Haitian women fight back against abuses

Rights groups in Haiti hope for passage of new legislation to protect women from abuse, some of which is detailed in a new Human Rights Watch report released this week.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
A view of a refugee camp, once a golf course, set up for earthquake displaced people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 22.

As darkness descends on a recent evening, women race to complete tasks in a tent city in the middle of Port-au-Prince where they say their only protection is sunlight and God.

Nathalie Marie-Sevet quickly hand washes clothes in a basin as her neighbors retreat from the streets and behind an iron gate that borders the camp. They’ll stay in their tents for the duration of the night, Ms. Sevet says, forbidding her two daughters Sabrina and Josebeline from leaving her side.

Their makeshift shanty, a one-room wooden framed structure with tarps for walls, is their only barrier against nature and intruders who attack when they see women and girls alone, they say.

“We want to leave, but we can’t go anywhere, so we live here under God’s protection,” says Sevet, who lived in an apartment that collapsed in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake and like 300,000 other women, is still displaced. “I don’t feel safe here.”

Violence against women is nothing new in Haiti or any country for that matter, says Marlelus Marie-Carline, Sevet’s neighbor. But after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the occurrence of violent crimes has dramatically increased. Human Rights Watch released a report this week detailing how the rights to health and security for women remain out of reach in the wake of the earthquake with high incidents of rape in camps for the displaced. Women’s advocates say that hunger and poverty have fueled the problem, along with more women relying on men to provide.

But women are fighting back, Ms. Carline says, from grassroots efforts of individuals to national campaigns. She formed Kofaviv, for example, a volunteer neighborhood watch group of tent city inhabitants. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has galvanized women’s rights organizations around the nation to push for the passage of an anti-violence bill that penalizes assailants who perpetrate violence against women, from beatings to rape, as well as public safety officials who do not enforce the law. The Ministry of Women's Affairs is also working with international non-profits to lead anti-violence workshops across the country.

Still, all agree the push for women's rights faces a long road ahead. “We need to change our mentalities,” says Haitian Senator Steven Benoit, who has supported the anti-violence bill and NGO work teaching public officials not to perpetrate violence.

Increased vulnerability

Haitian women have long struggled for an equal voice and to stay safe, but the earthquake has made them even more vulnerable. “What had started in homes went into tent cities,” says Olga Benoit, president of Haitian Women in Solidarity, an organization that’s helping write the bill.

While international aid money has been targeted for healthcare services for women, with agencies working to provide care, the HRW report says that many girls and women have not benefited as they should: poor transportation, lack of information, and unaffordable care have all played a role.

The ministry is hoping to address the situation with the bill, working with over two dozen women’s rights groups and legal advisers across the country to write it. The groups will reconvene in September and are simultaneously working on an aggressive lobbying campaign including holding public debates and creating activist groups to gain support for its passage.

Judging from the reaction of men to legislation, however, it is unclear whether approval will be won. An earlier bill to hold men legally accountable for financially supporting their children, for example, caused a public uproar in churches and among some politicians who questioned its purpose and intent, says Marjory Michel, minister of Women’s Affairs.

Ms. Michel and Yolette Mengual, director of the ministry, say they expect similar debates and delays with the second bill, especially since women hold just five of the 99 seats in parliament. “Five people is hardly a voice in parliament,” says Ms. Mengual. “They alone cannot enforce this as a law.”

Empowerment and education

In the meantime, they have worked with NGOs to improve the situation. UNICEF, for example, has funded educational and training programs to empower women since the earthquake. Young students also participate in a UNICEF-sponsored education program with the ministry where they take notes on the conditions and occurrences of violence in tent cities.

“We must start recovery with the economy and education,” Mengual says of the programs. “An autonomous woman is a free and strong woman.” She travelled to New York in March for the launch of a new program called UN-Women. The program provides living essentials, including mattresses and hygiene products, for women specifically in tent cities.

The programs are essential, Mengual says, but one of their greatest challenges will include changing the mentality of public safety officials. Officers at the National Police department are participating in workshops with the women’s ministry and women’s rights groups, helping to raise sensitivity around women’s rights, says Lerebours Frantz, an officer. Police created a special department for rape and domestic abuse victims, focused on recruiting more female officers, and began mapping crimes in an effort to track and prevent incidents.

Despite the best efforts of the National Police and other organizations, however, a gender bias persists and some male officers continue to sympathize with and release assailants in abuse cases, Mr. Frantz says. “Our instructions are straight,” he says. “Once violence or rape occurs, the officer must go, but some officers beat their own wives and girlfriends.”

So women are taking matters into their own hands. Armed with a flashlight and whistle, Carline’s group Kofaviv, comprised of 25 men and two women, patrol the tents searching for wanted criminals. In the past two months, they say they’ve captured two men – one accused of rape and the other of domestic violence – but they fled after police released them, Carline says.

“The police are no support,” she says. “We are our own security. I hope for change with the law.”

Until something changes, Sevet says, she will protect her family with prayer. “The police walk around with one eye open and the other closed,” she says. “Still, I live with God’s protection.”

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