Written by Amie Newman for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
A small group of women in colorful shirts, jeans and skirts stands in a circle, singing and clapping. Some are smiling. All are dancing, shaking their bodies to the sound of their voices strong and loud. One woman dances in the middle, spinning. They are singing in French and it could be a celebration of some sort. In a way, it is. It’s a celebration of their power, as they unify to protect themselves and all women who live in post-earthquake Hatiian displacement camps from sexual assault, rape and other gender-based violence. Some are members of KOFAVIV (being filmed by representives of sister organization Madre), a Hatiian women’s organization working to end sexual violence and seek justice for rape survivors. In conjunction with other women’s organizations on the ground, and U.S.-based sister organizations, they are committed to protecting the women and girls living in the displacement camps from gender-based violence, from which the government has been unable or unwilling to do so. As RH Reality Check reported on in July of this year, women and girls have been the target of "skyrocketing" incidences "of rape in the camps" and are suffering from "the lack of a coordinated or effective response to these persistent threats." Up until recently, KOFAVIV and other women’s advocates have been effectively shut out of the discussions between aid agencies and the government on how best to protect themselves, in the camps. Slowly, however, things may be changing.
In late July, a group of organizations including the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Madre, issued a report on the sexual violence against women in Haiti entitled Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women Fight Against Rape detailing the current conditions for women and girls in the camps and the lack of an adequate response from government and aid agencies:
Conditions in the IDP camps in Port-au-Prince are bleak. Overcrowding, lack of privacy, and weakened family and community structures, among other things, render women and girls particularly vulnerable to rape and other sexual violence. Women and girls live in inadequate shelter, often sleeping on the ground under nothing more than a tarp or blanket, with no means of protection and no friends close by. They bathe in public, in view of men and boys. Many young girls live alone or with friends, with no adults looking after them.
Women and girls are most often attacked at night. One woman reported having been kidnapped from her tent, in the dark of night, gang-raped and beaten. Survivors of the sexual violence are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a range of physical discomfort including:
"…stomach pain, headaches, difficulty walking, and vaginal infection and bleeding. At least one woman became pregnant as a result of the rape. Only one woman reported that her attacker wore a condom. Of the few women that had been tested for HIV, results were negative. In addition to the rapes, many women and girls interviewed suffered beatings, stabbings and other injuries in the course of the attacks and had scars and other visible injuries to show."
Most of the women and girls interviewed for the report had not sought medical care not only because they were unaware of where to locate or how to access services but because rape carries tremendous stigma in Haitian society and women are "embarrassed or…felt uncomfortable. When victims did reach out, they were often shunned or ignored." The report also discloses that some clinics did not offer services such as HIV prophylaxis or emergency contraception to women seeking care, effectively leaving them with no recourse to protect against infection or pregnancy.
Women who are victims of sexual violence in the camps see virtually no justice, either. Not only has the loss of police officers and police stations affected reporting of rape, but the lack of female police officers has also contributed to the silence around rape. Though each station is supposed to have female officers to whom women can report a crime, that hasn’t been the case and it’s having a "cascade effect":
"…in some instances, [law enforcement] officials attributed the problem of rape to promiscuity and domestic violence. This antipathy has a cascading effect; victims perceive law enforcement as ineffective or unsympathetic and, consequently, fail to report crimes. Government officials in turn insist that no such “epidemic” of gender-based violence exists, and allocate even fewer resources to address it."
This lack of an efficient tracking system also contributes to criminal cases rarely being pursued, "resulting in a culture of total impunity for rapists and criminal gangs who continue to prey on women and girls in the camps."
In the absence of an adequate response from both the Haitian government as well as aid agencies, KOFAVIV, Madre, and other women’s organizations have collectively organized to implement strategies, on the ground, to keep women and girls safe from sexual violence. And they are having an impact.
For example, most recently, notes Madre, "we delivered a package of donations — including medical supplies, flashlights and whistles — to our partners in Haiti, KOFAVIV. Using these supplies, gathered through MADRE’s Helping Hands program, they have been able to create local security measures that help prevent rapes in the camps for displaced people in Haiti. They have also been able to provide for the basic needs of women and families." When rape survivors are in need of medical attention or legal aid, KOFAVIV steps in as best they can to facilitate referrals and provide support.
Inadequate lighting in the camps is one factor in the continued sexual violence. The report notes that UN agencies distributed thousands of solar lamps to "ensure proper lighting of latrines and camp facilities." The United Nations "sub-cluster" on gender-based violence offered that the Haitian National Police (HNP) were patrolling camps on foot to improve security measures as a response to the sexual violence. However, this does not jibe with what women and girls in the camps report as a "consistent lack of security and lighting." So, once again, the women of KOFAVIV have organized volunteer security patrols escorting women to bathrooms and showers at night.
Diana Duarte of Madre told RH Reality Check that the UN gender-based violence sub-cluster, in addition to more foot patrols, has most recently "committed to installing lighting in the camps that are currently without and that are reporting high levels of rape." Given what many have said about a lack of follow through or signficant impact of some of these promises, Duarte is cautiously optimistic, "We’re working right now with KOFAVIV to track whether that commitment becomes reality and to demand accountability if it does not."
It’s not only the immediate committment to improving conditions that are a priority. Haitian women who live in the camps and have been the victims of sexual violence themselves have testified in front of the UN about their experiences and the critical importance of including women’s groups in the efforts to prevent and end the violence. Duarte told RH Reality Check that when she was in Haiti, at the end of July, her organization was working with the women of KOFAVIV to also "demand inclusion in the processes taking place, guided by the UN, to address sexual violence in the camps."
"Up until that point, they had been very much excluded from meetings that had first taken place at a UN base at some distance from the city. Then, when the meetings were recently moved to a closer location, they were still held in French, when most of the grassroots women’s groups are most comfortable in Kreyol," says Duarte.
Women’s organizations – Haitian women’s advocates on the ground – have been "shunted to the side" when it comes to agenda setting, in response to the diaster. As RH Reality Check previously reported,
In response, the women of KOFAVIV and their allies have made it their business to continue to speak up about remaining a part of the planning. Duarte says that when they [the women of KOFAVIV] were finally able to attend the UN meeting on gender-based violence in Haiti:
"one of the KOFAVIV leaders (a woman named Eramithe Delva) stood up and made a really strong intervention, in which she spoke about the temporary security measures that women have set up in the camps (including distributing whistles and flashlights and setting up community watch groups) and about the scale of sexual violence these groups have been documenting. In that meeting, she was able to secure an invitation from one of the organizers of the UN group (called a sub-cluster) on gender-based violence to include KOFAVIV and other grassroots groups in future meetings." [emphasis added]
Whether that will happen remains to be seen but it is a step forward. In the meantime, there are still conflicting reports about just what and how much is actually being done on the part of UN aid agencies, the United Nations sub-cluster on gender-based violence, and the Haitian National Police to prevent more rape and other sexual violence from occurring.
Women living in the camps and women’s advocacy organizations continue to do their part – distributing whistles and flashlights, and medical supplies. When the supplies arrive the women sit, in a circle, on plastic buckets which rest on the dusty ground of the camps, sharing stories and offering support in their efforts to protect themselves from the sexual violence; and they dance, sing and clap in recognition that they are and they have no other choice but to be powerful sources of strength for each other, in the absence of an adequate international response to the unacceptable conditions under which they survive.