Great Strides and Setbacks for Human Rights in Uruguay

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MONTEVIDEO — The South American country of Uruguay has made significant gains in human rights over the years. Despite this, human rights in Uruguay still need improvement for several groups of people, including prisoners, Afro-Uruguayans, women and gender and sexual minorities.

Prisoners often lack adequate human rights in Uruguay because the country has a history of inhumane prisons. As the Huffington Post reports, in some prisons, inmates used toilet water for drinking. Some sewage systems did not work, either, so prisoners defecated in plastic bags, which they later threw outside.

Moreover, hundreds of detainees spent years in small metal boxes called tin cans. The lack of ventilation meant inmates had to take turns sitting in front of tiny openings to breathe.

A report from the U.S. State Department in 2016 said prisoners depend on family for clothing, have insufficient food and lack medical care and proper exercise areas.

Overcrowded prisons are also an issue of human rights in Uruguay. The majority of people sent to prison are there before their trial and take up more of what limited space facilities have. The overcrowding became deadly when 12 inmates perished in a prison fire in 2010.

Thankfully, the government has made improvements to its prison system. State officials participated in six expert-led workshops on prison management. Plus, authorities have given prisoners new options for work and classes. And, the country created the National Unit to Support Released Prisoners.

Human rights in Uruguay should increase for members of the Afro-Uruguayan population, as well. A quota law mandates that 8 percent of state jobs should go to eligible Afro-Uruguayan candidates, which is equal to the percentage of Afro-Uruguayans in Uruguay. But, they only held about 3 percent of state jobs in 2015.

Afro-Uruguayans also have a low primary school completion rate and a high rate of unemployment. Nongovernmental organizations believe structural racism negatively affects opportunities for minority populations in Uruguay.

Uruguay’s Ministry of Social Development has taken steps to improve human rights for the Afro-Uruguayan population. According to the U.S. State Department report, the ministry named July the month of Afro-descendants. It has also organized seminars and workshops on issues facing the minority population and how public policies can combat societal racism. Schools now teach Afro-Uruguayan history.

Women make up another section of the population that has imperfect human rights in Uruguay. Discrimination against women is illegal on paper, but women still face discrimination in employment, credit, education, housing and business ownership. The law does not mandate equal pay for equal work.

Violence against women persists, too. Amnesty International’s report on Uruguay points out an inadequate national response to violence against women. The organization also mentions Uruguay’s failure at implementing the national Action Plan on Fighting Domestic Violence.

Nonetheless, reproductive rights have increased. A presidential decree in 2008 made health service providers give sexual and reproduction advice to women and teenagers, and mandated free contraception. However, doctors who feel abortions are morally wrong pose an obstacle for women’s access to safe, legal abortions, according to Amnesty International.

Uruguay legalized gay marriage in 2013; it was the second country in South America to do so. LGBT individuals can adopt children, serve in the military and do other activities that governments in less free countries would not allow.

There have been murders of transgender women in Uruguay in recent years. To discuss this and other issues, Uruguay met with other states at a conference called by ARC International in January 2014. The United Kingdom recommended Uruguay protect people from violence related to sexual and gender identity and ensure violent hate crimes are thoroughly investigated to hold perpetrators accountable. Months later, Amnesty International issued a report expressing concern over a lack of justice in transgender killings.

Uruguay has made strides in improving human rights. The government has shown willingness to listen to recommendations and has engaged in problem-solving regarding how to fix inadequate conditions for people of various identities. Uruguay still has work to do to fight discrimination, investigate violent hate crimes and ultimately level the playing field for Uruguayans of all backgrounds.

Kristen Reesor

Photo: Flickr

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Kristen Reesor

Kristen lives in Columbia, Missouri. She is from Louisville, Kentucky, where she spent her high school career exploring journalism classes. Kristen writes for The Borgen project so that she can use her communication skills to make a profound difference for people.

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