Images of Port-au-Prince, Haiti under massive death, destruction and rubble are starting to fade from the media, but conditions of squalor and psychological aftershocks remain as Haiti deals with a persistent crisis – an ongoing sexual violence directed against innocent women and girls.
Releasing a strategic plan for family housing for an estimated 1.3 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who occupy one thousand camps in the region, including twenty-two named separate displacement camps inside Port-au-Prince, the government of Haiti is beginning a new focus in the handling of rape crime, with promises to push legislative measures throughout the system. The goal is to bring greater security to all women in Haiti.
“We need to change all this. It is our will and our mission to change all this, to make sure the rule of law reigns in Haiti, that justice is for everybody, that the police do their job,” said Haiti’s new President-elect Michel Martelly, following a recent May 6, 2011 TrustLaw project anti-rape forum on sexual violence in Port-au-Prince.
Providing a pro-bono global network of 160 corporate counsels and law firms, individual attorneys and legal teams are now making themselves available to assist women in diverse global regions who have little to no access to any legal assistance. The TrustLaw Connect initiative, sponsored by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, is assisting to bring expert information together on current conditions covering sexual violence and violence against women in Haiti. Initiatives like the recent forum in Port-au-Prince are helping to compare law legislation in South Africa, Brazil, France, Sweden, Canada and the United States, along with a review of Haiti’s current laws.
Bringing together attorneys, Members of the Haitian Parliament, medical doctors, health-workers, police officers and women’s organizations, the forum on sexual violence against women discussed many critical needs and critical solutions. “The problem is very serious and I don’t underestimate the problem of sexual violence,” continued President-elect Martelly.
“More female police officers should be appointed to help change attitudes in precincts and provide better support for rape survivors,” said the consensus among the participants of the recent TrustLaw forum.
The problems are more than numerous. They are often overwhelming. Swift medical treatment following rape has been almost non-existent inside the camps with victims of rape falling into every age group. Girl victims are also often common targets. A recent University of Michigan (U.S.) sponsored study in Port-au-Prince estimates that over half of the victims in their survey on sexual assault were under the age of eighteen.
Proper procedure in gathering evidence on rape cases, along with greater sensitivity to privacy and attention to medical needs, are part of a solutions-based focus. For members of the HNP – Haitian National Police in Port-au-Prince this means more than a brief training on rape violence is needed. A majority of recent training programs for Haiti’s police force, in cooperation with U.S. funding, has centered on counternarcotics enforcement.
“Medical needs for dignity and privacy with exams and in gathering forensic evidence with the crime is also an important part of proper procedure when a rape has been reported,” says a 2004 U.S. Department of Justice – Office on Violence Against Women report that is now used in many U.S. police training manuals. “It is critical that all examiners, regardless of their discipline, are committed to providing compassionate and quality care for patients disclosing sexual assault, collecting evidence competently, and testifying in court as needed,” continues the report.
As stronger knowledgeable police presence is needed in the camps, a comprehensive understanding of the violent nature of attacks ,that can include severe bodily damage, is also needed.
“I went to Cafeteria Police Station that same night to report the rape and file a complaint,” said 34-year-old rape victim, Josette, in a 2010 Amnesty International on-the-ground interview. “The police officer on duty asked me for money to buy fuel for the police car but he did not write anything down on paper!” she said. Josette, an earthquake widow and mother of four, has not been able to regain her business as a street vendor since the earthquake and its after-shocks first hit Port-au-Prince.
Only 385 arrests out of 622 rape crime reports were made in 2010, shared Port-au-Prince Chief of Police, Mario Andresol, during the recent forum on sexual violence. Of those arrested in 2010 only a small portion, 45 rape criminals to date, have been convicted of their crime.
It is hoped that specifically directed legal advocacy can help. “Through a comparative legal study launched via our international network of pro-bono lawyers, we hope the experience and best practices of other countries will help Haiti strengthen its anti-rape laws and tackle impunity,” said Reuters AlertNet editor and TrustLaw Emergency Information Service officer Timothy Large during a recent Women News Network interview.
A woman carries a container of water through a makeshift tent city of bedsheets. Image: UN Multimedia / Marco Dormino
To battle the problems of violence against women, one camp in Port-au-Prince has organized a community-based security team in the Champ de Mars camp. Located in shambles of what was once the center of downtown Port-au-Prince, twenty-five men from the camp are now on ‘special security’ patrol surrounding tents, community toilets, camp alleyways and streets to insure a system of round-the-clock safety for women and girls.
“There was people, escaped convicts, who were giving us trouble after I came back from a conference in Geneva who pulled guns on us to make us give them money and they also carried out many cases of rape,” said Malia Villard Appolon, coordinator of KOFAVIV – the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, an organization established by and for sexual assault survivors.
Desperation, deplorable living conditions, sickness and cholera, lack of food security, stress-filled worry about survival with ongoing frustrations and anger contribute much to the increased violence inside the camps. Vast tent cities without adequate community areas where people can congregate adds to feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Roaming gangs of criminals who have yet to be apprehended by the Port-au-Prince police are widely considered a large part of the problem.
Fourteen percent of all households surveyed in four separate camps for IDPs in Port-au-Prince have discovered that one or more members of their household has been “victimized by rape or unwanted touching or both,” says the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law (U.S.). An alarming seventy percent of the survey respondents also said they were “more worried” about sexual violence in the days following, than the days before, the earthquake hit Haiti.
“There really is no protection today. What we do only, we can say, so many women we saw being victims, there was only the bureau of international lawyers who took the initiative to put in place a system of whistles, which they gave to KOFAVIV. And the KOFAVIV gave these whistles to the women in the camp in Champ de Mars, and not only in the Champ de Mars but all the other camps where our community agents are,” said KOFAVIV coordinator, Malia Villard Appolon.
Lack of electric lights in the tent cities is also an accelerate to the violence, causing women and girls to become vulnerable under ‘black-out darkness’ conditions at night. Lack of privacy, along with the relative ease for an attacker to enter a tent where a girl or woman is sleeping creates constant fear among women and girls, where identifying an assailant at night is a common challenge.
In spite of many uphill climbs and obstacles, local community based solutions to address the violence are beginning now to take-root in Port-au-Prince. MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization working in partnership with advocacy organizations worldwide, is now partnering closely with KOFAVIV, among other community-based advocates and organizations working inside Haiti, to meet the ‘immediate needs’ for women and girls suffering from rape violence.
In addition to helping women seek legal justice and greater safety, MADRE is also working with KOFAVIV to help distribute pots and pans for cooking, along with clean water, soap and sanitary napkins inside the camps.
“The camps are dangerous places for women and girls: they are terribly overcrowded, without safe housing, lighting or police,” says Lisa Davis, professor of law at the International Human Rights Center CUNY Law School (U.S.) and Human Rights Advocacy Director for MADRE. “Worse, the social networks that normally provide protection have been destroyed. Women are raped in their tents, on the way to the bathroom and even in the bathroom because there’s no way to lock a door,“ continued Davis.
KOFAVIV has also organized training for women to help them learn some techniques to protect them from the attackers. Handing out cellphones, whistles and flashlights they hope to empower women to respond quickly and pro-actively to crimes.
“The overwhelming majority of rapes in Haiti post-earthquake have gone unpunished and the Haitian government and international community have not effectively deployed their resources to provide adequate protection,” outlines a legal petition letter signed by ten advocacy organizations now working on the ground in Haiti, including MADRE, KOFAVIV, Center for Constitutional Rights, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and CUNY Law School, among others.
The letter, as a formal petition, was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C. on March 25, 2011 and is also scheduled to be delivered to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the Universal Periodic Review session at the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, October 3-14, 2011.