The Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) works with grassroots groups there, in America, and the Haitian Diaspora, developing effective human rights advocacy for some of the world’s most oppressed, impoverished, and long-suffering people, over 500 years and counting.
In late July, it issued a new report titled, “Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women’s Fight Against Rape,” a problem Amnesty International (AI) highlighted in March saying:
“Sexual violence is widely present in the camps where some of Haiti’s most vulnerable live. It was already a major concern (pre-quake), but the situation in which displaced people are living exposes women and girls to even greater risks,” the issue IJDH examined in its report, explaining that Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps “exacerbated the already grave problem of sexual violence,” two US lawyer delegations and a women’s health specialist investigating the problem first hand in May and June, interviewing over 50 rape or attempted rape survivors.
IJDH didn’t quantify the incidence, but learned that “rapes in the camps are dramatically underreported,” women and girls in them extremely vulnerable, dozens of documented cases now known, suggesting the tip of a huge iceberg, worse for lack of security or concern by police, UN Blue Helmets, or Haiti’s pro-business, anti-populist government.
“Rape survivors… told interviewers that reporting rape to the police is an exercise in futility, since they could not identify their assailant or assailants,” one survivor saying police told her the problem was President Rene Preval’s, not theirs, a shocking indifference to a brutal crime — for most women and girls, their worst ever experience, one they’ll never forget or get over.
Dismal camp conditions “render women and girls particularly vulnerable….” Overcrowding and inadequate shelter make it easy for predators to take advantage, especially late at night when people are sleeping. Survivors noted the lack of lighting; privacy even to bathe; tents; and police presence or concern.
When rape crimes aren’t investigated or prosecuted, violence is implicitly condoned, making illegal acts normal and justice denied. Most victims are girls under 18 – impoverished, displaced and denied redress under the 2000 UN Resolution 1325 and UN Guiding Principles on International Displacement, requiring a gender-based perspective to ensure their human rights, including preventive measures against rape and other violent acts.
According to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Gen Rec. No. 19, Violence Against Women (1992), gender-based violence (GBV):
includes violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.
Structural inequalities pre and post-quake left Haitians vulnerable, especially women and children — surrounded by rubble, homeless with inadequate food, clean water, sanitation, medical care, and protection, leaving them vulnerable to predators.
Most traumatizing is lost loved ones and friends, a support network when most needed, exacerbated by extreme deprivation, creating a dangerous GBV environment, rape and other sexual violence its most prominent feature, women and young girls victimized.
Despite no official figures, the evidence is overwhelming. Post-quake, rape escalated dramatically, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV) July 19 Preliminary Report on Rape tracked 230 cases in 15 of the hundreds of Port-au-Prince camps. A University of Michigan March survey found 3% of women and girls sexually assaulted since January, half under 18. Doctors Without Borders reported treating 68 rape victims at one Port-au-Prince facility in April. Haitian authorities downplay it, belying documented evidence. The main issues are overcrowding, lack of shelter and security, AI saying: “inadequate protection (and) lack of measures to prevent and respond adequately to the threat of sexual violence is contributing to the humanitarian crisis.”
Even with a security presence, Haitians say it’s “not effective largely because of their lack of coordination and failure to engage in partnerships with neighborhood associations and community,” on their own to address what authorities won’t. Women’s organizations have been especially active, but it’s not enough without state and UN aid, their neoliberal priorities other-directed, ignoring vital needs, including security.
Rape Incidence in Displacement Camps
Victims ranged in age from five to 60, suggesting a comparable profile throughout the camps, given “the strikingly similar patterns among the testimonies” gotten. Most women reported being raped by two or more unknown assailants, most armed with guns, knives or other weapons.
Though unable to identify them, women believe they’re gang members or prison escapees, their motive rape, at times robbery or other crimes as well, mostly committed from 9:00PM-3:00AM, occasionally during the day. Women reported being attacked in IDP camp tents, under tarps, in latrines, and on nearby streets. One woman was forcibly taken to a house at an unknown location, then gagged and gang raped by an unknown number of assailants for two or three days, repeatedly abused and beaten until she escaped.
Some survivors mentioned widespread transactional sex for food aid cards. When coerced, it’s rape, a topic beyond IJDH’s investigation.
A March delegation of psychiatrists and trauma victim specialists conducted a psychological evaluation, finding 95.7% of victims suffering from PTSD, including extreme fear, nightmares, suicidal tendencies and depression. Another 53.6% experienced depression alone. Nearly everyone complained of physical discomfort, including stomach pain, headaches, difficulty walking, and vaginal infection and bleeding. At least one woman became pregnant.
Besides being raped, women were beaten, stabbed, and injured in other ways. Their scars, bruises, and other physical signs bore witness to their ordeal. Most hadn’t seen a doctor or other medical professional, for some not knowing about free services, for others fearing retaliation, humiliation and stigma. “When victims did reach out, they were often shunned or ignored.”
Those getting treated reported quality and type care varied depending on the facility and available supplies. Some offered no HIV prophylaxis or emergency contraception. Waits were excessively long, doctors often not seen. In addition, little privacy and few female health providers were available. Several victims relied on traditional remedies, including special teas and baths.
With one exception, women reporting rape crimes to police were ignored or mocked, one victim saying “only the rich get the attention of the police.” For Haiti’s poor, they’re more enemy than ally, and that’s why most Haitians fear and shun them.
Except during Aristide’s presidency, government response has been hostile. Haiti’s long history is infamous for targeting anyone supporting democracy and human rights, women especially vulnerable, including being subjected to gender-based violence, rape its most prominent feature.
After the 2004 coup, AI said it again “became a political weapon by armed insurgents to instill fear and to punish women believed to have supported the democratic government.”
A 2006 Athena R. Kolbe/Royce A. Hutson Lancet-published study titled, “Human Rights Abuse and Other Criminal Violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti” concluded that 35,000 women were raped from March 2004-December 2006 in Haiti’s capital alone, almost 12% of the perpetrators identified as right-wing political supporters.
More recently, authorities took modest steps to address the problem, including adopting the 2006-2011 National Plan to Combat Violence Against Women, its objective being a mechanism to collect data, prevent violence, and other measures.
Although progress was made, inadequate resources nor serious concern prevented real change, Haitian women and girls more vulnerable than ever under post-quake conditions, exacerbated by a dismissive, pro-business government, rarely ever deploying police inside camps for protection, despite a March 2010 MINUSTAH Human Rights Section “IDP Camp Joint Security Assessment Report,” recommending an “IDP Camp Strategic Policing Plan,” increasing patrols, especially at night.
Few female officers is another concern, women generally reluctant to report rape crimes to men, notably when they’re mocked, treated dismissively, and at times blamed, accused of promiscuity or involvement in domestic violence. As a result, authorities downplay the issue, allocate few resources, and help the rich, not vulnerable Haitians out of luck and on their own, rapists free to seek other victims or the same ones again.
Pre-quake, two women’s advocacy organizations took on the issue: Dwa Fanm in New York and ENFOFANM in Port-au-Prince, demanding justice for Haitian rape victims. In late May, the Women’s Ministry, Ministere a la Condition Feminine et aux Droits des Femmes (MCFDF), launched a national “End rape in Temporary Settlements!” campaign, encouraging women to come forward and report them to police.
UNICEF and UNFPA (the UN Population Fund) coordinate a Gender-Based Violence Sub-Cluster, addressing the issue during national emergencies like earthquakes, but, in fact, delivering little aid according to victims. Six months post-quake, “the Sub-Cluster still has not effectively implemented” measures it’s mandated to undertake… “in large part, (it’s) failed to include the voices of poor women living in the camps in planning and leadership roles,” or helping victims.
“Haiti’s history and the deep fissures within Haitian society between the poor majority and more affluent, educated classes, require attention” so far not provided. In addition, UN officials, like Haiti’s police and government, downplay the problem, shirking their responsibility for camp security, leaving it up to grassroots groups like KOFAVIV and others to act in their stead as best they can with limited staff and resources.
Article 19 of Haiti’s 1989 Constitution obligates the State:
“to guarantee the right to life, health, and respect of the human person for all citizens without distinction, in conformity with the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man,” including protection against rape and other forms of violence, written in law but enforced only for the rich.
Haiti is also party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (the Women’s Convention), mandating domestic law abide by its provisions. In 2005, Executive Decree No. 60 introduced Haitian Penal Code changes, including the classification of rape and penalties, increasing them to 10 years, 15 if victims are under age 16, and life in prison for gang rape, reasserting a previous provision.
Yet legal and enforcement gaps remain because of judicial system corruption and indifference, resulting in lighter sentences when imposed. Most often, however, rapes aren’t reported or prosecuted, authorities doing little to address them, Port-au-Prince’s General Hospital not issuing medical certificates verifying them, calling them a “non-essential service.”
Yet under Haiti’s Constitution and international law, authorities are required to address GBV, “prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sex, protecting the right to bodily integrity, and guaranteeing the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Besides the Women’s Convention, Haiti is obligated under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Children’s Convention).
As an OAS member, it must also enforce provisions of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (the Belem do Para Convention) as well as the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). They’re automatically Haitian law under the Constitution’s Article 19.
Article 1 of the Woman’s Convention defines gender-based violence to be “directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately” – including physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering; threats of such acts, or coercion.
Gender-based violence also denies women their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, guaranteed under Haitian and international law. The 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women inspired the OAS Belem do Para Convention to affirm “that violence against (them) constitutes a violation of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and impairs or nullifies the observance, enjoyment and exercise of such rights and freedoms.”
Other international standards and UN Resolutions address the same issues, all UN members obligated to enforce them, including gender-based violence against women and girls. The laws are clear, standards high, yet Haiti’s government doesn’t enforce them for its poor, only the rich. Failing to do so “sends a message of impunity — that such attacks are justified or, at a minimum, will go unpunished.”
Enforcing international law falls mostly on States. However, UN members and international organizations share responsibility, especially when local efforts can’t adequately do so in emergencies like earthquakes.
In recent years, the international community established important principles to maximize foreign aid effectiveness, including for gender-based issues. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), recognized under customary international law, specifically identify gender equality and empowerment as a key goal, its operational framework prioritizing combating violence against women and girls, especially for the poor, and in conflict and post-conflict situations.
The OECD developed Guiding Principles for Aid Effectiveness, Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, endorsing global agreements and conventions addressing them.
A Final Comment
Despite Haiti’s obligations under international law and its Constitution, authorities have fallen far short, failing to confront issues as vital as gender-based violence, turning a blind eye to a pressing problem, leaving poor women and girls vulnerable to the worst kind of abuse, doing little to address or halt it, and virtually nothing for victims or survivors, often blaming them, not their violators.
America, UN member states, and the world body are more a problem than a solution, Haitian women and girls on their own and out of luck, especially under post-quake conditions when needs are greatest, including security against predatory rapists, what the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, addressed, saying:
“If we are to secure women’s rights and their freedom from violence, it is imperative that we adopt an integrated human rights perspective that stresses the equal importance of civil and political rights and economic and social rights. Unless women can develop their capabilities and achieve economic independence, the human rights they are promised will not be realized,” especially in Haiti, given its violence-plagued history.