the debate and that was why the plan for early childhood was under her office. The First Lady did not have a specific role defined in the Constitution.

Concerning the population census, there was a 4 per cent omission rate. A national secretariat coordinated policies targeting people of African descent. In three districts of the country, there was inclusive education where the mother tongue was taught. The Government was making progress in the plans for indigenous regions in order to reduce poverty and exclusion.

Concerning people of African descent, a lot of work had to be done in order to ensure respect for their rights.

With regard to birth registration for children of refugee parents, the situation was being dealt with so that those people could be regularized and had access to registration services. There was a set of standards which demanded proof of birth (testimony of three witnesses that the birth took place in Panama). The processing of residence for refugees was underway.

In line with other organizations, initiatives were started by the Secretariat and pamphlets on the rights of the child were distributed to over 9,000 children. Workshops and exhibitions were organized in schools. The press was involved in creating fora and the dissemination of the rights of children and adolescents. In 2009, the 20 year-anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was celebrated in the entire country. Courses on children’s rights were given to the national police and other civil servants.

With regard to freedom of expression, there was a hotline (147) that young people could call in order to talk about their concerns. This was organized by the Ministry of Social Development. There were also the youth assemblies where young people could inform the Government about their concern. That was how a good price for public transport was obtained.

Questions by the Experts

People of African descent were concentrated in rural areas, which needed to be taken into account when planning the provision of services. The level of subsidy was $50, which for a family of seven was not much. How could a substantial change be reached with subsidies only? Was it possible to facilitate the transition to secondary school?

Panama was a country of origin, transit and destination for migrants. Did Panama have a bill on trafficking of persons? There was a very low level of trials related to that issue.

Child labour was linked to agricultural activities and the coffee industry in particular. What was being done to change this?

With regard to adoption, the standards of the Hague Convention were quite well respected. Yet it seemed that domestic law was given priority when there was a conflict with the Convention. Also, what were the differences between the process for national and international adoption?

With regard to juvenile justice, it looked like it was constant over the past 10 years. The system was made stricter: the age of criminal responsibility was reduced, measures of depravation of liberties were more important – why did the State party decide this, and what were the results of those measures?

Did Panama give the First Lady such an important role in infant health in order to show that there was an urgent need for a national policy on children’s rights?

Bilingual educational schools only covered three communities out of seven, amounting to 420,000 Panameans; 45 per cent of the children were left out of the school system. There was a high level of absenteeism in schools because of a lack of capacity and because of poverty. Registration had increased in those areas but they were not allowed to keep their natural name in their mother tongue. Basic measures on drinking water and sanitation were absolutely crucial in order to reduce the mortality of children in those areas. The communities along the border with Colombia needed special attention so that children did not end up in forced labour in coffee plantation and drug trafficking.
Was there any victim support for those suffering from abuse? Was Panama measuring the results of the programme?

How could the State party monitor the working conditions, especially in plantations? What measures had been taken to protect children from sexual abuse, especially those sold to the offenders? How could the State party detect sexual abuse?

Asylum seekers should have the right to work while their application was being processed.

With regard to issues of displacement affecting indigenous peoples, sometimes violence was used to repress the demonstrations that took place against massive projects, including against children. What compensation was given to those populations that had to change areas?

Questions by the Experts

There was a higher drop-out rate from school by indigenous children than other children. What was being done to help those children?

Children under the age of 18 did not have a voice on refugee issues, which was necessary.

How did Panama handle the demand for HIV/AIDS services, especially in indigenous communities, and including in the antiretroviral clinics that had been opened?

What measures of gender education and empowerment of girl children do Panama have to strengthen their ability to deal with sexual issues?

How was the cash-transfer programme monitored and how did Panama make sure that there was no corruption in the delivery of that service? Could a multi-dimensional approach be taken on child poverty? There were an increasing number of women-held households. Were measures being taken to help those women?

The penal majority had been brought down from 14 to 12 years of age, which was completely contradictory with the Convention. Also, the periods of pre-trial detention were too long and the schedule for family visits to children in detention was both infrequent and irregular.

Response by the Delegation

There was an ongoing discussion about suspending the curfew. For children who had been arrested during the curfew, there had been an attempt to find their families. However many of those children did not have a proper family, so they would be kept at the police station for their own protection. The next day the child would be taken to the Secretariat. Once a member of the family was identified they were allowed to go to that family member’s home. In the extreme situation where no family member could be found, the child was sent to a temporary protection centre. There would also be a check-up to see what condition the child was in; for example, whether he or she was taking drugs.

Questions by the Experts

An expert said keeping a child at a police office for a whole night was not positive, and depriving them of their liberty was entirely against the Convention.

Were prisoners still being tear-gassed? In the youth detention centre of Tocumen there had been three fires in less than one year, in which nine prisoners had died. Had the culprits been identified? According to some testimonies, prison guards were responsible. Were prison guards reprimanded when mistreatment of prisoners was noticed? They should be brought to criminal proceedings.

The State party was working with civil society and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) – would the State also work with associations of Afro-descendants and not only with indigenous associations?

Response by the Delegation

If a prison guard was proven guilty they would of course be sentenced. An inquiry into the events at Tocumen was underway. There was a draft law on adoption to reform act 61.

Question by the Experts

The draft law on adoption really needed to be revised because there was a risk that it would short-circuit some imperatives of The Hague Convention.

Response by the Delegation

The age of criminal responsibility was lowered to 12 because Panama was facing a growing problem of youth criminality. But youth aged 12 were not put in prison.

Questions by the Experts

An expert asked if Panama was punishing the youths who were recruited by those groups, even though they were the victims; the offenders weren’t being punished.
Another problem was that the youth had a very negative public image, although they were victims. The Committee would remain concerned if the curfew was kept as a strategy to fight the gangs.

Response by the Delegation

On the subject of disabilities, the delegation said that an in-depth study was in progress that broke down the numbers into specific data. There was also a national secretariat on disability. The Government wanted to ensure their inclusion. Panama would soon be hosting the Paralympics, which should raise popular awareness of disabilities.

Question by the Experts

An expert said that it seemed that not many disabled children attended mainstream schools, which was regrettable. Schools and buildings should have better access to children with disabilities.

Response by the Delegation

On the subject of child labour, the issue was of essential importance to the Panamanian Government. There were 80,000 children working, of whom 40 per cent worked in agriculture. The highest rate was among the indigenous people. Panama adopted a road map in 2010 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization to tackle the issue. Hopefully by 2014 Panama would have eradicated the worst forms of child labour. The first results of the programme have already been seen earlier in 2011

Indigenous peoples formed a specific issue because they had a habit of constantly crossing borders.

Questions by the Experts

The programme was of course laudable but it was doubtful that it would be entirely efficient until 2014. What else was the State party doing to eradicate child labour? How could the working conditions be monitored?

How did the extra dollar in airport taxes help in fighting sexual exploitation? Why was there no sentencing in sexual exploitation cases? There had been 57 cases but only one or two persons had been sentenced.

The Committee had already asked the State party to abolish corporal punishment but nothing had happened since. Act 38, for example, allowed corporal punishment as long as it did not create any corporal damage. This should be changed.

If a child wanted to complain, what system was there except the hotline 147? This hotline seemed to be more about providing advice rather than accepting complaints. What happened to the cases of girls in the border areas who complained about being raped by police officers?

The national army was abolished but there were four sorts of forces. What was the age of recruitment in those forces?

An expert asked if freedom of expression was safeguarded in Panama?

Response by the Delegation

The labour inspectors were being trained at the local and national level. Many objectives had been achieved; children were involved in a grant system and were reintegrated into the school system. The parents had to pledge they would keep the child in the school system and in the health care system otherwise the grant would not be given. On the subject of sexual exploitation, a technical unit was cooperating with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to create a programme that include, for example, a code of conduct for the hotels in Panama City. The tourist industry was also cooperating on the programme. There were care clinics for victims of sexual exploitation, and offices were being created across the entire country to care for victims. In 2010 there were two rulings at the National Supreme Court on child pornography on the web. The airport tax was used for the implementation of the national convention for fighting sexual exploitation (Act 16). The tax had been collected; the funds were there for the ministries working on that issue. The delegation would give the Committee information on why there was no sentencing later.

In order to fight poverty, one of the programmes was a food supplement programme under the educational system. In primary school children received a breakfast and in middle school they received lunch, depending on the region their school was in. The children could also receive free uniforms. Another aspect of fighting poverty was the Guardian Angel Programme, formulated to help children with disabilities.

In matters of regularizing migrants, last year there were two regularization programmes in which 20,000 persons participated.

There were sexual health education programmes for middle schools. There was also an ongoing dialogue with civil society to try to reach one point of agreement on the legal age of marriage. There was no institutional blockage in raising the age of marriage; a dialogue with civil society was just needed.

People needed to be educated about corporal punishment. An important national campaign to raise awareness was needed; it was a pending issue on the national agenda.

On the topic of complaints, the 147 hotline did receive many complaints of both physical and psychological nature. They were passed on to the ombudsmen. The police officials would carry out the relevant investigations through the public ministry. Most of the country’s schools held workshops on sexual exploitation and the abuse of children, which taught children what they should do if they were ever in such a situation.

A permanent, constant communication would be undertaken so that relevant data could be collected in order to compile the report on the additional protocol.

There was no age of recruitment for the four military forces that existed in Panama. Normally one would be recruited at the age of 18 or above.

Everyone enjoyed the right of freedom of expression in Panama.

Concluding remarks

MARTA MAURAS PEREZ, the Committee Member acting as Co-Rapporteur for Panama, regretted that there was not enough time in the meeting to discuss subjects such as migrant children, especially girls coming from Colombia. Some subjects had been dealt too quickly in the meeting, such as care in the community, getting children out of institutions and health. However many other questions had been answered. She hoped that there would be a public debate on the importance of children’s rights. There needed to be a leadership commitment to make progress in that field. Also, the Committee hoped to very soon receive the initial report on the additional protocol ratified by Panama and that would be another opportunity to engage on the issue with the State party. ¨

NIURKA DEL C. PALACIOS, Vice-Minister of Social Development, thanked the Committee. She said that the Government was fully committed to improving the field of childhood. Efforts would be made in order to reduce the poverty disparities that indigenous peoples and people of African descent were suffering from. Panama would continue working with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labour Organization for the implementation of child protection and the eradication of the worst forms of child labour.

JEAN ZERMATTEN, Committee Chairperson, welcomed the dialogue and the commitment made by the Panamanian Government to improve the situation. Panama had ratified almost all the international conventions, therefore the Committee hoped that the Government would follow up on this.
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