Machala Gay Pride March, Machala, Ecuador 2008. Photo by vesselthefilm.

Lesbians in Ecuador are being tortured and sexually abused in approximately two hundred clinics that claim they can “cure” people of their homosexuality, according to reports from civil society organizations in the country. The clinics generally masquerade as drug rehabilitation centers.  Civil society organizations have called on the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health to permanently shut down the clinics, but as of November 2011, only about thirty have been closed. Despite the aims of these clinics, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and inter-sex (LGBTI) individuals in Ecuador actually enjoy more profound de jure recognition of their rights than do their counterparts in other countries in Latin America. For example, Ecuador was the first country in the Americas, and the third in the world, to include sexual orientation as a protected category in its Constitution in 1998. In 1997, the country’s Constitutional Tribunal overturned section one of Article 516 of the Penal Code, which criminalized sexual activities between persons of the same sex. Article 68 of the 2008 Constitution formally recognized same-sex civil unions under the law, and Article 11 reiterated the freedom of all peoples from discrimination. Article 66 also guaranteed all Ecuadorians the rights to physical, moral, and sexual integrity of person, as well as freedom of expression of sexual orientation. Finally, Article 212 of the Penal Code criminalizing hate speech, sanctions those who incite hate against any other person for reason of their sex, sexual orientation, or sexual identification, among other characteristics.

However, the de facto situation of LGBTI rights and protections against discrimination and even violence is completely contradictory to the law. These “intense rehabilitation” clinics employ methods prohibited under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. Ecuador is a state-party to both of these conventions, and to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women—conventions whose principles are violated by abuses taking place at these clinics.

Twenty-four year-old Paola Ziritti came forward after being held against her will in a clinic for two years, and reported that the clinic staff would routinely sexually and physically assault her. She spent several months handcuffed and was regularly doused with urine and water. Other women, who have not given their names, have reported being raped or threatened with rape, handcuffed, deprived of food and water, and forced to dress like prostitutes, according to Tatiana Velasquez, a representative of Taller de Comunicación Mujer, one of the organizations helping victims come forward and petitioning the Ministry of Health to shut down the clinics. Taller de Comunicación Mujer, along with Fundación Causana and Artikulación Esporádika, have worked with clinic victims since at least 2005. However, information about the situation of the LGBTI community in Ecuador is difficult to find, as homosexuality is still taboo in Ecuadorian society and is rarely discussed. Despite efforts by the LGBTI community to assert itself, as evidenced most recently by the July 2011 pride parades in Quito and Guayaquil, the country’s two largest cities, the relative strength of the Catholic Church’s influence against same-sex marriages in Ecuador, as well as the machismo, which permeates the culture, may be barriers to successfully lobbying for the closure of these clinics. During the 2008 constitutional referendum, conservative Catholic clergy and evangelical church leaders allied themselves with the “No” vote in protest over the legalization of same-sex civil unions. Furthermore, apart from the religious belief that homosexuality is a moral wrong, many people believe that homosexuality is also a curable disease, as evidenced by the prevalence of these torture clinics.

The petition to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health to close these “ex-gay” clinics has been publicized through Change.org by the three above-mentioned NGO’s. The petition has received nearly 100,000 signatures to date, sending a strong message to the Ecuadorian government from the international community. Regardless of outside influences and prevailing societal beliefs about homosexuality in Ecuador, the Ecuadorian Government has a legal obligation to close these clinics. Alternatively, if the Ecuadorian state does not take action, the United Nations Human Rights Council could draw attention to this issue when Ecuador is under periodic review at the beginning of 2012. Whether Ecuador or international bodies take action, the practices these clinics employ are illegal and a violation of the rights of the women who are trapped in them.