Photo: Paula Allen
To understand Haiti today, it is important to understand Haiti’s past. Like other areas of the world V-Day has focused its work on, such as the Congo and New Orleans, Haiti’s story is one that is punctuated by both struggle and revolution. Mired in a thick legacy of slavery, colonialism, foreign occupation, economic exploitation, political turmoil, and environmental catastrophe, the Haitian people have endured, despite great odds. The connections between New Orleans and Congo and that of Haiti – all three places where the desecration of indigenous inhabitants and the horrors of the African slave trade have bent the story towards death and injustice – are not lost on V-Day. Having devoted ourselves to New Orleans and Congo through past campaigns between 2007 and today, we feel strongly that we must mobilize our network to recognize the shared histories and common realities of all of these places. There is something fitting, then, about focusing on Haiti at this moment in V-Day’s work, as it was slaves, many from Congo, who were brought to its shores, and to those of New Orleans.
Photo: Paula Allen
Historically, rape has been used widely by outside forces who have laid claim to Haiti’s people and resources, and by regimes, who have sought to silence women’s power.
Alex Renton wrote in his 2007 piece The Rape Epidemic: “Rape’s entry in any honest history of Haiti is a long one. Columbus’s men raped and murdered the indigenous tribes they found when they landed on Hispaniola in 1492; French planters used the slaves they shipped from Africa for sex; and when those slaves threw out the French and declared the first Republic, rape and murder accompanied the event. In the 200 years since then, Haiti has seen nearly half its 60-odd heads of state overthrown or assassinated – and sexual violence has been a feature of most of that turmoil.” This legacy has had a devastating impact on Haitian women and families.
The statistics are alarming. The UNDP has reported that Haiti has one of the highest rates of women affected by violence in the world. Kay Fanm, a Haitian women’s rights organization, has estimated that 72 % of Haitian girls have been raped. And, a recent 2009 paper by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights states that over 90% of Haitian women have experienced some form of violence in their lives.
Human trafficking and Restavek, (the practice of keeping child laborers in the home where they are sometimes sexually and physically abused), are both realities in Haiti.
It was not until 2005 that rape was classified as “a crime against the person,” leading to an increase in the severity of possible punishment.
Photo: Paula Allen
In 2001 Myriam Merlet, Chief of Cabinet of the Ministry of Women’s Condition and Rights and founder of the umbrella National Coordination for Advocacy on Women’s Rights (CONAP), contacted V-Day to organize a large production of The Vagina Monologues in Port-au-Prince. Due to political turbulence at that time, the show never took place, but Myriam and V-Day continued to talk about making it a reality.
In 2007, V (formerly Eve Ensler), traveled to Haiti on invitation from local activists to spend time on the ground to learn from women firsthand what their lives were like. During her time in Haiti, there were three sold out performances of The Vagina Monologues in Port Au Prince. Another performance took place in Cap Haitian, where 500 people showed up. The support for V-Day’s mission of ending violence was evident. Following V’s trip, V-Day committed to partnering with Myriam and Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, the Minister of Women’s Affairs and Rights, to open the V-Day Haiti Sorority Safe House in Port-au-Prince, a long-term safe house for women in all of Haiti. Opened in July 2008, the facility provided shelter, comprehensive medical, legal and psychological support to 40 women at a time.
With AFASDA, a women’s rights group with a long track record of innovative work in Cap Haitien (a city of about 180,000 on the North coast of Haiti), V-Day helped provide funding towards the purchase of second safe house under the leadership Elvire Eugene. The center has served 40 survivors of sexual and domestic violence (and their children) at any given time, providing them with shelter, psychosocial, legal and medical support, vocational and life-skills training, basic literacy courses, and micro-loans for small businesses.
Myriam Merlet, Elvire Eugene and activist Anne Valerie Milfort traveled to New Orleans in April 2010, to celebrate V-Day’s 10th anniversary along with 30,000 other V- Day supporters. They spoke at the Superdome, with other women’s activists, about the plight of women in Haiti, a country besieged by violence and political turmoil, placing Haiti in the larger context of gender-based-violence globally and drawing connections to the experiences of women in New Orleans, Congo and Bosnia.
Photo: Paula Allen
In January 2010, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti, causing devastating destruction and flattening Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s nerve center, V-Day mobilized quickly to help, creating the V-Day Haiti Rescue Fund. Our activists responded immediately, donating generously to the fund.
Unfortunately, the earthquake damaged our Port-au-Prince safe house, rendering it uninhabitable. V-Day was, however, able to provide emergency support to AFASDA to serve displaced women from Port-au-Prince who were fleeing to the Northern coast in Cap Haitien. We were also able to provide 40 women and their families with shelter through our partner ShelterBox, which provided 10-person tents to each family, along with a range of other essential emergency equipment. Through this support V-Day estimates that 400 to 500 individuals were provided with emergency relief.
According to the Haitian government, 230,000 people died as a result of the earthquake, 300,000 were injured and over 1,000,000 were left homeless. Basic amenities like medical care, food, water, and electricity were out of reach for countless Haitians. Days after the quake, Michele Lebrun Pavana, speaking for Marjory Michel, Minister of Feminine Condition, reported to V-Day that women were at heightened risk for sexual assault.
As there are now 1,300 refugee camps across Haiti, we know that thousands of women and girls are being forced to live in high-risk situations. While women have spoken of widespread rape in the camps and the fear of being attacked, hard data on the number of rapes that have occurred is hard to come by. Few cases of rape are being prosecuted. As human rights lawyer Jane Flemming reported from the ground, survivors of rape are afraid to report to police; for the few who do their rapists are prosecuted at a lower than 2% rate. Haitian women lawyers are working to change this reality so that more women use legal avenues available to them and justice is reached. V-Day’s campaign is addressing this issue.
Photo: Paula Allen
As a first step in planning the campaign, in July 2010, V-Day supported a two-day gathering of 67 leaders and survivors. Lawyers and women’s activists representing 30 grassroots organizations from across Haiti came together to discuss what needed to be done to address gender-based-violence in post-earthquake Haiti.
The meeting was coordinated by longtime V-Day activist Elvire Eugene, who is connected to many local partners and national networks working on women’s issues in Haiti and is well suited to lead critical work on the ground. Judie C. Roy, a former presidential candidate and prominent activist, was also in attendance, as well as members of the Women’s Ministry. During the meeting, a Task Force was formed to see the group’s work through to completion. Members chose Elvire Eugene, Judie C. Roy and activist Marie Gislhene Mompremier to lead the Task Force.
The Task Force’s research with 1,000 survivors found that survivors of psychological, economic, physical and sexual violence in Haiti faced many hardships – teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, economic struggle, stigma and marginalization. Only 32% of survivors surveyed had attempted legal action to seek justice for the crimes perpetrated against them. Because psychosocial and legal support is most often out of reach to poor women due to price and availability, a four-pronged approach was developed to serve them and, when asked for our support, V-Day wholeheartedly pledged it.
Photo: Paula Allen
Together with a coalition of women activists on the ground, V-Day will engage in an ambitious direct service and public education and action campaign in Haiti, which will include the establishment of three safe houses, each with an Office of Legal Assistance for survivors of violence, in Cap Haitien, Fort Liberte and Port de Paix; the establishment of four Offices of Legal Assistance in Port-au-Prince; performances of The Vagina Monologues in Creole in the Port-au-Prince IDP camps in Cap Haitien and in 8 TBD locations; and advocacy support for 19 community based organizations throughout the country doing anti-violence work as part of V-Day’s campaign.
Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance
The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier
The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
The Haitian Revolution
Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution
AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame
Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment
Challenging Violence: Haitian Women Unite Women’s Rights and Human Rights
Our Bodies Are Shaking Now: Rape Follows Earthquake in Haiti
Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women’s Fight against Rape
The Farming of Bones
Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych
Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy
Aristide and the Endless Revolution
Haiti: Killing the Dream
BOOK REVIEW: “Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal” by Junot Díaz [Boston Review] May/June 2011