Photo: members of women’s self-help group KOFAVIV – © H. Hook/HSG
Search for Sanctuary from Sexual Violence. Original article here.
Angela Robson, guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 November 2011 01.00 GMT
It is early morning in downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, and Helia Lajeunesse is tiptoeing her way around pools of rain. Dressed in a dark-blue T-shirt and frayed black trousers, she walks with her head bowed, only raising her eyes when she nears a blossom-clad building at the end of the street.
Waiting patiently for her are three teenage girls. One carries a sleeping baby. Another has no shoes. Helia embraces the girls affectionately and kisses the child on the head. Then she takes them up into the building to a room where a group of four women are already sitting, and where a ceiling fan whirls fitfully.
This is Kofaviv, a rape crisis centre supporting victims of gender-based violence across Haiti’s capital city. Run by volunteers, it helps women and girls access medical and psychosocial care, and seek legal redress. It is a peaceful haven for rape survivors, many of whom walk miles in order to have someone to talk to. Helia is one of Kofaviv’s 1,000-strong network of “agents” working in the displacement camps and poorest areas of Port-au-Prince.
When speaking about Kofaviv’s work, Helia’s eyes light up and her voice is clear and passionate. When talking about her own story, she covers her face.
“Rape is not a new phenomenon in Haiti,” she explains. “In 2004, it was used as a weapon of intimidation following the departure of former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.”
That was the year masked, armed men came to Helia’s house, shooting her husband dead in front of her and their four children. Helia was raped at gunpoint.
“They also raped my 17-year-old daughter,” says Helia, her eyes filling with tears. “She gave birth to a little girl as a result of that rape.”
But the family was to face further tragedy. In January 2010, they lost their home in the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which left more than 250,000 people dead and more than a million homeless. Helia’s youngest son, aged 21, was killed. Her daughter spent six hours under rubble before the family managed to dig her out. For three months the family slept outdoors in a church courtyard.
“The conditions were very bad,” says Helia. “We were drinking out of puddles and sleeping outdoors. At night, armed gangs came into the courtyard, terrorising everyone.”
Helia was so alarmed that she sent her granddaughter to stay with a relative in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp on the edge of Port-au-Prince. The same week, the unthinkable happened. The five-year-old child was raped.
“I have come to terms with what happened to me,” Helia cries out. “But how can we ever come to terms with this? He tore her little body apart.”
Chantal Dumera is Kofaviv’s coordinator. Haiti, she says, is witnessing an “epidemic” of rape in the IDP camps, with cases growing in number and brutality. “The majority of attacks take place at night, carried out by men carrying weapons,” she explains. “Gang rape is not uncommon. Most survivors are unable to identify their attackers because of the lack of lighting in the camps.”
Dumera cites the example of a woman who had been found shot in the head the previous night after having reported her rape to the police. “The perpetrators tell these women to expect retaliation if they go to the authorities,” she says.
Dumera pauses and throws up her hands. “It is happening to children of six months, one year, five years. It is something that we cannot even begin to understand.”
Dr Magda Cheron is a paediatrician working for FHI 360 (formerly known as Family Health International) in Haiti. She is alarmed by the way sexual violence is increasingly directed against children.
“Children are not adequately protected in the camps. Displacement makes them very vulnerable,” she says. “Adolescent girls and women are bathing outside in full view.”
More than 600,000 people are still living in the camps. “Sanitation is appalling. Cholera is still a problem,” she says. “Toilets, if they exist, are overflowing. People are forced into very close proximity with one another, sleeping up to 10 or 12 in a tent. They feel frustrated and dehumanised.”
In August 2011, the International Organisation for Migration polled more than 15,000 camp-dwellers to find out why they were still there despite the insecurity and discomfort posed by living in tents, enduring a cholera epidemic and two consecutive hurricane seasons. The survey found that 94% of people would leave if they had alternative accommodation. Most of those interviewed said if they had to depart immediately, they would not have the means to pay rent or the resources to repair or replace their damaged or destroyed homes.
Amnesty International confirms this evidence. “The people in the camps are the poorest and most vulnerable,” says Javier Zuniga, Special Advisor to Amnesty International.
In Place Boyer camp, in the Pétionville district of Port-au-Prince, a group of women and men describe how camp conditions have worsened in recent months.
“We have been forgotten,” says one man, pointing to a filthy track leading to the toilets. “Our children are walking in excrement and dragging the waste in and out of the tents. It is on these same tent floors that women are giving birth.”
“It is dangerous in the camps but we don’t have anywhere else to go,” a woman adds. “As for the government and the UN, we would like to invite them here so that they can see for themselves how we live.”
Zuniga believes that one of the main challenges for Haiti is the lack of adequately functioning state institutions. Almost a fifth of government workers were killed in the earthquake, and 27 out of 28 federal buildings were destroyed. The limited number of trained police on the ground is an additional problem.
“The UN, which has a mandate for protection, does a small amount of patrolling around Port-au-Prince but they do very little monitoring of the camps,” says Zuniga. “As for the protection of women, they are doing nothing at all.”
“Women and children are being raped in camps and are expected to stay there, with their assailants still at large,” he continues. “State capacity needs to be strengthened and rebuilt. There needs to be a far stronger system of government protection.”
Despite receiving death threats for the work they do, Kofaviv continues to provide services to women and girls across Port-au-Prince. It has set up a community-watch system and has distributed whistles and torches to women and girls. It is also calling on the government to provide better lighting and security in the camps.
“The more people who stand up and speak out, the more progress we can make,” says Helia.
“After everything I have been through, and what has happened to my daughter and my granddaughter, what keeps me going is knowing that I am part of the struggle now, united with other people in the fight against sexual violence.”