Sexual violence against girls in Haiti is widespread and pervasive and, although already at shocking levels, is said to be on the increase. While information on the true levels remains scarce, there is much evidence of sexual violence both in the family and within the wider community, particularly by armed gangs.
Public security and the legacy of sexual violence
Against a backdrop of kidnappings, criminal violence and gang warfare, violence against women and girls in the community has soared. One trend is the prevalence of rapes involving groups of armed men.
For the three years that followed the military coup in 1991 when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted, rape was used as a political weapon to instil fear and punish those who were believed to have supported the democratic government. During this time, there were widespread reports of armed men raping women.
Since the fall of the military regime, this has become a common practice among criminal gangs. In run up to Haiti’s annual carnival in February last year, 50 cases of rape were reported in just three days in the capital against women and girls in the capital Port-au-Prince.
Violence in the family is also prevalent and often hidden. Children often lack the resources and support they need to report violence in which family members participate or collude. The result of the failure to acknowledge and address this problem is a social climate in which violence in the family is seen as normal and inevitable.
Poverty in Haiti is extreme and plays a major role in putting girls at greater risk of sexual violence. Girls are bribed to remain silent by perpetrators, who are able to give them money to pay their schools or accommodation fees. Others who go in search of a public place with lighting by which to do their homework because their home has no electricity are attacked by groups of men.
Girls who become pregnant as a result of sexual violence find themselves at risk due to the lack of adequate healthcare. Only one in every four births in Haiti is assisted by qualified health personnel and large numbers of women and girls are dying as a result of pregnancy related complications.
The consequences of sexual violence on girls are profound and lasting. In addition to immediate physical injuries, survivors may have to face unwanted pregnancy; sexually transmitted diseases; and mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
These consequences can have particularly series long term effects on girls, who are at higher risk of dying during childbirth or pregnancy and may also find their education disrupted, or find themselves excluded from school due to pregnancy.
One girl who raped when she was eight years old said: “I was going to school, but I left after I came here [to a shelter] because my father raped me. I was in the first year. I loved copying the lessons, writing. When I grow up I would like to be a doctor.”
Barriers to justice
Girls are often unwilling to report cases of rape, largely due to shame, fear, and social attitudes that tolerate male violence. Another major disincentive to reporting is the lack of confidence that girls will experience a positive and supportive response from law enforcement officials.
In some rural areas, the sole representative of the justice system is the justice of the peace. It is not uncommon for the justice of the peace to encourage girls who have faced violence accept an “amicable settlement” with the family of the perpetrator.
The justice system in Haiti is weak and ineffectual. The Police unit in charge of protecting minors is woefully under-staffed. In March 2008, the unit had 12 officers to cover the entire country and not a single vehicle. It is not surprising that so many of those who attack girls are never brought to justice, and so many girls feel there is no purpose in reporting crimes of sexual violence.
The authorities in Haiti have taken steps in recent years to address the problem of violence against women and girls. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established in 1994 and has been involved in important initiatives to address the problem.
In 1995, a National Plan of Action to Combat Violence Against Women was adopted. If implemented, this could bring about significant improvements in prevention and punishment.
The Haitian authorities face major challenges posed by the ongoing public security crisis, a succession of humanitarian disasters, and high levels of poverty and marginalization. These important concerns cannot be allowed to drown out the needs of Haitian girls.
Amnesty International is calling on the Haitian authorities to take immediate action to safeguard the rights of girls:
- Collect comprehensive data on the nature and extent of violence against women and girls. The lack of data currently stands in the way of devising effective solutions;
- Investigate and prosecute all complaints of sexual violence;
- Ensure that police provide a safe environment for girls to report sexual violence, and ensure that all complaints are promptly and effectively investigated.