(Read the original article here.)
25 November 2007
Port-au-Prince, Haiti— Two 14 year-old cousins from the simmering hot slums of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, have just been escorted by police to a health centre for HIV testing. Nathalie (names have been changed to protect the identity of the girls) was raped by two boys near the waterfront that morning.
Nathalie’s brother immediately called the police. Frightened and anxious, she explains what happened: “I went to take a bath and as I was coming out, two men raped me.”
After reporting the crime, two officers accompanied the girls to Gheskio, a privately run health centre supported by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. The centre offers free HIV testing, counselling, legal assistance and other services for victims of violence.
The other cousin, Laure was raped the week before, following a sleepover at a friend’s house. At about 10 o’clock in the morning, two young men grabbed and raped her as she came out from the public bathroom near her friend’s house. Peacekeepers brought her to Gheskio for medical examination the same day.
“The fact that the girls went to report the rapes and the fact that they were accompanied by police officers to a health clinic for testing and counselling may not seem that important, but for us it is a huge sign of progress,” says Barbara Laurenceau, the Deputy Representative for UNFPA in Haiti.
Teaming Up to Provide Post-Rape Care
UNFPA, together with several other UN bodies are supporting organizations which provide care for female victims of violence, including Gheskio, Kay Fanm (Women’s House in creole), Sofa (solidarity among Haitian women) and URAMEL, an organization that provides legal and forensic support for rape victims.
Concretely, UNFPA support has helped organize violence prevention activities for young people in schools and during sports activities, develop training materials for police officers, establish special units for female victims of violence at police stations, and a hotline for victims of violence. Perhaps most significantly, UNFPA support has enabled the establishment of the ‘National Coalition Against Gender-Based Violence’, an umbrella organization comprising several public and private institutions, both national and international, to support the implementation of the national action plan against gender-based violence.
Danger in the ‘Red Zones’
The two girls live with Nathalie’s brother in Ti Bwa, a rundown and violent slum located on a hillside in Port-au-Prince. Residents of Ti Bwa are often caught in the middle of gang fights with the neighbouring Grand Ravine and Ti Machète gangs. Because of frequent incidents of violence, these areas are designated as ‘red zones’ by MINUSTAH , the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
Raw sewage trickles down the steep hillsides where houses are built so close that passage by foot is the only possible means of transportation.
The slums are surrounded by heavily armed peacekeepers in armored vehicles, but neither they nor the vehicles of the National Haitian Police can enter the maze of narrow, winding trails that ties Ti Bwa together. Streets are unnamed, house numbering is erratic and the inhabitants move frequently. When seasonal rains strike, the trails are converted into streams, which leave behind a mix of dirty clothing and garbage as the hot morning sun dries the debris.
In this environment, crime can be a daily occurrence and impunity is widespread.
Half of survivors are minors
Statistics on rape and other sexual violence are often unavailable or unreliable due to spotty reporting and faulty mechanisms for registering these crimes. However, data from the National Coalition Against Gender-Based Violence provide alarming insights into this murky world: Almost half of rape survivors in Haiti are minors younger than 18, some are barely toddlers. The youngest rape case registered by Gheskio was a two-year-old. In 2005, three major organizations in Haiti offering assistance to rape victims took on a total of 951 cases. (Some double reporting is possible, since most victims are referred to Gheskio for medical examinations and may be registered as separate cases by several organizations.)
Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps, the Deputy Director of Gheskio, says there are two different categories of rape victims who come to her clinic for help: victims of gang rape, mostly adults; and adolescents, who are typically raped by somebody they know.
Gheskio alone cares for about 40 rape survivors per month, 70 per cent of them are adult women, while about 30 per cent are adolescents.
On average, gang rapes account for nearly half of all rape cases registered, though most people in the Haitian capital sense that there has been a relatively sharp decrease in organized violence in the past six months.
Working to End Impunity
Rape became a crime punishable by 10 years to life in prison in July 2005 through a decree pushed through by the then Minister of Women’s Affairs, Adeline Chancy. “Rape was considered a crime against custom, a moral crime, but not a crime against the individual,” says Chancy, “so our first task was to define rape as a physical and mental aggression against the integrity of a person.”
Dr. Marjorie Joseph, head of URAMEL, says that there are several reasons behind the violence against women in Haiti. The economy is one; about 47 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. “But then there is also the cultural part of the upbringing. Women are taught to be subservient to men. We bring up roosters and hens,” said Joseph.
But even though impunity perhaps can be characterized as one of Haiti’s biggest problems in the context of violence, kidnapping and rape, some offenders do get caught.
Brutal Crimes and Punishment
‘Paul’ is one of them. He is an inmate at the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, serving a seven-year sentence. He fiddles continuously with a small hand-towel as he explains how he and two friends kidnapped, raped and killed a young girl. His eyes are fixated on the towel and then on the floor.
The air is thick with heat, humidity and a faint smell of sewage. Paul now regrets what he did: “The situation I am going through is no good for me. I am in the penitentiary. I have no job. I am not learning anything, I am not in school. I am not doing anything,” he says.
“These guys have no education, no future, no hope. If they see an opportunity, they go for it,” said Robinson Cadet, a United Nations-employed adviser working at the prison.
The prison is flanked by Peruvian peacekeepers in armored vehicles. With more than 2,700 inmates, it operates far above capacity, even though a space for an additional 200 inmates was recently added. According to Cadet, each inmate has on average 0.6 square meters—in practical terms, barely standing room. They have to sleep in shifts.
But rape doesn’t only happen in the slums. Therese, a 33 year-old office administrator was raped by a gynaecologist, and has since received death threats from him and his lawyers. She is now receiving legal assistance and protection through Kay Fanm. “Many women are afraid, but I will pursue this to the end. People in positions of power think they are above the law. It must come to an end,” she says.