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Committee on the Rights of the Child considers report of Panama

GENEVA (18 January 2018) - The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the combined fifth and sixth periodic report of Panama under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Introducing the report, Yazmin Cardenas, Director of the National Secretariat of Childhood, Adolescence and Family of Panama, stated that Panama continued to develop activities seeking to ensure effective implementation of the Convention, and redefining its public policies, programmes and services based on the principle of the best interest of the child.  The National Committee for Deinstitutionalization, comprised of Government and civil society representatives, had been set up to define actions to ensure the systematic protection of the rights of girls, boys and adolescents, and to advance the process of deinstitutionalization of children.  The Government also strengthened inter-institutional coordination in order to define actions to prevent violence against children, and for the first time it had established a formal mechanism of permanent consultation with children.  Panama had also managed to reduce the number of girls and boys who worked.  It had defined a strategic health plan for infants, children and adolescents 2016-2025, and it was making great efforts to improve the education system and to make it free of charge for all children.

In the ensuing discussion, Committee Experts commended Panama’s progress in reducing poverty, and various plans and bills in the area of children’s rights.  However, they reminded that Panama lacked a comprehensive bill on the rights of children and adolescents, and systematic data compilation on child-related issues.  They further inquired about budget lines for children, dissemination of the Convention, the impact of businesses on children’s rights, in particular on the rights of indigenous children, and discrimination against indigenous children, children of African descent, children with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children.  Questions were raised on the participation of children in administrative proceedings, children in foster care and shelters, juvenile justice, adoption laws, the minimum age of marriage, violence against children and corporal punishment, helplines for victims of violence, child labour, child trafficking, the minimum age of criminal responsibility, birth registration, freedom of expression and association, the curfew policy, cohabitation of young girls with older men and resulting teenage pregnancies, educational coverage and quality of education, sexual and reproductive health education, breastfeeding, asylum-seeking and refugee children, mental health, and environmental health.

In concluding remarks, Ann Marie Skelton, Committee Expert and head of the task force on Panama, commended the fact that Panama had ratified all three Optional Protocols and that it had made additional budgetary allocations to children’s programmes.  However, she cautioned that the Government had to carefully think of its investments, budgeting and spending, and she expressed hope that the advancement of children’s rights would be a continuous endeavor that would not stop because of the change of political leadership.

Ms. Cardenas thanked the Committee for all the recommendations and observations, noting that the dialogue was an opportunity for the Government to take stock of the advancements, efforts and challenges. She reiterated Panama’s commitment to continue a constructive and participative dialogue with the Committee and other United Nations treaty bodies.  

Renate Winter, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation and asked it to communicate the Committee’s best regards to Panama’s children.  
   
The delegation of Panama included representatives of the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labour and Labour Development, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Governance, and the Permanent Mission of Panama to the United Nations Office at Geneva.  

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today when it will start its review of the combined fifth and sixth periodic report of Seychelles (CRC/C/SYC/5-6).

Report
The Committee is considering the combined fifth and sixth periodic report of Panama (CRC/C/PAN/5-6).
Presentation of the Report

YAZMIN CARDENAS, Director of the National Secretariat of Childhood, Adolescence and Family of Panama, stated that Panama continued to develop activities seeking to ensure the effective implementation of the Convention, and redefining its public policies, programmes and services based on the principle of the best interest of the child.  The Government had drafted the National Strategic Plan 2015-2019 entitled “A single country” in order to ensure social development and improve the quality of life for all citizens by strengthening inclusive economic growth.  The plan contained six goals linked with the Sustainable Development Goals and an inter-institutional commission had been set up to implement the plan, with the participation of civil society.  Ms. Cardenas highlighted significant progress made in terms of the wellbeing of girls, boys, adolescents and their families.  The National Committee for Deinstitutionalization, which was made up of Government and civil society representatives, had been set up to define actions to ensure the systematic protection of the rights of girls, boys and adolescents, and to advance the process of the deinstitutionalization of children.    

The Government had also strengthened inter-institutional coordination in order to define actions to prevent violence against children.  It had created spaces of participation for children in order to hear their opinions.  For the first time, Panama had established a formal mechanism of permanent consultation with children.  In terms of child labour, Panama had managed to reduce the number of girls and boys who worked.  The Government systematically involved local authorities and civil society in its efforts aimed at eliminating child labour.  The State had defined a strategic health plan for infants, children and adolescents 2016-2025, and it was making great efforts to improve the education system and to make it free of charge for all children, given the many challenges in that area.  Ms. Cardenas emphasized that peace, tolerance and respect were the pillars of national development in Panama, which achieved economic growth of 5.6 per cent in 2017.  The goal of the Government was to focus those resources to guarantee the best interest of the child.        

Questions by the Committee Experts

JORGE CARDONA LLORENS, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Panama, commended the progress made by Panama, namely the zero poverty strategy, and various plans and bills in the area of children’s rights.  He reminded that Panama was almost the only country in the region without a comprehensive bill on the rights of children and adolescents.  When would it come to fruition and what were the barriers to its adoption?  

It seemed that childhood was a not a policy priority.  Did the Government have budget lines for children?  In addition, there was no up and running system for systematic data compilation on child-related issues.  What were the public policies on the dissemination of the Convention, training of public officials, and awareness raising campaigns?  How was the Convention disseminated to indigenous peoples?  

Turning to businesses and children’s rights, Mr. Cardona Llorens welcomed the adoption of the law no. 81 of 2016 which stipulated the requirement for businesses to seek prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.  However, there was a lack of inclusion of indigenous children in such consultations.  What kind of measures had been adopted to offset the negative effect of business activities, including the increasing sex tourism industry?

Mr. Cardona Llorens commended the Government for having raised the minimum age of marriage to 18.  In which instances were marriages with minors considered valid?  Had the Government looked into the existence of forced marriage in rural areas?

Mr. Cardona Llorens drew attention to discrimination against indigenous children, children of African descent, children with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children.  He reminded that the poverty rate among indigenous peoples stood at 60 per cent, whereas the rest of the population had a much lower poverty rate.  He also questioned the usefulness of the curfew for adolescents.  

How did children participate in administrative proceedings?  How were child victims, especially those of sexual abuse, heard?  

Panama was one of 10 countries in the world where children encountered a high risk of violence, Mr. Cardona Llorens reminded.  Some 45 per cent up to the age of 14 were subjected to corporal punishment, and 53 per cent of children experienced bullying in schools.

ANN MARIE SKELTON, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Panama, inquired about the measures to improve birth registration and the functioning of issuing identity documents to youth.  As for freedom of expression, was it true that the right to form student groups had been withdrawn?  

The curfew was a breach of the freedom of association and its efficacy was in doubt.  How was keeping the curfew for adolescents justified?  Thousands of children had been detained as a result of the curfew policy.  Some parents could not afford to pay for their release, leaving a great number of adolescents in detention.

CEPHAS LUMINA, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Panama, raised questions about the measures taken by the Government to monitor local and provincial budgets, to ensure allocative efficiency, and to ensure that the budget was not wasted through poor procurement processes.

CLARENCE NELSON, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Panama, drew attention to the issues of abuse and neglect.  There was no overall national strategy to address all forms of violence against children and adolescents.  What were the budgetary and personnel resources available in that respect?  Were helplines operated 24 hours/seven days a week?  What kind of training did helpline personnel receive?  Did awareness raising campaigns about the helplines exist?

As for torture and cruel punishment, had a bill on the training of personnel working in juvenile prisons been adopted?  There was information that female genital mutilation was performed in some parts of the country.  What steps had been taken to address that problem?  Was cohabitation of young girls with older men, often resulting in teenage pregnancies, a common occurrence?      

Replies by the Delegation

YAZMIN CARDENAS, Director of the National Secretariat of Childhood, Adolescence and Family of Panama, explained that even though there was no comprehensive bill on the rights of children and adolescents, a bill on the system of guarantees and comprehensive protection for children and adolescents had been submitted to the Cabinet and it should be adopted soon.  

Panama was currently adopting indicators on child poverty, in line with its zero poverty plan.  The indicators would focus on nutrition, self-management, family planning and production, entrepreneurship, culture and sports.  In 2017, 18,000 people had benefited from the “Guardian Angel” project for children with disabilities.  Another programme targeting poverty was the “Network of Opportunities.”  Other programmes provided scholarships, housing, healthcare, sanitation units, and drinking water, Ms. Cardenas said.

With respect to the dissemination of the Convention, Ms. Cardenas noted that the Government had declared 2017 as the year of children and had launched awareness raising campaigns geared at parents and guardians on various aspects of children’s rights.      

Consultation with children began in September 2017 at the municipal level across the country, with the support of UNICEF and civil society.  The consultative councils would have an impact on plans, projects and programmes at the local level.  Children’s views in administrative proceedings concerning them were taken into account, Ms. Cardenas noted.  

The National Strategy for the Prevention of Violence against Children and Adolescents was being drafted as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on family, schools, communities, society, and strategic and systematic information.  Adolescents and children participated in the drafting through consultations.  Several helplines for victims were operational, with one specifically designed for child victims.  All protection institutions were linked with the helplines, Ms. Cardenas explained.

As for the curfew, the Government had been reviewing the situation and it had drafted a note to all provincial governors where that administrative measure was in place, informing that the curfew violated children’s rights, Ms. Cardenas clarified.    

Responding to the question about the cohabitation of young girls with older men, often resulting in teenage pregnancies, Ms. Cardenas said that the Government focused on preventing early pregnancies.

The delegation explained that the social public spending earmarked for Government bodies had grown considerably.  Some 25 per cent of the budget was geared for child-related programmes.  The Ministry of Economy and Finance assessed various children’s programmes and their impact, most notably in tackling poverty.  Panama strove to combat corruption at all levels and to channel budget resources to the most vulnerable sectors of society.  

The Government had rolled out several measures for children in conflict with the law, which was a part of the deep overhaul of the penitentiary system.  A hierarchical, merit-based system would be introduced.  Transition centres had been set up for children in conflict with the law who reached the age of majority.    

The delegation stated that it was not aware that female genital mutilation existed in Panama, and it asked the Committee to provide more information in order to conduct an investigation.

Second Round of Questions by the Committee Experts
 
ANN MARIE SKELTON, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Panama, inquired about alternative options for children deprived of a family environment, noting that the number of children in shelters remained high, even though they retained contact with their extended families.  They stayed in shelters due to socio-economic factors and due to the long deinstitutionalization process.  Did the authorities plan to get more budget and staff to deal with this?  How was foster care understood?  

What kind of care and programmes did children in shelters receive?  Information had been received that the Government’s plan on regular oversight visits to shelters would only encompass those shelters run by civil society.  How would monitoring of Government-run shelters be handled?  Could children in shelters file complaints to the Ombudsman?  

Ms. Skelton reminded that the Adoption Law had been amended, but wondered why the Government would adopt a new law before the previous one had been adapted.  Turning to children of incarcerated parents, was there any law or legal precedents that directed courts to use non-custodial sentences?    

As for educational coverage, in some rural areas a regression could be observed and an increase in the level of dropout.  What was the plan to deal with that problem?  How would the new programmes reach the most marginalized groups?  With respect to the quality of education, had the Government determined the causes for its poor quality?  There was a great inequality among schools, mirroring the situation in the overall society in Panama.  Ms. Skelton noted that the fact that Panama spent only 3.3 per cent of GDP on education was very low.

Ms. Skelton regretted that Panama had not raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility, adding that the Government was going in the wrong way, toughening up its criminal juvenile justice and not using relevant statistical data.  What was the situation with respect to free legal aid for children in conflict with the law?  

JORGE CARDONA LLORENS, Committee Expert and Rapporteur for Panama, asked about cross-cutting policies on children with disabilities in all spheres.  What investment had been made in training teachers and what kind of services were provided to children with disabilities?  How would inclusive education be ensured?  

What measures had been adopted to ensure greater pre-natal and natal care?  Mr. Cardona Llorens expressed concern about the lack of sexual and reproductive health education in schools, the high level of teenage pregnancies, and the high prevalence of HIV.          

Extreme poverty had hardly fallen in recent years.  What measures had the Government taken to eradicate it?  

An Expert reminded that the rate of breastfeeding stood at only 21.5 per cent.  Why was that problem more exacerbated in rural areas and among indigenous communities?   In terms of mental health, were there qualified workers to provide psychological support to children? What kind of public policies were implemented?      

What was the scope of the plan on drinking water and environmental health?  Did it cover rural areas?  

As for asylum-seeking and refugee children, was there any intention to establish a child-friendly assessment process?  What was the availability of scholarships and education to asylum-seeking and refugee children?  Since Panama was a corridor for migrant families, what efforts was the Government undertaking concerning reception, repatriation and return?

What progress had been made in monitoring the prevalence of child labour?  What was the update on aligning the definition of child trafficking with the Palermo Protocol?

Replies by the Delegation

The delegation explained that Panama had redoubled its efforts to elaborate the initial report on the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.  The report was in the final phase and it had already been presented to civil society.

The delegation confirmed that the minimum age of marriage was 18.  The Government was currently reviewing an article that seemed to contain a contradiction concerning the prohibition of marriage between minors.  No marriage between minors could be recorded.  

The Ministry of Social Development provided guidelines for the development of marginalized communities, and it designed social assistance policies in order to implement the Sustainable Development Goals and to achieve zero poverty.  Aware of the importance of policies on children and adolescents, on 16 January 2018 the Ministry of Social Development had presented an act on guarantees and protection for children and adolescents.  

Regarding data collection of indicators on children and adolescents, the delegation explained that the national census provided general information about the population.  Furthermore, surveys that took place every two years provided information on education and health.  The Government was working on strengthening the national statistical system, including on the Sustainable Development Goals related to children and adolescents.

Levels of poverty had generally improved, including extreme poverty.  In 2016, 21.2 per cent of the population lived in poverty.  In the past five years, more than 100,000 people had emerged from poverty due to the overhaul of the social protection system.  The average drop in the levels of poverty in the past several years was 1.7 per cent per year.  The Government had launched a decree on an index that would help improve the allocation of budget lines to the most needy sectors of the country, and to create decentralized actions and solutions for diverse regions.  

Commenting on a Committee Expert’s comment that Panama invested only 3.3 per cent of the GDP to education, the delegation stated that the country had increased investment in real terms.  As for combatting corruption in public policies, Panama had signed regional and international instruments and it had a corruption judge to ensure the transparency of public procurement.  

In terms of dissemination of the Convention, various entities organized training on child rights in cooperation with universities and the High Judicial Institute.  There were also modules on inclusive justice throughout the judiciary, and a digital repository on different legal proceedings.  

There was no national system on analyzing data on violence.  However, there was a statistical record of complaints.  The Government had put in place an adversarial criminal system and it was implementing a statistical tool to capture data with more precision.  The Secretariat on the Protection of Witnesses had a comprehensive protection system for victims, especially victims of sexual crimes.  With respect for safeguards for pregnant girls, holistic care was provided to them through new laws and plans of action.  

Turning to child labour, the delegation clarified that in practice Panama did not grant permission to children who were under the age of 15 and had not completed primary education.  But it did grant permission for supervised work to those who did.  There were municipal strategies to eliminate child labour, as well as a department on combatting child labour.  As for the harmonization of child labour laws, Panama recognized that it still needed to work on that problem.  It was true that the minimum working age for children working in the agriculture sector was 12, and that challenges in that sector remained.

On child trafficking and migration, Panama did not penalize regular migration and it was developing a draft protocol for humanitarian cases.  The national trafficking policy addressed organized crime and the Government was able to break down 16 organized trafficking networks in the past several years.  A unit had been set up for identifying victims of trafficking and for their care.  

As for youth identification cards, the delegation explained that if youth did not carry those documents with them, they would not be detained.  The youth police were trained in children’s rights and would immediately assess who their parents were and where they lived.  Children could only be detained in case they found themselves in a situation of risk, or if they broke the curfew time.  Curfews had been in place in Panama for many years, but parents were not asked to pay a fine in order to get their children back.  

YAZMIN CARDENAS, Director of the National Secretariat of Childhood, Adolescence and Family of Panama, clarified that not all children in shelters were there because they had been abandoned.  The authorities kept channels of communication with the family open and tried to exhaust all the means for providing children with their right to live with their biological families.  People who wanted to be foster parents had to meet specific requirements.  Foster families provided temporary solutions, not permanent institutionalization.      
 
Ms. Cardenas stressed that according to the Committee’s recommendations, the Government applied a humanitarian outreach approach to the treatment of minors in new adoption laws in order to avoid potential trafficking risks.  The Government aimed to strengthen the principle of hearing the child’s opinion in the adoption process.    

The delegation stated that the health insurance coverage was almost universal.  The Ministry of Health was planning to carry out a national nutrition survey since the last one took place in 2008.  The rate of chronic malnutrition had fallen from 28 to 19 per cent.  However, it was higher in indigenous areas – 62 per cent.  Child mortality had been falling and it stood at 13.9 per 1,000 live births in 2016.  “Contigo” was a strategy to address the problem of child mortality, including in indigenous areas.  As for the rate of maternal mortality, it had fallen.  Between 2014 and 2016 there had been a drop in the number of teenage pregnancies.  The Government was trying to use preventive programmes and adolescent-friendly information in order to combat teenage pregnancies.  

Panama had developed breastfeeding activities through the activities of the Breastfeeding Commission which met every month.  In 2011 the first monitoring of the breastfeeding activities had been carried out, assessing the manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes.  Some 35 breastfeeding rooms were available in the country, as well as three hospitals that had breastmilk banks.  There was early intervention to tackle any malnutrition problems, as well as nutritional guides for minors in order to promote healthy eating.  

The Government had initiated a project for the training of mental health staff in three institutions.  There were 18 psychiatrists specialized in children’s psychology.  A national mental health plan promoted specific modules for children.  As for environmental health, in 2016 there was an order to build a drinking water line in the Mendoza area.

There was a programme aimed at eliminating the so-called “classroom huts” and to build new standardized classrooms in indigenous and rural areas.  The goal was to expand educational coverage at the primary level and to reach 90 per cent by 2019.  With a programme of care through tutors for children, the authorities aimed to reduce school dropout and to implement differentiated teaching.  In order to bolster data collection on school enrolment, the Government was developing an information indicator and verifying system.  Improving the quality of education was a policy priority.  

Panama had begun a process at the highest level to develop activities and a work plan for children with disabilities.  The Government had recognized special vulnerabilities of children with disabilities, particularly of indigenous children with disabilities.  The Government would focus on gathering statistical data on children with disabilities and on their institutionalization.  

Juvenile justice provided for alternative sentencing and conditional suspension of criminal proceedings.  Non-custodial sentences were preferred and more than 60 per cent of juveniles in conflict with the law received such sentencing.  Currently, there was no overcrowding in juvenile detention centers.                  

Concluding Remarks

ANN MARIE SKELTON, Committee Expert and head of the task force on Panama, thanked the delegation for the answers to the often tough questions posed by the Committee.  The Committee Experts had aired their concerns and they had received more clarity on the situation in the country.  Ms. Skelton commended the fact that Panama had ratified all three Optional Protocols and that it had made additional budgetary allocations to children’s programmes.  However, she cautioned that the Government had to carefully think of its investments, budgeting and spending.  Ms. Skelton expressed hope that the Government would make good use of the Committee’s concluding observations, and that the advancement of children’s rights would be a continuous endeavour that would not stop because of the change of political leadership.

YAZMIN CARDENAS, Director of the National Secretariat of Childhood, Adolescence and Family of Panama, thanked the Committee for all the recommendations and observations.  The dialogue was an opportunity for the Government to take stock of the advancements, efforts and challenges.  Ms. Cardenas added that the Government was aware that it needed to improve its monitoring and data collection on children’s issues.  She reiterated Panama’s commitment to continue a constructive and participative dialogue with the Committee and other United Nations treaty bodies.  

RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation and asked it to communicate the Committee’s best regards to Panama’s children.

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