Eve's Letter From Haiti
I write to you as I am leaving Port Au Prince, Haiti. I am moved, inspired, in deep sorrow, in outrage. I am filled with a vastness of contradictions that explode the heart and bend the mind. Beauty in the mountains, the sky, the earth, the stars, the air, the jasmine, the moon. Rhythms and music - Boukman Eksperyans, you can feel the entire world pulse through your body. Extreme poverty so devastating it is a serious form of violence. People living on as little as a dollar a day, living in squalor, in terror, in insane deprivation. Poverty and humiliation and rage creating gangs and shootings and kidnappings and of course women's bodies are the battleground on which this war is fought.
One woman told a story of how one of her daughters was shot in the leg and died. (There is little to no medical support for the poor) then her husband was murdered. Then they came and gang raped her 14-year-old daughter and she tried to run away to a Protestant church for help, but they wouldn't let her stay cause she was Catholic. She couldn't go home, but had to get a job to feed her kids. She had no one to help her. She needed to wash and clean houses, but there was no one to take care of her kids. Her raped daughter had almost lost her mind and needed her attention. Her daughter couldn't tell her who raped her cause she was too terrified they would come back and kill her.
This is a terrible story, but all too common in the slums. Seven-year-olds are raped by three men, people's houses are set on fire in the middle of the night, children kidnapped and sold. Myriam Merlet, the Chief of Staff of the Ministry for Women said, "That since the 1991 coup d'etat, war taught a country to rape. Before there was rape of course, but it was not a common practice. Now when a man wants to rape, he rapes. It was used as weapon of war - the military institutionalized it and now when a robber gets into your house, he rapes you." She said, "What is different about Haiti than other countries is that fifty percent of the women who are raped in the country are not raped in their house but they are raped by a stranger."
The situation is grim in Haiti. But then there are the women working with their lives for change. These women are fierce and beautiful and devoted and passionate. They inspired me to be bigger, bolder, more devoted, to believe deeper, to keep going.
We were hosted and treated with care and kindness by the Minister of Women's Affairs and Rights, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, and her extraordinary team, Myriam Merlet and Ann Valerie Timothee Milfort. It is a wonder to see Feminist activist women in power. There were press conferences, interviews, dancing under the moon, fruit punch, a siren armed motorcade that took us everywhere, a women's march in the hot Haitian sun through the streets of Cap Haitian, chanting, dancing, wild passion, young and old, and there was Elvire Eugène, one of the great women activists of the world and her group, AFASDA, a Cap Haitian based, solely volunteer organization that networks and raises awareness about violence facing women.
We visitied a hospital where we discovered there is not even a camera to take pictures of corpses for autopsies. There are no procedures to seek or secure evidence for women who are raped. There is no ambulance or car or doctor to receive the dead. The woman who runs this unit, the director of the Forensic Institute, Marie Claude Jasmin said that coming to work is" like dancing folklore."
There was no support, no resources. Everywhere we went in Haiti women were inventing something out of nothing. A common theme was women saying they couldn't afford to think about what's going on, they couldn't let themselves get depressed. They simply had to keep going. There were three sold out V-Day performances of The Vagina Monologues in Port Au Prince in French and Creole. One performance in Cap Haitian was in a Catholic girls school where 500 people showed up on a hot steamy night. Many men stood at the end promising to stop the violence. There were meetings with local women's groups and testimonies from women from Grand Ravine and Cité Soleil who gathered in Port Au Prince on April 3, National Haitian Women's Movement Day.
One of the main problems in Haiti is the lack of justice, the failure of law, the lack of accountability. We visited the women's prison - the only one in Haiti, built for 78 women, it now holds nearly 400. Women are crammed into small cells, sometimes holding up to 22 women in a single cell. Many of the women I spoke to have been there 1- 3 years and have never been charged. They get infections in their vaginas from the dirty water. They rarely have a visitor. Only a few had lawyers. Most have no idea when their case will be processed. There was a gas leak in one of the cells and the women there were feeling very ill. Many of the women were young - lots of teenagers. I interviewed one woman, Erina Dorjilus who was there because she had stabbed her husband. He had been violently beating her, kicking her, tying her up with steel strips. She showed us scars all over her body. The last time he almost murdered her and she grabbed a knife and stabbed him. She brought herself to the police. She had been in the prison for nine months and did not know if her husband was alive or dead. She had never been charged and she had not seen her children as they had no idea where she was. It was Kafkaesque. The disappearance of people - kidnappings, arrests, murders, is a theme. The people of Haiti have been forgotten and made invisible by the world.
We made this trip to see how V-Day could join forces with the women of Haiti. When we asked what they most needed, they were totally clear. They wanted a Safe House in Port Au Prince. One out of every three woman is raped or beaten in Haiti. There is nowhere for women to escape. THE GOOD NEWS, THE MIRACULOUS NEWS IS THAT WE ARE NOW IN PARTNERSHIP WITH THE MINISTRY OF WOMEN AND HAVE AGREED TO HELP THEM OPEN THE FIRST V-DAY SAFE HOUSE FOR WOMEN IN HAITI. Our new safe house will be a place of refuge and more importantly will be a place where women who have been abused get treated for trauma and trained for jobs. Marie-Laurence had already scouted ten houses before we left. The excitement level was that high.
We hope the house will open very soon and we would so love any support that you can give us. We have committed to supporting the house for three years with the hope that at the end of this time the Haitian government will take on the house as its own. There are already plans for a huge V-Day next year in Port Au Prince.
The trip simply ripped my heart open. We are all responsible for what happens to the people of Haiti. If I have learned anything in these years, it is that we are intrinsically connected. I urge each of you, to read about Haiti, to think about Haiti, to get active in groups that are working to change the situation there, to give generously to our new Safe House. V-Day stands with the women of Haiti today and will remain with the women of Haiti until this terrible violence ends and each Haitian woman is free and safe.