"Our Bodies are Shaking Now" - Rape Follows Earthquake in Haiti
“The way you saw the earth shake, that’s how our bodies are shaking now,” said a member of the grassroots anti-violence group Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim (KOFAVIV by its Creole acronym). She was speaking at a meeting about violence against women and children since the earthquake January 12.
The venue of the meeting was KOFAVIV’s new headquarters: a tarp in a displaced persons camp in Port-au-Prince. All the women of KOFAVIV lost their homes in the disaster, while more than 300 lost their lives.
Though there are no statistics on rape during the 10 weeks since the earthquake, reports abound. The following one was relayed by Helia Lajeunesse, a child rights trainer with KOFAVIV. Lajeunesse’s granddaughter, four-year-old Timafi Youyoute (not her real name), lives outside the town of Jeremie with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and her newborn baby sister. On March 14, Timafi’s mother sent her to the neighbor’s house to buy a jar of rice. As she was leaving the neighbor’s yard, 17-year-old Dekatrel Jacqué offered to take her back home. Instead, he took her to the cemetery. There, he covered the little girl’s mouth with his hand and proceeded to rape her.
An elderly neighbor, Merlise Louis, saw the incident and tried to grab the boy. He ripped the woman’s shirt and threw her down on the ground. When she shouted for help, he threw a rock at her and ran.
Timafi’s mother went to the police and filed a warrant for the rapist’s arrest. He reportedly fled town.
Photos of Timafi show a short, chubby girl with full cheeks, round eyes, a serious expression, and a head full of colored barrettes. Following the rape, she bled heavily and ran a high fever for two days. She ate almost nothing for more than a week.
In the absence of any official tracking of women and girls raped, except for a United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)-led effort just initiated in 10 displaced persons camps in Port-au-Prince, KOFAVIV keeps its own tally. As of March 21, KOFAVIV outreach workers had tracked 230 cases of rapes in 15 camps, or 15.3 incidents per camp. Hundreds of such camps dot the city, their size varying from hundreds to more than 20,000. The ages of those raped in this sample range from 10 to 60, the majority of them teenagers.
Post-earthquake Haiti is plagued by high levels of anxiety and frustration among the population; hundreds of thousands of newly homeless females sleeping on the streets and in tent settlements, many of them alone; disorganized and inadequate policing; and a nonfunctioning justice system. For women and girls, this is a deadly combination.
The danger is compounded by the fact that thousands of prisoners, including convicted rapists, are now at large after escaping from the National Penitentiary. And the majority of police who were trained in gender-based violence were reportedly killed in the quake.
KOFAVIV members keep watch in the camps for women and girls who are at risk. They listen and, if they hear what sounds to be a beating or a rape, they intervene. They pay special attention to girls who have been orphaned or abandoned since the quake, who may fall prey to rape or, out of desperation, prostitution; KOFAVIV then helps those girls get back to their relatives in the countryside. They take the testimony of rape survivors and try to get them medical assistance. KOFAVIV also conducts ‘know your rights’ trainings in the camps, including information on human rights, children’s rights, how to protect oneself against violence, and psychological care.
Their advocacy has come with a price. A man whom some KOFAVIV members caught in the act of beating a woman pulled a gun on them. And KOFAVIV co-coordinator Marie Eramithe Delva’s daughter very nearly became part of the group’s statistics. At 8:00 on March 2, a man came under the tarp which is home to Delva, co-coordinator Malya Villard Appolon, their 13 combined children and grandchildren, and other family members. The man threw Delva’s 17-year-old daughter Merline on the ground, dragged her outside, and prepared to rape her. Merline beat him off. An hour or so later, the man returned with three other men and a pistol. They beat four of Delva and Appolon’s daughters.
Delva ran to the police station at the edge of the camp, but the police told her that this was [President] Preval’s work and had nothing to do with them. Police told her to watch out for a patrol car with a certain number license plate; if it should pass by, they should flag it down. (It never did.) They also said that if Delva and her family find the perpetrators, they should catch them and bring them to the police station.
The two families quickly packed up their belongings and went out to the sidewalk, where they held an all-night vigil for human rights. They spent the next day looking for another location that could hold their group of twenty but could not, so they returned to their original tent site.
This writer made more than a dozen phone calls to potential sources of alternative lodging, from UNICEF personnel to Haitian women’s groups. In an all-too-familiar story about the dearth of options for at-risk girls and women in Haiti today, her request was turned down by all for almost three weeks. (American relief workers have just offered a locale.) Reasons cited for the rejections ranged from the fact that KOFAVIV allegedly supports former president Aristide, to twenty being an impossible number to find shelter for.
As a result, the women and their families have continued sleeping where their attackers, who know that the women reported them, can easily find them.
A few of the recent cases that have either been reported to this writer, or where she interviewed the survivors herself, include:
- A 24-year-old man raped a 2-year-old girl in a refugee camp in La Pleine during the week of March 8, according to the UNIFEM-led outreach team. Some members of the management committee (camp leaders elected by camp residents) told the parents that, instead of going to police, they should just demand some money from the man.
- In a case that KOFAVIV encountered in a hospital, a one-and-a-half-year-old girl was raped by her mother’s boyfriend on March 22. Her own father died in the earthquake.
- A 2-year-old was gang-raped, her body then tossed away by her assailants, according to a second-hand report. The toddler survived and was later rescued by a woman who now wants to adopt her.
- A 12-year-old girl, whose mother was wounded and whose father died in the earthquake, was raped in a camp in the national stadium. Neighbors caught the man and attacked him with rocks and sticks, killing him.
- An 18-year-old who said she was “a good girl, I never talked to boys” was raped by four men, so violently that she could not walk the next day. She was left with a severe vaginal infection.
In the last two cases, this writer checked with numerous women’s organizations and advocates for options for free medical care and testing. With each clinic or hospital suggested, either a doctor was unavailable or, while the consultation was free, the tests were not. Only after eight days of taking public transportation and sitting for hours in line did the 18-year-old finally receive care. One can only speculate how those without well-connected allies, money for bus fare, or a cell phone, have been able to access post-rape medical attention.
On March 15, more than two months after the quake, UNIFEM and seven other women’s groups began investigating rapes and violence against women in ten camps around Port-au-Prince. To learn of the rapes, all-volunteer outreach teams speak with the camps’ management committees. According to Gina Vrigneau, the chief of one team, should they find rape cases, they are to call UNIFEM or one of the Haitian organizations. That entity will then call the police in the hopes that they will arrest the perpetrator. One of the groups will begin a legal process, though it is unclear how that may proceed given today’s dysfunctional government. The operation will also, goes the plan, obtain free representation for the accused. The team will, furthermore, give the rape survivors a listing of free medical opportunities. According to Vrigneau, the operation will end June 30.
The greatest urgency remains prevention, which in turn requires security and a functioning justice system.For now, women are largely left to fend for themselves and hope for protection and support.
Says KOFAVIV co-coordinator Marie Eramithe Delva, “We did so much to advance women not being victims. We’ve taken a big step backwards, but we will struggle from where we are and move forward.”
This past Monday, police in Jeremie located and arrested the rapist of 4-year-old Timafi. When asked what will happen from here, the child’s grandmother Helia Lajeunesse made a clucking sound in her throat that in Haiti signifies doubt or resignation and said, “We’ll see.”
Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.