HAITI: When 911 Isn't There: Inside Haiti's Rape Crisis Hotline

Thursday, July 26, 2012
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

It is hard for most foreigners to understand the poor state of Haiti's infrastructure. Only 30% of the country's population has access to electricity. Haitian firefighters often lack basic supplies and local police routinely fail background checks. Due to the fact that Haiti's emergency phone number, 114, fails to work in most areas, alternatives were needed. This is problematic for everyone, but perhaps especially so for Haitian women who are victims of sexual violence, an incredibly prevalent crime in the country. So in May, Haiti received its first 24 hour hotline for rape and sexual violence victims designed for access via mobile phone.

The 572 emergency hotline is accessible throughout Haiti and staffed by volunteers who connect survivors to free medical, legal, and psychosocial services. The program, operated by Haitian nonprofit KOFAVIV, was started by American organization Digital Democracy with assistance from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The service has six dedicated call center operators and two supervisors working around the clock. Promoted via television commercials, print advertising, stickers, word of mouth, and aid organizations, 572 is now one of the best-equipped emergency hotlines of any sort in the country. Calls to 572 are free from both mobile and landline phones.

KOFAVIV's Jocie Philistin said that “572 not only provides support to victims, it represents urgent medical care. When a woman calls our number within 72 hours of an incident, we ensure she gets the medical care she needs to prevent transmission of disease, HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy.”

Sexual assault and violence are rampant in Haiti; a 2011 Amnesty International report detailed widespread rapes in refugee camps outside Port au Prince; a more recent paper from a group of international organizations alleges 22% of internally displaced persons and 2% of Port-au-Prince's population have been victims of sexual assault. Since launching in late 2011, 572 has fielded over 1,700 calls.

Digital Democracy keeps the hotline open during off-hours because, according to the organization, assaults are more likely to happen at night or on weekends. Call center staff receive extensive training and are coached in how to handle calls from girls and women who have just been attacked. Each day, 572 receives between 10 and 60 calls. Upon calling, staffers listen and provide help with everything from tracking down HIV testing to advice on leaving violent home situations to free medical care.

Haiti's primary mobile providers, Digicel and Voila, are offering support to the Kofaviv hotline. There's a statistical component as well; according to Digital Democracy's Emily Jacobi, “When we first started working with Haitian women leaders, there was no accurate information on the increasing rates of sexual violence in the tent camps […] the call center is a key component of an information management system we built with Kofaviv to accurately capture data on the real scope of the problem, and get urgent preventative care to the most vulnerable cases.” Information collected from the hotline is sent by Kofaviv to government and international bodies to secure additional security and lighting where needed.

Digital Democracy's Emilie Reiser tells Co.Exist that "rather than launching a new program, the database and call center have built on the networks and services our local partner has been providing for over 8 years. With such high access to mobile phones in Port-au-Prince, we saw the opportunity to dramatically increase the reach of these services; by leveraging technology we could give women access to the information and support they could reach before only in person."

"As gender-based violence is such a sensitive issue, the call center has also provided women a confidential outlet to seek support and care for problems they may not want to discuss in person or with those in their community. One of the most rewarding aspects has been seeing how receptive and capable our local partners are. We have an all-woman staff in Haiti than manage the database and call center on a daily basis--women who did not grow up with access to tech and have never run these types of systems have quickly gained the skills they need to maintain the call center on a long-term basis."