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.

"Corrective rape," forced isolation, and physical torture are only some of the methods used to “cure” homosexuality in Ecuador throughout scores of so-called rehabilitation clinics. The clinics, often run under the guise of drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, have been thrust into the international spotlight, pitting gay rights activists against the government in this tiny Andean nation.

Homosexuality has been a point of controversy here, and clinics that claim to cure it have sprung up over the years.  But their use and often their fraudulent claims have drawn the ire of rights groups. This week, several organizations filed a complaint against the Health ministry, claiming it has been withholding public information about the centers. The government says it is working on gathering evidence and it cannot divulge information that is not correct or up to date.

Still, for a conservative country where homosexuality was illegal until 1998, Ecuador has made several significant moves toward gay rights under the administration of President Rafael Correa.

In a new Constitution pushed through by President Correa in 2008, civil unions are recognized for same-sex couples. Last December, for the first time, a lesbian was granted her deceased partner's state pension.

These milestones have been hailed by gay rights activists. But these activists also say that institutions are not doing enough to bridge the gap between legislation and reality, and they point to the rehabilitation clinics as a prime example.

According to the testimonies of victims, private clinics, often contacted by troubled family members, have actively tormented their patients in order to change their sexual orientation.

The issue made headlines around the world recently, following a petition posted through the international platform asking Ecuador's Health ministry to shut down such centers.

The petition was drawn up after Paola Concha went public with her story. She was 24 when she was taken by force to a center in the southern outskirts of Quito.

“Three men seized me, handcuffed me, put me in a van, and took me away by force,” says Ms. Concha.

 “I was going through a crisis. I was living away from my family, discovering my real identity,” she says. “My mother was deeply worried and she wanted to help me ... But these people took advantage of her anguish.”

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.

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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