One thing that struck me about Haitian women was their incredible sense of dignity, their beauty and grace. They stand out among other Latino-Caribbean women, as even their way of dressing is so much more modest. Every day I would watch them balance these incredible loads on their heads – 200 eggs, dozens of bananas, an entire row from the vegetable aisle of a local supermarket. But their step, on those rutted, potholed streets, always seemed so light and graceful, their dignity radiated. I wonder how many Haitian women hold positions of power. I sense that it would be a very different country if more did.
Lisa Sullivan, School of the Americas Watch delegation to Haiti, October 2011
In the midst of the earthquake tragedy, occupation by UN troops, foreign economic exploitation and the supposedly elected colonial government, the women of Haiti continue to struggle for their safety and human rights. The majority of these women are economically marginalized and thus on the receiving end of systemic poverty, rape, and violence, it is a tragedy of monstrous proportions. But these women are not simply playing the victim. Ever since the sexual violence during the military regime from 1991 to 1994, Haitian women have been organizing to protect themselves and to seek justice and the basic necessities of life.
On a recent visit to Port-au-Prince, I was able to witness the situation of Haitian women and to hear first-hand accounts of what has been happening, especially in the tent camps that still remain, two years after the earthquake.
The conditions of the tent camps is deplorable by any standards. Officially, there are about 600,000 people living in these camps, but knowledgeable sources say that there are many more than that. The camps usually have very little food, no electricity, no health care, and often not even water or toilets – one survey conducted by a group of Haitian students shows that only 30% of the tent camps have water or toilets. The shelters are flimsy, normally made of tarps or canvas. There are criminals and gangs preying on people, especially women, with no security provided by the government or the occupying army (known as MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti). It is a situation of desperation and despair.
Women living in these camps are hungry, unemployed, often taking care of children, and often traumatized by the violence inflicted on them, including rape and the threat of rape. Sometimes, women are forced to sell themselves just in order to eat.
Rape, a problem that had already gotten worse in Haiti since the first coup against President Aristide in 1991, has become acute since the earthquake. With no electricity, the tent camps are dark at night. With only canvas walls that can easily be sliced open by assailants and no security, women and children are extremely vulnerable.
The configuration of the camps creates unsafe conditions for women. People are living in unimaginable density – right on top of each other. There is no privacy and no sense of community. Women are afraid for their safety and very survival. What toilets exist are typically far away from the tents and going to them in the dark is very dangerous. Young girls have to take showers in the middle of the camp, which makes them more vulnerable.
These camps include many unemployed men (unemployment rate is 80%) and some criminals who were released from the prisons right after the earthquake.
Confronting this widespread situation is a host of grassroots women’s organizations who are working to empower and protect women. Conscious Women Fighting for the Development of Haiti (FEMCADH), Women Victims Get Up, Stand Up (FAVILEK), National Coordination of Direct Victims in Hiding (KONAMAVID), the Dialogue Group for Women Victims (GCFV) and the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV) are some of the primary grassroots women’s groups working on these issues.
FEMCADH volunteers work in the tent camps – especially with women and young girls. They have registered many cases of rape, including rapes of children. Even handicapped people are being victimized, women who can’t walk. Women who press charges, while still living in the camps, are threatened and need to be protected from further attack and possibly being killed. “You can’t leave a victim in the place where the crime was committed,” one FEMCADH volunteer said. Some women’s organizations provide safe housing for rape victims, especially for those who are pressing charges.
One courageous woman with the group, a single mother, told the story of her 17 year-old child who had been abducted and raped. The child sat next to her as she spoke. One night, she said, men came into her tent and took her child away. They stripped her, drugged her, and kept her for 2 days, repeatedly raping her. They threatened her with dogs (the child stood and showed us the bites). They wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom. She bled for 9 days afterwards and is going to a psychologist now. The mother had been threatened as well. They had to go into hiding because the family of the man – who was now in jail – was after her. They have no male allies, only this organization of women.
KOFAVIV is an organization of women victims of gender-based violence working to help other women victims. Begun in 2004, it provides psychological and medical assistance, safe housing, food, free school, vocational training for teens, and a hotline. It also refers cases to the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux for legal assistance and accompanies the victims through that process. The group works with victims of rape, domestic violence and child slavery and with women who have been forced to work in prostitution. There are about 65 agents working in the organization.
KOFAVIV keeps a database of reported cases. Since the earthquake, there has been a big increase in violence against teens and children – as young as 17 months. From the beginning 2011 alone, there have been 350 cases in the database. 60% of the cases are children.
One successful effort initiated by KOFAVIV has been in getting men involved to help stop the violence in the camps. In one camp, the organization has been working with twenty-five men, educating them about gender-based violence so that they can educate other men. The men also patrol into the night. In this camp, there were once thirty to forty abuses every month, but now it has diminished to virtually none. Many of the men have had wives or daughters who were victims of violence.
One of the central problems associated with addressing the violence against women in Haiti is corruption within the justice system. Mario Joseph, director of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a partner organization of the US-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), describes the issue:
The system doesn’t work for the poor. Only the rich get justice because they can pay for it. They pay their way out. Prisons are full of poor people… There is no rule of law. The nomination of judges is biased – congressmen constantly interfere with the process; the judiciary is not independent – judges can be fired by the executive, so they follow orders. Until just now, we have been five years without a Supreme Court.
There is also a gender bias built into the system, says Joseph: “Most judges are men. The perpetrators are men. In Haiti, it’s not so serious that you raped someone.”
One woman from KOFAVIV described how the lack of a justice system leads directly to crime against women: “In Haiti, we have no government. Justice is left to everybody. If they catch a rapist, he can just pay to get off. It’s corrupt; it’s bribery. When people pay to get out of jail, the bandits who have paid to get out then come to kill the women. There is total insecurity. They can ravage the women. Nothing is done about it.”
The BAI, established in 1994 by President Aristide, is a bastion for women who are fighting back against the violence. Consisting of lawyers and activists, the organization empowers female victims of gender-based violence to speak up for themselves in court and to pursue their human rights. BAI is committed not only to obtaining justice for women, but also to fostering an ongoing sense or agency and empowerment among its clients.
Since February 2000, at least two rape victims have come to BAI every week. This has included all ages, with children as young as a year and a half. Over the years, the BAI has been more and more successful at getting the police to make arrests for rape and at advancing the cases through the system. One activist tactic in past cases that has been effective in light of the broken system is to engage people outside of the courts during cases by carrying signs, speaking to the press, and organizing sit-ins.
The BAI also works to make it easier to get a doctor’s certificate to prove rape; collaborates with women’s advocacy organizations; accompanies women to the hospital, maintains contact with victims and their families; helps victims to find counseling, follow-up treatment, and if necessary, testing for STDs. It coordinates a weekly self-defense program for victims or women’s rights activists.
Cases have been referred to the BAI where MINUSTAH soldiers have raped or had sex illegally with young Haitian women. In one case, a raped woman became pregnant and the soldier subsequently took the child and left the country. In another case, not rape, a soldier who impregnated a young woman and then left the country is being pursued for child support. The parents of an 18-year old boy who was raped by Uruguayan soldiers have also come seeking assistance from the BAI.
The connection between gender violence and the MINUSTAH military occupation is apparent to Haitians. One woman matter-of-factly explained that rape and violence against women has always been used as a political and military weapon in Haiti: “Whenever there is a coup or a disturbance, it is the women who are the primary victims of violence. It is meant to send a message.”
Others pointed out that not only do the MINUSTAH soldiers commit sexual assaults themselves, but they also allow the perpetration of violence against women by refusing to provide security in some tent camps. “Armies exist to protect money, not the poor,” said one. It is well understood that because soldiers are free to commit crimes because they are given immunity from the law – they know nothing will happen to them if they commit a crime.
Some women’s voices about MINUSTAH:
“It has happened that when someone was raped right in front of their base, they just laughed. They themselves have made a lot of women pregnant.”
“MINUSTAH soldiers are paid so much they can spend their time at the beach, drinking, flirting with girls.”
“They don’t take care of Haitians. They can’t even speak our language.”
The only thing dreaded more than the existing presence of MINUSTAH is the prospect of its replacement by a Haitian army, something being promoted by President Martelly. It is felt that this would bring back the very same people responsible for many deaths and human rights violations in the Duvalier era and post-1991 coup regime – the Tonton Macoutes and the FRAPH.
Likewise, the only thing worse than living in the tent camps is getting evicted from them. Wholesale evictions and the clearing of camps is a recurring disaster in the here and now. Even though landowners don’t have legal title to the land, nor any judgments from a court, they arrive with no warning to evict people, accompanied by MINUSTAH troops and guns.
Where do the evicted people go? There are some 80,000 houses coded throughout Port-au-Prince as dangerous and ready to fall down. Many people who are evicted from tent camps end up in these dangerous houses. And yet, it is a tragic irony that these unsafe houses may in fact be safer for women than living in the tent camps.
Women in Haiti, in particular the many women in poverty, have been increasingly under attack in Haiti since the earthquake despite, or perhaps because of, the Haitian government, local police, or the United Nations troops. But many brave women continue to struggle for their safety and independence. With groups like FEMCADH, KOFAVIV, and the BAI working to support them, these women are not defeated. They are modern day freedom fighters, their steps on rutted roads light and graceful, their dignity radiating.