By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gay people in Ecuador are forced to undergo "conversion therapy" in secret clinics where they are raped and beaten, even though homosexuality is legal, said campaigners calling for courts to deliver justice to end more than a decade of abuse.
Scores of unlicensed rehabilitation clinics in the Andean nation offer illegal "treatments" for gay people based on the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness that needs to be "cured", local rights groups said.
"Corrective therapy, in mostly private and clandestine alcohol and drug addiction clinics, continues in Ecuador," said Cayetana Salao, of Taller de Comunicacion Mujer, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights group.
"It's a reality."
Ecuador's health ministry said no "conversion therapy" was found in the more than 60 clinics it has shut since mid-2016 for insanitary conditions or operating without a licence.
None of the closures were due to human rights violations, said Maria Jose Espin, head of technical management at the health ministry's regulatory agency, ACESS.
"We frequently verify with our teams that these types of establishments do not exist, where rights violations can take place," Espin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"There are no de-homosexualization clinics. They shouldn't exist," she said, adding that homosexuality was not a disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1990 but conversion therapy still takes place across the world, from China to South Africa and the United States.
Ecuador, Brazil and Malta are the only countries that have banned the controversial treatment, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).
But hate crimes and human rights violations against LGBT people have taken place in more than 100 clinics across Ecuador since 2012, said Salao, a project coordinator, as evangelical groups gain influence in the Catholic-majority nation.
Ecuador legalised homosexuality in 1997 and allowed same-sex civil unions a decade ago.
Gay people, mostly lesbians, are typically admitted to clinics by their parents or other relatives and held against their will for at least three months, with therapy costing up to $1,500 a month, campaigners say.
Taller de Comunicacion Mujer documented testimonies of four victims who said they were locked up against their will and underwent conversion therapy from 2014 to 2016.
This included psychological and physical abuse - beatings, solitary confinement, being chained to a bed for days, force-feeding of medicine and being made to wear makeup and high heels.
Victims also reported "corrective rape" by fellow patients and staff with the aim of changing their sexual orientation.
"A morbid creativity for torture exists," said Ane Barragan, coordinator at Causana Foundation, which has been campaigning to stop conversion therapy for more than a decade.
About 200 unlicensed clinics are operating across Ecuador, rights groups estimate.
"No one regulates or monitors them," said Barragan.
The Pan American Health Organization, the WHO's regional office, said in 2011 that conversion therapy was "a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people".
But the Catholic Church and most Christian evangelicals view homosexuality as a sin and say sex should only take place in marriage between a man and a woman.
State prosecutors have investigated six cases involving alleged human rights violations against LGBT people in rehabilitation clinics since 2012, Salao said.
"No one has been found guilty or punished," she said.
"We call on the judiciary to move these cases forward and hold those people responsible to account."
Carina Vance, Ecuador's former health minister who is openly gay and spearheaded a crackdown on the clinics, said she has no doubt that conversion therapy continues in the country.
Vance said police and prosecutors carried out 116 raids during her tenure as health minister from 2012 to 2015, resulting in the closure of more than 100 clinics.
But some received tip-offs and many re-opened under different names within months of being closed, Vance said.
"This business is very lucrative," said Vance, who now heads the South American Institute of Government in Health (ISAGS), a regional health think tank.
"These clinics have a lot of power, there are a lot of economic interests behind this."
Although Ecuador passed a law in 2016 allowing people to choose their preferred gender on their identity cards and its first transgender lawmaker took office last year, socially conservative attitudes are entrenched, she said.
"There are families using these so-called services and this has to do with a prevalent, a very homophobic ... a sexist society," Vance said.
"Cultural change is very difficult to produce." (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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