Haiti’s women face echoes of a violent past

By — February 28, 2012

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, stories of the disaster dominated international news media. Journalists rushed to report on the wreckage. Photographers scrambled for shots of the rubble. Aid agencies struggled to overcome obstacles to sending humanitarian aid.

As an international women’s human rights organization that works in partnership with local women, we at MADRE immediately reached out to our grassroots partners. Since the 1990s, we’d worked with women leaders there to provide medical care, counseling, and legal support to women targeted with rape because of their advocacy during the pro-democracy movement. So when the earthquake struck, we were able to mobilize quickly to make sure women and their families had the basics for survival—food, water purification tablets, and plastic sheeting for shelter.

Soon the women began to tell us that they were witnessing a rise in sexualized violence. Overcrowded, unlit, and unpatrolled displacement camps—combined with the disintegration of community networks that had protected women and girls—contributed to this escalation.

But there was already a disaster in progress before the earthquake hit.

Women have been hit with increased sexualized violence in Haiti’s overcrowded, unlit, and unpatrolled displacement camps, like this one. (Lee Cohen)

Years of political upheaval plagued Haiti in the early 1990s and 2000s. In 1991, its first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown by a military coup that ruled brutally for three years. The second ouster of Aristide in 2004 by a U.S.-backed coup similarly plunged Haiti into political crisis.

Political turmoil led to violent conflict, and civilians, especially women, suffered mass human rights abuses during those years. Gangs and other armed actors associated with leaders of the coup and their backers raped women as a way to silence their political activism and undermine their capacity to resist and organize. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of women were raped during the 1991-1994 military dictatorship.

This is not new or unique to Haiti. Women worldwide, as pillars of their families and communities, are particularly targeted in times of conflict. Time and time again, we have witnessed a rise in violence against women and girls during conflict. And this violence doesn’t go away—it continues in Guatemala long after a 36-year civil war was declared over, it continues in Iraq as U.S. troops withdraw, and it continues in Haiti. 

For years, MADRE has worked with grassroots women in Haiti to combat sexualized violence. In the mid-1990s, we helped bring the issue of politically motivated rape in Haiti to the attention of U.S. policymakers. We continue working to combat violence with the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), a Haitian grassroots organization founded in 2004 by a group of women raped during the coup years. (To learn more about MADRE’s work with KOFAVIV, click here.)

The conditions created by the earthquake have undoubtedly aggravated the crisis. But even three years prior to the earthquake, the United Nations reported that 50 percent of young women in the violent shantytowns of Haiti had been raped or sexually assaulted. In 2009, more than 200 rape cases were reported in 10 months.

As we’ve seen elsewhere, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, years of conflict have normalized violence against women. Sexualized violence is not widely condemned by those with the power to halt it. Only this year did the United Nations Security Council issue a resolution condemning sexualized violence in conflict and post-conflict settings. What’s more, rapists are rarely brought to trial. Of the hundreds of reports of sexualized violence since the earthquake, we know of only 60 trials currently in the works. Women are often scared to report the rapes and the justice system rarely functions for those who do; offenders walk free too often.

When violence against women is used as a tool of repression during years of armed conflict or political upheaval, it too easily becomes the “new normal.” We must understand this if we are to respond effectively to the post-conflict crises that women face.

In Haiti, we are working with our partners at KOFAVIV to fight the normalization of rape—by demanding lighting and security in displacement camps, by holding workshops for men and women alike that teach respect for the rights of women and girls, and by calling for justice at the local and international levels. Until we revamp the broken judicial system in Haiti, women will continue to be raped with impunity. That’s why we’re also working with grassroots groups training Haitian judges on issues of gender-based violence and drafting legislation to combat sexualized violence.

Entrenched violence is hard to overturn. But together, change is possible. With women’s groups on the ground in Haiti and MADRE pushing back against a system that is failing women, we believe we can eventually change the conception of sexualized violence from the “new normal” to something abject, rare, and absolutely unacceptable.

Yifat Susskind is the executive director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization. She works with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women's health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice, and peace building.