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Soraya Chemaly

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The Safety of Haitian Girls and Women Should Be Our Goal

Posted: 01/14/2013 4:12 pm

Trigger warning for depictions of sexualized violence.  

This past Saturday marked three years since Haiti was stuck by a devastating earthquake. There is a place in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, called Cité Soleil.  It means Sun City, and it is the poorest place, most dangerous place to live in this hemisphere. It's one thing to think about poverty and danger, but another to know that an estimated minimum of 50 percent of the girls and women living in this neighborhood have been raped.  Girls and women are simply taken. One human rights organization in Haiti, Kay Fanm, estimates that number is as high as 72 percent.  As Alex Renton reported in 2007, rape -- if you can bear to hear the words "rape" and "epidemic" again -- is epidemic in Haiti.  The most heartbreaking symptom of poverty is how obvious it is that when women are not considered human, when they are property, they -- like other property under dispute -- get taken, traded, stolen, damaged and destroyed. While "stranger" rapes, conducted by gangs of roving, gun-toting men in public streets, are high, those by abusive family members are higher still.  When girls and women seek help, as often as not, they are asked some variation of, "What did you do to make him violate you?"  Are we starting to fully understand the global, gendered, nature of this crime and the ways in which social, legal, medical, judicial, diplomatic and religious systems conspire to keep it intact?

Seeking justice from a barely struggling justice system is hard. But consider this: rape wasn't even considered a crime in Haiti until 2005. Jocie Philistin, a woman's rights advocate and anti-rape activist (and rape victim herself), explains here:


Prior to the earthquake, the country already had some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.  The U. S. Peace Institute and the World Bank estimate that 70 percent of Haitian girls and women have experienced gender-based violence. One-third of reported rapes are of girls under 13, and that was before the 2010 earthquake. In post-earthquake camps, girls and women, and probably more boys that we know, are simply grabbed from their homes, taken from the streets, and raped by men either alone or in gangs.  It doesn't inspire confidence when UN peacekeepers are among the rapists. Ask anyone who has lived in Haiti and they will tell you that rape has been used as a political weapon and that, in the wake of the earthquake, food distribution was often used as a way to demand "favors." 

While technically not at war, Haiti functions as a militarized zone. In addition, its refugee camps aren't in another country.  When Haiti's massive earthquake struck it left one and a half million people homeless, more than 300,000 injured. No one really knows how many died.  I suspect that most people don't know that, because of poor or virtually non-existent construction,  fully two-thirds of those killed were women. (Three days ago Amnesty International described the housing situation today as "catastrophic.") Or that 45 percent of the female population is under the age of 15. Or that between 350,000 and 500,000 people still live in almost 500 camps.  Maternal and child mortality rates are far beyond those in the rest of the region.  Almost 10 percent of Haitian children die before they reach the age of five.  Or the cholera epidemic. And I haven't even touched on AIDS and its pervasive effects. According to Partners in Health, 50 percent of cases in the region can be found here.

But, I don't want to leave the impression that Haitian women are hiding in tents, victims above all.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. After the earthquake, systems, even only marginally protective ones, disappeared in seconds, and women stepped in to fill the breach -- not only in terms of finding shelter and food and reuniting families, but to defend girls and themselves from assault and to provide support after rape.   Beyond Shock: Charting the landscape of sexual violence in post-quake Haiti: Progress, Challenges & Emerging Trends 2010-2012 is a report produced by PotoFamn+Fi, an advocacy group made up of a coalition of grassroots and human rights organizations, dedicated to confronting gender-based violence in Haiti.   As journalist and human rights activist Anne-Christine d'Adesky, the project coordinator for the study, explained: "Other groups and studies have documented a rise of reports of rape and transactional sex, and a pregnancy bubble that represented gender aftershocks of the earthquake. Our survey ... confirms that these aftershocks are heavily impacting girls ... To us, these findings represent a call to arms to help girls in Haiti."  Over 90 percent of whom, I will add, suffer from shock, depression, anxiety, anger and post traumatic stress.  Or, as the report put it, "a significant minority noted that they wished to die."

FAVILEK - Women Victims Get Up Stand Up and KOFAVIV are two examples of how Haitian women are confronting violence and predation. They are organized by and for rape survivors from the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince. (KOFAVIV, in addition to providing as many, albeit limited, support services as possible, gives women "rape whistles" to use. Just in case you'd like to pause to consider the normalization of that idea in the U.S. -- here is a really cute, pink t-shirt from Zazzle: "Don't Make Me Use My Rape Whistle Shirt" available for just $30.00). The organization has partnered with Digital Democracy and the UN Refugee Agency, for example, to develop an effective 572 alternative to a degraded 911 system

I also don't want to leave the impression that all Haitian men are rapists. Apparently, I have to say this out loud every time I write about rape.  It's a simple Venn Diagram -- the fact that the overwhelming perpetrators of the crime are men, and the victims girls and women, in no way means that all men and boys are rapists. There is also the fact that rape culture dehumanizes the boys and men who rape as well. Indeed, there are good men who have come together to try and protect girls, boys and women, as discussed in the video above. Men are living with day-to-day violence, too. We're all part of the same systems.

Sexual violence is a structural problem in society.  It's a reflection of how we've organized ourselves. So, in order to change rape statistics and cultures, you have to change structures and systems.  In Haiti's case -- you have to create them from whole cloth in a country that is struggling, it seems perpetually, with the legacy of almost three centuries of violence, poverty, dictatorship. This all in the context of punishing diplomacy and the foreign policies of colonial powers unwilling to reward black people who insist on their own humanity.  The problems Haitians face are profound and complex, and rape is only part of them.  

That's why it's important that women who are working on the ground in camps in Haiti need to participate equally in their own governance.  While women now find themselves cut out of reconstructive efforts, the actual work of reconstruction on the ground is happening because they continue to feed people, care for people, build homes, educate children and form grassroots organizations to defend their rights.  In Haiti, as in other places facing reconstruction or post-revolutionary transitions -- promises of freedom, independence, security, and equality exclude girls and women.  As in Egypt and Syria, women's groups in Haiti need to be fully engaged in transitional planning, security , peace and infrastructure building. Leaving women out only ensures future instability. Our government is not exactly in a good position to talk to Haiti about the importance of gender parity in representation however.

I am not among the hundreds of millions of people who believed Pat Robertson when he explained, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, that God was punishing Haitians for their slave revolt "pact with the devil."  Instead, I think I'll go with Laurent Dubois, historian and author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History.  He strikes me as more reliable. And he loves soccer.  He thinks, like most people who understand how to think in the modern era, that Haiti -- and the rest of us -- are still grappling with the consequences of their remarkable revolution, a revolution that "expanded our notion of human rights in radical ways."  Dubois, a professor at Duke University, has written several books about Haitian, French and Caribbean history. He has a terrific series of short videos, including What We Must Know In Order to Help Haiti, How Haiti Can Rebuild, Haiti: The History of a Shaken Nation. I am thinking that Anonymous should hack into the 700 Club's transmission facilities and play these in a continuous loop for several days.

I have known Haitian people intimately. Haitian women are my aunts and cousins and my friends. I have lived with them in the strange intimacy of domestic life that embodied kindness and oppression, love and the demeaning paternalism. Haitian women laughed as they taught me how to dress or cook. And they taught me to love Haitian music and how to dance. They are incredibly resilient and strong. This despite the reality that they often treated as less than worthless.

If it is possible, don't forget about the Haitian people, especially Haiti's girls and women. Because, while you cannot simply say to boys and men, "Stop raping, please," or "For the sake of humanity, share your power, include women," one thing is certain: Until girls and women in Haiti walk freely without fear of rape, none of us can. That's why I'm not too convinced when someone tells me for the millionth time that feminism's work is done. Their situation is a radically destitute and extreme version of our own. The safety of Haitian girls and women is my feminism's goal.

Haitian girls and women are among the 1,000,000,000 women on the globe today who experience gender-based violence. If these girls and women can find the courage to dance in the face of adversity and their own abuse, no one else has an excuse not to strike against violence against women and dance in support of them. They are 5,000,000 of V-Day's 1,000,000,000 #ReasonstoRise.


Resources:

It's hard to know as individuals how to help, but my vote goes with these organizations in Haiti. I am personally disinclined to support faith-based groups more intent on "saving souls than lives." Besides, sending aid directly to and through women, is demonstrably the way to go. Haitians are clear in their desire to help themselves. But, before they can really do that, Haiti's women, like all of us, need to be able to safely walk while female.

FAVILEK - Women Victims Get Up Stand Up
Kay Fanm
KOFAVIV
Madre
V-Day
For information on how to help with everyday sanitation, reproductive health care, obstectrics and newborn care, contact UNFPA.

 

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