Two Syrians walk along a fence near the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, November 30, 2016. Syrians who arrived in Turkey since late 2017 have been unable to register for temporary protection and receive basic services.

© 2016 Umit Bektas/Reuters
(Istanbul) – Turkish authorities in Istanbul and nine provinces on or near the Syrian border have stopped registering all but a handful of recently arrived Syrian asylum seekers. The suspension is leading to unlawful deportations, coerced returns to Syria, and the denial of health care and education.

The European Commission has recently praised Turkey’s asylum system and plans to release the second batch of €3 billion under its March 2016 migration deal which includes support for refugees in Turkey. European Union institutions and governments have stayed publicly silent on the suspension and other refugee abuses committed by Turkey, suggesting their primary concern is to halt the movement of asylum seekers and migrants from Turkey to the EU.

“While the EU supports Turkey to deter asylum seekers from reaching Europe, it’s turning a blind eye to Turkey’s latest steps to block and discourage people fleeing Syria,” said Gerry Simpson, associate refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. “But forcing Syrians who manage to get past Turkey’s border guards to live in legal limbo only risks driving them underground and onward to the EU.”

Syrian refugees queue for food aid in Gaziantep, Turkey on May 20, 2016. Turkey’s suspension of Syrian refugee registration blocks them from receiving such aid.

© 2016 Kyodo/ AP Images
The suspension of registration is Turkey’s latest effort to deny new asylum seekers protection. Over the past three years, Turkey has sealed off its border with Syria, while Turkish border guards continue to carry out mass summary pushbacks and to kill and injure Syrians as they try to cross.

Between early 2011 and the end of May 2018, Turkey had registered almost 3.6 million Syrians, making it the world’s largest refugee hosting country. That generosity does not absolve it, or its international partners, of the duty to help newly arrived asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said.

In mid-May 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 Syrians in Turkey’s Hatay province about their attempts to register for a temporary protection permit in Hatay, Gaziantep, and Istanbul provinces. A permit protects Syrians from arrest and the risk of deportation. It also entitles them to get health care and education, to work, and to seek social assistance, including the EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net for the most vulnerable Syrians.

Syrians said Turkish police deported them in groups of up to 20 people for not having a permit and that hospitals and schools refused to take them in without permits. Some said they returned to Syria so they, or their relatives, could get urgent medical care. Others said they decided to return to Syria because only some family members had been able to register. All said, they lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation and severely restricted their movement to avoid the police.

Turkey is bound by the international customary law rule of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone in any manner whatsoever to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life. This includes asylum seekers, who are entitled to have their claims fairly adjudicated and not be summarily returned to places where they fear harm. Turkey may not coerce people into returning to places where they face harm by denying them legal status or access to essential services.

On October 30, 2017, the Hatay governor’s office said that to discourage smugglers from helping Syrians enter Turkey through Hatay, the province would no longer register newly arriving Syrians for temporary protection permits. In early February 2018, Turkey’s Interior Ministry said Istanbul province would also no longer register Syrians.

Eight other provinces on or near the Syrian border have also suspended registration for newly arriving Syrians since late 2017 or early 2018, according to three agencies working closely with Syrian refugees, as well as a European Commission official and a Turkish public official who previously worked on migration issues. The provinces are Adana, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Mardin, Mersin, Osmaniye, and Şanlıurfa.


© 2018 DigitalGlobe and © 2018 Human Rights Watch

Since late August 2015, only registered Syrians who obtain a special travel permit have been allowed to travel within Turkey. In practice, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers enter Turkey irregularly through the few remaining gaps in Turkey’s border wall in Hatay province. Blocked from registering there, they are unable to lawfully leave Hatay province and travel to other provinces where registration has not been closed. This forces them to live illegally in Hatay province, or to use smugglers to reach other parts of Turkey, risking arrest and deportation.

According to three confidential sources, Turkey has rejected proposals for a new system that would allow Syrians arriving in Hatay, and to a far lesser extent in other border provinces, to register in other parts of Turkey where fewer refugees live.

Refugee agencies told Human Rights Watch that Turkey’s strict controls on international and local refugee agencies prevent them from finding and helping unregistered Syrians. This lack of aid agency monitoring means that there are no statistics or estimates on the numbers of Syrians denied registration, deported, or refused urgently needed services.

In response to a June 13 letter presenting the Human Rights Watch findings, the migration authorities in Ankara denied that any of the country’s 81 provinces, including Hatay and Istanbul, had suspended registration of Syrians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Human Rights Watch that as of mid-May, the authorities had reassured them that registration of Syrians was ongoing, including in Hatay and Istanbul. Other aid agencies that support refugees say that the authorities in the 10 provinces have only continued to process Syrians pre-registered at the time of the suspension, and to register urgent medical cases referred from Syria and babies born to registered Syrians in Turkey. Two refugee aid agencies also said that in some cases they have managed to convince the authorities in Hatay and Osmaniye provinces to register particularly vulnerable unregistered Syrians.

In early 2018, the authorities in Hatay opened a new registration center in Antakya. Representatives of three aid agencies and two Turkish security personnel working in Antakya said the center is exclusively for unregistered Syrians to request help to return to Syria, while registered Syrians can request help to return at other migration authority-run centers.

Turkey does not allow any independent monitoring of whether unregistered Syrians signing up for return are in fact returning voluntarily or whether they are effectively being coerced. In contrast, Turkey does allow independent monitoring of some registered Syrians’ decision to return to Syria.

Turkey should protect the basic rights of all newly arriving Syrians, regardless of registration status, and register those denied registration since late 2017. The European Commission and EU member states with embassies in Turkey should support Turkey to register and protect Syrians and press Turkey to allow all agencies working for refugees to freely assist and help protect all Syrians, including all unregistered Syrians.

“Unregistered Syrians in Turkey may be conveniently out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind,” Simpson said. “EU states and the commission should speak up and support all Syrians in Turkey, not just those who got in before Turkey started driving them underground.”

Asylum Seeker Registration

The first Syrian refugees fled to Turkey in early 2011 and in the subsequent three-and-a-half years, Turkey adopted an ad hoc approach to their registration, without conferring a clear legal status with related rights. Although Turkey ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the country maintains a geographical limitation that excludes anyone not originally from a European country from full refugee recognition. That means it does not fully grant asylum to people fleeing violence or persecution in Syria and any other non-European country.

In 2013, Turkey adopted its own legal framework on the protection of asylum seekers and refugees. In October 2014, Turkey also adopted a regulation under which it grants Syrians temporary protection. As of June 28, 2018, Turkey said it had registered 3,562,523 people under the regulation. Registered Syrians are entitled to assistance. Even though the regulation says Syrians who fail to register will not be deported to Syria and will only face an “administrative fine,” Human Rights Watch found that unregistered Syrians have been deported for not having temporary protection permits.

The Hatay governor’s office and the interior minister said registration has been suspended for newly arriving Syrians in Hatay and Istanbul. Refugee aid agencies and Syrians in Hatay’s main city, Antakya, told Human Rights Watch that police carried out mass arrests of Syrians in November and early December, just after registration was suspended.

Five sources told Human Rights Watch that since late 2017 and early 2018, migration authorities in eight other border provinces followed suit and turned away all newly arriving Syrians seeking registration.

As of June 28, seven of the provinces that suspended registration were in the top 10 provinces hosting Syrians: Adana, Gaziantep, Hatay, Istanbul, Kilis, Mersin, and Şanlıurfa. Together they were sheltering 2,422,804 registered Syrians, or 68 percent of the total in Turkey. The other three – Kahramanmaraş, Mardin, and Osmaniye – were sheltering 235,549, or just under seven percent.

Aid agencies say that, in practice, the authorities in affected provinces continued to process Syrians pre-registered at the time of the suspension and to register people with urgent medical needs referred from Syria. They also continued to register babies born to registered Syrians in Turkey, an estimated 306 each day. Agencies with first-hand knowledge of the suspension of registration in the 10 provinces say the registration of these Syrians may explain the claim authorities made to Human Rights Watch that eight of the provinces on or near the border registered a total of 116,059 Syrians between November 1 and June 20.

One refugee aid agency with close knowledge of registration procedures in all of Turkey’s provinces told Human Rights Watch that in a few exceptional cases, authorities in Hatay and Osmaniye province have registered children in urgent need of medical care, together with one caregiver. Another refugee assistance agency that sometimes deals with unregistered Syrians said that between late 2017 and late April 2018, it had convinced the Hatay authorities to register a few dozen newly arrived Syrians on an exceptional basis because they had specific needs, but that even then it was a “headache” to get them through police checkpoints to registration offices. Agencies estimate that as of mid-May, the total number of such vulnerable cases of unregistered Syrians whom the authorities have registered on an exceptional basis was in the low hundreds.

Turkey’s travel permit system for registered Syrians prohibits unregistered Syrians from traveling from border provinces to register elsewhere. Seven Syrians told Human Rights Watch they paid smugglers to drive them from Antakya, in Hatay province, to Istanbul to register. But security officials at migration authority offices in Istanbul told them registration had been suspended for newly arriving Syrians.

UNHCR and some diplomats in Turkey told Human Rights Watch they have been encouraging Turkey’s Directorate General for Migration Management to adopt a referral system under which authorities in Hatay, or other border provinces where Syrians first arrive, would pre-register Syrians and then refer them to other provinces where fewer Syrians live to register. Some EU member states have proposed that if such a system were to be adopted, the EU should help support job-creation for Syrians and Turkish citizens in the provinces to which Syrians are referred. But all attempts to convince Turkey to set up a referral system have failed.

Consequences of Suspended Registration

In mid-May 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 Syrian asylum seekers in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, and the first city most Syrians reach after being smuggled across the closed Turkish border. They said the authorities in Antakya, the nearby town of Reyhanli, and in Gaziantep province had refused to register them during the first few months of 2018. They also described how not having a temporary protection permit – or “kimlik,” as it is popularly called (a Turkish shorthand for identification card) – had affected them. Human Rights Watch explained the purpose of the interviews, gave assurances of anonymity, and obtained interviewees’ consent to describe their experiences.

All said they were turned away from registration offices at least twice. Only three said they managed to register after brokers bribed registration officials between US$300 and $500.

Most said officials simply said “no more kimliks here” or “no one gets a kimlik” and told them to leave. Two said they also tried to register in Gaziantep in April, but that saw a sign on the office that said “no kimliks.”

Four said that only some members of their family had been registered, leaving the rest in legal limbo and that as a result, the entire family was contemplating returning to Syria. One man said his sick wife was given permission to enter Turkey for emergency medical treatment in Antakya, and was allowed to register there, together with their newborn baby. When he and their five other children, aged 6 to 14, managed to enter Turkey and tried to register in Antakya, they were turned away.

Three Syrians said that Turkish police had previously summarily deported them to Syria for not having a temporary protection permit. One, a 22-year-old man from Aleppo governorate, said he entered Turkey in early April and was refused registration in Antakya. In early May, he said, police stopped him at about 8 a.m. near the Antakya bus station and asked for his permit. When he said he tried to register, but had been turned away, the police drove him to a local police station, recorded his personal details, and then drove him and about 20 other unregistered Syrians to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and deported them. He said 15 of the 20 told him they had been caught without temporary protection permits in Istanbul and the other five said they had just entered Turkey a few days earlier and were arrested after arriving at a smuggler’s house in Antakya. A few days later, he managed to return to Turkey with smugglers.

Another former deportee, a 28-year-old man from Idlib, said he and his brother entered Turkey together in January and were denied registration in Antakya. He said his brother traveled with a smuggler to Istanbul to find work there, but Turkish police arrested him on May 17 and the next day, took him to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and deported him.

On May 22, Human Rights Watch spoke to a 31-year-old man from Hama who said the authorities in Antakya had arrested his brother a few hours earlier, were holding him in the new center for unregistered Syrians to sign up to return to Syria, and said they were about to deport him. Human Rights Watch alerted UNHCR, which intervened and prevented the deportation.

Human Rights Watch interviewed four Syrians at the newly established center for unregistered Syrians who wish to sign up for return to Syria. They decided to go back because their relatives had been denied urgent medical care, or because some family members who arrived after registration was suspended could not register.

Two Syrians said they heard from other Syrians in Antakya about many cases in which the wives of men who had been deported told Turkish authorities they planned to go back to Syria because they and their children could not survive alone in Turkey.

All of the 29 other unregistered Syrians interviewed said they lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation and said they heard of many cases involving the deportation of unregistered Syrians. Eight said they reduced their movements to a minimum, often staying at home for days at a time. A 17-year-old boy who said he never left his uncle’s house in Antakya out of fear of arrest said “this feels like prison.”

Three unregistered Syrians said they regularly use Syrian-owned driving services which use back roads to avoid police checkpoints or informal police stop-and-search patrols in Antakya.

Nine said they attempted to get medical treatment in clinics and hospitals in Antakya, but had been refused treatment because they were not registered. Four others said they did not even try to access medical care, because they heard others were turned away, and because they were afraid local hospitals would call the police to arrest them for not having a permit.

A 27-year-old woman from Idlib province seeking cancer treatment said two hospitals in Antakya refused to treat her because she did not have a permit.

A 34-year-old, eight months’ pregnant woman from Aleppo, with four children all born by caesarean section, said she was too afraid to go to the local hospital to ask for a checkup and prepare for her delivery, because she had been told hospitals turn away unregistered Syrians and was afraid of being arrested and returned to Syria.

Similarly, a 31-year-old woman whose entire family was refused registration in March said her husband was extremely sick with a serious lung condition, but he would not go to a hospital out of fear of being arrested and deported. She said he never left the house and lived in constant fear of being discovered.

A nongovernmental organization working with Syrians in Hatay province said that during the first few months of 2018, they heard of dozens of cases of Syrians in Antakya seeking emergency medical care, many of them pregnant women, who were turned away by hospitals because they had been denied registration.

Six Syrians interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their children were unable to go to school, because schools would only take registered Syrians.

Nowhere to Turn for Help

The Turkish authorities consider Syrians denied registration to be in the country unlawfully. Nongovernmental groups working with refugees said the government only allows them to work with lawfully present asylum seekers and refugees.

Six organizations working with refugees in Turkey’s provinces on the Syrian border – which asked to remain anonymous for the staff’s security – said Turkey strictly controls and monitors their work in various ways.

Some said they must get special permission to assess registered Syrians’ assistance needs or to visit registered Syrians’ homes, in some cases in the presence of staff from the Ministry of Family and Social Policies. The agencies said the rules are applied in an ad hoc and unpredictable way, depending on the local authorities, and they are never certain of what refugee outreach activities are allowed.

As a result, they said, they found it difficult to identify Syrians blocked from registration procedures, including the most vulnerable, for example those in urgent need of medical or other care. They also said the situation in Hatay province – through which almost all newly arriving Syrians using smugglers enter the country due to continued gaps in the border wall – is particularly sensitive.

Because of the restrictions imposed by the Turkish authorities, aid agencies said they cannot proactively identify unregistered Syrian refugees. At best, they can only react if they are made aware of unregistered Syrians who are seeking help, or if they come across them by chance. They said they sometimes raise the most vulnerable of such cases with the authorities in the hope that they will allow those in urgent need to register.

One agency working in the border areas said: “It’s very simple, we can’t just reach out to registered or unregistered Syrians. We need approval for everything and we’d never get approval to help unregistered Syrians.” Another agency worker said: “We have repeatedly asked the authorities for permission to do protection outreach work, but we’ve been refused every time.”

Agencies said their extremely limited contact with unregistered Syrians means they can neither estimate how many unregistered Syrians now live in Hatay and other provinces, nor the extent to which the registration suspension has led to deportation and denial of service access. EU member states and other donors funding Syrian refugee assistance and protection projects in Turkey therefore don’t know the extent to which Turkey’s registration suspension is excluding Syrians from receiving help.

European Union Remains Silent

EU member states and the European Commission have remained publicly silent on Turkey’s registration suspension, as they have on Turkey’s long-standing abuses against Syrian asylum seekers at the border.

Turkey’s suspension of registration could drive many Syrians underground and onward to the EU, or coerce them into going back to Syria. The suspension, Turkey’s ongoing border abuses, and its recent abuses against Afghan asylum seekers means that any attempts to return Syrians from Greece to Turkey is also likely to be met with significant resistance by lawyers challenging return attempts on the grounds that Turkey is not a safe third country to which to return asylum seekers.

On April 17, the European Commission released its latest update on whether Turkey is meeting the EU’s criteria for becoming an EU member state. As part of its assessment of Turkey’s asylum system, the commission said: “There have been reports of alleged expulsions, returns and deportations of Syrian nationals, in contradiction of the non-refoulement principle,” without going into any further details or citing the sources.

In March, the European Commission promised to release the second batch of €3 billion under its March 2016 deal with Turkey. Under the deal, the EU maintains that Turkey is a safe country to which to return Syrian asylum seekers. In fact, Turkey does not meet the EU safe third country criteria.


Turkey should resume temporary protection registration for all newly arriving Syrians and register those denied access to registration since late 2017. If necessary, Turkey should pre-register Syrians in its provinces on the Syrian border and require Syrians to move to, and live in, other provinces with fewer Syrians. In the meantime, Turkey should instruct all medical facilities to provide emergency medical treatment to any Syrian in need, regardless of registration status. Schools should also take in Syrian children pending their registration. All Turkish public officials should refer unregistered Syrians to the nearest registration center.

Turkey should also allow all refugee agencies working with Syrians to actively work to identify unregistered Syrians, help them access registration procedures, and raise with the authorities all cases of unregistered Syrians deported to Syria or denied access to health care and education.

To help ensure protection for Syrians in Turkey, the European Commission and EU member states with embassies in Turkey should press Turkey to resume registration of all newly arriving Syrians and guarantee their access to health care and education in line with existing policies. If Turkey requires help to resume registration, they should respond generously. They should also press Turkey to allow all agencies working with refugees to freely carry out protection monitoring work throughout Turkey to identify and assist unregistered Syrians and to publicly report on any abuses, including forced return to Syria, and denial of assistance.

Finally, the European Commission should proactively seek information and publicly report on credible accounts of killings, injuries, and mass deportations by Turkish security forces at the Syrian border, including in its regular reports on Turkey’s accession process and the European Agenda on Migration.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

France: Migrant Kids Left to Sleep in the Street

Child protection authorities in Paris are using flawed age assessment procedures for unaccompanied migrant youths, excluding many from care they need and are entitled to. Hundreds of unaccompanied children sleep on the streets of Paris each night, according to estimates from lawyers and nongovernmental organizations.

(Paris) – Child protection authorities in Paris are using flawed age assessment procedures for unaccompanied migrant children, excluding many from care they need and are entitled to, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Hundreds of these young migrants find themselves homeless, often condemned to sleep on the streets of Paris.

The 57-page report, “‘Like a Lottery’: Arbitrary Treatment of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in Paris”, found that arbitrary practices can lead to unaccompanied children being erroneously considered adults, leaving then ineligible for emergency shelter and other protection given to children. Many youths who request protection from the child welfare system are turned away summarily and inaccurately, based on appearance alone. Others are rejected without written decisions after interviews lasting as little as five minutes, contrary to French regulations.

“These children have suffered through incredibly difficult and dangerous journeys, only to be deprived of the protection and care they need,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “Deeply flawed procedures mean that children may be arbitrarily turned away at the door of the evaluation office, denied protection after a short interview, or tied up in arduous court procedures and left in limbo for months.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 unaccompanied children and reviewed age assessments in an additional 35 cases. Human Rights Watch also spoke with lawyers, health care providers, staff and volunteers of humanitarian agencies and informal associations, and government officials.

Youths who receive full interviews are often denied recognition as children if they lack identity documents, Human Rights Watch found. But international standards and French regulations establish that the primary method of establishing approximate age should be through interviews, recognizing that documents may be lost during arduous journeys.

Even those who have documents are frequently rejected. Child welfare authorities and judges question birth certificates, passports, and other identity documents despite the rule in French law that such documents are presumptively valid unless there are substantiated reasons to believe otherwise.

The review of case files found other invalid grounds for concluding that a person was an adult. Work in the home country or on the journey to Europe was frequently cited, even though millions of children around the world work, including in hazardous or harmful forms of labor. Child protection authorities also often cited the youth’s decision to travel without parents, though many thousands of children travel on their own to Europe each year.

In other cases, examiners told youths from French-speaking countries that they spoke French too well. Imrane O., from Côte d’Ivoire, who gave his age as 15, told Human Rights Watch that his examiner “said that I was answering her questions too well. Because I could answer her questions, I couldn’t be a minor. How is that? I did eight years of schooling, in French. Of course I could answer her questions.”

In the cases studied, child protection authorities also frequently relied on subjective factors such as “bearing” or comportment. Some youths received adverse age assessments based in part on expressing irritation with repeated questioning or presenting their case forcefully, behaviors that can be exhibited at any age. Many more were simply told they had the bearing of an adult, without further explanation.

When children seek review of adverse decisions, some judges regularly order bone tests to determine their age. Medical bodies in France and elsewhere have repeatedly found that bone and other medical examinations are not a reliable means of determining age, particularly for older adolescents, and have called for ending their use.

The cumulative effect of arbitrary decision-making is that age assessments in Paris are “like a lottery: sometimes you win, but most of the time you lose, even if you’re underage,” an aid worker with the nongovernmental organization Utopia 56 told Human Rights Watch.

The number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving in Paris, as well as in France overall, has increased in recent years. France’s child welfare system took just under 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children into care in 2017. Nearly half of unaccompanied children who seek protection from the child welfare system in France do so in Paris. In February 2018, when Human Rights Watch began this research, an estimated 400 unaccompanied children were “sleeping rough” (outside) in the French capital, according to estimates from lawyers and nongovernmental organizations. Current estimates are lower.

Ordinary citizens, on their own and in groups, have stepped in to address some of these children’s needs, providing food and other services, organizing football clubs, improvisational theatre, and other activities, and in some cases opening their homes to give children a place to stay for a night or two, or even longer.

But these laudable efforts, along with services provided by nongovernmental groups such as Médécins sans Frontières and Utopia 56, depend on volunteers and cannot meet the need. In contrast, France has both the means and the obligation to provide appropriate care and protection to all children within French territory, regardless of migration status.

French national and departmental authorities should ensure that age assessments are used only when authorities have well-founded doubts about an individual’s claim to be under 18, Human Rights Watch said. In such cases, they should take appropriate steps to determine age and establish eligibility for services, bearing in mind that all age assessments will be estimates. These steps should include interviews by professionals with the expertise to work with children, as international standards recommend.

France also should end the use of bone tests and similar discredited medical examinations.

“Instead of giving youths the benefit of the doubt, as they should, child protection services seem to be doing everything they can to exclude youths from the child care system,” Jeannerod said. “The French authorities should immediately put an end to arbitrary age decisions and provide sufficient resources to take care of and protect unaccompanied migrant children.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(New York) – The Afghan government is failing to protect tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, from hazardous conditions in the workplace, in violation of Afghanistan’s labor laws.

Helal, 10, works as a brick maker at a brick kiln outside Kabul. He told Human Rights Watch that the brick mold is heavy and his hands hurt working with wet clay. Helal doesn’t go to school because he has to work. 

© 2016 Bethany Matta/Human Rights Watch

The 31-page report, “‘They Bear All the Pain’: Hazardous Child Labor in Afghanistan,” documents how child workers work dangerous jobs in Afghanistan’s carpet industry; as bonded labor in brick kilns; and as metal workers. They perform tasks that could result in illness, injury, or even death due to hazardous working conditions and poor enforcement of safety and health standards. Many children who work under those conditions combine the burdens of a job with school, or forego education altogether. Working compels many children in Afghanistan to leave school prematurely. Only half of children involved in child labor attend school. 

“Thousands of Afghan children risk their health and safety every day to put food on the family table,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Afghan government needs to do a better job of protecting its children – and the country’s future – by enforcing the law prohibiting dangerous work for children.”


Video: Kids at Work, Out of School in Afghanistan

The Afghan government is failing to protect tens of thousands of children, some as young as 5, from hazardous conditions in the workplace, in violation of Afghanistan’s labor laws. 

The government has failed to enforce prohibitions against child labor in hazardous industries, and has stalled in its effort to overhaul its labor law to bring it into line with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. Government institutions responsible for enforcing the law often lack the capacity to inspect workplaces, with the result that children working in prohibited jobs go unnoticed and unprotected.

In 2014, the Afghan government published a list of 19 hazardous occupations prohibited for children. These jobs include carpet weaving, metal work, and brick making. While a lack of resources is an important factor in the persistence of child labor in hazardous industries, the Afghan government has also failed to enforce its labor laws through penalties for violators and a strategy to end exploitative labor conditions.

A brick kiln manager in Kabul told Human Rights Watch: “There are children here, starting from 10 years or 8 years of age to 15 or 16… They wake up at 3 in the morning and work until about evening… They complain of pain, but what can they do? The kids are here to make a living. They bear all the pain to do all the work.”

Extreme poverty often drives Afghan children into hazardous labor. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Landlessness, illiteracy, high unemployment, and continuing armed conflict in much of the country are among the most important factors contributing to chronic poverty and, as a result, child labor.

A 13-year-old metal worker in Kabul said, “My fingers have been cut from the sharp edges of the metal and slammed by the hammer. My finger has also been caught in the trimming-beading machine. When your nail gets hit by a hammer or caught in the machine, it becomes black and eventually falls off.”

Thousands of Afghan children risk their health and safety every day to put food on the family table. The Afghan government needs to do a better job of protecting its children – and the country’s future – by enforcing the law prohibiting dangerous work for children.

Phelim Kine

Deputy Director, Asia Division

While work that is appropriate to a child’s age and under healthy and safe conditions can be beneficial to the child’s development and allow them to contribute to their family’s basic needs, work that interferes with a child’s education, or is likely to jeopardize their health or safety, is generally considered “child labor” and is prohibited under international law.

Although pilot projects extending community-based schools to reach vulnerable children have been promising, support for these schools is inadequate to the need. Eradicating child labor in Afghanistan is not feasible so long as extreme poverty continues, but the government and its donors can take steps to protect children from the risks associated with working in particularly dangerous or unhealthy conditions.

Those steps include increasing the number of labor inspectors to adequately cover the entire country; giving priority to monitoring hazardous sectors; and offering the Afghan government targeted technical assistance in devising and implementing policies, standards, and regulations against child labor. Both the government and its foreign donors should devote more resources to expanding educational support to all working children.

The government has a legal obligation under international law to take immediate action to eradicate hazardous child labor. Both Afghanistan and its foreign donors should take urgent steps to protect children from the risks associated with working in particularly dangerous or unhealthy conditions.

“When children are of legal age and work in safe conditions, they can help provide vital livelihood support for many Afghan families,” Kine said. “But the Afghan government has an obligation to enforce the laws that protect children in the workplace, and ensure that they neither have to sacrifice their education or safety as the price for supporting their families.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Zama Neff is the executive director of the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch. She also co-chairs the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). Neff has conducted fact-finding investigations and is the author of reports and articles on a range of issues affecting children, including access to education, police violence, refugee protection, the worst forms of child labor, and discrimination against women and girls. She has published on op-ed pages in major international and US publications and speaks regularly to the media. During a sabbatical, she ran a protection monitoring team for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sri Lanka. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1999, Neff clerked for a US federal judge, advocated on behalf of immigrants and refugees in the US, and worked with community development and women's organizations in Honduras. She is a graduate of Davidson College and New York University School of Law.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Mercury is mixed with gold ore.   

© 2015 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

Fires in Indian factories, accidents in Zimbabwe gold mines, infertility from chemical exposure the Democratic Republic of Congo – workers around the world face risks, sometimes lethal, in the workplace.

Next week, there’s a unique opportunity to improve the lives of millions of workers as trade unions, governments, and employers try to agree on standards for work conditions in global supply chains.

Human Rights Watch has documented labor rights violations around the world and across various sectors, including textiles, mining, construction, agriculture, and meat processing. In a globalized economy, businesses increasingly source goods and services from complex chains of suppliers that often span multiple countries with different labor rights laws and practices.

One way to improve worker protection would be to enshrine labor rights as a legal requirement along global supply chains. From February 25 to 28, the International Labour Organization (ILO) will hold a meeting of government, employer, and trade union experts to assess standards needed to ensure decent work in global supply chains. Arriving at this point was not quick or easy – the decision to hold this meeting was taken after much discussion in 2016 at the International Labor Conference, an annual summit of labor ministers.

Expect the debate to be heated. While trade unions are advocating for a binding international ILO standard, employer organizations tend to seek voluntary standards, while government positions vary widely.

At the moment, most countries do not legally require companies to protect labor rights in their global supply chains. There are some good voluntary industry standards, as well as a set of important United Nations norms on business and human rights, detailing steps for human rights “due diligence,” but these are not mandatory.

The ILO experts should seize this rare opportunity to protect labor rights in supply chains and decide at next week’s meeting that a new international treaty protecting workers is the best way forward.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

We write in advance of the pre-sessional Working Group for the 77th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“the Committee”) relating to South Africa’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”).

  1. Protection of Sex workers (Articles 6 and 12)

Selling and buying sex in South Africa is illegal. The criminalisation of sex work has not deterred mostly poor, black and economically marginalized South African women from selling sex to make a living and support their children, and often other dependents too. Criminalisation in South Africa has, however, made sex work less safe, made sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and crimes and meant that sex workers are less likely to report trafficking for fear of recrimination. Criminalisation undermines sex workers’ access to justice for crimes committed against them and exposes them to unchecked abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, including police officers. And although the Department of Health’s national strategy on sex work and HIV is grounded in respect for the human rights of sex workers, outreach and non-discrimination, criminalisation hinders sex workers’ efforts to access health care, including HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report documented violence experienced by sex workers in South Africa, and their difficulties in reporting crimes and creating safe places to work. We interviewed 46 female sex workers in 10 interview sites in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and Gauteng provinces. We also interviewed more than 40 lawyers, health workers and others working to provide services to this vulnerable population as well as representatives from the South African government.[1]

Sex workers described facing frequent arbitrary arrests and police profiling as well as coerced sex and extortion. They said that to avoid police harassment they were compelled to work in dangerous areas like dark parks, bushy areas behind bars, or back roads in towns where they felt unsafe. Sex workers also said that they often did not report crimes against them because they feared arrest or harassment. Some chose not to report out of fear that the police would laugh at them, blame them, or take no action. Many of the interviewees had been raped by men purporting to be clients, and almost all had been victims of robbery or serious violence, including being beaten, whipped, and stabbed.

Health workers and health rights activists interviewed said that criminalisation obstructs efforts to prevent and treat HIV infections among sex workers. Outreach workers from clinics providing services to sex workers have been arrested and police have relied on sex workers’ possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, discouraging them from carrying them. Some sex workers also reported that arrest and detention interrupted their essential HIV treatment.[2]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Introduce a new law to parliament that removes criminal and administrative sanctions against consensual adult sex work and related offences, such as solicitation, and current prohibited practices such as “living off the earnings” of prostitution or brothel-keeping;
  • Recommend municipal governments reform or repeal overly broad by-laws prohibiting vague offences such as loitering and being a “public nuisance” so they can no longer be used to target vulnerable groups, including sex workers;
  • Implement an immediate moratorium on arrests of sex workers, including for loitering, indecent exposure and other misdemeanours;
  • Publicly commit to strict nationwide enforcement of provisions that prohibit torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, police brutality, coerced confessions or telling detainees to sign “admissions of guilt” paperwork without fully explaining the content;
  • Ensure police training and awareness-building on human rights and sex worker rights under international and South African law, tolerance and sensitive and non-discriminatory policing is carried out regularly and rigorously. This training should include on the correct protocol of arrest and police detention and also non-discrimination concerning crimes reported by sex workers.
  1. Girls’ Access to Education (Articles 10 and 12)

Insufficient Protections for Pregnant Students and Adolescent Mothers

South Africa has had a policy on the prevention and management of student pregnancies since 2007, which states that school children who are pregnant shall not be unfairly discriminated against and cannot be expelled.[3] However, research by South African NGOs indicates that this policy has not been fully respected by schools, and schools have often discriminated against female students.[4] Research conducted by South African organisations shows that some school officials continue to exclude pregnant girls from school or ask them to shift to other schools, contradicting their obligations to respect student’s right to compulsory education.[5]

In 2018, the government initiated a consultation to develop a new policy on management and prevention of student pregnancies.[6] This new policy has not yet been released at time of writing this submission.[7] Human Rights Watch recommends that the government removes any conditional measures–currently applied through the government’s 2007 policy—that impact on girls’ education or deter them from going back to school. For example, students should not have to wait a conditional period until they can return to school.[8]

The new policy should ensure that pregnant students can stay in school while they are medically able to, and that they return to school as soon as they are ready. Schools should also provide basic accommodations for adolescent parents, including: time to breastfeed during breaks, and time off in case a student’s child is ill or to comply with other medical or bureaucratic requirements.[9]

Through its policy, the government should communicate a clear obligation on all education establishments to respect girls’ right to stay in school. Schools should not be able to block a student’s return to school.

We welcome the Department of Basic Education’s commitment, expressed in this draft policy, to focus both on prevention and management of pregnancies. The government should act on its commitment to provide access to an age-appropriate, scientifically accurate sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), and ensure it is-embedded in its comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) curriculum.[10] The government’s new policy should stipulate the mandatory nature of this curriculum, and should specify that learners will have access to comprehensive sexuality education from primary school, in line with international guidance.

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • What steps will the government take to fully guarantee, in law and policy, pregnant students and adolescent parents’ right to education?
  • What measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents’ retention in school?
  • How will the government ensure provincial governments’ and schools’ compliance with its forthcoming policy on pregnancy management and prevention in schools?
  • How does the government ensure that its compulsory sexuality education curriculum complies with international standards, and how does it ensure that teachers are trained in its contents, and allocate time to teach it?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Encourage the government to adopt a human rights compliant policy that guarantees pregnant girls’ and adolescent parents’ right to education and includes basic accommodations to ensure parents are supported to stay in school. The government should regularly monitor this policy to ensure schools adhere to its provisions.

Discrimination in Education for Children with Disabilities

An estimated 600,000 children with disabilities remain out of school in South Africa, but the government has not published accurate, disaggregated data that shows exactly how many girls and boys with disabilities are out of school.[11]

The high cost of education, including school fees and other school-related costs, continues to be a significant barrier keeping children with disabilities out of school. South Africa does not guarantee the right to free primary or secondary education to all children in law or practice.[12] Research by Human Rights Watch in 2014 and 2015 found that the current fee-based system particularly discriminates against children with disabilities.[13] It results in many children with disabilities paying school fees that many children without disabilities do not, as well as additional costs, such as for uniforms, food, transport, and to secure reasonable accommodations for the child’s disability.[14]

South Africa’s Schools Act mandates that the state fund public schools on an equitable basis.[15] The government in turn requires that the governing bodies of public schools—made up of teachers, parents, and other community representatives—adopt a resolution for a school to charge fees and supplement a school’s funding “by charging school fees and doing other reasonable forms of fund-raising.”[16]

Public schools may be classified as “no-fee” schools, a status granted to public schools by provincial governments, which means that those schools should not charge fees. The “no-fee” designation is based on the “economic level of the community around the school,” and on a quintile system from poorest to richest, whereby the lowest three quintiles do not pay fees in designated public schools.[17]

The government treats public special schools differently from other public schools. Special schools are still not listed in the national government’s publicly available annual “no-fee” schools lists. In 2019, Human Rights Watch found that, for the first time, Gauteng province listed 5 special schools as “no-fee” out of 128 special schools in the whole province. The Western Cape province’s 2017 “no-fee” schools list excluded all special schools.[18]

Although a high number of students in special schools come from townships and predominantly poor areas of towns, many public special schools in urban areas are located in wealthier suburbs previously inaccessible to the majority of children under apartheid.[19] The income level of surrounding communities and locations means many special schools fail the “needs” or “poverty” test used to assess a school’s access to recurrent public funding or to qualify as a “no-fee” school.[20]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee pose the following questions to the government of South Africa:

  • How many children with disabilities remain out of school, and how many are girls?
  • What measures has the government adopted to ensure children with disabilities have access to free quality inclusive education, on an equal basis with children without disabilities, particularly in rural and remote areas? How do those measures respond to girls with disabilities needs?
  • What binding measures has the government taken to ensure provincial governments respect and fulfill the right to inclusive education of children with disabilities?
  • What steps has the government taken to ensure legislation and policy reflect the government’s obligation to provide free education, and its obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to allow children with disabilities to access education without discrimination?
  • Will the government adopt legislation providing specific protections to children with disabilities and guaranteeing inclusive education?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Urge the government to disclose robust, disaggregated data on the number of children with disabilities out of school.
  • Urge the government to ensure access to free and compulsory primary education and to secondary education to children with disabilities, including by developing a detailed plan of action for the immediate realization of free compulsory primary education, in line with its responsibilities under international human rights law.
  • Call upon the government to adopt stronger legal protections for children with disabilities to complement the South African Schools Act. This includes a clear duty to provide reasonable accommodation in public ordinary schools, accompanied by specific provisions that prevent the rejection of students with disabilities from schools in their neighborhood.
  1. Targeting of Women Activists (Articles 2(c), 3 and 14)

Community activists in mining areas in South Africa face harassment, intimidation, and violence. The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants. When police are informed of attacks or threats, they sometimes fail to conduct timely or adequate investigations into the incidents. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, women are often first to experience the harms of mining and can play a leading role in voicing these concerns, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[21] We cite activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities.[22]

In South Africa women are often the most directly responsible for children, and may be without a second parent present in the household, caretaking of others.[23] Research by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies found that threats against women in South Africa adversely affect their children and families because of the role women predominantly play as primary caregivers.[24] Women are also often first to experience the harms of extractive industries on land, water, food, health, and livelihoods.[25] In many places collecting water and gathering food are responsibilities of women and impacts on these resources affect them first. As elsewhere globally, on average women in South Africa are poorer than men and more vulnerable to sudden losses of income or food or water resources and the burden of buying more expensive alternatives. This often motivates them to play a leading role in voicing these concerns and acting as human rights defenders, which makes them potential targets for harassment and attacks.[26]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call upon the government of South Africa to:

  • Publicly condemn assaults, threats, harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of activists, and direct the police and other government officials to stop all arbitrary arrests, harassment, or threats against community rights defenders.
  • Provide adequate and effective individual and collective protection measures to individuals and communities at risk.
  • Ensure that law enforcement authorities respect and protect the right to protest, including by not using unlawful measures of crowd control beyond what is strictly necessary to prevent harm to people or excessive harm to property.
  • Direct government officials at all levels, in particular in any departments responsible for regulating mining or protests, to comply with South Africa’s domestic and international obligations to respect, protect, and promote all human rights of activists across South Africa, including the community rights defenders in mining-affected communities, to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and protest, and the rights to health and a healthy environment.
  • Ensure women activists receive equal attention and support as male activists.

[1] Human Rights Watch, Why Sex Work Should be Decriminalised in South Africa, August 2019,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, (accessed August 28, 2018), pp. 6 – 7. Despite its existence, schools continue to expel pregnant girls in breach of South Africa’s constitutional laws. Lisa Draga et al, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Chapter 8 – Pregnancy, (accessed August 28, 2018).

[4] Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27, “Equal Education Law Centre and Section 27 Submission to the Department of Basic Education in Respect of the Draft “National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” April 2018, (accessed August 15, 2018).

[5] Lisa Draga, Chandré Stuurman, and Demichelle Petherbridge, “Basic Education Rights Handbook – Education Rights in South Africa – Chapter 8: Pregnancy,” 2017,

[6] Department of Basic Education, “DBE Draft National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy in Schools,” 2018, (accessed August 15, 2018).

[7] Parliamentary Monitoring Group, “Inclusive Education: status update,” Basic Education Committee, October 30, 2019,

[8] Republic of South Africa, Department of Basic Education, “Measures for the Prevention and Management of Learner Pregnancy,” 2007, (accessed August 17, 2018).

[9] Human Rights Watch, Letter to the Department of Basic Education regarding their draft pregnancy policy, August 16, 2018,

[10] Department of Basic Education, “Basic Education Department releases scripted lesson plans to the public to allay fears regarding comprehensive sexuality education content,” November 13, 2019, (accessed February 6, 2020).

[11] IOL, “Advocacy group heads to court as 600 000 disabled school kids forced to stay at home,” September 26, 2019, Human Rights Watch, “South Africa Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015,

[12] Department of Basic Education, “School fees and exemption,” undated,

[13] Human Rights Watch, “South Africa: Education Barriers for Children with Disabilities,” August 18, 2015, (accessed February 10, 2020).

[14] “School fees” are defined as “any form of contribution of a monetary nature made or paid by a person or body in relation to the attendance or participation by a learner in any programme of a public school,” South African Schools Act, Act No. 24 of 2005: Education Laws Amendment Act, 2005,, ch. 1 and s. 1(b).

[15] South African Schools Act, s. 34.

[16] Department of Basic Education, “School Fees and Exemption – No Fee Schools”, undated, (accessed August 9, 2018).

[17] Department of Education, “National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” General Notice 2363, October 12, 1998, (accessed August 5, 2018); Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” January 16, 2015, (accessed August 5, 2018).

[18] See for example, “Western Cape No Fee School 2017,” (accessed August 15, 2018)

[19] Human Rights Watch found that this is particularly the case in Gauteng and Western Cape provinces where special schools were traditionally set up to cater for white children with disabilities. Within Gauteng Province, many full-service schools are mainly in the outskirts of the city and the majority are Afrikaans speaking.

[20] Provincial Departments of Education are guided by a “Resource Targeting Table” to define needs-based allocations, “National Norms and Standards for school funding,” pp. 27-28. See Department of Basic Education, “Amended National Norms and Standards for School Funding,” Government Gazette no. 38397, 16 January 2015.

[21] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, (accessed December 17, 2018).

[22] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, (accessed February 10, 2020).

[23] “Single Motherhood in South Africa,” The Borgen Project, (accessed February 10, 2020).

[24] Gumboh, Esther, et al., “Victimisation Experiences of Activists in South Africa,” Centre for Applied Legal Studies, April 2018, p. 21ss,

[25] Human Rights Watch, “We Know Our Lives are in Danger”: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, April 2019, (accessed February 10, 2020).

[26] Association for Women’s Rights in Development & Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, “Women Human Rights Defenders Confronting Extractive Industries: An Overview of Critical Risks and Human Rights Obligations,” pp. 10ss, (accessed December 17, 2018).

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Human Rights Watch writes in advance of the 77th pre-session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women relating to Senegal’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“the Convention”). This submission addresses issues related to articles 1, 10, and 12 of the Convention.

Barriers to the Right to Primary and Secondary Education (Article 10)

Human Rights Watch welcomes the government of Senegal’s commitment to expanding the provision of primary and secondary education to more young people, including by exceeding the international benchmark of allocating over 20 percent of its national budget to education.[1] However, Human Rights Watch’s research on barriers to secondary education shows that the government has made inadequate progress in the retention of girls in school, and that it does not provide free basic education.[2]

Although slightly more girls are enrolled in primary and secondary school than boys, retention rates are particularly low across both groups.[3] Human Rights Watch research found that financial barriers constituted a key barrier to girls’ ability to stay in school. Senegal’s Education Law stipulates that primary and lower-secondary education is free and compulsory for all girls and boys aged 6 to 16.[4] However, in practice, secondary school students may be required to pay close to 40,000 FCFA (US$75) in tuition fees, furniture costs and extra tuition for afternoon classes, forcing many children to drop out.[5] Our findings also show that alongside school fees and indirect costs, gender discrimination contributes to low rates of retention and completion of compulsory lower secondary education, particularly in rural areas. In some communities, parents prioritize boys’ education over girls’ education.[6] Girls are also disproportionately expected to work on domestic chores –preparing food, cleaning the household, taking care of younger siblings—which reduces the time they can dedicate to studying outside school hours.

Pregnancy as a Barrier to Education

In contrast to many other African countries, Senegal has moved from previous restrictive and punitive policies to providing a pathway for pregnant girls to continue their education. In 2007, the government adopted a “re-entry” policy for young mothers, overturning its previous position to expel pregnant girls from school. The policy stipulates that in order to return to school, girls must show a medical certificate that shows they are ready.[7]

Despite this positive policy however, many girls do not return to school as they lack financial and family support.[8] According to a joint study conducted by the UN Population Fund and the Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population (GEEP), more than 54 percent of young mothers dropped out of school between 2011 and 2014 and only 15 percent of young mothers resumed their education in that same period.[9]

Overall, teenage pregnancy rates remain very high across the country.[10] Eight percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have already given birth.[11] Girls have little access to sexual and reproductive health services, including contraceptives, and teenage pregnancy frequently ends a girl’s schooling. One in ten girls and one in twenty boys aged 15 to 24 had their first sexual encounter before they were 15 years old.[12]  Although the government has made efforts to increase coverage of adolescent health services –including by setting up centers specializing in adolescents’ needs in most regional capitals—it has not guaranteed adequate coverage in rural areas.[13]

The government has been reluctant to adopt a national comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.[14] At time of writing, it was reluctant to include comprehensive, accurate and scientific content on sexuality in the curriculum due to concerns that teaching sexuality contradicts Senegal’s cultural and moral values, as well as due to pressure from religious groups.[15] Most public secondary schools in the regions where Human Rights Watch conducted research do not provide adequate, comprehensive and scientifically-accurate content on sexuality or reproduction. In most schools, abstinence remains the leading message.[16] Some of the teachers who lead extra-curricular spaces provide students with some information about contraception, on the basis that this information will only be applied once students get married.

School-Related Sexual and Gender Based Exploitation and Violence

Research conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2017 found that many girls are exposed to sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse by teachers and school staff. Students are particularly vulnerable to these abuses on the way to school, around teachers’ homes, as well as during students’ evening gatherings, which are sometimes organized on school premises. Many cases of sexual exploitation and harassment by teachers go unreported, and school authorities fail to hold perpetrators to account.

In some of the areas where Human Rights Watch conducted research, the low retention rate of girls in secondary schools appeared to be closely linked to fear that they would be exposed to sexual harassment and gender-based violence in school, or that they would be at high risk of pregnancy because of the school environment.[17]

Human Rights Watch found that different forms of sexual exploitation and harassment remained pervasive in secondary schools in Senegal.[18] It was found that some teachers abused their position of authority to sexually harass girls and engage in sexual relations with them, many of whom were under 18. Teachers have lured girls with the promise of money, good grades, food, or items such as mobile phones and new clothes. Female students—and to a certain extent, teachers and school officials—have characterized this as “relationships” between teachers and students. Human Rights Watch believes that this type of characterization undermines the gravity of the abuse, leads to underreporting of the problem, and blurs the perpetrators’ and victims’ perception of the severity of these abuses.

When girls have turned down teachers’ proposals, they have sometimes found that the teachers punished them for rejecting their advances by awarding them lower grades than they deserved, ignoring and not letting them participate in class discussions or exercises.[19]

Talking about sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse is considered a taboo topic for many girls. Moreover, many students do not fully understand what sexual offenses are. For example, a consultation with over 500 students in Dakar, led by the Centre de Guidance Infantile et Familiale, found that while students understand that rape is a crime and are inclined to report it, they would not recognize sexual touching, harassment, or attempted rape, as sexual abuse.[20]  Education about the full spectrum of offenses, or how to prevent and report sexual exploitation, harassment or abuse is scarce, and certainly not part of a national effort.

Inadequate Reporting Mechanisms

Girls and young women who have been harassed, exploited or abused by teachers, or other adults, have limited options to confidentially report an incident. The education system lacks an adequate confidential reporting system. Victims of abuses are reluctant to report cases within schools because of the lack of confidentiality, fear of reprisals and a feeling that no actions will be taken. Some students told Human Rights Watch they would not seek help from their principals or teachers because they felt their claims would be dismissed.[21]

We found that education officials often did not act on or report to their own supervisors cases of sexual exploitation or harassment that had been brought to their attention. For example, Human Rights Watch collected evidence that suggests that teachers who have sexually exploited students in the context of “relationships” usually do not face serious legal sanction or professional sanction. Their behavior is sometimes tolerated or at most, they are reprimanded or warned by their peers or the principal, with no further consequences. Students’ descriptions of repeat offenders, such as teachers who sexually exploit more than one student during their tenure at the school, attests to the impunity they appear to enjoy.[22]

Although the government has taken steps to tackle sexual violence and gender-based discrimination in schools as part of broader efforts to increase girls’ access to, and retention in, secondary education, it still needs to adopt a national policy to prevent and tackle all forms of school-related sexual violence. Programs covering teenage pregnancies, girls’ empowerment and prevention of sexual abuse remain contingent on donor’s financial support and have failed to address widespread sexual exploitation in schools.

Legal and Policy Framework

Senegalese legislation does not specifically stipulate a minimum age for sexual consent.[23] The country’s penal code does not include a specific criminal offense for anyone who has sexual relations with children under 18. Most sexual offenses cover acts of sexual abuse of children under 16. Moreover, the penal code does not include a specific offense for omitting to report a sexual offense committed against a child.[24] 

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Senegal:

  • What steps are being taken to tackle barriers that lead to low retention of girls in school, including school fees, indirect costs and gender discrimination, particularly in rural areas?
  • What measures will the government adopt to fully support pregnant students and adolescent parents’ return and retention in school?
  • What steps are being taken to increase coverage of adolescent health in rural areas, and provide girls with sexual and reproductive health services?
  • What actions are being taken against teachers and educational staff who are found to be engaging in sexual exploitation, harassment or abuse?
  • What steps are being taken ensure that schools have functioning confidential and independent reporting mechanisms that are connected to child protection committees?
  • What is being done to ensure all pupils receive a comprehensive sexuality education, which complies with international standards, is mandatory, age-appropriate, and scientifically accurate; including information on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights, responsible sexual behavior, consent, prevention of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections?

Protection of Education During Armed Conflict (Article 10)

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict;[25] the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[26]

As recognized by this Committee in its General Recommendation No. 30, attacks on students and schools, and the use of schools for military purposes, disproportionately affect girls, who are sometimes the focus of targeted attacks and are more likely to be kept out of school due to security concerns.[27]

As of January 2020, 101 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. In November 2019, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child urged all African Union member states to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, “realizing the dangers that the military use of schools poses.”[28] The African Union’s Peace and Security Council has also repeatedly urged all African Union member states to endorse the declaration.[29] Senegal has yet to endorse this important declaration.

As of October 2019, Senegal was contributing 1,124 troops and 36 staff officers to UN peacekeeping operations around the world. Such troops are required to comply with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations “UN Infantry Battalion Manual” (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”[30]

Moreover, the 2017 Child Protection Policy of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes:

United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children's access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore … United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.[31]

Senegal’s peacekeeping troops are deployed in the Central African Republic and Mali — both countries where attacks on students and schools, and the military use of schools has been documented as a problem.[32]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Senegal:

  • Are protections for schools from military use included in the pre-deployment training provided to Senegalese troops participating in peacekeeping missions?
  • Do any Senegalese laws, policies, or trainings provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict?
  • Why has the government of Senegal not yet endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, and brought the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict into domestic military policy and operational frameworks?

Sexual Abuse and Exploitation Against Female Talibé Children (Articles 1, 10 and 12)

Across Senegal, there are an estimated 100,000 talibés, children attending residential Quranic schools (daaras), who are forced to beg for food or money by their Quranic teachers (marabouts), who serve as their de facto guardians.[33] Thousands of these children live in conditions akin to slavery, forced to endure often extreme forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

Although the majority of talibé are boys, many girls also suffer from the same terrible conditions and frequent abuse. Media investigations show that female pupils are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse and in fact, girls are often just less visible because they are not on the streets.[34]

Sexual Abuse and Rape

Human Rights Watch documented a total of 15 cases of rape, sexual abuse, or attempted sexual abuse allegedly committed by 10 Quranic teachers or their assistants during 2017 and 2018, targeting at least ten boys and five girls, all Quranic students. Six of the perpetrators were allegedly Quranic teachers, implicated in attacks against nine children, while four were reportedly Quranic teachers’ assistants (older talibés), implicated in attacks against six children.

The 15 cases documented are not an exhaustive list. Child protection workers believe other cases likely went unreported by families and victims, due to the stigma associated with sexual abuse as well as the strong societal influence wielded by religious leaders. One prosecutor mentioned dealing with several cases of sexual abuse or rape by “a person responsible for the education of the victim,” including Quranic teachers or grands talibés, but did not provide specific evidence or information.

Human Rights Watch welcomes the investigations into many of these cases, though some victims continue to await justice. In March 2018, in the town of Karang in Foundiougne department, Fatick region, a Quranic teacher was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping one of his students, a 13-year-old girl. In another March 2018 case, in Nioro department of Kaolack region, a grand talibé just under the age of 18 allegedly raped three girls between the ages of 7 and 12 who attended his Quranic school. The grand talibé was arrested and a judicial investigation opened, but a judicial official in Kaolack said that “he was granted a provisional liberty after six months of detention, as provided by the law if the investigation is not completed within this period.”[35]

In November 2018, the local media reported that a marabout in Mbour, Thiès region, had been arrested for sexually abusing one of his talibés, a 7-year-old girl, in October.[36] A government social worker in Mbour confirmed the case and reported that the marabout himself had confessed to the act. He was acquitted in January 2019 for “lack of evidence.”[37]

Government Programs

President Macky Sall, re-elected in February 2019 to a second term, has promised since 2016 to end child begging and “remove children from the streets,” reiterating in May 2019 his intention to “definitively resolve the problem of children in the street.”[38] However, by late 2019, this rhetoric had not yet been accompanied by consistent, decisive and far reaching action to protect talibés, including girls from abuse and exploitation across the country and deter further violations.[39]

Senegal has strong domestic laws against child abuse, trafficking and exploitation, and forced child begging.  Arrests and prosecutions of Quranic teachers for such abuses have increased slightly in recent years. Nevertheless, the police often still failed to investigate cases of forced begging and exploitation, social workers failed to report many such cases, including sexual abuse and exploitation of girls, and charges against Quranic teachers continued to be dropped or sentences reduced by the judiciary in 2017 and 2018.

The long-awaited law on the status of daaras, which would increase oversight of the daaras in which much of the sexual abuse has occurred, was first drafted in 2013 and was subject to years of revision. It was finally approved in June 2018 by the Council of Ministers; but at the time of writing, it has not been brought to a vote before the National Assembly.[40]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee ask the government of Senegal:

  • What specific steps are being taken to ensure that female talibés are included in removal programs so that they are not primarily aimed at the more visible male talibés?
  • What actions has the government taken to address the specific forms of abuse that female talibés can face?
  • What type of sensitisation programs are in place to ensure child protection services, police and judicial institutions include abuses committed against girls?
  • What steps are being taken to increase investigations and prosecutions of Quranic teachers and other adults who perpetuate abuses against talibé children?
  • Why has the government not yet passed the draft law on the status of daaras, in order to establish a structural and institutional framework for daaras?
  • Will government programs be expanded beyond Dakar in order to reach the thousands of talibés begging in other regions, and make funding available to daaras that prioritize education and respect children’s rights?

[1] Global Partnership for Education, “Annonce de contribution du SENEGAL pour la période 2017-2020, » (accessed January 28, 2020).

[2] Human Rights Watch, Open Letter for President Macky Sall on Free Secondary Education in Senegal, January 25, 2018,

[3] UN Population Fund, “World Population Dashboard – Senegal,” undated, (accessed January 28, 2020).

[4] République du Sénégal, “Loi 2004-37 du 15 Décembre 2004 modifiant et complétant la loi d’orientation de l’Education nationale n. 91-22 du 16 Février 1991,” (accessed February 9, 2018), art. 3 bis.

[5] “It’s not Normal: Sexual Exploitation, Harassment and Abuse in Secondary Schools in Senegal,” Human Rights Watch, October 18, 2018,, p. 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ministère de l’Education Nationale, “Circulaire sur la gestion des mariages et des grossesses a l’école,” Circulaire no.004379/ME/SG/DEMSG/DAJLD, October 1, 2007, (accessed February 14, 2018).

[8] “It’s not Normal,” Human Rights Watch, p. 18.

[9] UN Population Fund and Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, “Sénégal : Etude sur les grossesses précoces en milieu scolaire,” June 2015,, p. 64.

[10] UN Population Fund and Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, “Sénégal : Etude sur les grossesses précoces en milieu scolaire,” (accessed January 28, 2020).

[11] UN Population Fund, “World Population Dashboard – Senegal,” undated, (accessed January 28, 2020).

[12] République du Sénégal, Ministère de la Santé et de l’Action Sociale, “Plan Stratégique de Santé Sexuelle et de la Reproduction des Adolescents/Jeunes au Sénégal [2014-2018],” September 2014, (accessed December 19, 2018), p. 17.

[13] 1 Projet Promotion des Jeunes, “Le projet de la promotion de la jeunesse, Centres des conseils pour adolescents,” (accessed February 15, 2018).

[14] Agence de Presse Sénégalaise (Dakar), « Sénégal : Harcelement sexuel a l’ecole – Le ministere de l’Education réfute le rapport de HRW, » Octobre 19, 2018, (accessed January 28, 2020).

[15] Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal,  p. 57.

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Yahya Colly Thieto, officer, Groupe pour l’Etude et l’Enseignement de la Population, Dakar, July 24, 2018.

[17] Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal, p. 23-24.

[18] Ibid., p. 23.

[19] Ibid., p. 2.

[20] Centre de Guidance Infantile et Familiale, “Abus Sexuels, Ce que les enfants en pensent! Extrait des focus group organisés aux Parcelles Assainies et à Pikine en milieu scolaire dans le cadre du 10eme fed,” (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

[21] Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal,  p. 47.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] The Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that states introduce an acceptable minimum legal age for sexual consent, by taking “into account the need to balance protection and evolving capacities,” and to include a “legal presumption that adolescents are competent to seek and have access to preventive or time-sensitive sexual and reproductive health commodities and services.” States should also “avoid criminalizing adolescents of similar ages for factually consensual and non-exploitative sexual activity.” Committee on the Rights of the Child, “General comment No. 20 (2016) on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence,” CRC/C/GC/20, December 6, 2016, paras. 39 -40.

[24] “Human Rights Watch, It’s not Normal, p. 20.

[25] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, (accessed January 23, 2020).

[26] Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, (accessed January 23, 2020).

[27] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 30, Access to Education, U.N Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/30 (2013), para. 48.

[28] African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, “Outcome Statement for the Day of General Discussion on Children Affected by Armed Conflict,” November 26, 2019.

[29] African Union, Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s 597th meeting on May 10, 2016: “Children in Armed Conflicts in Africa with particular focus on protecting schools from attacks during armed conflict;” Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union’s 615th meeting on August 9,  2016: “Education of Refugees and Displaced Children in Africa;” Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the 692nd meeting on June 13, 2017, of the PSC dedicated to an Open Session on the theme: “Ending Child Marriages;” and Press Statement on the Peace and Security Council of the 706th meeting on July 26, 2017, of the PSC on the theme: “Child Soldiers/Out of School Children in Armed Conflict in Africa.”

[30] United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual, 2012, section 2.13, “Schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”

[31] UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support and Department of Political Affairs, “Child Protection in UN Peace Operations (Policy),” June 2017.

[32] Education Under Attack: 2018, The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2018,

[33] “There Is Enormous Suffering: Serious Abuses Against Talibé Children in Senegal, 2017-2018,”Human Rights Watch, June 11, 2019,

 [34] Kieran Guilbert, “Girls in Senegal's Islamic schools prey to abuse while boys beg on streets: activists,” Reuters, March 7, 2017, (accessed January 29, 2020)

[35] Human Rights Watch, There Is Enormous Suffering, p. 44.

[36] “Mbour : un maître coranique, accusé d’attouchement sexuel…accuse Satan,” SeneNews, November 24, 2018, (accessed December 1, 2018).

[37] High Court of Mbour, Thiès Court of Appeals, "Etat Des Affaires Jugées dont les Victimes sont des Talibés," 2019 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[38] Le Quotidien, “DIALOGUE NATIONAL- Macky Sall s’engage à appliquer les résultats : ‘il n’y a plus d’enjeux pour moi, il y aura de la transparence. Je reste ouvert, disponible et engagé,’” May 28, 2019, (accessed May 28, 2019).

[39] “These Children Don't Belong in the Streets: A Roadmap for Ending Exploitation, Abuse of Talibés in Senegal,”

Human Rights Watch and PPDH, December 16, 2019,

[40]  Human Rights Watch and PPDH, These Children Don't Belong in the Streets, p. 3.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Afghanistan women’s football team.

(New York) – Two recent cases in Afghanistan highlight the failure of authorities to prosecute sexual assault implicating powerful people, Human Rights Watch said today. The Afghan government should take immediate steps to provide justice, support victims, and protect witnesses.

The Afghan authorities have failed to arrest senior officials of the Afghan Football Federation indicted for sexually assaulting female players and for participating in a cover-up of the abuse. In another recent case, provincial officials in Logar province are seeking to end an investigation into the sexual abuse of hundreds of schoolchildren and have threatened the activists who reported the abuse. 

“Prosecuting sexual violence has long been difficult in Afghanistan, but the problems are magnified when the suspects are powerful people,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “These two horrific cases are a litmus test of the Afghan government’s commitment to ending impunity for sexual violence.”

In November 2019, an Afghan advocacy group disclosed evidence that government officials in Logar province, including teachers and police, had sexually assaulted hundreds of boys at state schools. In response to a Guardian report on their findings, the activists received threats on Facebook, some from local officials. A spokesman for the Logar police threatened to punish the activists. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, detained two activists who had reported the abuse. The NDS later released a video in which one of the men, clearly under duress, apologized for the report. The activists were released and subsequently left Afghanistan.

While the Afghan Attorney General’s Office has initiated an investigation into the Logar allegations and 18 people have been arrested, no police or senior officials alleged to have been responsible for abuse were included in the arrests. Activists have told Human Rights Watch that provincial officials are seeking to terminate the investigation, regardless of whether it has made progress. A number of diplomatic missions in Kabul have raised concerns about political pressure to cut short the investigation. Afghan authorities have not put into place any measures to protect survivors and witnesses from retaliation.

“Hundreds of children may have been sexually abused in Logar, yet government officials are threatening to end the case and providing survivors no support,” Gossman said. “Afghanistan’s donors should use their leverage to press the government to prosecute all those responsible and to protect witnesses.”

Afghan authorities have also failed to make progress in the investigation of multiple cases of alleged sexual assault of women football players by the former president of the Afghan Football Federation, Keramuddin Karim. A November 2018 report in the Guardian detailed allegations by 20 female players of repeated sexual assault by Karim going back to 2016. Following media reports, the Afghan government undertook an investigation. On June 8, 2019, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), football’s global governing body, handed Karim a lifetime ban. On June 9, the Afghan attorney general issued a warrant for Karim’s arrest. However, Karim has yet to be arrested. Most of his accusers have left Afghanistan after receiving threats. Some report that these threats have continued.

“The Afghan government is failing women every day that Keramuddin Karim is not arrested,” Gossman said. “The authorities also need to be investigating football federation officials who facilitated the abuse or helped cover it up.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Bangkok) – Pervasive myths about sexual orientation and gender identity in Vietnam contribute to violence and discrimination which is felt strongly among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, Human Rights watch said in a report released today.

The 65-page report, “‘My Teacher Said I Had a Disease’: Barriers to the Right to Education for LGBT Youth in Vietnam,” documents how LGBT youth in Vietnam face stigma and discrimination at home and at school over myths such as the false belief that same-sex attraction is a diagnosable, treatable, and curable mental health condition. Many experience verbal harassment and bullying, which in some cases leads to physical violence. Teachers are often untrained and ill-equipped to handle cases of anti-LGBT discrimination, and their lessons frequently uphold the widespread myth in Vietnam that same-sex attraction is a disease, Human Rights Watch found. The government of Vietnam should fulfill its pledges to protect the rights of LGBT people.

“The government of Vietnam has indicated support for the rights of LGBT people in recent years, but tangible policy change has lagged,” said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “LGBT youth are especially vulnerable due to inadequate legal protection and widespread misinformation about sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The report is based on in-depth interviews with 52 LGBT youth as well as teachers and other school staff in Vietnam. It analyzes existing government policy and planning documents and pledges the Vietnamese government has made to improve the situation of LGBT people.

Inaccurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity is pervasive in Vietnam and has a particularly harsh impact on youth. While Vietnam has several laws that prohibit discrimination and uphold the right to education for all children, the current national curriculum and sex education policy fall short of international standards and do not include mandatory discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. While some teachers and schools take it upon themselves to include such lessons, the lack of national-level inclusion leaves the majority of students in Vietnam without the basic facts about sexual orientation and gender identity, Human Rights Watch found.

Thuong, 23

When Thuong was a teenager, she wondered why she felt attracted to other girls. She searched for information online, asking “why does a girl like another girl?” and found a website that said it was possible for boys to love boys and girls to love girls. She was relieved. Then in college, she told another girl for the first time that she liked her. The girl told their classmates what Thuong had said, and they started telling Thuong she was “sick.”

© 2020 Sally Deng for Human Rights Watch

“I’ve never been taught about LGBT,” Tuyen, a 20-year-old bisexual woman, told Human Rights Watch. “There are very few people who think that this is normal.” A school counselor said “There’s a lot of pressure on kids to be straight. It’s constantly referenced that being attracted to someone of the same sex is something that can and should be changed and fixed.”

In a promising step in 2019, the education ministry, with the assistance of United Nations agencies, produced guidelines for an LGBT-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education curriculum, but such a curriculum it has not yet been created.

Human Rights Watch found that verbal harassment of LGBT students is common in Vietnamese schools. Students in various types of schools – rural and urban, public and private – said that students and teachers commonly use derogatory words to refer to LGBT people, sometimes targeted directly at them and coupled with threats of violence.

Other studies, including research by UN agencies and Vietnamese groups, have included similar evidence. In a 2014 report, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) noted: “[E]ducation institutions are not safe for LGBT students due to the lack of anti-bullying and non-discrimination policies. Furthermore, sex and sexual orientation and gender identity education is still limited in Viet Nam and are considered sensitive topics that teachers usually avoid.”

While it appears to be less common, some LGBT youth report physical violence as well. “[The bullying] was mostly verbal but there was one time when I was beat up by five or six guys in eighth grade just because they didn’t like how I looked,” one person interviewed said.

In cases of both verbal and physical abuse, school staff respond inconsistently. The majority of the LGBT youth interviewed who had experienced bullying at school said they did not feel comfortable reporting the incidents. This was sometimes because of overt, prejudiced behavior by the staff. In other cases, students assumed that it was unsafe to turn to the adults around them for help.

Even in cases in which students did not face verbal or physical abuse, many reported that their families, peers, and teachers implicitly and explicitly alienate and exclude them. This occurs in classrooms, where teachers refer to anything other than procreative heterosexual relationships as “unnatural,” as well as at home, where parents threaten their children with violence, expulsion, or medical treatment if they are gay or lesbian.

In 2016, while serving on the UN Human Rights Council, Vietnam voted in favor of a resolution on protection against violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, saying “The reason for Vietnam’s yes vote lay in changes both in domestic as well as international policy with respect to LGBT rights.” Other governments in Asia have recently changed their policies to include and protect LGBT youth, including Japan, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

“The government’s stated alignment with a global shift toward respecting the rights of LGBT people signals some political will to make much-needed law and policy changes,” Reid said. “Protecting young people from violence and discrimination and ensuring their education is based in fact instead of prejudice is an important first step.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A Salvadoran family stays at the Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in June 2019 while they wait for their asylum cases to be heard in US immigration court. Like the dozens of other families in the shelter, they sleep on mats in between pews in the chapel. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio

(Washington, DC) – A United States government program exposes children, as well as their parents, seeking asylum to serious risk of assault, mistreatment, and trauma while waiting for their cases to be heard, Human Rights Watch said today in a joint investigation report.

Human Rights Watch, working with Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program and Willamette University’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic, found that the US Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, commonly known as “Remain in Mexico,” compelled families with children to wait in unsafe environments in Mexico for many months. Parents said that prolonged immigration court proceedings, fear of being incarcerated, and uncertainty about the future took a toll on their family’s health, safety, and well-being. Many described changes in their children’s behavior, saying they became more anxious or depressed after US authorities sent them to Mexico to await their hearings.

“The conditions, threats to safety, and sense of uncertainty asylum seekers face while waiting in Mexico creates chronic and severe psychological stress for children and families,” said Dr. Ryan Matlow, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “We know that these forms of pervasive, unresolved complex trauma can lead to significant long-term negative consequences for child development and family functioning.”

Human Rights Watch and other investigators interviewed parents and children from 60 families seeking asylum between November 2019 and January 2020. Most families were from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, with a few from Cuba, Ecuador, and Peru. The investigators also spoke with lawyers, doctors, shelter providers, faith leaders, and Mexican officials.

Under the Migrant Protection Protocols, US immigration officials have required most Spanish-speaking asylum seekers who arrive in the US through Mexico to go to Mexico while their cases are heard. Parents said that while waiting in Mexico, they or their children were beaten, harassed, sexually assaulted, or abducted. Some said Mexican police had harassed or extorted money from them. Most said they were constantly fearful and easily identified as targets for violence.

US Department of Homeland Security guidance suggests that certain particularly vulnerable groups should not be placed in the program, but the guidance is vague and immigration agents interpret it variably. US Customs and Border Protection officials regularly return to Mexico families with infants and toddlers; indigenous families and Brazilians whose first language is not Spanish; and children and adults with serious health conditions.

Asylum hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols raise various due process concerns, Human Rights Watch said. To get to court hearings in the United States, families must report to a designated border crossing point, which sometimes requires them to arrive as early as 3 a.m. in unsafe locations. Those sent to Mexicali or Piedras Negras must make journeys of 160 to 550 kilometers (100 to 340 miles) to reach their designated border crossing point.

All family members, including young children, must appear, and sit quietly for each court hearing. Families interviewed said that they were frequently required to wait for hours for a brief hearing, and agents have told parents they risked being sent back to Mexico without seeing a judge if their children made noise or could not sit still.

Families said that after each hearing, they were locked up in very cold, often overcrowded immigration holding cells, with men and teenage boys held separately, sometimes overnight or longer, before US officials returned them to Mexico. Some said they were considering abandoning their asylum cases because their children were afraid of being detained again.

A 27-year-old woman from Honduras described being detained in an El Paso holding cell with her daughter. “I asked for a blanket for the girl. They said no,” she said, saying that the guard did not give a reason.

Guards separate older boys under age 18 from their mothers and younger siblings, placing them with unrelated adults. A woman from Cuba said her 13-year-old son’s separation “had a traumatic effect on him.” Another described the effect of family separation on the boys he saw in his cell after his hearing: “It’s very inhumane. The guards don’t treat these boys like children, they treat them like adults. It’s illogical.”

“Locking families up in frigid, overcrowded cells and separating boys from their mothers is traumatizing,” said Michael Garcia Bochenek, senior children’s rights counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The US government should never inflict cruelty on children, especially not as the price of getting their day in court.”

All governments are obligated to respect the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement – the prohibition on returning a person to a country where they are at risk of persecution, torture, or other cruel or inhuman treatment. Governments are also obligated to extend specific protections to children, whether traveling alone or with families, including by giving primary consideration to their best interests.

The US government should immediately terminate the MPP program and cease all returns of non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico. Instead, it should revert to the global norm of allowing asylum seekers to remain in the country where their claims are heard. The government should safeguard asylum seekers’ right to a fair and timely hearing by establishing an adequately resourced, independent immigration court system with court-appointed legal representation for asylum seekers who are members of particularly vulnerable groups.

“‘Remain in Mexico’ is putting at risk families who are already facing desperate situations,” said Dr. Nancy Wang, professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. “It’s inexcusable for the US government to subject children and families to crowded, unsanitary, insecure conditions with inadequate protection from infectious diseases – whether in US immigration detention or in overstretched shelters in Mexico.”

For additional information on the findings, please see below.

Migrant Protection Protocols Program

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began implementing the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico,” on January 29, 2019. Under the program, US immigration officers send most people seeking asylum who have entered the United States by land from Mexico to Mexican border towns while their cases are pending before US immigration courts. As of December, US officials sent more than 59,000 people to Mexico under the program, including at least 16,000 children.

Under the program, families with children are sent to Mexico regardless of the children’s ages. DHS has stated that people “in special circumstances,” including those with “[k]nown physical/mental health issues,” will not be placed in the program, but US immigration officials apply the DHS guidance inconsistently, with reports that people who are critically ill, pregnant, or living with disabilities have been sent to Mexico to await their asylum hearings. According to DHS guidelines, unaccompanied children should not be placed in the program. The program applied only to asylum seekers from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, but DHS announced that beginning January 29, 2020, it had begun requiring Portuguese-speaking Brazilians who are seeking asylum to remain in Mexico.

In the year since the program began, US officials have sent children in families seeking asylum to Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo, Piedras Negras, and Tijuana, and, as of January 2, to Nogales.

Sent to Danger

Asylum seekers interviewed said they or their children had been violently attacked, robbed at knifepoint, or extorted in Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Mexicali, Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana while transiting through these cities before they sought asylum, or after US officials sent them to those cities. Three families said they had been abducted for ransom, in Nuevo Laredo; one family for eight days. Four families said their children had been sexually assaulted after US officials sent them to Mexico.

Two women said they were raped after being sent to Mexico, including one who was abducted and raped the day US officials sent her to Mexico. Two families said they were abducted and held for ransom almost immediately after arriving. Another woman described being robbed by armed men as she crossed into Mexico from the United States.

These accounts are in addition to 29 reports of harm to asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez documented by Human Rights Watch in a July 2019 report.

An October 2019 study by the US Immigration Policy Center of the University of California San Diego found that one-quarter of more than 600 asylum seekers returned to Mexicali and Tijuana were threatened with physical violence while they waited in Mexico for their immigration court hearings.

Human Rights First has tracked more than 800 violent attacks on people seeking asylum, including cases of murder, rape, and abduction for ransom, in the year since the program began. That figure includes at least 200 cases of alleged kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of children.

In the current investigation, some families described extortion and other harassment by Mexican police. Edwin F. (all names are pseudonyms), a 28-year-old from Honduras staying in a shelter in Ciudad Juárez with his wife and 5-year-old son, said in January 2020: “Yesterday the police stopped a group of us. They asked all of us where we were from. They searched through our phone history as if we were coming to do harm to the country. They held us close to half an hour while they searched us, even our son. They asked for money. I didn’t have any.” His wife, Marisela, 21, said that when the police officers searched her: “I had some sanitary pads in a shopping bag. They dumped them out on the ground. Everything I had, they dumped out on the ground.” The encounter traumatized their 5-year-old. “He became really anxious,” his father said. “He started to cry uncontrollably.”

Under DHS policy, people seeking asylum should receive an interview with an asylum officer, known as a “credible fear” interview, if they tell immigration agents they fear harm in Mexico. DHS guidance states that “a third-country national should not be involuntarily returned to Mexico . . . if the alien would more likely than not be persecuted. . . or tortured.”

Many families said these interviews were by telephone and not face-to-face. Assessing these interviews, a former asylum officer wrote: “[The MPP] process places on the applicants the highest burden of proof in civil proceedings in the lowest quality hearing available.”

“If you say you’re afraid of going back to Mexico, they put you in a cell in the hielera [the “freezer,” referring to an immigration holding cell],” said Nelly O., a 27-year-old Honduran woman. “You wait for a call. They call this a ‘credible fear’ interview. When the call comes, it could be nighttime. You spend the entire night in the hielera.

The families who spoke to the investigation team said they received an interview, but organizations working in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana told Human Rights Watch that many asylum seekers had not. “People are now being denied interviews, with no reason given and no documentation of denial,” said Tania Guerrero, an attorney with the Estamos Unidos Asylum Project of CLINIC. She said she had heard of more than 10 such cases in El Paso in a single week in January.

Every family we interviewed said immigration officials did not actively ask them if they feared being sent to Mexico, and DHS guidance does not require them to. “They didn’t really ask us what our case was or why we left our countries,” said Maria Q., a 41-year-old from Honduras, of her hearing in San Diego in October. “They said they couldn’t do anything. They just handed us some papers. They didn’t pay attention to what we needed or what we said.”

Marisela F., a 21-year-old from Honduras, said that at her hearing in El Paso in December with her husband and their 5-year-old son: “The officials didn’t ask about Mexico.” While one of the papers they received before they were sent to Ciudad Juárez stated, “Attached is a credible fear worksheet,” they had no memory of ever receiving such a worksheet and had no copy of one among the papers from their legal proceedings.

Similarly, the US Immigration Policy Center found that more than one-third of people seeking asylum were not asked by US immigration officials if they feared being sent to Mexico. Of those who were asked, nearly 9 out of 10 told immigration agents they feared harm if returned to Mexico; nearly 60 percent of them were not given a secondary interview to explain their fears.

Families returned to Mexico despite their expressed fears of harm said they were afraid to request interviews during subsequent court hearings. They said their initial experience suggested that they would not be believed and that requesting an interview would only mean more time detained. Julián M., a 28-year-old Honduran man, said that the second time he and his family went for their court hearing, they decided not to ask for a call to explain their fear of returning to Mexico. “If we did, we would have to wait another night in the cell,” he said.

Ordeal Getting to Immigration Court

Asylum seekers sent to Mexicali must find transportation to Tijuana, 180 kilometers (110 miles) west, to report at the border for immigration court hearings in San Diego. Families sent to Piedras Negras must travel an equivalent distance to Laredo for hearings.

“From Mexicali, we had to make our way here [to Tijuana],” Maria Q. said. “The immigration agents didn’t give us any directions. They didn’t tell us where there were shelters.”

Children and families sent to Nogales will have to make their way to Ciudad Juárez, a 550-kilometer (340-mile), seven-and-a-half-hour journey by the most direct route through Mexico, for hearings.

If children and families cannot or do not make the long, potentially dangerous journey, an immigration judge can reject their asylum claim and in their absence order them deported.

Families said that immigration agents told them they had to arrive at the border crossings between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. for hearings beginning at 8 a.m.

Families in Tijuana said that because of the difficulty and danger of traveling from their shelters in the middle of the night, especially with children, they stayed in hotel rooms if they could afford to. Many, including young women with toddlers, said they did not have the money and spent the night on the street outside the border crossing. Some families described concerns about being stalked or profiled while looking for hotels or waiting in the street and feared that they could be extorted or kidnapped.

Once allowed to enter US territory, families undergo health screenings, including lice checks, then are transported to the immigration court. If all family members do not pass the health screening, including the lice checks, the family is rescheduled for another hearing, often a month or more later.

“We wait in a hallway, seated in chairs,” said Nuria J. “The kids are right there with us. There’s nowhere else for them. They can’t play. The guards don’t permit them to move around. They reprimand you if the kids get out of the chairs. You sit all day. It’s a long time.” Another woman said: “If you have a baby and you need to change your baby’s diapers, they’ll give you a diaper. But there’s no place to go. You have to change your baby on the floor, right there in the hallway.”

Blanca M., 31, attended her first immigration court hearing in August with her husband and their three daughters, all under age 5. “We had nothing to eat from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” she said. “The officials wanted us to keep the kids quiet. Really I was at the point of giving up.” Her husband added: “One guard kept saying, ‘Those of you with children, control them. If your children are fucking around, I can take away your court hearing.’ It’s almost impossible to get a 1-year-old to stay seated in a chair.” They said the same thing happened inside the courtroom.

Some families said they were thinking of abandoning their asylum claims because the process was so traumatic for their children.

A Bewildering Process and Little Access to Counsel

Families interviewed in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana described a chaotic, confusing process once they saw an immigration judge.

Most expected that they would be able to explain their situation to a judge immediately, but the first hearing, a “master calendar” hearing, is a brief session to handle preliminary matters and set a date for a longer individual hearing. Asylum seekers who need more time to prepare or to seek legal representation are often rescheduled for an additional master calendar hearing. Some families said they had three brief master calendar hearings. Most we spoke to said they were sent to Mexico after each hearing with very little understanding of what had happened and what they needed to do to pursue their claims.

Most papers they received were in English. They must submit their asylum applications in English, with all supporting documentation translated into English.

Associated Press reporters who visited immigration courts in 11 cities, including El Paso and San Diego, described what they saw as “nonstop chaos” – overcrowded courtrooms, evidence misplaced in stacks of paper files, and hearings without interpreters, among other shortcomings.

People seeking asylum in the United States are not guaranteed legal representation. Instead, US law states that they have the “privilege of being represented (at no expense to the government).” Pro bono or low-cost legal representation is difficult to find even for those inside the country. For the tens of thousands of families sent to Mexico, obtaining counsel is nearly impossible – with nowhere near enough pro bono lawyers to meet the need. Only 14 of the 1,155 cases decided in the program’s first five months, 1.2 percent, had legal representation.

Immigration officials provided a woman who attended a hearing in Laredo a list of legal service providers – showing lawyers in Dallas, 700 kilometers (430 miles) away.

Some asylum seekers alleged that abuses by US immigration agents directly affected their ability to present their claims. Nicola A. said a uniformed US border agent tore up the documents corroborating her account of persecution in her home country. She now fears that she will not have sufficient proof to support her asylum claim.

Detention in Frigid US Immigration Holding Cells

Most of the families interviewed said that they spent at least one night and sometimes more after their court hearing in the immigration holding cells known as the hieleras.

These holding cells are notoriously cold, with temperatures reaching as low as 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). People detained in these cell have frequently been subjected to substandard conditions and abusive treatment, as Human Rights Watch and other groups have consistently reported.

“When we entered, the guards turned the air conditioning up,” said Maria Q. “They took away our sweaters and said they would wash them, but they never returned them.”

Wendy G., 32, from Honduras, was held in the hielera with her 12-year-old daughter and 10 and 8-year-old sons in August and again in September after each of her court hearings. “It was really cold both times,” she said. “Some of the guards shouted at us…They would give us food that was still frozen. They told us we risked being locked up more days if we misbehaved.”

Families said immigration holding cells could be very overcrowded, consistent with reports in June by lawyers and the DHS Office of Inspector General. Edwin F. said that after his family’s court hearing in December, “We were held in the [border station] cells…My wife was held with our son, I was in another cell. There were 17 of us in a small space. It was hard to lie down.” Because their court date was on December 23, they stayed in the holding cells for four days, returning to Ciudad Juárez on December 27.

Julián M. said that after he and his family had a court hearing in October, they were held in an El Paso immigration holding cell:

The cell I was in had a capacity of 38. There was a sign. It was in English, but I understood the word “capacity,” and right next to it was the number 38. We all counted ourselves. There were 112 of us in that cell. At first there were 99. Then the guards brought 13 more. The 13 didn’t fit. We were all sleeping on the floor. An official told us to get up so everyone could fit in the cell. He had a stun gun. He threatened us with it, saying, “If you don’t get up, I’ll shoot you with the stun gun.” Of course everyone immediately got up. Nobody slept that night.

Most of the families interviewed said they were detained for one or two days after their hearings, but some families described periods lasting three or four days or longer. Nuria J. said that when she was in the hielera with her son and daughter: “[t]here was one guy, maybe 35 years old, who said he had spent seven days locked up after his court hearing.”

Families in immigration holding cells have no opportunity to bathe. Many described the cells as “dirty” and “filthy.”

Some described significant health concerns in the holding cells. Nicola A., who has public health training, said that while she and her family were in immigration holding cells, “I noticed that there were numerous people carrying lice, as well as people showing signs and symptoms of varicella [chicken pox]. Nonetheless, we were all kept together in the same rooms – these conditions were extremely unsanitary.

Previous reports and inspections of immigration holding cells by government inspectors, Human Rights Watch, and others have also found unsanitary and otherwise substandard conditions, including flu, lice, scabies, shingles, and chicken pox transmission, overcrowding, and inadequate food. A San Antonio-based group of volunteer doctors, nurses, and social workers, Sueños Sin Fronteras, found that new medical conditions arose while in immigration holding cells, including “a lot of boils and skin rashes, attributable to the lack of hygiene, and severe constipation, attributable to the dehydration and poor food intake” and near-universal “complaints of flu symptoms or respiratory problems or both.”

Adverse Consequences for Mental Well-Being

The combined trauma of families’ flights from persecution, and the dangers they faced on their journeys to the United States, and now face in Mexico, have had serious negative effects on their mental well-being.

“The children and families we saw showed incredible strength and resilience,” Dr. Ryan Matlow said. “At the same time, the conditions they face while waiting for their asylum hearings continuously erode the resources and protective influences that would help them maintain their physical and psychological health. Trauma and adversity have a cumulative impact on health, meaning that chronic stress over time, along with repeated exposure to threats increase the prevalence and severity of possibly long-lasting negative physical and mental health outcomes.”

The families interviewed described their despair, hopelessness, anxiety, and deteriorating family relationships. “Families are doing their best to survive and adapt to the circumstances they are placed in, but the sense that they are under chronic threat and danger leads to long-term experiences of anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, behavioral reactivity, withdrawal, and fatigue,” Matlow said. He said that children were especially susceptible to trauma, which is associated with learning difficulties, behavior problems, health impairment, and shortened life expectancy.

“It’s hardest on our son,” said Edwin F., choking up as he described the changes in his 5-year-old son during the three months they had been in Mexico. “He isn’t prepared mentally for these things. We’ve seen a change in him… Before he was more easygoing. Now he’s easily bothered, more irritable, gets angry easily. He’s anxious and impulsive now, he doesn’t control himself. He was more well-behaved in Honduras. Now he misbehaves. We’ve seen a complete change in the boy. We didn’t want this life for our son.”

Tania Guerrero, the CLINIC project attorney, said: “The women I speak to tell me, ‘Nobody understands what we’re going through here [in Ciudad Juárez].’ They have been here eight months. They’re exhausted, alone, miserable. They want to get on with their lives. The level of disillusionment and despair they feel is profound.”

Nicola A. said:

We are constantly under stress by our inability to request asylum and find shelter in a safe place. We are afraid and anxious in Mexico, given that our kidnappers are still pursuing us. We are afraid of being separated and detained again in the horrendous conditions in immigration detention… We experience these fears every day. We have ongoing health concerns and we are running out of money to pay for medication and treatment… This entire experience has had a negative impact on our family.

Our son appears traumatized and is more quiet, depressed, and withdrawn than I have ever seen him before. My husband and I are constantly anxious and irritable due to the constant stress. We are desperate, and we are losing hope that we will be able to find safety and refuge from the persecution and victimization that we have experienced. We are starting to believe that there is no safe place where we can go and be accepted.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Protests broke out in the Maldives recently after the rape of a 2-year-old girl. She had apparently been attacked by her father, grandfather, and great grandfather, all of whom were arrested. Her 82-year-old great grandfather had previously been investigated over allegations of sexual abuse of children but faced no charges because of his age. Numerous other cases have since surfaced around the island country of authorities failing to prosecute cases of child sexual abuse.

A 12-year-old girl who was allegedly raped by three men in Varanasi, India. Police did not believe her account and beat up her father.

© 2012 Human Rights Watch

And this failure is sadly repeated across South Asia. In Afghanistan, after activists documented the widespread sexual assault of schoolboys in Logar province, all the wrong things happened: some of the people who had exposed the crimes were detained and others received death threats, while powerful officials – including police officers – among the alleged perpetrators have yet to be charged with a crime.

Authorities broke up a child pornography ring in Pakistan’s Kasur district in 2015, but without proper follow-up, the abuses have continued. A child rights group has documented more than 3,800 cases of child sexual abuse across Pakistan, but the numbers are likely much higher because of underreporting.

Numerous sexual abuse cases have been reported recently in Bangladesh, including offenses committed by religious leaders and teachers. Nineteen-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi was burned to death after filing a complaint of attempted rape against her religious school principal.

And despite strong legislation, India’s official crime records show that more than 100 children were sexually abused every day in 2018. The government’s good polices have been undermined by a failure to enforce them.

South Asian leaders, instead of establishing robust child protection systems, reforming the criminal justice system, and ensuring that victims and their families receive legal and psychosocial support, seem content to scream for rapists to be hanged or summarily executed. But the death penalty has proved no deterrent. What is needed is political will to protect survivors and witnesses, and to appropriately prosecute those responsible. Conviction rates are low in part because police and prosecutors are susceptible to outside pressures. All too often, if the accused is an influential political or religious leader or has their backing, the justice system looks away. South Asia’s children deserve better.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

We write in advance of the 77th pre-session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and its review of the Republic of Yemen’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

  1. Protection of Education and Equal Access to Education During Armed Conflict (Article 10)

The armed conflict in Yemen has had a grave impact on the accessibility of education for girls. UNICEF states that 2 million children are currently out of school; half a million of these children are estimated to have dropped out since 2015, and another 3.7 million are at risk of dropping out as the humanitarian crisis escalates.[1] Girls are especially vulnerable to dropping out of school for financial and safety reasons, which increases the likelihood of early marriage, abuse, and exploitation. As a result of the recruitment practices of armed groups nationwide, children, especially girls, are displaced in large numbers and vulnerable to sexual violence.

Primary education is compulsory under Yemeni Law from age 6 to 14.[2] However, guaranteeing this has become increasingly difficult during armed conflict. It is estimated that one in five schools can no longer be used as a “direct result” of the armed conflict in Yemen.[3] Many public servants, including teachers, have reportedly gone over two years without regular salary payments, disrupting the school programs and schedules for millions of children.[4] The lack of a steady source of income has made it difficult for families to afford sending their children to school, as well as provide the transportation, supplies, and other materials their children need to receive a full education. If families can only afford to send some children to school, there is a higher chance that boys will be prioritized over girls for safety and cultural reasons.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous incidents of parties to the conflict using schools for military purposes, as well as attacks on schoolchildren and education infrastructure, including attacks on or near school buildings and school buses:

In January 2016, Houthi militia turned a school for blind students in Sanaa into a target by basing themselves in the facility’s compound.[5] A Saudi-coalition bomb struck the compound on January 5, 2016, and although it did not explode, the school was damaged and four civilians were injured. At the time of the attack, at least 10 children all under the age of 12 were sleeping in the building when the bomb struck.

On December 23, 2016, a Saudi-coalition cluster munition attack struck an area near a girls’ school and a boys’ school in Saada city in northern Yemen, killing two civilians and wounding six, including a child. Students were told not to return to school the day after the attack, as the schools had to be checked for any explosive remnants, including unexploded submunitions.[6]

On January 10, 2017, a Saudi-led coalition airstrike near a school in northern Yemen killed two students, including an 11-year-old girl.[7] Two girls, ages 8 and 12, were wounded in this airstrike. The school provided primary education for about 900 children. Students were either on their way to school, or getting ready to head there, when the airstrike occurred.

A Houthi-controlled warehouse that stored volatile material near the residential Sawan neighborhood in Sanaa caught fire and detonated on April 7, 2019, killing at least 15 children, 10 of whom were girls, and injuring more than 100 children and adults during class time.[8] The blast destroyed and damaged two schools, where 10 girls and a boy died. The cause of the explosion remains unknown, but the Houthis’ decision to store volatile material near homes and schools, despite the foreseeable risk, contributed to the death and injury of dozens of schoolchildren and adults.

The military use of schools by the parties to the conflict has also disproportionately impacted girls’ access to education. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack reported in 2019 that local militias and gangs were known to cut off access to school for girls in particular and even threaten school administration members with bombings if girls were allowed to continue to attend.[9]

In October 2017, Yemen became the 70th country to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, thereby committing to protect students, teachers, and schools during conflict, including by implementing the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict. By endorsing the declaration, Yemen committed itself to a number of measures aimed at strengthening the prevention of, and response to, attacks on students, teachers, and schools, including by: collecting reliable data on attacks and military use of schools and universities, providing assistance to victims of attacks, investigating allegations of violations of national and international law and prosecuting perpetrators when appropriate, developing and promoting “conflict sensitive” approaches to education, and seeking to continue education during armed conflict.

A report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented in September 2019 that some Yemeni forces have begun to withdraw military personnel from some schools, in line with the commitments of the Safe Schools Declaration.[10] However, the report found that at least 20 schools were still in use by Yemeni armed forces, Houthis, and United Arab Emirates and Sudanese-backed forces. A Safe Schools Committee within the Ministry of Education was also established in February 2019.[11]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • Are protections for schools and universities from military use included in any policies, rules, or trainings for Yemen’s armed forces?
  • How many schools were either partially or wholly used for military purposes by government security forces during the reporting period, and for what time?
  • What steps are being taken to address and remedy the disproportionate harm to girls’ access to education as a result of hostilities and military use of schools?
  • How many students are deprived of educational facilities as a result of hostilities, the military use of their school, or the need for their school to be repaired or reconstructed, provided access to education elsewhere?

2. Child Marriage (Article 16)

Current trends suggest that child marriage is on the rise in Yemen. According to the UNFPA, the average age for girls to get married is about 15 years old.[12] More precise estimates are difficult to ascertain in this context.

Economic instability and poverty in Yemen are among the prevailing reasons for children to enter marriages. Girls who enter marriages at a young age face greater risks in pregnancy, including difficulties during childbirth that can result in death. Child marriage also often ends a girl’s education and can expose her to domestic violence.

Yemen currently has no minimum age for marriage. Attempts have been made in Parliament to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18; for example, one of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (2013-2014) was a draft of a new constitution that included a ban on child marriage.[13] In April 2014, the then-minister of social affairs and labor and the minister of legal affairs presented a draft Child Rights Law to the then-Cabinet establishing 18 as Yemen’s minimum marriage age for adoption and then review at Parliament.[14] However, the status of Parliament is currently “expired” as its six-year term has ended and power remains split between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and the Houthis.[15]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What steps are being taken to resume Parliamentary discussion on setting a minimum age for marriage?
  • What mechanisms are there in place to ensure accurate registration of births, deaths, marriages, and divorce?
  • How is the government working to change the cultural acceptance of child marriage and promote education for girls and women?
  • Do girls currently in marriages have access to legal redress and child protection services?
  • Are there retention strategies in place to ensure that girls who enroll in school are able to remain in school?
  • Are there monitoring systems in place to identify girls most vulnerable to child marriage?

3.     Violence Against Women and Girls (Articles 1, 2, 3, and 12)

Violence against women has increased about 63 percent since the conflict escalated in 2015.[16] Prior to the conflict, women faced discriminatory laws that increased the vulnerability of females to violence, but during the current conflict, warring parties’ actions have led to the displacement of women and girls in large numbers, and exacerbated discrimination and violence against them.[17]

Gender-Based Violence

Yemen has no law designed specifically to protect women from gender-based violence, only the general protection provided in the Penal Code that criminalizes infliction of physical harm. Provisions in the Personal Status Law create conditions that can facilitate marital rape and domestic violence. Article 40 of the Personal Status Law, for example, as revised in 1998, requires a woman to be obedient to her husband. Article 40 does not permit a woman to leave the matrimonial home without her husband’s permission except in very narrow circumstances. The provision requires that women allow their husbands to have sexual relations whenever the husbands require.[18] Marital rape is not criminalized.

Likewise, provisions in the Penal Code also increase the vulnerability of women to violence. Article 232 of the Penal Code allows for reduced and lenient sentences for men convicted of so-called “honor killing.” It provides that a man who murders or injures his wife, mother, daughter, or sister or her partner after finding them in the act of committing adultery should receive a maximum prison sentence of one year or a fine.[19] In addition, where a family member has killed a female relative in the name of “honor,” he can be pardoned by his family.

Other legal provisions that criminalize zina (sexual intercourse outside of marriage) and “immoral acts” have a discriminatory impact on women.[20] For example, under “immoral acts,” a woman can be prosecuted for the offense of khilwa if found in the company of a man who is not her relative. Such provisions undermine women’s rights, including to equal protection under the law.[21] Criminalizing consensual sex between adults also increases women’s vulnerability to rape and other sexual abuse as women are likely to be deterred from reporting such crimes, fearing their own prosecution for zina or “immoral acts.”

Female Genital Mutilation 

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in some governates of Yemen, where the figures can be as high as 84 percent of women and girls who are cut. By 2013, research demonstrated that 19 percent of all women and girls nationwide had undergone some form of FGM. Ninety-nine percent of women who are victims of FGM are mutilated within the first year of birth, with 93 percent mutilated within the first month.[22]

Because of the fragile healthcare system prior to the conflict and the collapse of the healthcare system amidst the fighting, particularly emergency care, in many rural areas of Yemen, FGM can lead to death or long-term health consequences. The Yemeni government keeps no official data on deaths associated with FGM, so the number of Yemeni girls who have lost their lives due to the practice remains unknown.[23]

A law banning FGM was debated during Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference in 2014. Conference members concluded that those who carry out FGM should be subject to criminal prosecution. In response to this and other National Dialogue recommendations, in April 2014 a Child Rights bill that criminalizes FGM and stipulates prison sentences and fines for offenders was submitted for ministerial review. However, the bill was pending before the cabinet when the hostilities escalated and there was a change in the government.

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What steps are being taken to make all forms of violence against women and girls, including domestic violence, a criminal offense?
  • What steps are being taken to repeal or amend laws that facilitate violence against women, including those related to “honor killings” and zina (sexual intercourse outside marriage)?
  • Are there mechanisms in place by which victims can report violence to government officials and receive a response?
  • What legislative steps are being taken to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) for children and non-consenting adult women?
  • How does the government define FGM?
  1. Abuse Against Migrant and Yemeni Women and Girls in Detention (Articles 1,2 and 12)

Yemeni government officials have tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in a detention center in the southern port city of Aden.

Past videos and photos of the detention facility show hundreds of men and boys in a crowded concrete hangar, with women and girls sitting on a stone floor. Former detainees reported that the facility was overcrowded, with dire sanitation conditions and little access to medical care. The provision of food was inconsistent, and guards would occasionally withhold food. Former detainees said guards sexually assaulted women and girls regularly.

One woman, from Harar, Ethiopia was arrested by Yemeni soldiers with a few dozen other Ethiopian men and women. When they arrived in Buraika, she was separated from her husband. The male guards made the women take off their abayas and headscarves and checked their bodies and hair. They took them to a room with about 100 other women. Guards would beat them regularly, she said, when the women would wail or yell. The guards did not provide much food, and the supply was not consistent. Every night, the guards would take one or two women with them, she said. Most women were eventually forced to go with the guards. If a woman refused to sleep with the guards, they would retaliate by withholding food for two days, she said. She knew five girls – a 12-year-old, two 15-year-olds, and two 17-year-olds – who were held in the facility with her and who had been raped.[24]

Dozens of Yemeni women were also being held without charges in secret Houthi prisons, where they are often subjected to torture and mistreatment. Their families are not aware of their whereabouts.[25]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What steps are being taken to ensure migrant detainees are held in conditions that meet international standards?
  • Are specific protections for women and girls held in migrant detention centers included in the trainings, rules, policies, and manuals for detention center staff? 
  • What mechanisms are there in place to identify children in detention?
  • Under what conditions are children held in detention?
  • How do authorities and detention center staff ensure children have access to appropriate food and medical care and can communicate with their families?
  • What supervision mechanisms are there in place to monitor the conduct of detention center staff members?
  • Are there channels by which detainees may report instances of abuse or mistreatment and receive response?
  1. Women’s political participation (Article 3)

Women could always be found at the forefront of political and academic activist spaces in Yemen, although the context of turmoil and violence since 2015 has significantly impeded their access to formal political and peacebuilding channels.[26] For example, women’s participation in politics in the National Dialogue Conference during the transitional period in 2013 resulted in many achievements for women’s rights, albeit frozen now. The draft constitution received significant input from female politicians, which was reflected in the draft constitutional provisions banning child marriage and a 30 percent quota for women in governing bodies and institutions.

The conflict has stalled further progress or discussion on the new constitution, and women have been marginalized from further participation. During peace talks in 2015, women were excluded from participating.[27] Only one female delegate was present at the negotiation table at the Yemen peace talks in Stockholm in December 2018.[28] A handful of women from three different groups were also present at the 2019 talks, but their presence did not translate into a formal seat at the negotiation table.[29]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What mechanisms are in place to ensure active political participation of women in political and legislative bodies?
  • What steps are being taken to ensure inclusive representation of women in peace talks at the international level?  

[1] UNICEF, “As School Year Starts in Yemen, 2 Million Children Are out of School and Another 3.7 Million Are at Risk of Dropping Out,” September 25, 2019.

[2] “Yemen Education and Literacy,” November 27, 2016,

[3] UNICEF, “As School Year Starts in Yemen, 2 Million Children Are out of School and Another 3.7 Million Are at Risk of Dropping Out,” September 25, 2019.

[4] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2020: Yemen, January 2020,

[5]  “Yemen: Houthis Endangered School for Blind, Coalition Airstrike Shows Added Risks For People with Disabilities,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 13, 2016,

[6] “Yemen: Saudi-led coalition Airstrike Near School, 2 Students, Administrator Killed; 3 Children Wounded” Human Rights Watch news release, February 16, 2017,

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Yemen: Warehouse Blast Kills Schoolchildren, Houthis Stored Volatile Material in Residential Area” Human Rights Watch news release, May 9, 2019,

[9] “Safeguard Yemen’s Future: Protect Education from Attack.” Briefing Paper, Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. February 2019.

[10] OHCHR, “Situation of Human Rights in Yemen, including violations and abuses since September 2014; Report of the detailed findings of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen,” September 2019,

[11] “Safe Schools Declaration News #5,” Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, December 18, 2019,

[12] UNFPA Yemen, “Child Marriage on the Rise,” October 4, 2016,;  “Child Marriage is Stalling Sustainable Development,” World Economic Forum, October 18, 2019,

[13] Anne K. Bang, “Unfulfilled Hopes. The Quest for a Minimum Marriage Age in Yemen, 2009-2014,” CMI Report, 2016.

[14] “Yemen: End Child Marriage, Enact Law Establishing Minimum Age; Punish Violators” Human Rights Watch news release, April 27, 2014,

[15] Al-Haj, Ahmed, “Yemen President Returns Home for a Rare Parliament Session,” Associated Press, April 12, 2019,

[16] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2020: Yemen, January 2020,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Law No 40. of 1998 regarding Personal Status (hereafter Personal Status Law) (in Arabic) at (accessed January 28, 2020).

[19] Law No. 12 of 1994 regarding crimes and punishments (hereafter Penal Code), as amended by law no.16 of 1995 and Law No. 24 of 2006, article 232 (in Arabic) at (accessed January 28, 2020).

[20] Article 12 lists zina as one of the crimes that would fall within the classification of hudood (hadd singular) crimes that are crimes as prescribed under Sharia. Article 263 provides that where zina is committed by an unmarried man or woman they are to be punished by a maximum of 100 lashes and a court may also on the basis of ta’zir (discretion) sentence them to a maximum of one year in prison; if the person was married when committing zina, it is punishable by stoning to death.

[21] Chapter 3 of the Penal Code refers to “scandalous” acts in breach of modesty, which is defined under article 273 as “a scandalous act in breach of modesty are all acts contrary to public decency or modesty, nudity, revealing intentionally their genitals or indicating a breach of modesty and contrary to etiquette.” For instance, article 275 states in cases of scandalous acts with a female that they could be imprisoned up to one year or a fine if the act was committed without the female’s consent but if she consented then the two of them could be sentenced to a maximum of six months or a fine not exceeding 1,000 riyals (US$5).

[22] “Yemen: National Health and Demographic Survey 2013,” Ministry of Public Health & Population

& Central Statistical Organization, Republic of Yemen (July 2015),  

[23] “Killing My Daughter Haunts Me: Female Genital Mutilation in Yemen,” unpublished Human Rights Watch research, 2014.

[24] “Yemen: Detained African Migrants Tortured, Raped: Grant Access to Asylum Procedures; Hold Abusers Accountable,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 17, 2018,

[25] “Yemeni Group: Houthi Rebels Hold, Torture Female Detainees.” AP News, Maggie Michael. January 17, 2019,

[26] Afrah Nasser, “Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization.” MERIP, no. 189 (Winter 2018).

[27] Ibid

[28] Afrah Nasser, “Yemen: Women, War & Political Marginalization,” Atlantic Council  (blog), January 25, 2019.

[29] Ibid.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A woman walks with a child in Roj camp, which holds foreign wives and children of Islamic State (ISIS) members, in northeast Syria, September 2018.

© 2018 Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

(Tunis) –Tunisia’s action on January 23, 2020, to bring home from Libya six orphaned children of suspected Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members is a step toward protecting the rights of these children, Human Rights Watch said today. Tunisian authorities should now do their utmost to promptly bring home more than 36 other children of ISIS suspects who remain stranded in Libya, as well as 160 others believed to be held in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq.

“Tunisia should move swiftly to follow this positive step with further action to bring home its children trapped in squalid camps and prisons in war-torn countries,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Children should not be punished for the purported crimes of their parents.”

The repatriation of the six orphans follows other repatriations in 2017 and 2018, when the Tunisian government brought home three other children of ISIS suspects from Libya. The fathers and mothers of the orphans were reportedly killed in 2016 airstrikes on Sirte, which at the time was an ISIS stronghold and the group’s self-declared capital in Libya. Since then, the remaining orphans had been held in a facility in Misrata, in northwest Libya, that the Misrata branch of the Libyan Red Crescent supervises.

On January 24, 2020, the official Facebook page of the Tunisian presidency released a video of President Kais Saied receiving children who, it said, were the six orphans transferred after being under the care of the Misrata Red Crescent. The Misrata Red Crescent had posted on its Facebook page a day earlier that a delegation representing the Tunisian government had arrived to take the orphans home.

Moncef Abidi, an activist with the Tunisia-based Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, told Human Rights Watch that the children remaining in Libya were held in prisons with their mothers, who did not want to be separated from their children.

All Tunisians should be allowed to return to Tunisia, given their right to enter their country of nationality, Human Rights Watch said. Tunisian children of ISIS suspects who are held in Libya, Syria, or Iraq should be repatriated to Tunisia without delay. Children should not be separated from their mothers or other relatives unless there is compelling evidence that such separation is in the best interest of the child.

Women who are held with their children, as well as men held as ISIS suspects, can be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted in line with international fair trial standards upon returning home. Children will have more access to their mothers serving prison sentences in their home countries than if their mothers are held abroad.

Children suspected of ISIS-related crimes should only be prosecuted as an exceptional measure of last resort. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. The authorities should also respect the children’s rights to acquire a nationality, to family unity, and to education.

In the video posted on the Tunisian presidency’s Facebook page, President Saied stresses the importance of taking necessary measures to ensure that these Tunisian children receive proper medical and psychological care. Saied also calls for the return of all Tunisian children held in Libya, which he apparently had discussed with Fayaz al-Serraj, head of Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) during his visit to Tunisia on December 10, 2019.

In the video, Saied promises to take care of the children and to guarantee their rights. Taoufik Kasmi, Tunisia’s consul general in Tripoli and head of the Tunisian delegation visiting Misrata on January 23, told the President in the video that “there are still another 36 children and 20 living mothers detained between Misrata and Mitiga.”

About 200 children and 100 women claiming Tunisian nationality have been held abroad without charge for up to three years as ISIS family members, most of them in Libya and Syria, and some in Iraq, Tunisia’s Ministry of Women and Children told Human Rights Watch in December 2018. Many of the children were age 6 or younger.

Most of the children of ISIS suspects have been living in squalid tent camps in northeast Syria with shortages of food, clothing, and medicine, or in overcrowded prison cells in Libya. An April 2018 report on Libya by the UN High Commission for Human Rights described Mitiga prison in Tripoli and al-Jawiyyah prison in Misrata as “facilities notorious for endemic torture and other human rights violations or abuses,” including against women and children. However, that report did not specifically mention conditions for family members of ISIS suspects.  

Authorities in northeast Syria and Libya have asked home countries to take back the women and children. A Kurdish-led coalition controlling the camps and prison in Syria has made no moves to prosecute non-Syrian ISIS suspects or family members.

Competing Libyan authorities in Tripoli, Misrata, and eastern Libya hold an unknown number of adult ISIS suspects, most of them foreigners, whom the authorities plan to prosecute. Libya has an abhorrent record of trials that do not guarantee defendants’ right to fair trials. Iraq has prosecuted foreign adults and children as young as 9 for links to ISIS – often in procedures that fail fair trial standards – but has also asked home countries to take the children back.

Although inconsistent in their approach, at least 18 countries ranging from the United States to Kosovo and Australia have brought home children, and in some cases women or men from the camps and prisons for ISIS suspects and family members in Iraq, Libya, and northeast Syria, showing that it is possible. Three Central Asian states - KazakhstanUzbekistan, and Tajikistan - have repatriated more than 750 nationals. 

The authorities detaining ISIS suspects and family members in Libya, Syria, and Iraq should ensure that detention is imposed only according to the law, on individually based accusations or charges, and respecting all basic rights of detainees guaranteed by international law. These include the rights to prompt judicial review of detention, and to adequate food, health, and shelter.

Since April 2019, the GNA has been battling fighters affiliated with the eastern-based armed group known as Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Khalifa Hiftar, who is trying to seize control of the capital. Civilians in western Libya, including people held in detention centers, risk harm from the intense and indiscriminate nature of this fighting, which has resulted in the injury or death of hundreds of civilians and destruction of infrastructure.

Earlier efforts to repatriate all Tunisian children from Libya yielded no results. In April 2017, an official Tunisian delegation visited representatives of the GNA in Tripoli. The delegation brought DNA kits to help determine the children’s identities but didn’t use them because the Libyan and Tunisian authorities failed to agree on terms for the transfer, three Tunisian government officials told Human Rights Watch.

The Tripoli-based GNA wanted the Tunisians to bring home the women, the children, and at least 80 corpses in a morgue that they said were dead Tunisian ISIS fighters. The Tunisians said they were, at most, willing to bring back the children as a first step, fearing that the mothers were a greater security risk, the government officials said.


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Florida state Senate has voted down several compassionate, common-sense amendments to Senate Bill 404, which would limit girls’ access to abortion and undermine their right to health and privacy.  It’s not too late for the senators to change their minds.

The proposed law would require girls under 18 to obtain notarized written consent from a parent or legal guardian before an abortion, or seek a waiver from a judge. 

Florida law already requires girls to notify a parent before an abortion or seek a judicial waiver. More than 200 girls sought such waivers last year.

I interviewed Florida attorneys and medical providers, who said that some girls fear violence, being kicked out of the home, alienated from their families or forced to continue a pregnancy against their wishes if they involve a parent. Others may not live with — or be able to locate — their parents. Requiring girls without parental support to plead their case before a judge is intimidating, and delays or prevents care.

Florida lawmakers have SB 404 “on fast track” and it seems likely to pass. On Wednesday night, senators introduced several amendments to minimize the bill’s potential harm to some of the  most vulnerable children in the state.

The pregnant girls who would be affected by this law are children in terrifyingly bleak situations without a loving parent. It’s difficult to comprehend why anyone would oppose measures aimed at making the law more compassionate for them.  

One amendment would have exempted girls pregnant from rape or incest, or survivors of human trafficking, from the consent requirement, to avoid forcing them to go to an abusive parent or relive their trauma in front of a judge.

Another would have required judges to consider whether a girl might suffer physical or emotional harm if the waiver is denied, as about 10% were last year.

A third would have allowed girls to obtain consent from a stepparent, grandparent or other trusted adult they have lived with for at least six months, in lieu of a parent or legal guardian.

Another would have required state officials to develop materials to train staff about the judicial waiver process, and another to disseminate information about the process to girls.

Last, an amendment would have established a pilot program to prevent unplanned pregnancy.

Senate Republicans rejected all the amendments, in strict party line votes.

A Senate floor vote on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday. Some senators supporting the bill seem to hope that – when challenged in court – the law will allow Florida’s newly conservative Supreme Court to reinterpret the state’s right to privacy in a way that allows other abortion restrictions. 

Florida legislators are sacrificing adolescent girls’ health and lives in a gamble to chip away at a constitutionally protected and internationally recognized right to access abortion.

SB 404 is dangerous and cruel, and legislators should reject it.

Margaret Wurth is a senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

State Capitol Building

500 East Capitol Avenue

Pierre, SD 57501

Re: House Bill 1057 and Health Care for Transgender and Intersex Children

Dear Senator,

I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to share our concerns about House Bill 1057, which would criminalize the provision of gender-affirming health care to children under the age of 16. We believe that House Bill 1057 is not only unnecessary but would seriously jeopardize the health and rights of transgender and intersex children in South Dakota.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed dozens of transgender children and adults for research reports on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, including in South Dakota. We have documented the importance of young transgender people being affirmed and supported in their gender identity.

The South Dakota State Capitol building in Pierre, South Dakota, February 2016. 

© 2016 Ryan Thoreson/Human Rights Watch

The amended bill would prohibit medical professionals from providing various forms of gender-affirming care, including puberty blockers, hormones, or surgeries. It would classify the provision of such care as a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to $2,000 in fines and up to one year in prison. It would expressly permit medical and surgical interventions on intersex children, whether medically necessary or not.

If passed, the bill would seriously jeopardize the health and rights of children in South Dakota. Research indicates that transgender children are at heightened risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts,[1] conditions that often are exacerbated by gender dysphoria.[2] A considerable body of data indicates that affirming transgender children’s gender identity is associated with better physical and mental health outcomes.[3] Recent research indicates that pubertal suppression in childhood is associated with lower rates of suicidal ideation for transgender individuals.[4] Where appropriate, gender-affirming hormones may also improve well-being and reduce suicidality.[5] Most professional standards of care do not recommend surgical interventions for transgender children – and such procedures are extremely rare – but these may be appropriate and medically beneficial in some instances.[6] Accordingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other professional organizations have endorsed a gender-affirming approach to health care for transgender children.[7]

The law would also put the state’s stamp of approval on nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex infants – surgeries that do threaten children’s health and rights. As Human Rights Watch has documented, these surgeries are irreversible, can limit fertility and sexual sensation, and may inflict lifelong pain.[8] The operations have been condemned 48 times by United Nations treaty bodies, as well as by three former US surgeons-general in a 2017 white paper, which stated: “These surgeries violate an individual’s right to personal autonomy over their own future.”[9] Such medically unnecessary surgeries should not be performed on children too young to participate in the decision.

Enacting House Bill 1057 into law would seriously jeopardize the health and rights of transgender and intersex children in South Dakota, and threaten fundamental abuses to children’s human rights. The bill would undermine children’s rights to bodily integrity and health, and would constrain supportive parents and doctors from doing what is right for children. If lawmakers are genuinely concerned about the well-being of transgender and intersex children, they should ensure that they are expressly protected from bullying and harassment at school, have access to confidential counseling and support, and are able to obtain the health care they need. Lawmakers should also ensure that they are protected from discrimination on the basis of gender identity, both as children and as adults.

Restricting youth from accessing gender-affirming care without regard to their needs or health is a significant step in the wrong direction. Human Rights Watch urges you to reject House Bill 1057.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can provide further information. We appreciate your attention to this important matter.


Zama Neff

Executive Director

Children's Rights Division

Human Rights Watch


[1] Becerra-Culqui, Tracy A. et al., “Mental Health of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth Compared with Their Peers,” Pediatrics, 141.5 (2018): e20173845.

[2] Gender dysphoria is “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify,” which can cause “significant distress and/or problems functioning associated with this conflict between the way they feel and think of themselves (referred to as experienced or expressed gender) and their physical or assigned gender.” American Psychiatric Association, “What is Gender Dysphoria,” (accessed January 31, 2020).

[3] McCann, Edward et al., “The Experiences of Youth Who Identify as Trans* in Relation to Health and Social Care Needs: A Scoping Review,” Youth & Society, 51.6 (2019): 840-864.

[4] Turban, Jack L. et al., “Pubertal Suppression for Transgender Youth and Risk of Suicidal Ideation,” Pediatrics, 145.2 (2020): e20191725. Pubertal suppression employs hormone analogues to prevent a young person from undergoing puberty as long as the treatment is administered. The treatment is fully reversible, and provides a young person time to confirm their identity before undergoing physical development that may not align with their gender identity. Id.

[5] Allen, L.R. et al., “Well-Being and Suicidality Among Transgender Youth after Gender-Affirming Hormones,” Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology, 7.3 (2019): 302-311.

[6] Rafferty, Jason R., “Ensuring Comprehensive Care and Support for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics 142.4(2018): e20182162.

[7] American Academy of Pediatrics, “AAP Policy Statement Urges Support and Care of Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children and Adolescents,” Sept. 17, 2018,

[8] Human Rights Watch and InterACT, “I Want to Be Like Nature Made Me”: Medically Unnecessary Surgeries on Intersex Children in the US (2017),

[9] Palm Center, “Re-Thinking Genital Surgeries on Intersex Infants,” June 2017,

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am