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Ecuador clinics said to 'cure' homosexuality stir debate

Ecuador legalized unions between same-sex couples in 2008, but this week gay rights organizations filed a complaint that the government is withholding information on the clinics.

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Concha was in the center for approximately 18 months. During that time she was handcuffed and held in confinement without food for several days at a time, she was forced to dress up as a man, and she was raped, she says.

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Her mother paid $500 a month to keep her in the center. According to information provided by gay rights associations, costs vary between $200 and $1,200 per month. Most centers ask for a minimum stay of six months. Extra costs are associated with “the capture,” the moment when future patients are picked up – against their will – to be taken to a center.

“There is a lot of ignorance,” says Tatiana Cordero, director of Taller de Comunicación Mujer, a feminist organization that has been investigating the claims of human rights violations in the clinics. “Families are ripped off by these centers that claim to offer corrective therapy, which obviously does not exist and it is only a violation of human rights.”

These centers are private, but they need licenses handed out by the Health ministry in order to operate. According to Ms. Cordero, in 2010 there were 205 private rehabilitation clinics in Ecuador, of which 70 percent had some irregularities, such as expired licenses.

The number of the clinics increased to 226 in 2011, but it is still unclear how many of those offer “treatments” for homosexuality, and how many lesbians are currently being held in the centers. (Most cases recorded involve gay women, but there are also some gay men who have been held against their will.)

The government last year publicized the closing of 30 centers, though gay rights groups say it was only 23. The clinics were all shut down because of minor infractions, such as expired medicines, lack of fire exits, and lack of hygiene. Some did not even have a valid license. Most opened up again after a few days.

Gay rights organizations say the government is not doing enough to investigate crimes and close illegal operators for good. However, Carina Vance, a prominent gay rights activist who was appointed Ecuador's minister of public health last month, says the government is committed to a long-term strategy to change the clinics.

“It is a complex and urgent issue that needs a comprehensive intervention,” says Ms. Vance.

The Health ministry recently hired a human rights and gender issues consultant, who is currently drafting a legal strategy to sue the clinics for human rights violations.

But Concha is skeptical. She has not seen any justice in her case, which took place five years ago. The clinic where she was held against her will was temporarily shut down last year, but it is now functioning again. She is helping other victims gather evidence without any institutional support, something she says puts her safety at risk at times. Yet she has no intention of giving up.

“I don't want anyone else to suffer what I went through,” she says.

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