HAITI: Haiti Women Vulnerable with Rape on the Rise

Tuesday, January 11, 2011
The Montreal Gazette
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

PORT-AU-PRINCE - First, Maria Sonia Salon, 56, lost her husband to the earthquake one year ago that leveled much of her poor neighborhood. Then, she was raped in the camp where she moved with her three children.

"It was 10 o'clock at night, and three men did that to me. One was big and dirty and smelled so bad," Salon told AFP.

Salon said she was too scared to go to the police but added, with feeling, "We need a law to send them to prison and kill them, so they can't do that again."

Salon's story is not unusual.

More than 250 cases of rape were reported in Haiti's 1,150 camps in the first 150 days after the earthquake, underscoring the high risk of sexual assault faced by women in Haiti, Amnesty International reported on January 6.

Gangs of armed men roam the camps after dark, but many women have no option but to stay in the same camps where they were raped — and live with the fear of further attacks.

Most rapes go unreported, so it it is difficult to know the true scope of the problem. But a handful of local women's groups are tracking the violence.

One of these is KOFAVIV — the Commission of Women Victims — an organization founded in 2004 by five women raped during political upheavals in 1991.

KOFAVIV, which keeps records of each woman that comes to seek assistance, tallied 12 cases of rape in the year preceding the earthquake. That number leapt to 264 in the six months after the temblor.

Some of the surge in cases can be accounted for by increased reporting by victims thanks to KOFAVIV, which provides medical and psychological assistance as well as support groups, child care and professional training.

But Marie Eramithe Delva, 43, the group's founder and executive secretary, has no doubt the increase in violence is also due to the precariousness of many women's living conditions.

"Every time there is a problem in Haiti, it is always women and girls who are the perpetual victims of a catastrophe," Delva, a widow and mother of seven, told AFP. "I am a rehabilitated victim, but now many more women are becoming victims and we are here to help them recover."

KOFAVIV has 25 field agents — all rape victims themselves — who visit 22 camps in the capital to look for others in need and to offer their help.

Some rape victims are as young as three or five years old, Delva added, a problem also highlighted by Amnesty, which estimates that more than half the victims of sexual violence are minors.

Every Sunday afternoon, about 50 women of all ages gather in KOFAVIV's yard surrounded by toddlers, to discuss their situation, offer each other support and plan public actions like demonstrations and official statements.

Salon is one of them, and her mood brightens when she speaks of the center, which she learned about through the hospital where she sought help after being raped.

"We find hope here," she said. "Being with other women gives us strength, we learn we are not the only ones to go through this."

Chantal Richard, 42, a mother of three who was raped three times by masked men, comes to the center every week and joins the others as they sing, "in Haiti, we stand and we move forward."

"Here we release our stress," she told AFP. "We feel like we can live again."

But these women need much more than psychological support.

"We need a strategy for prevention and response," Gerardo Ducos, the researcher and author of the Amnesty report told AFP. "The government needs to deal with this issue systematically, the security of women must become a priority."

Both Amnesty and KOFAVIV blame ineffectual local police, while acknowledging their resources are scarce and that women in the police force are too few.

"If women go to the police they are often asked, who raped you, bring him to us," Berdane Jolilier, 23, one of KOFAVIV's field agents, told AFP. "They don't help."

Ducos fears the women's cry will go unheard, and mentioned a National Plan for the Protection of Women that was supposed to be implemented between 2006 and 2011. But the plan never materialized, he said.

Women's problems are not limited to sexual violence either. With some forty per cent of households made up of single mothers and informal unions being the norm, women are both more vulnerable to violence and have to carry the burden of sustaining their children alone.

For years, the Ministry of Women's Affairs has been trying to pass a responsible paternity bill, but most delegates are males and the law never survived the vote. "It's, just a piece of paper," Ducos said.

Delva, KOFAVIV's founder, told AFP most Haitian women have to face their difficulties alone. "We don't have food, water, and home, but violence against women is the biggest problem for us."