— Halya Lagunesse thought she knew despair. Nearly seven years ago, the
soldiers who had killed her husband gang-raped the Haitian woman and
her daughter Joann, who was 17 at the time.
But that pain pales in comparison to the torment of learning last March that her 5-year-old granddaughter had been raped.
The attacker gave the child about
“How did that happen? How did that happen?” Lagunesse, 50, cried, wringing her hands.
“This situation does something to their minds and makes people sick,” she said. “Their hearts are bad.”
Hers is a tragedy of rape compounded: Her granddaughter, now 6, was conceived in the gang rape of her daughter.
Rape wasn’t even considered a serious criminal offense in
The women who pushed for the legislation making it so also built
first shelter for abused women. Next they hoped to make fathers legally
bound to acknowledge their children and pay some support.
Haitian women are the poorest and most
disenfranchised in this poorest of nations in the hemisphere. And yet,
through the work of a spirited coterie of feminist activists, real
strides were being made.
cataclysmic earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, left this capital
in ruins and sent more than a million people into a life in crowded,
squalid camps. It also devastated a strong and surprisingly successful
women’s movement, which, a year later, struggles like the rest of the
nation to recover, even as women are being subjected to horrific sexual
So much has been lost.
endlessly effective, whether in her position at the Women’s Ministry
she helped shape or lobbying for the rape law she helped enact. Killed
in her home under a ton of concrete.
And there were so many more, equally and less
famous, midwives, nuns and professors, peasant leaders and government
officials, all who worked for women. All gone.
“It was a very big loss,” activist
The young men were watching
They went to her tent and seemed to know she would be alone. Her mother had left for the countryside in search of food.
Three of them. They wore masks. They threw her to the dirt floor. They kicked her in the ribs and slapped her face.
“If you tell anyone,” one of her attackers threatened, “we will kill your brother or your sister.”
After the rape, Simone, 23, sought medical
attention. Then an organization that helps rape victims, Kofaviv, took
her under its wing and gave her psychological counseling.
But she still lives in the plastic-tarp tent, and
her attackers lurk, murmuring their threats, watching her. “I feel very
unsafe,” said the young woman, whose bright eyes widen as she tells her
story. “I have nowhere else to go. I am tortured.”
Rape has long been a scourge in
It was used as a form of political repression in 1994 and in 2004,
periods of upheaval when military dictators and their brutish gangs of
enforcers seized power. Men who opposed the regime were abducted and
killed, women raped. An entire generation of Haitians is filled with
children of rape.
The earthquake generated new shockwaves of sexual
violence. Hundreds, maybe thousands — there is no comprehensive count —
have been raped. Some of the assaults are crimes of opportunity, but
increasingly they seem a calculated, predatory form of stalking and
Only a few of an estimated 1,300 tent encampments
that are spread through this shattered capital have nighttime lighting
or significant police presence. Tents do not have doors or locks.
People are jammed together in dehumanizing density without privacy.
Social networks and family unity have been destroyed
by death and flight; children are often alone and unsupervised as their
parents, if they have them, spend days searching for sustenance. The
institutions of law and order, to the extent they ever had influence,
Young women are easy prey for uneducated, unemployed
men who populate the camps, often stoned and with time on their hands.
They see women and girls as fair game. Many women have denounced camp
leaders, always male, for demanding sexual favors in return for tents,
food and building materials.
Activists are now bracing for a jump in teen
pregnancies and HIV and AIDS cases, whether from rape or unprotected
sex, since clinics that dispensed birth control and advice were also
destroyed. The United Nations estimates that
“We started receiving reports of rapes from the very first day after the quake,” said
“Women, I know you lift a lot of buckets of water. It’s not enough. Work your arms!”
top judo masters, is leading a self-defense workshop for women in the
camps. Upper-body strength and self-confidence are the most important
tools she tries to drill into the women.
Several women’s groups are taking action to confront
the violence. International and national organizations have joined
forces to arrange training sessions, psychological counseling and legal
advice. Kofaviv, which lost about 10 percent of its membership as well
as its headquarters to the quake, sends “agents” into the camps to find
women who have been attacked, averaging two cases a day. (And that, all
involved say, is but a tip of the iceberg.)
Women have been given whistles and taught to use them.
Three short toots means, “I am being attacked.”
One long toot: “I have found someone who has been raped and needs immediate help.”
Before 2005, rape was considered an offense against
honor, or “crime of passion,” meaning it was a minor infraction in
which the perpetrator would go free if he agreed to marry his victim.
Then it was elevated into a serious crime with penalties. In addition,
victims were allowed to seek care at any health facility, instead of
the main state hospital, and no longer had to pay for the examination.
Still, victims are stigmatized, abusers rarely caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
a founding member of Kofaviv, recalled how police leered at her
14-year-old daughter when the two went to a police station to report
the girl’s rape. One officer said girls and young women get raped
because they’re “in heat.”
“Some of these men have the same old mentality,” said
a doctor who works with rural women. “The woman for them is an object,
one more piece of property. We’ve tried to change the mentality, but
the effort has been nearly completely lost.”
The voodoo priestesses thumped drums and lighted candles as they chanted the names.
“They were real fighters,” Philistin, the activist, said. “Every woman in
At this memorial ceremony on the first anniversary of the quake, huge photos of
50s when they died, were trained as lawyers but did their work in the
streets and homes and government offices.
Merlet also wrote, collecting stories about Haitian
women and campaigning to have streets named for some of the prominent
ones. Marcelin once packed a courtroom with angry women to pressure for
a guilty verdict against a politically connected man accused of beating
his wife. Both had fought against Jean-Claude Duvalier’s brutal regime,
and each had spent time in exile or in hiding.
“Every day we try to recover and to replace them,” said
chief of staff in the Women’s Ministry, who was overseeing the
memorial. “We can’t. We are still searching. We have to keep fighting.”
(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.
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