“The mother came back, got her daughter and checked her daughter and she said, ‘her inside was so’ –she emphasized– ‘opened.’ And then she asked the daughter, ‘what happened to you?’ And the daughter said, ‘while I went to the bathroom there was this man that held me and had sex with me’.”
To say “Beginning of the End,” is not to indulge misplaced nostalgia or sentimentality. That scenario, difficult as it might have been to read, has finally exposed an age-old concealed window into the stark realities of scores of Haitian women and children, Flore, in this particular instance. She is a 10-year-old girl who has been sexually assaulted three times in the camp where she lived with her mother.
Flore’s mom described her daughter’s ordeals through the reporting of Carla Murphy, a journalist covering the rebuilding process in Haiti. Murphy used the pseudo name “Flore” to protect the identity of the child.
The first man who ‘wasted’ her daughter, the mom explained, was a friend who asked for Flore to babysit his child while he went out. She later found out that he repeatedly raped Flore when she watched his baby. The second attack came at the hands of a 22-year-old man, literally. She caught him red-handed, his fingers inside of her daughter. Furious, she had him thrown in jail only to watch him roaming the same camp later. The third episode, naïvely recounted by the child, occurred at night.
The cataclysmic earthquake has not only affected Haitian women disproportionately, but has also created new norms for them. Gender discrimination, and structural inequalities have literally reshaped their realities. In many instances, affected women have had to defend themselves, their children, and aging parents against sexual violence. A Human Rights Watch report highlighted a woman whose kidnappers took to an undisclosed location where she was “gagged, beaten repeatedly, and gang-raped for two to three days until she was finally able to escape.
The presence of an effective Haitian government to meet obvious systematic security needs is but an illusion and the UN response units are a scarce resource; hence, the rapists, pedophiles, and child traffickers alike have created their own version of the Wild West in the camps, which many have branded “breeding grounds for criminals.”
The dysfunctional judicial system, ineffectiveness of the police force, and an increased tolerance on the part of the victims have all but ensured the elusiveness of the culprits, condoned their sick behaviors, and perpetuated their vicious cyclical tendencies. In June 1999, 600 police officers –10 percent of the force– were dismissed on human right violations, including sexual violence. Further characterization by Pierre Denize, Haiti’s Chief of Police then, unearthed the roots of the problem. “Haitian police force was the product of a society whose historical development was such that it did not recognize nor have any experience of an institutional human rights policy,” he expressed to the United Nations’Commission of Human Rights. In addition, The Lancet published a chilling mortality study of Haiti, which revealed, in no small measures, that a staggering 35,000 women were raped between March 2004 and December 2006 in the capital alone during the instability that followed the ousting of President Jean Bertrand Aristide.
Meanwhile, government officials have continually downplayed the presence of a systemic problem; hence, the barely noticeable –underreported– empirical evidence has not done any justice to the victims. Nevertheless, the sharp increase of rape cases since Jan. 12th of this year can barely be dismissed as random or sporadic acts. According to its July 19th preliminary report, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV) has informally tracked 230 rape cases in only 15 of the 1,300 camps. Moreover, a survey conducted in March 2010 by the University of Michigan revealed that 3 percent of women and girls living in displacement camps have been sexually assaulted, half of whom, minors.
Long Road Ahead
It has become abundantly clear that the atrocities against women and children in Haiti are a byproduct of systemic failures and increased vulnerabilities of the displacement camps. As one coalition of Haitian civil society groups noted, “The extent of the disaster is certainly linked to the character of the colonial and Neo‐colonial State our country has inherited, and the imposition of neo‐liberal policies over the last three decades.”
Beyond its necessary legislative and judicial infrastructure, Haiti needs a mechanism for inclusive participation and interactive engagement of all stakeholders. That is, men, women, and children – rich or poor– have to be an integral part of ongoing discussions and strategic planning. Transitioning from a status-quo, which –for far too long– has been insensitive to their ordeals, is a daunting task.
Clearly, such an intergenerational initiative has to be spoon-fed to Haitians. Eventually, the increased knowledge will help remap the psychographics of the cultural consciousness. Ideological changes are complex and usually require elaborate skills and a great deal of time to materialize, as UNICEF’s 2010 report indicates. Moving too fast risks alienating the victims and/or provoking more aggression. Some women may even be reluctant to move away from the inhumane treatments that they have learned to recognize as a safe place.
Several NGO have rightfully called for Haiti’s leaders to prioritize their responses to remedy current atrocities. However, Haiti’s emergent political and social culture presents a rare opportunity to discover her sustainable roots and incite, in the context of evolutionary ideology, a psychological revolution in the malleable cognition of her youths.
Failure to design and implement an effective strategy with the participation of all Haitians would be inadequate and would exacerbate structural human rights infringements that pre‐date the earthquake. The devastating result would leave the most vulnerable members of Haitian society: women, children, and the poor in an even more fragile state.