On January 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by a massive earthquake. Nearly two years later, over a million people ““ between 1 and 1.3 million, to be precise ““ are still living in the camps. A cholera epidemic is currently taking place, and the refugee camps are incredibly unsafe for women and girls, as sexual abuse is unfortunately incredibly common.
Of course, women in Haiti had a hard time before the earthquake hit. A 2005 report from Haitian Women in Solidarity states that eight out of ten Haitian women have been victims of domestic violence. Rape and sexual assault were common and rarely treated as a prosecutable offense in the eyes of the police; what’s more, NGOS and government sources have said that rape was used as intimidation by local gangs. Prostitution and human trafficking were both said to be “widespread,” and trafficking of children, for both sexual and labor purposes, was common. Most women gave birth at home, without trained assistance. The US State Department’s 2009 Human Rights Report on Haiti (the last one before the earthquake) bluntly states that women did not have the same social and economic status as men, which was sometimes made worse by cultural tradition, which limited women’s roles. (If there is a country in the world in which this is not true, at least to some extent, I’d like to see it, but I believe the point the State Department was trying to make is that there is severe gender inequality in Haiti.) All the challenges mentioned above existed pre-earthquake, when there was relative peace and stability.
Haiti has not had much peace or stability in its history. Aside from several decades of peace in the second half of the 19th century, Haiti has been in a near-perpetual state of revolt, military coup, and/or dictatorship since it’s inception in 1804, perpetually exacerbated by foreign involvement. Of particular recent note are Francois Duvalier and Jean-Francois Duvalier, the father and son who ruled Haiti from 1957-1986, and who were known as two incredibly brutal dictators. Without getting into every ruler of Haiti in the past twenty-five years, let us just say that between the revolts and the corruption, there was little-to-no room for government initiatives on women’s rights, let alone rule of law or enough economic stability to allow any of the challenges Haitian women faced to be seriously addressed.
Historically, it’s been hard for people in general in Haiti, and generally harder for women, right up to the current day. And then the earthquake hit, almost 2 years ago, and everything went from bad to worse. To review, about 222,000 people were killed by the earthquake, and 300,000 more were injured. Between 1.3 and 1.6 million people were displaced, and the infrastructure for the majority of the country was destroyed.
In August of 2011, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled “”Nobody Remembers Us” Failure to Protect Women’s and Girls’ Right to Health and Security in Post-Earthquake Haiti,” from which following information comes from. HRW, whose stated mission is to investigate and expose human rights abuses, does no programming, only reporting, so I feel secure in citing them as unbiased reporters. HRW reports that, in addition to the hardships all people face living in a refugee camp, women are at an increased disadvantage, on several levels. First, they lack access to family planning, prenatal, and obstetric care ““ pregnant women in refugee camps are giving birth in tents and on muddy streets, without the assistance of trained personnel. Birthrates for women living in the camps are three times higher than the average birthrate in the country before the earthquake, and maternal mortality among the same population is among the highest in the world. Food security is also a huge problem, with many women and girls turning to transactional sex to be able to afford and even simply have access to food for themselves and their families. Rape is becoming increasingly common in the camps, facilitated by the conditions of the camp ““ little to no electricity, a lack of secure sleeping quarters, and other conditions leave women no choice but to “sleep with one eye open.” Security in general is poor to nonexistent ““ women living in the camps have lost their homes, their livelihoods (and source of income) and their communities. While there is a significant NGO presence in Haiti and in the camps themselves, many women and girls are unaware of what sort of assistance is available, and how to access it. Even before the earthquake, reports surfaced of humanitarian workers in Haiti sexually assaulting and abusing women and children in Haiti. With the huge influx of aid workers to the country, coupled with minimal oversight, it can only be assumed that the same sort of thing is still happening, though it may be years before such stories can be brought to life.
So that’s the bad news. There’s a lot of it, to be sure ““ things look very bleak right now for many Haitian women. There are huge efforts being made by the international community and the Haitian government ““ or, at least in the case of the latter, plans for huge efforts. But I, as always, am going to focus on what local Haitian women are doing, because frankly, we could be here for several thousand words, outlining the initiatives taken by UNESCO and Doctors Without Borders and the World Bank and countless other international organizations ““ who, for the most part, are trying to do very good work in very hard circumstances ““ but I’m going to focus on local women instead. Tragically, I must mention that the earthquake managed to deliver a direct blow to the women’s rights movement in Haiti, as three main leaders of that movement died in the earthquake. Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin and Anne Marie Coriolan, each a founder of women’s rights advocacy groups in Haiti, all perished. That their organizations still survive and thrive is a tribute to their legacy.
Magalie Marcelin founded Kay Fanm, a women’s rights organization that successfully advocated for laws against domestic violence and rape, and opened the first women’s shelter in Haiti. After Marcelin’s death, Kay Fanm has been run by Yolette Jeanty, who has recieved international recognition for Kay Fanm’s hard work. Kay Fanm carries out a half-dozen programs, from income-generation-training to support for victims of abuse. In the wake of the earthquake, Kay Fanm began acting as a liason between women in the camps and authorities, documenting cases of rape and reporting them to the police. They also are working to train international humanitarian workers on how to navigate the reality of life in Haiti, and try to ensure that things are being done the right way whenever possible.
Anne Marie Coriolan founded SolidaritÃ© Fanm Ayisyen, or SOFA, the largest women’s rights organization in Haiti, with over 5,000 members and 21 domestic violence shelters (pre-earthquake numbers.) SOFA does government advocacy work as well as education outreach, working with schools and radio programs to promote the importance of a life free of violence. Like Kay Fanm, SOFA has been documenting and reporting on rape and domestic violence within the camps, and the numbers are staggering.
There is also KOFAVIV, The Commission of Women Victims for Victims, an NGO founded by two Haitian women with the express purpose of helping survivors of domestic violence and rape by creating “solidarity groups” for survivors as well as facilitating access to micro-credit. KOFAVIV has organized an advocacy campaign to demand justice for women who have been victimized in the refugee camps and surrounding neighborhoods. They also have been meeting weekly with international NGO workers in the camps to advocate for the women in the camps, and encourage the international community to incorporate violence prevention more fully into the running of the refugee camps.
Unfortunately, the international community has not fully appreciated these local organizations, as there are reports that grassroots organizations have been left out of the formal coordination meetings on the recovery effort, despite specific instructions by international leaders for their inclusion. Why international groups would overlook the experience and knowledge of local women, who have been working with these problems and this population for years if not decades, I don’t know.
Haiti is facing huge challenges right now ““ as it has for years. The women who have been fighting for change in Haiti must be given more of a voice and a more prominent role in the recovery process. The international community must realize the severity of the rights violations that are happening in these camps, and must work with the local women’s groups to stop these abuses.
Kay Famn: Nos Programmes (French)
SolidaritÃ© Fanm Ayisyen (French)