HAITI: Rape Flourishes in Haiti

Sunday, February 27, 2011
Tampa Bay Online
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Human Rights

Nearly seven years ago, the soldiers who killed Halya Lagunesse's husband gang-raped the Haitian woman and her then-17-year-old daughter.

Last March, she learned that her 5-year-old granddaughter, who was conceived in the attack on her daughter, had been raped also. The attacker gave the child about 50 cents to go and buy rice. On her way back, he dragged her into a cemetery.

"This situation does something to their minds and makes people sick," said Lagunesse, 50. "Their hearts are bad."

Rape wasn't even considered a serious criminal offense in Haiti until five years ago. The women who pushed for the legislation making it so also built Haiti's first shelter for abused women. Next, they hoped to make fathers legally bound to acknowledge their children and pay some support.

Haitian women are the poorest and most disenfranchised in this poorest of nations in the hemisphere. And yet, through the work of women activists, real strides were being made — until Jan. 12, 2010.

Haiti's cataclysmic earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, left this capital in ruins and sent more than a million people into a life in crowded, squalid camps. It also devastated a strong and surprisingly successful women's movement, which a year later struggles like the rest of the nation to recover, even as women are being subjected to sexual violence.

The young men were watching Fania Simone. They went to her tent and seemed to know she would be alone. Her mother had left for the countryside in search of food.

Three of them. They wore masks. They threw her to the dirt floor. They kicked her in the ribs and slapped her face. "If you tell anyone," one of her attackers threatened, "we will kill your brother or your sister."

After the rape, Simone, 23, sought medical attention. Then an organization that helps rape victims, Kofaviv, took her under its wing and gave her psychological counseling.

But she still lives in the plastic-tarp tent, and her attackers lurk, murmuring their threats, watching her.

"I feel very unsafe," said Simone. "I have nowhere else to go. I am tortured."

Rape has long been a scourge in Haiti. It was used as a form of political repression in 1994 and in 2004, periods of upheaval when military dictators and their brutish gangs of enforcers seized power. Men who opposed the regime were abducted and killed, women raped. The quake generated new shockwaves of sexual violence. Hundreds, maybe thousands — there is no comprehensive count — have been raped. Some assaults are crimes of opportunity, but increasingly they seem a calculated, predatory form of stalking and attacking.

Only a few of an estimated 1,300 tent encampments spread through this shattered capital have nighttime lighting or significant police presence. Tents do not have doors or locks. People are jammed together without privacy.

Social networks and family unity have been destroyed by death and flight; children are often alone and unsupervised as their parents, if they have them, spend days searching for sustenance. Institutions of law and order, to the extent they ever had influence, have crumbled.

Young women are easy prey for uneducated, unemployed men who populate the camps, often stoned and with time on their hands. Many women have denounced camp leaders, always male, for demanding sexual favors in return for tents, food and building materials.

Activists are now bracing for a jump in teen pregnancies and HIV and AIDS cases, whether from rape or unprotected sex, since clinics that dispensed birth control and advice were also destroyed. The United Nations estimates that Port-au-Prince needs at least 1,000 maternal-care clinics. There are 10.

"We started receiving reports of rapes from the very first day after the quake," said Jocie Philistin, who helps run Kofaviv.

Several women's groups are taking action to confront the violence. International and national organizations have joined forces to arrange training sessions, psychological counseling and legal advice. Kofaviv, which lost about 10 percent of its membership as well as its headquarters to the quake, sends "agents" into the camps to find women who have been attacked, averaging two cases a day. (And that, all involved say, is but a tip of the iceberg.)

Before 2005, rape was considered an offense against honor, or "crime of passion," meaning it was a minor infraction in which the perpetrator would go free if he agreed to marry his victim. Then it was elevated into a serious crime with penalties. In addition, victims were allowed to seek care at any health facility, instead of the main state hospital, and no longer had to pay for the examination.

Still, victims are stigmatized, and abusers are rarely caught and prosecuted fully. Malya Villard-Appolon, a founding member of Kofaviv, recalled how police leered at her 14-year-old daughter when the two went to a police station to report the girl's rape.

One officer said girls and young women get raped because they are "in heat."

"Some of these men have the same old mentality," said Valerie Toureau, a doctor who works with rural women. "The woman for them is an object. … We've tried to change the mentality, but the effort has been nearly completely lost."