Realizing Children’s Rights in Panama
The Republic of Panama remains one of the countries with the highest levels of inequality in the region. Due to the pandemic, poverty and inequality have increased, without medium or long-term social protection measures to address the long-lasting effects on children. Their protection and healthy development is at risk, especially for those experiencing multiple and intersectional forms of exclusion such as children living in poverty ,indigenous and Afro-descendant children, those living in peri-urban areas, children in migration, children with a disability and those without parental care.
Children’s Rights Index: 8,44 / 10
Yellow level: Satisfactory situation
Pop. ages 0-14: 26%
Life expectancy: 79.7 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 14.3‰
Panama at a glance
This Central American country is located on the narrowest and lowest part of the Isthmus of Panama that links North America and South America (U.S. Library of Congress, 2022). It has an elongated ‘S’ shape with its Caribbean coastline stretching some 800 miles and the Pacific coast some 1,060 miles. Panama is bound to the north by the Caribbean Sea and to the south by the Pacific Ocean (Anguizola, 2022). To the east is Colombia and to the west is Costa Rica (U.S. Library of Congress, 2022).
The first Europeans discovered Panama in 1501 and became the first Spanish colony on the Pacific. The first Spanish settlement in Panama was made in 1510 and Panama city was founded in 1519 (Lambert, 2021). What followed was a decimation of the indigenous population as a result of European diseases, to which they had no resistance and those that survived, were enslaved. The Spanish introduced a feudal system in which the indigenous people were forced to work on estates. In 1533 Panama became a transit for gold on its way from Peru to Spain.
When the Spaniards came to the isthmus it was occupied by Kuna, Guaymi, Choco and other American Indian groups. The population soon included persons of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, termed as mestizos. During colonial times people from Africa were brought to the isthmus as slaves and this also led to other mixed ethnic types developing as the Africans were incorporated into society. During the 19th century, new groups arrived primarily from the US, France and China. Large number of West Indians, Spaniards, Italians and Greeks arrived during the construction of the canal.
However the riches in the area attracted the attention of the English and in 1671 Panama City was burned (Lambert, 2021). It was rebuilt in a new location several kilometres away in 1673 and in 1746 the treasure route was changed, and from then on it was taken by sea around the Cape Horn.
Panama gained independence from Spain on November 28, 1821, and was part of a superstate called Gran Colombia which consisted of Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. However, the Gran Colombia soon broke up but Panama remained joined to Colombia. From 1899 to 1902 a civil war broke out, known as the War of a Thousand Days. On November 3, 1903, Panama became independent from Colombia and was declared the Republic of Panama (Lambert, 2021). The United States of America (U.S.) was keen to gain access to the canal across Panama.
On November 18, 1903, the US signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty establishing permanent U.S. rights to a Panama Canal Zone that stretched across the isthmus (History.com Editors, 2021). The U.S. agreed to Panama $10 million for a perpetual lease on the land for the canal, in addition to $250,000 annually in rent (History.com Editors, 2021). On September 7, 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were signed relinquishing complete control of the canal by December 31, 1999. Relations between the two countries grew contentious after the death of Torrijos in 1981.
In December 1989, the US carried out an invasion of Panama to remove Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega from power. However, by 1999 the relationship between the two countries had grown more peaceful and the canal was handed over to the Panamanians. It was then, that for the first time in nearly a century as an independent nation, Panama controlled the entirety of its national territory (Anguizola, 2022).
Status of children’s rights 
The Republic of Panama ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereinafter the 1989 CRC) on December 12, 1990 (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2020) and has been incorporated into national law.
Panama also ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict on August 8, 2001 (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2020) and the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography on February 9, 2001. Panama accepted the individual complaints procedure but is yet to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the CRC regarding the complaints procedure before the Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2011 (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2020).
From a regional perspective, Panama ratified the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, Pact of San José (1969) (hereinafter Pact of San Jose) on July 18, 1978 (Organisation of American States, 1969). The objective of the Pact of San Jose is to establish international regulations outlining the roles of states in protecting human rights such as the right to life. Additionally, article 19 recognises the importance of protecting children stating that “every minor child has the right to the measures of protection required by his condition as a minor on the part of his family, society, and the state”. (Organisation of American States, 1969)
From a national perspective, the Constitution of the Republic of Panama, 1972 (as amended by 2004) contains a number of rights provisions that apply specifically to the rights of children. Article 56 provides the state shall protect the physical, mental and moral health of minors and shall guarantee their rights to support, health, education and social security (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1972), article 70, prohibits children from working under the age of fourteen, subject to legal provisions to the contrary (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1972) and article 95 provides for free compulsory education at all pre-university levels (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1972).
Panama has adopted several laws and provisions aimed at protecting the rights of children. The country does not have a comprehensive or consolidated Children’s Act; rather, relevant children’s rights is found throughout a large number of Acts and Executive Decrees. Relevant legislation includes the Family Code 1994 which contains provisions on gender equality and equity, the education of girls, the possibility for pregnant teenagers to continue their education (Disability Rights Education & Defence Fund, 1994), and other matters that considerably improve the living conditions of children and adolescents (Disability Rights Education & Defence Fund, 1994).
In addition, in 1995, Panama adopted Law No. 27 on family violence (de violencia intrafamiliar), which criminalised domestic violence and the ill-treatment of minors and provided for the establishment of specialised departments to deal with victims of such offences (Barrett, 1995). Among other measures, an Ombudsman’s office for children and a social office for children were created. Moreover, public policies focusing on street children and child labour were put into practice (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2004).
Addressing the needs of children
Preschool education is provided for children from four to five years of age as part of their general basic education and is compulsory and free (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017). Despite it being compulsory and free, an estimated forty percent of children aged four to five do not attend preschool (UNICEF, 2021).
The net enrolment rate in primary education is ninety percent with gender balance, but six percent of pupils are over-age, particularly among rural and indigenous populations in such regions as Ngäbe-Buglé at fifteen percent; Guna Yala at eleven percent; Emberá-Wounaan at eleven percent; and the provinces of Bocas del Toro at eight percent and Darién at eight percent (UNICEF, 2021). Educational deprivation is linked to the limited provision and quality of relevant, culturally adapted preschool educational services and the lack of consistent training and support for staff.
In terms of educational quality and learning achievement, the outcomes of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluation are of concern (UN Economic and Social Council, 2020). Out of 79 countries, Panama ranks 71 in reading, 76 in mathematics and 75 in sciences. Such unsatisfactory learning lead to absenteeism and school dropouts, affecting knowledge acquisition and preparation for future employability (UN Economic and Social Council, 2020).
Prior to Covid-19 seven in ten adolescents aged twelve to fourteen were enrolled in lower secondary education and five in ten adolescents aged fourteen to seventeen in upper secondary education (UNICEF, 2021). The net enrolment rate in secondary education is 48 percent for boys and 57 percent for girls. Schools in Panama have been closed for over 21 months, affecting 800,000 children from preschool to secondary school (UNICEF, 2022).
The educational system maintained some form of continuity through distance learning and by the end of the school year in 2021, 51 percent of schools nationwide were open and providing part-time classes. However, it is estimated that 90 percent of students will not achieve the minimum level of performance due to the lack of face-to-face education (UNICEF, 2022).
Refugees are guaranteed access to education without the need to transfer previously earned academic credits (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017). This was achieved through Executive Decree No. 1225 of October 21, 2015, which establishes measures for certifying diplomas, certificates and credits earned in national and foreign educational institutions.
In recent years, Panama has made significant progress towards some of the Sustainable Development Goals, reducing the maternal mortality rate from 65 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2012 to 35 per 100,000 live births in 2017 (UN Economic and Social Council, 2020). However, the infant mortality rate has not declined since 2016 with 14 children per 1,000 births (UNICEF, 2021).
There are clear geographical disparities with indigenous regions being the most affected. The highest prevalence of chronic malnutrition was observed in the indigenous regions of Guna Yala at 61 percent, Ngäbe Buglé at 53 percent and Emberá Wounaán at 31 percent (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017). Access to healthcare continued to be a significant problem for indigenous communities, primarily due to poor infrastructure and lack of personnel and supplies (United States Department of State, 2021).
The under-height rate in rural areas was twice that of urban areas, while among indigenous children it was eight times higher. With regard to urban and rural areas, the under-height rate was highest in Bocas del Toro Province (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017). Of children under 5 years of age, 11.7 percent are overweight, while 29.9 percent of children aged between 5 and 9 years are overweight (UN Economic and Social Council, 2020). Only 28.1 percent of children under 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed.
The pandemic affected children’s nutrition, 47 percent of households with children had less food available than usual, only improving by 6 percent by the end of 2020 (UNICEF, 2021). As of July 2021, approximately 67 percent of families with children in the lowest income bracket reported not having enough food. Infant immunisation rates fell from 95 percent in 2019 to 70 percent in 2021. Vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) only reached 40 percent coverage (UNICEF, 2022).
Panama’s water sector is facing various challenges with basic drinking water and sanitation services lacking in non-urban areas. A little more than half the population in rural areas have access to these services (Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Panama, 2018). More than 90 percent of the total population has access to basic drinking water services. However, there is much to be gained in the rural areas. Although improvements have taken place, access to at least basic drinking water services in rural areas is below 90 percent.
An example of poor living conditions is the province of Wargandí (Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Panama, 2018). In 2010, only 15.3 percent of the people in this province had access to drinking water. The same pattern is visible for sanitation services in Panama. Basic services are less accessible in rural areas and in comparison to urban areas, the disparity is significant.
Nationally 91 percent of households with children have access to clean water only 39 percent have access in the indigenous territories of Emberá Wounaán, 57 percent in Guna Yala and 63 percent in Ngäbe Buglé (UNICEF, 2020). Improving the coverage of sewage networks and eliminating latrines, and replacing them with hygienic toilets will improve the quality of life for all children in Panama.
Under the Constitution of the Republic of Panama, 1972 (as amended by 2004), all persons born in the country acquire citizenship (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1972). However, children born in remote areas and indigenous regions experience challenges obtaining their birth registration certificates. The highest under-registration rates are seen in the Guna Yala indigenous region, Darién Province, the Emeberá-Wounaan indigenous region, the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous region, Bocas del Toro Province and Coclé Province (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017).
According to the Electoral Tribunal, 91.9 percent of births in Panama take place in a hospital under medical supervision, which guarantees that these births are registered (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017). As for the 8.9 percent of births that take place at home in indigenous regions and in remote areas that are difficult to access, it is recognized that special measures are needed to ensure that these births are registered in a timely and rapid fashion. Minors aged twelve years or older are required by law to carry a youth identity card.
The Electoral Tribunal with the Ministry of Education issues out youth identity cards in all public and private schools in the country. This card serves as the official identification document for persons under eighteen years of age. In 2013, the Electoral Tribunal signed an agreement with the Social Security Fund to issue youth identity cards free of charge. Furthermore, an agreement was signed between the Electoral Tribunal and the Civil Registry Office of Colombia with the aim of ensuring that the births of children born to Colombian migrants in Panama are registered, even if their parents’ migration status is irregular (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017).
Risk factors → Country-specific challenges
The causes of violence against children are complex and varied. They include socio-economic causes such as poverty and social exclusion, and many other deeply rooted political, cultural and familial factors (Global Network of Religions for Children, 2017).
From 2013 to 2015, the number of cases of abuse of minors recorded in the national criminal courts throughout the country was 755 cases in 2013, 1,442 cases in 2014, and a preliminary figure of 1,205 cases in 2015 (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017). Statistics show that the number of cases of sexual offences against children and young people has risen every year. Nationwide, there were 1,488 cases in 2013, 1,645 cases in 2014, and a preliminary figure of 2,297 cases recorded in 2015 (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2017).
Between 2017 and 2018 there was an increase of 68 percent in the number of cases of sexual violence with 2,385 cases in 2017 and 4,015 cases in 2018 (UNICEF, 2020). In 2021 there was an increase of violence against children due to additional family stressors in the Covid-19 context and interruptions in the limited preventive services in schools and the community (UNICEF, 2021). While in 2020, 31 percent of families with children reported family conflict due to confinement, numbers increased to 50 percent in 2021 (UNICEF, 2021). Many families described a gradual deterioration of children’s mental health due to confinement and school closures.
Violence in schools, including assault and cyberbullying, affects educational access and retention (UN Economic and Social Council, 2020). In 2018, the highest number of cases occurred in the provinces of Panama at 875 cases, Colon at 240 cases and Chiriqui at 232 cases. With regard to bullying, it is estimated that boys face higher rates of physical assault while girls suffer more psychological harassment, cyberbulling and sexual violence (UN Economic and Social Council, 2020). Children thrive and grow in trusting relationships with people who love and care for them. Families need support to grow to become peaceful, safe sanctuaries (Global Network of Religions for Children, 2017).
Panama has ratified all key international conventions related to child labour, including the International Labour Organisation (hereinafter ILO) Convention 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment 1976 (International Labour Organisation, 1976) on October 31, 2000 and the ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor 1999 (International Labour Organisation, 1999) on the October 31, 2000.
Panama’s Constitution (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1972), Family Code (Disability Rights Education & Defence Fund, 1994) and Labour Code (Sistema de Información de Tendencias Educativas en América Latina, 2018) set the minimum age for employment at fourteen and at fifteen year old for children who have not completed primary school. Similarly, the Law on Education mandates that children under the age of fifteen cannot work or participate in other activities that deprive them of their right to attend school regularly.
The Constitution allows children below the minimum age to work under conditions established by laws (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1972). The Family and Labour Codes appear to allow for light work in agriculture that does not prejudice school attendance starting at age twelve, (Disability Rights Education & Defence Fund, 1994) but provisions regarding hours of work are not well defined.
The Labour Code states that minors between twelve to fifteen years of age may be employed in agriculture if the work is outside regular schooling hours (Sistema de Información de Tendencias Educativas en América Latina, 2018). Similarly, the Family Code permits children between the ages of twelve and fourteen to perform agricultural labour as long as the work does not interfere with schooling (Disability Rights Education & Defence Fund, 1994).
Executive Decree No. 19 of 2006 provides a comprehensive list of the hazardous work for children, banned both by the Labour and Penal Codes. The Decree clarified the types of work considered hazardous for children under age eighteen, including work underwater or on ships, work with pesticides, work that involved exposure to extreme weather conditions, work with heavy equipment or dangerous tools, work located in venues where alcohol is sold, work in public transport and work with electricity (El Presidente De La República, 2006).
Despite these national laws supporting universal primary education and a minimum age for employment, many children from poor and indigenous families work to supplement the family income. More than fourteen percent of children are either working or engaged in some combination of work and school. Many of these children work in dangerous settings, in agriculture or jobs on the streets in urban areas where they are vulnerable to weather, exploitation and crime (Creative Associates International, 2022).
Indigenous children continue to face glaring disparities across all human development indicators (UNICEF, 2014). Most indigenous people in Panama live in rural regions with poor access to education and healthcare. The children from these communities are particularly vulnerable to poverty, trafficking and are forced into labour. As of 2017, over forty percent of inhabitants in indigenous districts had an income below the extreme-poverty line (Ott, 2016). Indigenous children are deprived of the stability, security and recognition they need to become healthy, educated and productive members of society (Ott, 2016).
A major health concern among indigenous children in Panama is malnutrition. The ethnic disparity in malnourished children is from sixteen percent to nineteen percent of all Panamanian children, but approximately fifty percent of indigenous children suffer from malnutrition, largely in the Ngobe-Buglé region (Persson, 2016).
Indigenous children are three to five times more susceptible to chronic malnutrition as compared to non-indigenous children. Infant mortality, child malnutrition, and poor child health are directly linked to a lack of accessibility to healthcare facilities. In rural, indigenous regions of Panama, only 29.1 percent of births occur in birthing institutions (Colombara et al., 2016, 22). Indigenous women face serious barriers in accessing healthcare services and often face discrimination within healthcare facilities.
Forced child labour is most widespread in indigenous regions due to barriers for indigenous children making them especially vulnerable. For instance, poor access to education, in which children often travel long and precarious distances, leaves indigenous children open to kidnapping, or deterred from making the journey in place of working (United States Department of Labour Bureau of International Labour Affairs, 2013). These challenges that make staying in school so difficult eventually lead to approximately 25.5 percent of indigenous children, between the ages of five and seventeen are forced into child labour (Global Network of Religions for Children, 2017).
Panama faces serious environmental challenges. For much of the country’s history, money took precedence over conservation, and an ethic of “man over nature” pervaded the culture. Forests were routinely chopped down to make room for cattle. Soil was depleted and habitat was destroyed (Anywhere in Panama, 2017). Soil erosion and deforestation are among Panama’s most significant environmental concerns.
Panama is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea and countless rivers and streams run through the country. Unfortunately, some water is polluted and in need of protection. Mainly due to urbanisation, pollution, and slash-and-burn agriculture threaten this watershed and the quality of its water (Anywhere in Panama, 2017). Similar to deforestation, mangroves in Panama have been cut down for development. In fact, over the last few decades, the country has lost more than half of its mangrove forests. Mangroves are a crucial component of marine ecosystems. They provide habitat for both marine and terrestrial species and help prevent coastal erosion
Panama passed the Environmental Act in 1998 which establishes the basic principles and norms for the protection, conservation and recovery of the environment, promoting the sustainable use of natural resources (Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, 2022). Additionally, the Constitution of the Republic of Panama, which establishes the fundamental obligation of the state to ensure that the population lives in a healthy environment free of all contamination where the air, water and food, satisfy the standards required for the appropriate development of human life (International Committee of the Red Cross, 1972).
Panama recently declared that nature has ‘the right to exist’ it grants nature the “right to exist, persist and regenerate its life cycles” (Daunton, 2022). The legislation, which will come into force in 2023, requires that the government’s future policies respect the rights of Panama’s ecosystems, including its tropical forests, rivers and mangroves (Daunton, 2022). The country’s parliament will also be legally obliged to promote the rights of nature through its foreign policies.
The legislative text defines nature as “a unique, indivisible and self-regulating community of living beings, elements and ecosystems interrelated to each other that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings” (Daunton, 2022). Panama now joins Bolivia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, among other countries, which have either issued court decisions, enacted laws or amended constitutions recognizing the legal rights of nature (Surma, 2022).
Written by Igi Nderi
Internally proofread by Aditi Partha
Last updated on July 8, 2022
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 This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Panama; indeed, one of the many challenges is the scant updated information on children, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.