PORT-AU-PRINCE (TrustLaw) - Both Haiti's new president and the head of the majority party in parliament have vowed to fight an epidemic of sexual violence in the quake-shattered country, throwing their weight behind a TrustLaw initiative to strengthen anti-rape laws and tackle impunity.
The bipartisan pledges came as Thomson Reuters Foundation hosted an unprecedented forum of Haitian government officials, police, lawyers, prosecutors, doctors and women's groups in Port-au-Prince.
The goal was to find practical ways to ensure better protection, care and justice for women and girls in a country where rape has only been outlawed since 2005 and hundreds of thousands live in insecure "tent cities" following last year's earthquake.
"We don't have the necessary means, the necessary infrastructure or the necessary mentality," President-elect Michel Martelly said in a meeting with Thomson Reuters Foundation after the forum.
"We need to change all this. It is our will and our mission to change all this, to make sure the rule of law reigns in Haiti, that justice is for everybody, that the police do their job. The problem is very serious and I don't underestimate the problem of sexual violence.
"I have asked the national police to put in every post a female agent as they are better to listen to the problems of women."
Speaking earlier at the forum, Joseph Lambert, majority leader in the Haitian parliament, expressed "solidarity with Thomson Reuters Foundation's programme to help reduce sexual violence against women and children" and said he would pass legislation to achieve that goal.
Accurate statistics are scarce, but police say cases of sexual violence shot up in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, which left more than a million people living in crowded camps with few lights at night and little security.
Among the obstacles to justice for victims cited by rights groups are fears of reprisal attacks, a lack of training among police, prosecutors and judges in dealing with rape cases and difficulties in obtaining the medical certificates deemed necessary to bring cases successfully to court.
Joelle Deuize, a doctor at Haiti's University and Educational Hospital (HUEH), the country's largest, said that before the earthquake she typically examined two or three rape victims a day. Right after the disaster the number rose to four and five. More than a year later, she said it is more like 15.
The Port-au-Prince police chief says 622 rapes were reported in 2010. Of those, 385 of the accused are in jail and 45 have been convicted.
Rights activists say such figures are just the tip of the iceberg. KOFAVIV, a grassroots group that supports rape survivors, reported 100 rapes in the 22 camps in which it works in January and February alone. There are more than a thousand displacement camps in Port-au-Prince.
TOWARDS LEGAL REFORM
In response to the problem, Thomson Reuters Foundation has mobilised members of its pro bono network of 160 law firms and corporate counsels to conduct a review of Haiti's anti-rape laws and compare them with legislation in six other jurisdictions: France, Sweden, Canada, the United States, South Africa and Brazil.
The comparative study, launched via the Foundation's TrustLaw Connect platform, will be presented by international women's group MADRE to the United Nations' Human Rights Council meeting on Haiti in October.
Martelly, due to be inaugurated as president on May 14, said the review could help his new government reform laws around sexual violence.
"Democracy in Haiti is very young and we still have difficulties getting things just right," he said. "It would be super to benefit from this expertise in other countries who had to face these kinds of issues. Alone we cannot change everything but with the experience of others we will bring about this change."
The May 6 forum marked the first time representatives of grassroots women's groups like KOFAVIV had sat around a table with senior officials from the women's ministry, health ministry, justice ministry, chief prosecutor's office and police.
In the Champ-de-Mars tent city in the heart of the capital, KOFAVIV has helped reduce sexual violence by organising security patrols of 25 men, to protect women and children in a setting where thousands have to bathe in public and razor blades easily slash canvas walls.
Women's groups accused police of not taking reported rape cases seriously and of sometimes implying victims themselves were to blame. At one point, a representative from the prosecutor's office raised activists' ire by suggesting women could help prevent rapes by wearing trousers instead of skirts.
Female police officers at the forum acknowledged macho attitudes occasionally prevailed in precincts dominated by male colleagues, some of whom didn't consider rape to be a crime.
They said police were overwhelmed by other priorities and severely lacked resources for prevention and enforcement.
POINTS OF CONSENSUS
Participants did reach consensus on the need for concrete action in these key areas:
- Information campaigns to inform women and girls of their legal rights, reinforce the point that victims are not to blame and help people avoid dangerous situations. One delegate gave the example of a child lured into a tent to watch television who was subsequently raped.
- The Prosecutor's Office has a 24-hour hotline -- 604 96 02 -- to advise women who have been raped but few people know about it. This number should be widely disseminated on TV and radio.
- More female police officers should be appointed to help change attitudes in precincts and provide better support for rape survivors.
- The forum recognised that a significant barrier to justice is linguistic since French rather than Creole is the language of the courts.
- Delegates also agreed on the vexed issue of medical certificates documenting evidence of sexual intercourse and often violence, which are central documents to rape prosecutions.
- Under existing rules, medical certificates can only be issued by general hospitals accredited by the health ministry. That makes it extremely difficult for people living outside of Port-au-Prince to get the certificates within the three days needed to issue an immediate warrant.
- Women doctors at HUEH are often asked to redo medical certificates performed by doctors at other institutions, meaning that victims have to undergo a second examination. The forum called for a less centralised process.
- Delegates said that women who call the hotline of the Prosecutor's Office should be advised on what to do to file an official complaint. They should also be told that they need to present an original of the medical certificate since copies are routinely discredited by defence lawyers.
- They said doctors needed to be trained to reduce the incidence of poorly completed medical certificates, which defence lawyers take advantage of.
- Judges should be trained to make sure they understand and accord proper weight to medical certificates. They should also be trained to be fairer to victims. For example, they should understand that a woman can still be raped even if she is not a virgin.