February 4, 2011
Sexual violence against women has long been a scourge in Haiti, but rights activists had made real progress in recent years. Many of them died in the quake, and now women and girls are stalked by gang rapists.
Women meet in Port-au-Prince to discuss ways to protect themselves amid growing sexual violence. Several women's rights leaders died in the January 2010 earthquake. (Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times / February 4, 2011)
Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Halya Lagunesse thought she knew despair. Nearly seven years ago, the soldiers who had killed her husband gang-raped the Haitian woman and her daughter Joann, who was 17 at the time.
But that pain pales in comparison to the torment of learning last March that her 5-year-old granddaughter had been raped.
The attacker gave the child about 50 cents to go and buy rice. On her way back, he intercepted her and dragged her into a cemetery.
"How did that happen? How did that happen?" Lagunesse, 50, cried, wringing her hands.
"This situation does something to their minds and makes people sick," she said. "Their hearts are bad."
Hers is a tragedy of rape compounded: Her granddaughter, now 6, was conceived in the gang rape of her daughter.
Rape wasn't even considered a serious criminal offense in Haiti until five years ago.
The women who pushed for the legislation making it so also built Haiti's first shelter for abused women. Next they had hoped to make fathers legally bound to acknowledge their children and pay some support.
Haitian women are the poorest and most disenfranchised in this poorest of nations in the hemisphere. And yet, through the work of a spirited coterie of feminist activists, real strides were being made.
Until Jan. 12, 2010.
Haiti's cataclysmic earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, left this capital in ruins and sent more than a million people into a life in crowded, squalid camps.
It also devastated a strong and surprisingly successful women's movement, which, a year later, struggles like the rest of the nation to recover, even as women are being subjected to horrific sexual violence.
So much has been lost.
Magalie Marcelin, the indefatigable activist with the gap-toothed smile who founded one of Haiti's most important women's advocacy organizations, Kay Fanm. Crushed to death as she mentored an aspiring feminist.
Myriam Merlet, broad-faced, cheerily abrasive and endlessly effective, whether in her position at the Women's Ministry she helped shape or lobbying for the rape law she helped enact. Died in her home under a ton of concrete.
And there were so many more, equally and less famous, midwives, nuns and professors, peasant leaders and government officials, all who worked for women. All gone.
"It was a very big loss," activist Danielle Saint-Lot said. "We cried together. We are mourning together."
The young men were watching Fania Simone. They had picked her. Picked her for rape.
They went to her tent and seemed to know she would be alone. Her mother had left for the countryside in search of food.
Three of them. They wore masks. They threw her to the dirt floor. They kicked her in the ribs and slapped her face.
"If you tell anyone," one of her attackers threatened, "we will kill your brother or your sister."
After the rape, Simone, 23, sought medical attention. Then an organization that helps rape victims, Kofaviv, took her under its wing and gave her psychological counseling.
But she still lives in the plastic-tarp tent, and her attackers lurk, murmuring their threats, watching her.
"I feel very unsafe," said the young woman, whose bright eyes widen as she tells her story. "I have nowhere else to go. I am tortured."
Rape has long been a scourge in Haiti. It was used as a form of political repression in 1994 and in 2004, periods of upheaval when military dictators and their brutish gangs of enforcers seized power. Men who opposed the regime were abducted and killed, women raped. An entire generation of Haitians is filled with children of rape.
The earthquake generated new shockwaves of sexual violence. Hundreds, maybe thousands — there is no comprehensive count — have been raped. Some of the assaults are crimes of opportunity, but increasingly they seem a calculated, predatory form of stalking and attacking.
Only a few of an estimated 1,300 tent encampments that are spread through this shattered capital have nighttime lighting or significant police presence. Tents do not have doors or locks. People are jammed together in dehumanizing density without privacy.
Social networks and family unity have been destroyed by death and flight; children are often alone and unsupervised as their parents, if they have them, spend days searching for sustenance. The institutions of law and order, to the extent they ever had influence, have crumbled.
Young women are easy prey for uneducated, unemployed men who populate the camps, often stoned and with time on their hands. They see women and girls as fair game. Many women have denounced camp leaders, always male, for demanding sexual favors in return for tents, food and building materials.
Activists are bracing for a jump in teen pregnancies and HIV and AIDS cases, whether from rape or unprotected sex, since clinics that dispensed birth control and advice were also destroyed. The United Nations estimates that Port-au-Prince needs at least 1,000 maternal-care clinics. There are 10.
"We started receiving reports of rapes from the very first day after the quake," said Jocie Philistin, one of the women who run Kofaviv. "At first we thought, this can't be true! But it was."
"Women, I know you lift a lot of buckets of water. It's not enough. Work your arms!"
Murielle Dorismond, one of Haiti's top judo masters, is leading a self-defense workshop for women in the camps. Upper-body strength and self-confidence are the most important tools she tries to teach the women.
Several women's groups are taking action to confront the violence. International and national organizations have joined forces to arrange training sessions, psychological counseling and legal advice.
Kofaviv, which lost about 10% of its membership as well as its headquarters to the quake, sends "agents" into the camps to find women who have been attacked, averaging two cases a day. (And that, all involved say, is but a tip of the iceberg.)
Women have been given whistles and taught to use them.
Three short toots means, "I am being attacked."
One long toot: "I have found someone who has been raped and needs immediate help."
Before 2005, rape was considered an offense against honor, or "crime of passion," meaning it was a minor infraction in which the perpetrator would go free if he agreed to marry his victim. Then it was elevated into a serious crime with penalties. In addition, victims were allowed to seek care at any health facility, instead of the main state hospital, and no longer had to pay for the examination.
Still, victims are stigmatized, abusers rarely caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Malya Villard-Appolon, a founding member of Kofaviv, recalled how police leered at her 14-year-old daughter when the two went to a police station to report the girl's rape. One officer said girls and young women get raped because they're "in heat."
"Some of these men have the same old mentality," said Valerie Toureau, a doctor who works with rural women. "The woman for them is an object, one more piece of property. We've tried to change the mentality, but the effort has been nearly completely lost."
The voodoo priestesses thumped drums and lighted candles as they chanted the names.
"They were real fighters," Philistin, the activist, said. "Every woman in Haiti knows about these women. They gave their time and their souls for the progress of our struggle."
At this memorial ceremony on the first anniversary of the quake, huge photos of Magalie Marcelin, Myriam Merlet and others flanked the makeshift stage. Marcelin and Merlet, in their 50s when they died, were trained as lawyers but did their work in the streets and homes and government offices.
Merlet also wrote, collecting stories about Haitian women and campaigning to have streets named for some of the prominent ones. Marcelin once packed a courtroom with angry women to pressure for a guilty verdict against a politically connected man accused of beating his wife. Both had fought against Jean-Claude Duvalier 's brutal regime, and each had spent time in exile or in hiding.
"Every day we try to recover and to replace them," said Yolette Mengual, chief of staff in the Women's Ministry, who was overseeing the memorial. "We can't. We are still searching. We have to keep fighting."