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U.Va. Law Professor: Haiti's Women at High Risk for Rape Following Earthquake

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

May 28, 2010 — The massive earthquake that hit Haiti in January is having an especially devastating effect on women and girls in displaced persons camps, a University of Virginia law professor found. 

Deena Hurwitz, director of the Law School's Human Rights Program, participated in a weeklong examination of rape and other gender-based violence in Haiti's capital in May. Hurwitz joined a delegation of U.S. lawyers, health professionals and community activists who found that women lack the security necessary to prevent sexual violence and that medical services are overwhelmed and unable to meet the needs of victims.

"Haiti's political and economic crises both before and as a result of the earthquake still do not relieve the authorities of the responsibility to protect women from sexual assault," said Hurwitz, who also leads the Law School's International Human Rights Clinic.

Hurwitz and a group of human rights investigators coordinated by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti as part of its Lawyers' Earthquake Response Network organized in late spring to investigate reports of gender-based violence in Haitian camps.

"We went to Haiti with the idea of writing a report based on what we found from our interviews," Hurwitz said. They discovered extensive problems that had not been reported – "gang rape by groups of men, and the complete breakdown of security and safety by the state."

Facilitated by KOFAVIV, a grassroots women's organization, Hurwitz and team members met with 26 victims of rape during their journey and heard horrifying stories from survivors.

In one interview, Hurwitz talked to a grandmother whose 5-year-old granddaughter, herself the result of a rape, was raped. Both the grandmother and her then-16-year-old daughter were raped in 2004, in the violence following the end of the regime of then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"All of these things are past now, but talking about them brings the feelings back because I was raped, my daughter was raped, and now my granddaughter is raped," the grandmother told Hurwitz. The grandmother sent her daughter and granddaughter to the countryside, away from the camps in Port-au-Prince. "They thought it would be safer," Hurwitz said, but it wasn't.

In the camps, most women and girls reported being raped by groups of armed, unknown assailants who often beat them in the course of the attack, and threaten them with further violence if they report the rape. Perpetrators often attack at night, when women are asleep beside their children; or when they go to the latrines, and men wait for them in the dark stalls.

"It is totally unacceptable for these rapes to continue to go unpunished," said Mario Joseph, managing attorney at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), which hosted the delegation at its office in Port-au-Prince. "We are now building strong legal cases to hold rapists accountable and bring these women the justice they deserve."

Hurwitz said the group met with a number of Haitian police officials, some of whom suggested as an initial excuse that promiscuity was rampant in the camps.

"To look at the kind of evidence we collected, not a single person was raped by a person that they knew. Most people were raped by people who they'd never seen before, people who were armed, people who threatened them and multiple people – two or three people," Hurwitz said.

Based on the delegation's findings, BAI and the Lawyers' Earthquake Response Network are asking the government to increase police patrols to include all camps, and to patrol inside camps as well as the perimeter. Patrols should, where possible, include female officers, and police stations must have female officers who can help victims file reports, Hurwitz said.

Follow-up training with police and grassroots women's organizations and prosecutors is a possible next step, she said. The delegation that journeyed to Haiti has already created "know-your-rights" cards to give to women in camps, explaining that if they are raped they should try to preserve evidence, report the crime to police and see a doctor to get testing, treatment and a medical certificate that can be critical evidence.

Hurwitz said she realizes the difficulties in advising women to take these steps when Haiti has no systems for collecting DNA evidence.

"These women are living in tents with mud floors – they have nothing to keep their things in, so the thought of preserving something from a rape seems ludicrous – where are they going to keep it?"

Where medical services exist for victims, women face prohibitively long waits, a lack of privacy, and limited access to female health ¬care providers. Medical certificates, instrumental in documenting cases of rape, are not reliably issued, Hurwitz said.

Hurwitz said they also heard stories about "transactional sex"; for example, women being forced to have sex to receive food cards.

"That's a significant problem that implicates the international community," she said. "Men may claim to be camp leaders, which gives them power to distribute food cards, but leadership in such camps is very fluid. Women are more often than not heads of households, and we believe that the grassroots women's organizations are better situated to equitably distribute the cards. The food cards have to be more thoughtfully given out."

Hurwitz said she is looking for ways in which the International Human Rights Clinic can further help the victims in light of the report.

On May 14, the delegation submitted a statement about its findings to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is holding a hearing on violence against women in June. The delegation's recommendations include increasing security and improving lighting in the camps, ensuring that women's human rights are protected in compliance with international obligations and that women have leadership roles in rebuilding Haiti, and enacting a system for collecting data about crimes against women in the camps.

Though the delegation heard dark stories in Haiti, Hurwitz said there's also hope.

"You can go to Haiti and see desperation, terrible poverty, destruction, misery, hunger – or you can see an incredible will to survive, a strength of networking and community that's happening in the camps, among the grassroots."

Hurwitz pointed to the two rape survivors, Malya Vil¬lard and Erim¬ithe Delva, who started KOFAVIV, which reaches out to victims of sexual violence; helps them get medical care and shelter, food and clothing if needed; and serves as an extended family of support. KOFAVIV provides victims with survival packets, including hygiene products, towels, pots and pans, and more.

"It is just amazing," Hurwitz said. "It's both sides of the coin – at the same time miserable and inspiring."

— By Mary Wood

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