PORT-AU-PRINCE (TrustLaw) - One morning last month, Nathalie Pierre left her home in the Haitian capital to run some errands. She returned a few hours later to find the skirt and underwear of her nine-year-old daughter stained with blood.
It took five days for the little girl to reveal what had happened.
“There was a long silence. My daughter didn’t want to talk or eat. She finally told me what I’d feared, that she’d been raped,” Pierre said.
Pierre's daughter is one of thousands of young Haitians who are sexually abused and raped every year. Sexual violence against women and girls in the Caribbean nation was widespread long before the 2010 earthquake, but increased after the disaster, women's rights groups say.
Pierre, who has two other children, said it was easy to identify her daughter's 17-year-old attacker. He is a neighbour who lives in the same building in the slum neighbourhood of Martissant.
“All I want to do is move from where we’re living to another area. My daughter has to see the man who raped her every day on her way to school,” Pierre said, who preferred not to use her real name.
After the attack, Pierre sought treatment for her daughter at an emergency centre run by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Martissant.
Last year, MSF treated an average of 23 survivors of sexual violence a month at just the Martissant clinic.
One of two psychologists at the clinic, Flauberte Antoine provides patients with a weekly session of counselling over a period of six months or more. She said Pierre's daughter is not yet ready to talk about what happened.
“She hasn’t described the rape itself. She’s still too afraid," Antoine said. "You can see the fear on her face. It’s too early for her to draw, to play with dolls."
Many sexual assaults continue to take place in camps where around 500,000 Haitians who lost their homes in the earthquake still live, crammed together in dehumanising conditions with little privacy under tarpaulin and scrap metal.
Apart from the faint flicker of candle light seen from inside some tents at night, there is virtually no lighting in the camps and nothing to deter attackers.
Security is weak with few police officers or U.N. peacekeepers venturing deep inside the camps.
Many women report being raped at night in their tents or as they make their way in the dark to the portable toilets often found on camp peripheries.
Another risk is when they are forced to leave their children alone in tents or in the care of neighbours while they search for food or something to sell.
“Communities and the community spirit has been broken. People are forced to live in overcrowded spaces with strangers. That’s when problems like sexual violence start,” Antoine said.
But that's just part of the picture.
Women's rights have been marginalised for so long in Haiti that rape was only made a crime in 2005. And even after it was criminalised, justice is slow with few rapists or sexual attackers prosecuted.
Mario Joseph, a Haitian lawyer who is handling dozens of rape cases, says such engrained sexist attitudes are one reason why justice for rape survivors, especially the poorest ones, is so elusive.
“I’ve seen male judges blame the victim and imply it’s their fault because, for example, they wore a short skirt," Joseph said.
"Their line of questioning and the culture of blaming women often means women are reluctant to open up in court, while it’s difficult to get witnesses and doctors to testify in rape trials," he said.
Joseph heads the Bureau of International Lawyers in Port-au-Prince, which receives on average four new rape cases every day.
He said securing a rape conviction was often difficult in cases where there was no standardized medical certificate – an important, but not conclusive, element of proof.
Some women who have been raped or sexually assaulted simply are not provided with a medical certificate by hospitals and clinics where they seek treatment.
In other cases, it might take weeks to obtain a certificate. Sometimes the women are charged up to $4 for a certificate, a service that is supposed to be free.
For many rape survivors, local grassroots organisations provide one of the few sources of solace.
A cozy house in a residential neighourhood in Port-au-Prince serves as the main offices for Kofaviv, a leading Haitian women’s rights group run by volunteers who are all rape survivors.
Inside, a workshop on human rights and rape law involving 40 women is in full swing. The group discussions are punctuated with singing in the local language of Creole.
Kofaviv provides counselling to survivors of sexual violence, receives calls from victims through its free help line, and helps victims get access to medical care and lawyers.
In the camps, they and aid agencies have distributed whistles, flashlights and hundreds of thousands of solar lanterns, along with organizing informal security patrols including male volunteers to improve security.
They are also training volunteers to promote two key messages among women and girls living in camps.
“It’s very important for women to know about getting a free medical certificate and the 72-hour rule, for women to see a doctor within 72 hours to get contraception, be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and preserve evidence,” said Mayla Appolon, co-founder and co-director of Kofaviv.
From March to October last year, the rights groups reported 269 rape cases in and around Port-au-Prince. Last month alone, Kofaviv dealt with 49 rape cases, of which more than half involved children.
“One of the cases involves a policeman raping a 15-year-old girl, another involves a women, who several weeks after her ordeal, still can’t sit down she’s in so much pain,” Appolon said shaking her head.
While rights groups say there is greater awareness about the widespread problem of sexual violence in Haiti, many say the government is not doing enough to tackle the problem and resettle people from the camps to safer housing.
“If I could sit down with the government, I’d recommend that they improve the training of judges and policewomen and put more undercover police on patrol in the camps,” said Appolon.
“During his election campaign, the president promised he’d do something to address sexual violence but I’m not sure the government is really concerned. They don’t understand the extent of the problem. They’re not present in the camps,” she added.
Attention from the international aid community has waned too.
“More foreign non-governmental organisations are leaving the camps because they say the humanitarian crisis has ended. But it hasn’t,” said Appolon.
GLIMMER OF HOPE
Although the Haitian women’s ministry could not provide any figures on the number of rape incidents before or after the earthquake, it says addressing sexual violence is a priority, and plans to push ahead with an action plan to bolster women's rights, which includes providing more micro-credits for women and ensuring more girls go to school and university.
“We’ve deployed our officials in the camps to get up-to-date data on sexual violence," Hemanex Gonzague, director general of the women’s ministry told TrustLaw.
"Tackling violence against women is part of our action plan to improve women’s rights in general," he added.
The government led by President Michel Martelly is working on finalizing draft legislation which, if passed, could provide tougher sanctions against all forms of physical violence against women, a legal framework for victims to receive better care and place more onus on the police to gather evidence that can be used in court, which in turn could lead to more rape convictions
“Haiti has laws dating back to 1836. We need to modernize these laws and bring Haiti up-to-date with the international treaties and conventions it is party to, and include them in the new legislation,” said Rene Magloire, a former justice minister, who is now in charge of drafting the new laws on sexual violence as part of the presidential commission on judicial reform.
He said the final draft was expected to be presented to parliament ‘within weeks’.
“How long it takes to vote on and become law depends on parliament,” Magloire cautioned.
While officials hash out the finer details of this bill, Pierre and her daughter wait for justice. They have little faith in the police to hunt down the perpetrator.
“I’ve reported the crime, identified the rapist but we’re still waiting for the police to arrest him,” Pierre said. “I don’t know if we’ll get justice, maybe God willing.”
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)