Haitian women are fighting for their lives – and the lives of their children. There is no simpler way to put it.
Since a devastating earthquake brought the country to its knees on January 12, 2010, the people of Haiti have had to dig themselves out of the rubble, literally and figuratively. But the rubble remains – and for the women and girls who survived the quake it barely covers the evil that has arisen in the displaced person camps and make-shift communities surrounding Port-au-Prince designed to offer temporary if not stable protection to those left trying to piece together what remains of their country and their lives.
Except, life has become a nightmare for the women and girls left there.
Last week, the New York Times reported on the escalation of rape and sexual violence of women and girls in the camps. But concrete statistics on how many have been attacked elude authorities and it’s being left up to Haitian women’s rights advocates, on the ground, to track the violence.
These advocates are part of a long-standing group, KOFAVIV, Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim, made up of survivors of rape. As the international women’s rights organization and KOFAVIV partner organization MADRE notes, members of the group have “witnessed the skyrocketing incidence of rape in the camps and the lack of a coordinated or effective response to these persistent threats.”
KOFAVIV member and rape-survivor, Malya Villard-Appolon, who has been living in the camps, testified in front of the UN Human Rights Council recently about the conditions:
I live in a tent in a camp. I have witnessed violence against women and girls. And, I have also witnessed the completely inadequate government response. KOFAVIV has recorded at least 242 cases of rape since the earthquake. But, we have yet to see a case prosecuted.
KOFAVIV has suffered its own loss, of course. As a result of the earthquake, KOFAVIV members died, lost their homes, their families and still, in these camps, living with barely the most basic of necessities, the women of KOFAVIV devote themselves to the necessary protection of their fellow sisters, daughters, aunts, mothers and grandmothers.
As Diana Duarte of MADRE, told RH Reality Check:
In the best of times, KOFAVIV provides support from rape survivors to rape survivors – medical support, but also they shepherd them through a process that can be complicated and hostile when filing a legal case, they provide a community space where rape survivors in Haiti can get that psychosocial support. In the aftermath of the earthquake, they continued to do it in circumstances that are unimaginable. The leadership of KOFAVIV lost their homes, their families, many women who had previously been members of KOFAVIV disappeared or were killed. After the earthquake, they found themselves living in the camps, witness to the escalating rape and sexual violence so prevalent there now.
Beverly Bell, an activist, journalist and Program Coordinator for the woman-driven, multimedia education and movement-building collaborative working around the world, has traveled to Haiti and details the horrors, via KOFAVIV, faced by women and girls in the camp. In this case – a KOFAVIV leader’s family:
At 8:00 p.m. on March 2, a man came under the tarp which is home to Delva, [KOFAVIV] co-coordinator Malya Villard Appolon, their 13 combined children and grandchildren, and other family members. The man threw Delva’s 17-year-old daughter Merline on the ground, dragged her outside, and prepared to rape her. Merline beat him off. An hour or so later, the man returned with three other men and a pistol. They beat four of Delva and Appolon’s daughters.
There aren’t nearly enough tents to house all of the displaced people living in the camps so for women living out in the open, the violence is even worse. The lack of lighting, security or police presence – basically all of the things that would protect women against rape – places women and girls in danger. But the tents provide very little protection, anyway. Duarte tells me a story of an attacker who cut through one woman’s tent with a blade to get to her.
In fact, the leaders of KOFAVIV seem to be in particular danger because of the increasingly high-profile nature of their work there. In an email to RH Reality Check, Bell writes:
…last week a man came to the KOFAVIV headquarters (a tarp in the middle of a camp) with a gun to kidnap one of the coordinators and to extract ransom from the othe coordinator. Fortunately, the plot failed.
At this point, two of the leaders who have been attacked have fled the camp with their families and are camped out in the yard behind a human rights office but will be returning to yet another refugee camp to continue their “amazing vigilance and human rights advocacy” in the face of daily threats, writes Bell.
We Know What’s Coming
What seems particularly difficult to comprehend is that this sort of sexual violence shouldn’t be surprising. It is, according to Duarte, “…something you always see in the aftermath of natural disasters.” And the help victims so desperately need is just not there. The resulting chaos that comes after an earthquake or any type of extreme natural disaster, says Duarte, means “there is a breakdown of community support services and a breakdown of law and order. The community ties that allow women’s groups to operate and work against sexual violence falls apart. So much needs to be done to begin to rebuild the network of support for women who are facing the threat of sexual violence.”
What is surprising is that, given the reality that rape happens, the certainty that women – most often the center of family and community life, the anchors – will be sexually assaulted post-natural disaster, there isn’t more done to prepare or to set up mechanisms to respond when it happens. Duarte says:
The reality is that responding to sexual violence, in terms of all the different responses necessary, and putting in place mechanisms to prevent sexual violence is just not at the top of the list post-disaster. There are so many other immediate needs to be met. This is a line repeated over and over again – that addressing the particular vulnerabilities of women after a natural disaster gets pushed to the side.
What is being done, then, to address the rising sexual violence? The New York Times reports that, “Recently, security in eight big camps has improved, with joint Haitian-United Nations police posts or patrols; about 100 Bangladeshi policewomen arrived late last month to deal with gender-based violence at three of them” and a recent UN resolution passed that would ““accelerate efforts to eliminate violence against women.” But is this enough to make a real impact on the lives of women and girls living in Haiti, facing the daily threat of rape?
Not according to Duarte and MADRE:
The sad reality is that, though female UN peacekeepers have been deployed and we have seen some positive responses from members of the [UN] Human Rights Council –much more needs to happen. The level of rape is not decreasing; women who have been raped are constantly approaching KOFAVIV. MADRE’s argument is that there are immediate things that need to be done. We’ve petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and we’re asking them to take precautionary measures: increase security, increase lighting in the camps, immediately.
On June 7, MADRE and the women of KOFAVIV took the cause to the United Nations Human Rights Council in hopes of finding this support and assistance. Villard testified on behalf of KOFAVIV and the many rape victims saying,
“The violence is occurring in the camps because: There is no education around sexuality and women’s rights, Security is inadequate; There is a lack of secure housing; and, aid distribution is ineffective and aid agencies fail to consult grassroots groups, which deepens poverty and fosters violence.”
The truth is that, says Villard, “…the systems for protecting women in the camps are broken. We get no protection from the police, or the peacekeepers. We feel we do not have access to the rooms where decisions about our safety are made. We need the support and commitment of the international community.”
Shunted to the Side
The role of women’s groups on the ground, post-disasters, is critical – and this is where KOFAVIV comes in. MADRE cannot seem to convey enough how important it is to support “women’s organizations on the ground.” KOFAVIV spun into immediate action providing some degree of security by organizing neighborhood watches, accompanying women to the latrines, and creating community gathering places for women. Duarte says these actions are “huge” because women living in the tents feel “disoriented and isolated.”
But while women’s groups on the ground know exactly what’s coming after a disaster like an earthquake and can begin to move into immediate action, with, says Duarte, “an incredible level of expertise,” to provide services to women and families, they get shunted to the side when response agendas are set.
“It’s so unfortunate because these are the groups operating in these communities and they know, in the aftermath, which families need support, how to funnel aid resources to make the response much more efficient. But they aren’t considered in the agenda in the days, weeks, and months afterward,” says Duarte.
In March, the international community came together in a “landmark” donor conference to set an agenda for rebuilding Haiti and women’s groups in Haiti, women’s voices, were nowhere to be seen or heard.
From the global humanitarian news site of the United Nations, IRIN,
Haitian-born Massachusetts State Representative Marie St. Fleur, who represented the diaspora community at the main conference, said she was not surprised to look across the room and see few other female faces. The text of the Haitian government’s Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA), a blueprint plan for recovery, offered a similar lack of gender diversity, she explained.
“There needs to be a bolder vision for reconstruction, and right now, there isn’t a very clear place for women within that,” St. Fleur told IRIN. “But I think we make a mistake when we say that we have to have a place for women, because they must not placed in a corner like that. Women and girls must be integrated throughout this plan. And that doesn’t exist, right now.”
“When you don’t take a gendered approach to human rights, you compound women’s vulnerability.” She continued:
Women are disproportionately represented among the poor in Haiti. When massive disasters hit, resources are at a minimum to begin with. Women just aren’t prioritized in aid distribution when you have gender-neutral aid distribution…By not listening to the expertise and valuing the voices of women after a disaster in the process of reconstruction, you’re rebuilding a country on a very weak foundation and that’s not something Haiti – or any country – should do. You’re ignoring the voice of women who could contribute so much.
This is what makes the response from KOFAVIV, MADRE and advocates like Human Rights attorney Lisa Davis who works with them, so inspirational, however. Duarte tells RH Reality Check the story of how Lisa traveled down to Haiti with a financial contribution to KOFAVIV, from MADRE. Within just a couple of days, women of KOFAVIV turned that money into basic supplies for their fellow women in the camps; pots and pans, hygiene kits were almost immediately distributed. The efficiency was astounding and it makes a concrete difference in the lives of women and girls, today.
The United Nations is a key vehicle for making change and these women’s groups know and understand this. It’s why they are working closely to monitor and push the UN to do what it needs to do to make life safer for women and girls in Haiti.
As Tracy Clark-Flory writes on Salon, “It isn’t that attempts aren’t being made to protect Haitian girls and women from violence. Patrols and security have been ramped up, but there are too many people, too many tent cities and too many devastated neighborhoods to look after.”
So groups like MADRE and KOFAVIV and advocates like Beverly Bell, through Other Worlds, continue their vigilance. They raise money, organize speaking tours to promote Haiti women’s involvement in the reconstruction efforts, work with the United Nations, make visits to Haiti to bear witness, record stories, and offer support. They have made some crucial and positive steps forward with some countries willing to make the prevention of rape and sexual violence a priority in their aid; the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) listening to Villard’s testimony and the just-passed resolution from the HRC devoted to accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women, around the world.
Though these are steps forward, it bears remembering that on any given day, KOFAVIV will continue to gather the stories and testimony of women, in these camps, in open-air spaces, of their experiences of sexual violence and rape as they attempt to rebuild their lives amid the rubble.