by Judith Mirkinson
“They came into our house, attacked my husband, and told us they would kill him as they raped me in front of him and my children. Then they set fire to the house and we were just able to get out with nothing.”
This quote, all too common these days, could have come from any number of places: Syria? Congo? Iraq? Myanmar? But it happened in the city of Lasalin, Haiti, just a few months ago.
On November 13, 2018, a truck carrying armed police entered a neighborhood in Lasalin and began indiscriminately firing on residents. They were joined by members of criminal gangs. Together, they went house to house, dragging people out, shooting them and/or hacking them to death with machetes. Some were left to be eaten by pigs. Young leaders in the continuing struggle against PetroCaribe were murdered. So were elderly women and men. Women were raped in front of their families and then burned out of their houses. According to a human rights report, at least 77 people were killed and at least seven women and girls were raped. After speaking with activists and residents, it is clear that these numbers are just the bare minimum as a real data collection, taking into account all those who are missing and/or who have left the area completely has yet to be done.
This use of sexual violence in Lasalin is just the latest example of the long history of rape and brutalization being used specifically against women to control and contain the population of Haiti. What is clear is that these attacks are not random. The media and government claim they’re the product of warring gangs of young men. There are criminal elements in neighborhoods in Haiti (as there are here in the US and in many countries). But these attacks are part of a larger strategy and are orchestrated by elements of the police and government.
As in most countries sexual violence is endemic. Poverty and insecurity add to normalized gender inequality. The imposition of a US-led government, which only wants further globalization, fuels everything.
But Haitian grassroots women organizers told us that that they haven’t seen this level of brutality towards women since the 1991 coup which overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They say that more and more young women are joining the struggle, so this makes them vulnerable, and that the supposed mechanisms in place for prosecuting the perpetrators of violence are, in reality, inaccessible for poor women.
“We are seeing ourselves being dragged back into a time when women were dehumanized,” said one of the women, Roseline J. Pieret. She continued:
“Although you may have seen more men in the streets, women are in the forefront of all the organizing – therefore, if women are terrorized and traumatized, it hurts the whole movement. It is a combination of factors: weaponized gangs, extrajudicial paramilitaries, and elements of the police itself. Sometimes after a woman is brutalized, the families know they are on notice, so more and more families have to leave their area—their community of support. It is part of a plan for destabilization. Those in authority know it’s going on but no one is speaking out against it. We are poor women so nobody cares.”
From the time of colonization to the present, rape and violence against women have played a particular role in Haiti’s history. Sexual violence is a way of terrorizing the entire population by showing that no one has any power or control. It tells men that not only are they colonized but they cannot “protect” the women and children. And because rape is more often than not considered the women’s “shame,” it can isolate women and have consequences for generations to come. Rape is a form of dehumanization. It takes away one’s control over one’s body. The message is: “You are nothing – you belong to us.” Rape by the French slave owners and colonizers also created a society in which those with more “white” blood were privileged over others. Thus, class and race became integral to Haitian society and the Haitian state.
From the very beginning European patriarchal practices impacted the gendered relations of Haitian society. In 1794, during the revolutionary period, there was a system of semi-feudal relations already developing in the south of Haiti. Women as well as men worked as sharecroppers. When the women organized, demanding equal pay for equal work (this demand is not only a current one), the French colonialists appealed to the men on the basis of their gender. Trying to use male solidarity, the French stated that the women were getting “above themselves.”
The 1915-1934 US military occupation brought further paternalism. US Marines treated Haitian women as commodities to be bought and sold. Haiti was “theirs for the taking.”
The imposition of the Duvalier regime in 1957 ushered in a level of violence and repression not seen for many decades. Opposition was crushed at every opportunity. The paramilitary Tontons Macoutes operated with full impunity under the direction of the national authority. A state of terror was imposed on the entire population.
Ironically, under Duvalier, there was equal treatment of women and men – in terms of repression and terror. In 1958, Yvonne Hakim-Rimpel, a feminist and an anti-Duvalierist journalist, was kidnapped, beaten, and raped. The next morning, she was found in the street naked and unconscious: Those who would speak out were put on notice! Women were targeted for both their opposition to the government and for their relationships with their husbands, brothers, and other family members. In other words, any organizing by women was to be crushed.
This was a time when Haiti was viewed by much of the outside world as a sexual playground where white men (and women) could have exotic sex with no consequence to them. Entire books have been written about the gender component of the Duvalier period but, suffice it to say, this view of Haitian society and Haiti by Americans continues to this day.
Despite the level of violence, repression, and state-enforced subjugation – until 1979, for example, married women were legally considered minors, subject to their husbands – women began to organize and were an indispensable element in finally overthrowing the Duvalier regime in February 1986. In April of that year, more than 30,000 women marched to demand jobs, full political rights, and an end to prostitution and all gender discrimination.
Election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the First Coup
Women from all classes continued to organize and played a pivotal role in the first democratic election in Haiti, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Lavalas party came into power. President Aristide valued the contributions of women. In many of his writings he makes a special point of singling them out and talking about the necessity of including women. It was a fundamental part of his program and analysis. But only seven months into his term, President Aristide was overthrown by a military coup: a reign of terror returned. Under the US-supported regime of General Raoul Cédras and his paramilitary force, FRAPH (ironically, standing for the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti), the rule of constitutional law was virtually suspended. Entire neighborhoods were targeted as Aristide strongholds. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 7,000 people were killed. There were numerous political assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the torture of prisoners. There was also a clear gender component as women were beaten, mutilated (fingers and arms cut off), and raped. Peasant and working class women were attacked not only for their own activism or perceived loyalty to Aristide, but also due to the activities of their husbands and family members.
This was all happening at the same time as news of rape camps was emerging from Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. The world was also becoming aware of the vast system of sexual slavery that was instituted by the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII, involving hundreds of thousands of women euphemistically referred to as “comfort women” in Asia.
In 1993, the United Nations enshrined the Vienna Declaration of Human Rights. Article 38 states:
The World Conference on Human Rights calls upon the General Assembly to adopt the draft declaration on violence against women and urges states to combat violence against women in accordance with its provisions. Violations of the human rights of women in situations of armed conflict are violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. All violations of this kind, including in particular murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy, require a particularly effective response.
Haitian activists in exile issued press releases detailing the rapes that were taking place and drawing parallels to what was happening elsewhere, but there was little response from the international community. Haitian women were either ignored or worse their reports were dismissed as fabrications.
In fact, the US State Department issued its own denial in an April 12, 1994 cablegram, later leaked to the US press, from the US Embassy in Haiti to Secretary of State Warren Christopher:
“The Haitian left manipulates and fabricates human rights abuses as a propaganda tool, wittingly or unwittingly assisted in this effort by human rights NGOs and by the ICM [UN/OAS Civilian Mission]. Migration is primarily caused by economic conditions, but is aggravated by violence….We are, frankly, suspicious of the sudden, high number of reported rapes, particularly in this culture, occurring at the same time that Aristide activists seek to draw a comparison between Haiti and Bosnia.”
Because the violence was often done by state agents – police, military, paramilitary, and weaponized criminal gangs known as zenglendos – women were reluctant to report this abuse. If women did report, they and their families would be further targeted and repressed. There was total impunity: this was a government strategy of gender-based violence.
The FRAPH was led by Emmanuel Constant who at the time was on the CIA payroll. After Aristide was restored to power in 1994, Constant escaped to the US, which made him subject to US law. In 2004 he was sued by the Center for Justice and Accountability and the Center for Constitutional Rights for torture and rape, particularly of three women who testified against him. He was later convicted in US courts on a minor charge of fraud with a 15-year sentence but ordered to pay $19 million to the women.
CJA described one of the women in court documents:
Jane Doe I is a citizen of Haiti and current US resident. In 1992, Jane Doe I’s husband was abducted and killed by members of the Haitian Armed Forces. After her husband’s disappearance, members of the Haitian Armed Forces also arrested Jane Doe I and held her for a week until they released her into the streets in the middle of the night stripped of all her clothing. Once she finally made it home, Jane Doe I became outspoken about the disappearance of her husband. On two separate occasions masked members of FRAPH raped Jane Doe I in her home. Her children were present during the attacks. During the second attack Jane Doe I was stabbed in the neck and left for dead. She was impregnated by her attackers and bore a child.
Countless other women have come forward to describe their ordeals. Their testimonies are chilling. One woman said:
“When I started to get involved in politics, my mother told me that I shouldn’t, that I would get killed. So I said, ‘Mother, it’s a matter of will. It’s what I want to do. You have to live and die for what you believe in.’ I used to work in Cite Soleil in the poor sector. I taught people to read and write. I was mandated to work in the electoral campaign for President Aristide and my husband was also involved and they came looking to kill him. They came to arrest me on April 27, 1992. They came into my house….my mother was sleeping and they beat my mother. They took me, handcuffed and kicked me and pushed me to the ground. They hit me on the back with their rifle butts. There were six of them and they took me in the jeep and took turns hitting and kicking me. I told them I was three months pregnant, and while they had me on the ground and kicking me I had a miscarriage. They burnt cigarettes on my arms so I would answer their questions. I didn’t say anything and blacked out. I was bleeding and they put me in a cell.”
Trying to deal with the trauma and consequences of what happened after the coup, a group of women founded FAVILEK (Women Victims Get Up, Stand Up) in 1993. They wanted to use their experiences to help others heal and survive. They developed theater pieces and toured the country helping others to speak out and gain solidarity with each other. Other grassroots women’s organizations also sprang up, urging the government to establish ministries for women and to put women in the forefront of their programs.
When he returned to power, Aristide was only allowed to serve out his original term and thus had only 18 months left in office. During that period his government initiated an independent National Commission for Truth and Justice. Its report, called “Si m pa rele” (“If I don’t cry out”), is almost twelve hundred pages and details many acts of violence, naming their victims and perpetrators. It also includes nine recommendations concerning rape and sexual violence including reclassifying rape in the legal code and compensation for all substantiated rape victims.
Aristide received the report as he was leaving office and gave it over to his successor, René Préval. Yet nothing was done with it. As Bryant Freeman wrote in an introduction to the report: “…the Préval administration eventually released only 75 copies, and with the fourth Annex Report containing the names of the supposed perpetrators….The Commission Report calls for actions within 30 days, yet more than two years later, no action whatever appears to have been taken and it appears none ever will. The detailed events described in the Report’s most moving sections…can only give a small indication of the terror which resulted in the death of at least 3,000 human beings, not to mention those tortured and scarred for life.
The restoration of civil society in 1994 brought relief. The army, so despised and so intertwined with dictatorships and repression, was disbanded. A cabinet post expressly for women’s affairs was founded and programs were initiated dealing with the trauma resulting from the reign of terror. In 1995 President and Mrs. Aristide founded the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a legal office in Haiti working with both Haitian and US lawyers. Its job was to prosecute those who committed human rights abuses including those of violence against women. The Haitian judiciary is independent of the presidency and many of the judges were leftovers from Duvalier times. BAI was one way of both applying outside pressure and holding them accountable.
A legacy of colonialism, patriarchy, occupation, and dictatorship takes generations to change. The physical damage caused by such torture is matched by deep psychological scars. These levels of trauma and PTSD can last a lifetime. Imagine what this means to a country when so many people have suffered abuse, when so many women have been raped and molested.
It is universally acknowledged that societies in turmoil and subject to instability encourage violence. The rule of law is either suspended or intermittently enforced, and an atmosphere of fear and distress ensue. Haiti is no exception. In the period just before the coup and in the months following, rape and domestic violence went up, often at the hands of weaponized gangs or by anti-Aristide forces.
Although lionized as wives, homemakers, and mothers, Haitian women’s reality is more complex. As in all societies, women form the backbone of both the economic and cultural life of the country. Also, as in many societies, women are often the sole support of families as men go elsewhere looking for work. In Haiti this means that at least 40 percent of families are led by women. Women are still subject to economic, legal, and sexual abuse. Sons are prioritized over daughters when it comes to education, and since education is not free in Haiti this means that often girls are pulled out of school early or don’t get to go to school at all.
Aristide was elected to a new presidential term in 2000. Between 2000 and 2004, before the US-orchestrated coup, his government began to address some of these issues. Grassroots women continued to organize. The government helped women’s groups such as FAVILEK and COFEVIH (Coordination des Femmes Victimes d’Haiti) which gave women rape victims material support and allowed them to speak out – sometimes for the first time. In 2001, the Haitian government opened 20,000 adult literacy centers in a national campaign which resulted in 100,000 people being taught to read. The majority of these were women. New community stores and restaurants were opened which again greatly benefited women. Health care programs were launched, giving women maternal and prenatal care. A record number of women were elected, and women for the first time held major posts in the government (among them, Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Finance). Most of these achievements were wiped out by the second coup against President Aristide.
With the space afforded by the Aristide administration, more middle class (mainstream feminist) organizations also grew. Although these organizations pushed for women’s rights, they did so within a narrow framework, not linking the struggle for women’s equality and empowerment with that of structural inequality and entrenched racism in the entire country. They also systematically organized against the Aristide and Lavalas administration. And for the most part they were the ones with the contacts to funding agencies and NGOs in the US and Europe which in turn led these organizations to support the coup. Grassroots women from poor communities even reported that mainstream women’s organizations told them they should join protests against Aristide as part of their membership.
The Blue Hats
In 2004, the US, backed by Canada, France, and the international community, overthrew the democratically-elected President again. US marines invaded the country and a UN “peacekeeping army” called MINUSTAH (the French translation of United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) occupied the country. Many people romanticize UN forces or think that they symbolize peace and honor. However, they are simply army personnel from other countries: far from home with their own ideologies of class, race, and gender – united under a blue helmet. An army is still an army, and all military forces bring violence and violence against women, along with prostitution and sex trafficking. UN peacekeepers have been accused of all these things in their missions in Kosovo, Congo, and Rwanda. Haiti was to be no exception.
Participating in MINUSTAH was one way that governments could show their loyalty to the US. Thus, militaries from all over South America, the Middle East, and even the Philippines patrolled Haiti. Brazilian forces were in charge of the south and Chileans in the north. Along with everything else, they were contemptuous and racist toward the very people they were supposed to be aiding.
It is well documented that MINUSTAH forces from Nepal brought cholera to Haiti resulting in at least 10,000 deaths. There have been reports about gender-based violence, but the reality has been much larger than even the headline news articles.
The UN’s own report “UN SEA: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse at the Hands of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti” begins:
A preliminary independent investigation conducted in areas close to existing or abandoned bases for MINUSTAH brings to light the alarming magnitude of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) at the hands of United Nations personnel in Haiti….
The results of our investigation strongly suggest that the issue of SEA by UN personnel in Haiti is substantial and has been grossly underreported. A thorough and in-depth investigation would be expected to identify 600 victims who would agree to in-person interviews. These preliminary findings are based on one investigator during 27 days of investigation. With a professional team, comprised of individuals with specialized expertise and the resources to cover the entire country, the likely number…would be much higher.
In 2005, the UN commissioned the Zeid Report which both documented sexual abuse by UN personnel around the world and laid out new protocols to prevent it. Yet two years later, investigations in Haiti resulted in 114 soldiers from Sri Lanka being sent home for committing sexual exploitation, including rape and transactional sex, often for food. None of the soldiers were prosecuted or held accountable either by the UN or by the Sri Lankan military or government. Further MINUSTAH abuses occurred on a regular basis, including rape, sex for food, kidnapping, and abuse. These abuses were not limited to women and girls but involved men and boys as well. Although the UN expressed outrage, no one has been prosecuted, either by them or by the Haitian government.
Mark Snyder, the author of the report, goes on to say:
…the true levels of UN SEA and the number of victims remain largely hidden from view. Perpetrators are often militarily armed…in significant positions of power….They are from outside of the victims’ known community and are untouchable by the Haitian system of justice or other traditional systems or possible support. Fear of reprisal is an understandable concern….Coupled with these barriers and the belief that reporting a case will bring social stigmatization more than real solutions, it is highly unlikely that victims will bring cases forward. SEA victims remain largely in the shadows.
The 2004 overthrow of Aristide again brought a reign of terror to Haiti. It’s estimated that 8,000 people were killed and tens of thousands of women were raped in the period following the coup.
In 2005, in a bit of bitter irony, as thousands were being brutalized, Haiti finally passed a law against rape, making it a felony with a ten-year sentence. Before then, it was legally codified as a “crime against morals,” meaning the impact on a woman’s standing in society and the impact of the rape on her family and husband. This wording also ensured that a woman could not be raped by her husband.
Why did this happen just at this point? Could this be just another example that the US, while sanctioning murder and occupation, was rewarding those elements in the women’s movement and NGOs both in Haiti and the US who supported the coup? The US often uses the issues of women’s rights to justify their actions of occupation and invasion. A prime example of this is the invasion of Afghanistan.
The Earthquake: NGOs Descend and Women Organize and Resist
On January 12, 2010 a massive earthquake hit Haiti. Three hundred thousand people were killed. Medical facilities or clinics were almost all destroyed. Two million people lost their homes. Jobs disappeared. Food became scarce and government food aid only lasted until April. Water and sanitation were almost nonexistent. People lost family members and friends. Their homes and belongings were gone. Trauma was extreme.
Whatever security existed before vanished overnight. Women living in the camps were subject to abuse. All this is and was a prescription for sexual violence.
What happened is not unique to Haiti. In 2004, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, hundreds of Sri Lankan women and girls were raped by their so-called rescuers and men in relief camps. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, women reported being attacked in shelters and public places. Disasters mirror conflict zones, especially when you add in foreign soldiers and military occupation.
Much has been written about the issue of gender-based violence after the earthquake. There was a flurry of articles blaming Haitians themselves, painting Haitian men as monsters and predators and Haitian women only as victims, incapable of taking care of themselves. Sensationalist articles decried the “rape culture” that was Haiti, like this one in CBS news: “Rape Rampant in Haiti’s Earthquake Camps,” or this article in Mother Jones: “Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell. Dispatches from the tent cities, where rape gangs and disaster profiteers roam.”
Once the earthquake happened countless NGOs flooded the country, already inundated with aid organizations. These included women’s NGOs armed with their own ideas and methods. Often these agendas don’t fit those of grassroots women, and they operate through systems not accessible to those women such as international contacts, conferences, and even the language used in the international human rights community for funding. Many people in Haiti are not on social media and even if they are, they do not have unfettered access to the internet.
Haitian women did need help. Many of their leaders and members had been killed in the quake. They needed support for their ideas and work, including food, water, and housing security. Yet for the most part, foreign NGOs called for more security and more police, despite the fact that some of these groups were also committing sexual abuse including trading food for sex. NGOs regularly put food and water distribution in the hands of men, furthering inequality and often leading to sexual misconduct. Rural women were also in desperate need, yet few NGOs dealt with life outside of the urban areas.
KOFAVIV and FAVILEK along with others from the grassroots stepped in. Members of both organizations lived in the camps and both had members who themselves were victims of violence. KOFAVIV was started in March 2004, right after the second coup, to help combat violence against women and to provide a place for women to come together. After the earthquake the organization had agents in every camp, working to gather resources for women and children. They distributed whistles so that when there was a threat, women could whistle and others could be alerted and come together. Before the earthquake they ran a school and a clinic. Although the earthquake wiped many of their physical buildings out, they started gathering children in makeshift schools and maintained a sense of organization. They encouraged women to speak out about their experiences; to build solidarity among themselves. They said: “We are victims because we haven’t gotten justice, but we are survivors who will build and demand justice until we get it.”
Women continued to organize. On March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day, over 1,000 women from all over the country gathered at the Aristide Foundation. They asserted their continuing commitment to the Aristide vision and program and strategized on what to do given the devastation of the earthquake. In the months following the earthquake, women participated in trauma reduction, setting up mobile mental health clinics and offering therapy, both individually and through group discussion and theater.
International solidarity with the women did and continues to have a positive impact. Women lawyers working with the BAI/IJDH (Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti) and US-based groups like MADRE wrote reports and began to file cases on sexual violence using both Haitian and international law. (It should be noted that Haiti is a signer to most of the international conventions concerning human rights including the CEDAW, Rights of the Child, etc.) This work has continued to the present day; current cases are being filed and people are being brought to court.
Grassroots women have worked with more mainstream organizations to demand new laws and more access for rape victims. The issue of sexual violence and abuse is also being examined in regards to the LGBT community, although homophobia continues to be a fact of life. The added organizing combined with international pressure has forced the government to enact some reforms for women. For the most part, however, these are not accessible to the majority of the poor and grassroots women.
The new law against rape requires a reporting window of 72 hours and, although it is not required legally, judges regularly also require a medical certificate. The result? Even if women wanted to report the crimes, these conditions made doing so extremely difficult. Then, too, the courts are much more likely not to listen to women from poor communities.
There are also other well‐known hurdles to accessing timely medical care. “You’ll still find a lot of women who, for different reasons, aren’t able to report the rape and get the medical certificate,” stated Jocie Philistin, Director of Advocacy at KOFAVIV. “There are a lot of obstacles, including the distance of camps from hospitals and the lack of money for transport.” And, she adds, “There are a lot of women who never report it at all. There’s still so much stigma, and they’re afraid. Why? Because after they come here they still have to go back to the same situation.”
The US Selects a Misogynist For President [in Haiti]
In 2011 there was another election which Lavalas was again barred from entering. The results of the fraudulent election showed Michel Martelly in third place. Martelly, a rock star, was known for his crude, sexist and homophobic lyrics and performances. However, he supported the Clintons’ business plans for Haiti and, lo and behold, after then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her team flew to Haiti, he became the number two candidate and eventually “won” the election. In July 2015, he was at a rally when a woman complained about the lack of electricity. He responded with typical sexist language: “Go get a man and go into the bushes [to have sex].” Women protested in Port Au Prince and several members of his cabinet resigned.
Both the Clintons and Obama lauded him and his presidency. Haitians were outraged that such a man could represent their country. Clearly, to the US, defending women is not as important as defending business interests in Haiti.
Big Surprise: NGOs Found to Commit Sexual Abuse!
It’s been well documented that the NGOs did more for themselves than for the people of Haiti. While hundreds of thousands lived in tent cities, NGO aid workers lived in hotels and had new ones built for them. Corruption was rampant. So was sexual abuse.
In February 2018, it was revealed that Oxfam, the British international aid agency, had covered up a report from 2011 detailing the use of prostitutes by its staff in Haiti, including their head of section. The report detailed “an atmosphere of impunity,” as those accused were just allowed to quietly resign with no other action taken. In many instances the transfers took place without any record of past misconduct.
It later came out that Oxfam had interviewed over 40 witnesses, among them women aid workers, who detailed their experiences of working in an atmosphere of male intimidation and harassment. They also said that whistleblowers were intimidated, bullied, and threatened with being fired and sent home. Women reported that they were afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal. Women of color were even more afraid, as their numbers are small and they are more vulnerable to losing their jobs.
None of this is very surprising, and there are reports that other aid workers have also engaged in transactional sex—trading favors such as food and goods for sex. Following the exposure of Oxfam in Haiti, reports on sexual abuse by their workers in Chad and other areas of Africa and the Philippines emerged. Women from Save the Children, the Red Cross, and CAFOD (the largest Catholic charity in Britain) also began to speak out.
Aid workers have power and money. They come to Haiti drenched in paternalism, white supremacy, and “do-goodism” for “the poor Haitians.” Once there they encounter young women and girls who are extremely vulnerable. It’s a prescription for abuse.
Exposure is one thing but it’s not enough. The reality of so few consequences means very little has changed. Agencies have long lists of rules and “codes of conduct.” They write endless reports but in essence nothing is done.
In June 2018, Haiti banned Oxfam UK on the grounds that they had violated Haitian law.  Oxfam US, however, continues to function in the country.
Economic and political insecurity, stigma and entrenched practices of gender inequality remain. Yet the impact of women speaking out is being felt, and laws and attitudes are slowly changing in many parts of the world. Haiti is no different.
Throughout history rape has always been considered a crime. There are strictures against it in documents from Roman law to English jurisprudence to the Catholic Church. It has been outlawed in the rules of engagement in warfare from the Middle Ages to the present day. But these laws on paper are rarely if ever observed. However, over the past several decades, there has been added scrutiny and a steady increase in international laws against sexual violence.
Starting in 1932 and throughout WWII, the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces created the largest system of institutionalized sexual slavery in the twentieth century. Led and administered by the army under the command of the Imperial Government, Japan coerced and/or kidnapped more than 400,000 women and girls from all the countries it occupied. with the majority coming from Korea and China. In so-called “comfort stations,” the women and girls were raped, sometimes by up to 30 or 40 times a day, by Japanese military personnel.
Most of these women died. What happened was a well-kept secret, fueled by the stigma of rape, that punished the women rather than the men. But in 1991, Hak Soon Kim, a former comfort woman from Korea, broke the 50-year silence and described her ordeal. Hundreds followed from Korea, the Philippines, and other countries. Their testimony – coming at the same time as ethnic cleansing and mass rape in Yugoslavia and followed by the genocides and femicides in Rwanda – helped lead the UN to a series of resolutions and conventions concerning women.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in force since July 2002, includes rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or “any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” as a crime against humanity, when it is committed in a widespread or systematic way. Arrest warrants issued by the ICC include several counts of rape as both a war crime and a crime against humanity. In 2016 the UN declared rape as a form of torture.
These changes in the laws and the recognition of rape as a crime against humanity came about because women organized and women spoke out. Women demanded accountability and an end to impunity.
There are many causes of sexual violence, many reasons that men commit sexual harassment and rape and abuse. This is a subject for another paper. One thing is clear however, men, militaries, and governments must be accountable. The almost universal impunity for these crimes must end. This is essential if we are to challenge the age-old practices and inequalities so entrenched in our societies.
The stigma attached to sexual violence which blames the woman must also be eliminated if women are to be allowed to voice their reality and heal from their experiences.
As Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere, director of Panzi hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, put it: “Beyond laws, we have to get social sanction on the side of the woman. We need to get to a point where the victim receives the support of the community, and the man who rapes is the one who is stigmatized and excluded and penalized by the whole community.”
Hak Soon Kim broke her silence because she knew she had support of a women’s movement in Korea and throughout Asia. Women in Rwanda, the Congo, Syria, and Myanmar are speaking out as well. The #MeToo movement is a continuation of this discussion and in this time of instant communication has moved the conversation forward.
In 2018, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dr. Mukengere for his work in the Congo and to Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who was sexually enslaved by ISIS. She escaped and, despite the threat of stigma, spoke out immediately. This too is a symbol of change. Haitian women are part of this international movement as well.
But international solidarity for Haiti has been lacking. On the one hand, NGOs and mainstream women’s organizations have a narrow view of feminism and tend to dismiss the larger grassroots movement in Haiti. This in turn leads them to ignore the work of grassroots women and Lavalas. On the other hand, many Lavalas solidarity activists don’t talk about gender-based violence at all, or, if they do, it is only in the context of broader repression. In researching for this paper, I looked in many books that discussed the coups of 1991 and 1994. Many of them did not even list women in the index!
Having laws on the books is one thing. But, as we can see by the actual increase in the strategic use of sexual violence around the world, this is just one tiny step. The use of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual violence must be part of our analyses when we discuss changing the world.
Not having a gender analysis as part of an overall assessment means that activists will miss one of the essential strategies being deployed to destabilize and demobilize the grassroots movement. It also undermines the work of women who are so critical to the struggle for democracy.
Haitian women have always fought for justice. Part and parcel of this is the fight to end this use of sexual violence. As Eramithe Delva of KOFAVIV stated: “Before we started, victims wouldn’t speak out. But if all victims do nothing, women will continue to be victims in this country. We’re starting a revolution. We’re saying things must change. Women must have justice and this violence must stop.”
2. Charles, Carrolle. “Gender and politics in contemporary Haiti: The Duvalierist State, Transnationalism, and the Emergence of a New Feminism (1980-1990).” Feminist Studies, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 135-164.
3. The 2005 movie Heading South talks about three women in the late seventies going to Haiti to “romp” with teenage Haitian boys. Ironically there is no equivalent movie about the more prevalent practice of men going to Haiti for sex tourism—that is just taken as normal.
4. Renda, Mary A. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism 1915-1940. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 2001.
5. Charles, Carrolle. Ibid.
7. For a full transcript see https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Events/OHCHR20/VDPA_booklet_English.pdf
9. Testimony from Haiti: Women Speak. Barstow, Anne L., ed., War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution and Other Crimes Against Women. The Pilgrim Press, 2000. Cleveland, Ohio. p. 155.
10. Bell, Beverly. Walking on Fire. Cornell University Press, 2001. Ithaca. p. 34.
11. Freeman, Bryant. “Si m pa Rele: 29 Septembre 1991 – 14 Octobre 1994.” http://ufdcweb1.uflib.ufl.edu/uf00085926/00001/
12. Quigley, Fran. How Human Rights Can Build Haiti. Vanderbuilt University Press, 2014. Nashville. P. 68.
13. d’Adesky, Anne-Christine with Poto Fanm+Fi, Beyond Shock: Charting the Landscape of Sexual Violence in Post-Quake Haiti: Progress, Challenges and Emerging Trends, 2010-2012. Oakland, CA.
14. Flynn, Laura; Labossiere, Pierre; Roth, Robert. “We Will Not Forget.” 2005: https://65c874.p3cdn1.secureserver.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/WeWillNotForget.pdf
15. Schuller, Mark. “Pa Manyen Fanm Nan Konsa: Intersectionality, Structural Violence, and Vulnerability Before and After Haiti’s Earthquake.” Feminist Studies. 2015, 41, 1. Gender Watch, p. 195.
16. Snyder, Mark. “UN SEA: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse at the Hands of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.” March 22, 2017. http://cepr.net/images/documents/UNSEA_11JAN17_FINAL.pdf
18. Nolan, Clancy. “Haiti Violated.” World Policy Journal. Vol 29. No 1 (Spring 2011) p. 97
20. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/11/haiti-rape-earthquake-mac-mcclelland/. This article was so controversial that it led to wide condemnation.
21. The issue of homophobia and organizing in the queer community is a subject for a whole other paper. There are lesbian and gay and transgender organizations in Haiti such as Femmes en Action Contre la Stigmatisation (FACSDIS), SEROvie and KOURAJ.
22. Beyond Shock. Ibid. p. 63.
23. For a timeline of Oxfam abuse see Gayle, Damien. The Guardian. June 15, 2018.
25. See “Background Information on Sexual Violence Used as a Tool of War.” http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/about/bgsexualviolence.shtml