Haitian Women Fight Sexual Violence

Amie Newman

Haitian women, aided by women's rights organizations, are banding together to protect themselves and all women in post-earthquake Hatii from sexual assault, rape and other forms of gender-based violence.

A small group of women in colorful shirts, jeans and skirts stand in a circle, singing and clapping. Some are smiling. All are dancing, shaking their bodies to the sound of their voices strong and loud. One woman dances in the middle, spinning. They are singing in Haitian Kreyol and it could be a celebration of some sort. In a way, it is. It’s a celebration of their power, as they unify to protect themselves and all women who live in post-earthquake Hatiian displacement camps from sexual assault, rape and other gender-based violence. Some are members of KOFAVIV (being filmed by representives of sister organization Madre), a Hatiian women’s organization working to end sexual violence and seek justice for rape survivors. In conjunction with other women’s organizations on the ground, and U.S.-based sister organizations, they are committed to protecting the women and girls living in the displacement camps from gender-based violence, from which the government has been unable or unwilling to do so. As Rewire reported on in July of this year, women and girls have been the target of “skyrocketing” incidences “of rape in the camps” and are suffering from “the lack of a coordinated or effective response to these persistent threats.” Up until recently, KOFAVIV and other women’s advocates have been effectively shut out of the discussions between aid agencies and the government on how best to protect themselves, in the camps. Slowly, however, things may be changing.

In late July, a group of organizations including the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Madre, issued a report on the sexual violence against women in Haiti entitled Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women Fight Against Rape detailing the current conditions for women and girls in the camps and the lack of an adequate response from government and aid agencies:

Conditions in the IDP camps in Port‐au‐Prince are bleak. Overcrowding, lack of privacy, and weakened family and community structures, among other things, render women and girls particularly vulnerable to rape and other sexual violence. Women and girls live in inadequate shelter, often sleeping on the ground under nothing more than a tarp or blanket, with no means of protection and no friends close by. They bathe in public, in view of men and boys. Many young girls live alone or with friends, with no adults looking after them.

Women and girls are most often attacked at night. One woman reported having been kidnapped from her tent, in the dark of night, gang-raped and beaten. Survivors of the sexual violence are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and a range of physical discomfort including:

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“…stomach pain, headaches, difficulty walking, and vaginal infection and bleeding. At least one woman became pregnant as a result of the rape. Only one woman reported that her attacker wore a condom. Of the few women that had been tested for HIV, results were negative. In addition to the rapes, many women and girls interviewed suffered beatings, stabbings and other injuries in the course of the attacks and had scars and other visible injuries to show.”

Most of the women and girls interviewed for the report had not sought medical care not only because they were unaware of where to locate or how to access services but because rape carries tremendous stigma in Haitian society and women are “embarrassed or…felt uncomfortable. When victims did reach out, they were often shunned or ignored.” The report also discloses that some clinics did not offer services such as HIV prophylaxis or emergency contraception to women seeking care, effectively leaving them with no recourse to protect against infection or pregnancy.

Women who are victims of sexual violence in the camps see virtually no justice, either. Not only has the loss of police officers and police stations affected reporting of rape, but the lack of female police officers has also contributed to the silence around rape. Though each station is supposed to have female officers to whom women can report a crime, that hasn’t been the case and it’s having a “cascade effect”:

“…in some instances, [law enforcement] officials attributed the problem of rape to promiscuity and domestic violence. This antipathy has a cascading effect; victims perceive law enforcement as ineffective or unsympathetic and, consequently, fail to report crimes. Government officials in turn insist that no such “epidemic” of gender‐based violence exists, and allocate even fewer resources to address it.”

This lack of an efficient tracking system also contributes to criminal cases rarely being pursued, “resulting in a culture of total impunity for rapists and criminal gangs who continue to prey on women and girls in the camps.”

In the absence of an adequate response from both the Haitian government as well as aid agencies, KOFAVIV, Madre, and other women’s organizations have collectively organized to implement strategies, on the ground, to keep women and girls safe from sexual violence. And they are having an impact.

For example, most recently, notes Madre, “we delivered a package of donations — including medical supplies, flashlights and whistles — to our partners in Haiti, KOFAVIV.  Using these supplies, gathered through MADRE’s Helping Hands program, they have been able to create local security measures that help prevent rapes in the camps for displaced people in Haiti.  They have also been able to provide for the basic needs of women and families.” When rape survivors are in need of medical attention or legal aid, KOFAVIV steps in as best they can to facilitate referrals and provide support.

Photo of Haitian women accepting whistles and flashlights courtesy of Madre

Photo of Haitian women accepting whistles and flashlights courtesy of Madre

Inadequate lighting in the camps is one factor in the continued sexual violence. The report notes that UN agencies distributed thousands of solar lamps to “ensure proper lighting of latrines and camp facilities.” The United Nations “sub-cluster” on gender-based violence offered that the Haitian National Police (HNP) were patrolling camps on foot to improve security measures as a response to the sexual violence. However, this does not jibe with what women and girls in the camps report as a “consistent lack of security and lighting.” So, once again, the women of KOFAVIV have organized volunteer security patrols escorting women to bathrooms and showers at night.

Diana Duarte of Madre told Rewire that the UN gender-based violence sub-cluster, in addition to more foot patrols, has most recently “committed to installing lighting in the camps that are currently without and that are reporting high levels of rape.” Given what many have said about a lack of follow through or signficant impact of some of these promises, Duarte is cautiously optimistic, “We’re working right now with KOFAVIV to track whether that commitment becomes reality and to demand accountability if it does not.”

It’s not only the immediate committment to improving conditions that are a priority. Haitian women who live in the camps and have been the victims of sexual violence themselves have testified in front of the UN about their experiences and the critical importance of including women’s groups in the efforts to prevent and end the violence. Duarte told Rewire that when she was in Haiti, at the end of July, her organization was working with the women of KOFAVIV to also “demand inclusion in the processes taking place, guided by the UN, to address sexual violence in the camps.” 

“Up until that point, they had been very much excluded from meetings that had first taken place at a UN base at some distance from the city.  Then, when the meetings were recently moved to a closer location, they were still held in French, when most of the grassroots women’s groups are most comfortable in Kreyol,” says Duarte.

Women’s organizations – Haitian women’s advocates on the ground – have been “shunted to the side” when it comes to agenda setting, in response to the diaster. As Rewire previously reported,

“In March, the international community came together in a “landmark” donor conference to set an agenda for rebuilding Haiti and women’s groups in Haiti, women’s voices, were nowhere to be seen or heard.”

In response, the women of KOFAVIV and their allies have made it their business to continue to speak up about remaining a part of the planning. Duarte says that when they [the women of KOFAVIV] were finally able to attend the UN meeting on gender-based violence in Haiti:

“one of the KOFAVIV leaders (a woman named Eramithe Delva) stood up and made a really strong intervention, in which she spoke about the temporary security measures that women have set up in the camps (including distributing whistles and flashlights and setting up community watch groups) and about the scale of sexual violence these groups have been documenting.  In that meeting, she was able to secure an invitation from one of the organizers of the UN group (called a sub-cluster) on gender-based violence to include KOFAVIV and other grassroots groups in future meetings.” [emphasis added]

Whether that will happen remains to be seen but it is a step forward. In the meantime, there are still conflicting reports about just what and how much is actually being done on the part of UN aid agencies, the United Nations sub-cluster on gender-based violence, and the Haitian National Police to prevent more rape and other sexual violence from occurring.

Women living in the camps and women’s advocacy organizations continue to do their part – distributing whistles and flashlights, and medical supplies. When the supplies arrive the women sit, in a circle, on plastic buckets which rest on the dusty ground of the camps, sharing stories and offering support in their efforts to protect themselves from the sexual violence; and they dance, sing and clap in recognition that they are and they have no other choice but to be powerful sources of strength for each other, in the absence of an adequate international response to the unacceptable conditions under which they survive.

Analysis Law and Policy

Justice Kennedy’s Silence Speaks Volumes About His Apparent Feelings on Women’s Autonomy

Imani Gandy

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s obsession with human dignity has become a hallmark of his jurisprudence—except where reproductive rights are concerned.

Last week’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was remarkable not just for what it did say—that two provisions in Texas’s omnibus anti-abortion law were unconstitutional—but for what it didn’t say, and who didn’t say it.

In the lead-up to the decision, many court watchers were deeply concerned that Justice Anthony Kennedy would side with the conservative wing of the court, and that his word about targeted restrictions of abortion providers would signal the death knell of reproductive rights. Although Kennedy came down on the winning side, his notable silence on the “dignity” of those affected by the law still speaks volumes about his apparent feelings on women’s autonomy. That’s because Kennedy’s obsession with human dignity, and where along the fault line of that human dignity various rights fall, has become a hallmark of his jurisprudence—except where reproductive rights are concerned.

His opinion on marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, along with his prior opinions striking down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas and the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, assured us that he recognizes the fundamental human rights and dignity of LGBTQ persons.

On the other hand, as my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo noted, his concern in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action about the dignity of the state, specifically the ballot initiative process, assured us that he is willing to sweep aside the dignity of those affected by Michigan’s affirmative action ban in favor of the “‘dignity’ of a ballot process steeped in racism.”

Meanwhile, in his majority opinion in June’s Fisher v. University of Texas, Kennedy upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas’ affirmative action program, noting that it remained a challenge to this country’s education system “to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”

It is apparent that where Kennedy is concerned, dignity is the alpha and the omega. But when it came to one of the most important reproductive rights cases in decades, he was silent.

This is not entirely surprising: For Kennedy, the dignity granted to pregnant women, as evidenced by his opinions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart, has been steeped in gender-normative claptrap about abortion being a unique choice that has grave consequences for women, abortion providers’ souls, and the dignity of the fetus. And in Whole Woman’s Health, when Kennedy was given another chance to demonstrate to us that he does recognize the dignity of women as women, he froze.

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He didn’t write the majority opinion. He didn’t write a concurring opinion. He permitted Justice Stephen Breyer to base the most important articulation of abortion rights in decades on data. There was not so much as a callback to Kennedy’s flowery articulation of dignity in Casey, where he wrote that “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education” are matters “involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” (While Casey was a plurality opinion, various Court historians have pointed out that Kennedy himself wrote the above-quoted language.)

Of course, that dignity outlined in Casey is grounded in gender paternalism: Abortion, Kennedy continued, “is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedures for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted.” Later, in Gonzales, Kennedy said that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban “expresses respect for the dignity of human life,” with nothing about the dignity of the women affected by the ban.

And this time around, Kennedy’s silence in Whole Woman’s Health may have had to do with the facts of the case: Texas claimed that the provisions advanced public health and safety, and Whole Woman’s Health’s attorneys set about proving that claim to be false. Whole Woman’s Health was the sort of data-driven decision that did not strictly need excessive language about personal dignity and autonomy. As Breyer wrote, it was a simple matter of Texas advancing a reason for passing the restrictions without offering any proof: “We have found nothing in Texas’ record evidence that shows that, compared to prior law, the new law advanced Texas’ legitimate interest in protecting women’s health.”

In Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s two-page concurrence, she succinctly put it, “Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory-surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements.”

“Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H.B. 2 that ‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,’ cannot survive judicial inspection,” she continued, hammering the point home.

So by silently signing on to the majority opinion, Kennedy may simply have been expressing that he wasn’t going to fall for the State of Texas’ efforts to undermine Casey’s undue burden standard through a mixture of half-truths about advancing public health and weak evidence supporting that claim.

Still, Kennedy had a perfect opportunity to complete the circle on his dignity jurisprudence and take it to its logical conclusion: that women, like everyone else, are individuals worthy of their own autonomy and rights. But he didn’t—whether due to his Catholic faith, a deep aversion to abortion in general, or because, as David S. Cohen aptly put it, “[i]n Justice Kennedy’s gendered world, a woman needs … state protection because a true mother—an ideal mother—would not kill her child.”

As I wrote last year in the wake of Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell, “according to [Kennedy’s] perverse simulacrum of dignity, abortion rights usurp the dignity of motherhood (which is the only dignity that matters when it comes to women) insofar as it prevents women from fulfilling their rightful roles as mothers and caregivers. Women have an innate need to nurture, so the argument goes, and abortion undermines that right.”

This version of dignity fits neatly into Kennedy’s “gendered world.” But falls short when compared to jurists internationally,  who have pointed out that dignity plays a central role in reproductive rights jurisprudence.

In Casey itself, for example, retired Justice John Paul Stevens—who, perhaps not coincidentally, attended the announcement of the Whole Woman’s Health decision at the Supreme Court—wrote that whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is a “matter of conscience,” and that “[t]he authority to make such traumatic and yet empowering decisions is an element of basic human dignity.”

And in a 1988 landmark decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Bertha Wilson indicated in her concurring opinion that “respect for human dignity” was key to the discussion of access to abortion because “the right to make fundamental personal decision without interference from the state” was central to human dignity and any reading of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 1982, which is essentially Canada’s Bill of Rights.

The case was R. v. Morgentaler, in which the Supreme Court of Canada found that a provision in the criminal code that required abortions to be performed only at an accredited hospital with the proper certification of approval from the hospital’s therapeutic abortion committee violated the Canadian Constitution. (Therapeutic abortion committees were almost always comprised of men who would decide whether an abortion fit within the exception to the criminal offense of performing an abortion.)

In other countries, too, “human dignity” has been a key component in discussion about abortion rights. The German Federal Constitutional Court explicitly recognized that access to abortion was required by “the human dignity of the pregnant woman, her… right to life and physical integrity, and her right of personality.” The Supreme Court of Brazil relied on the notion of human dignity to explain that requiring a person to carry an anencephalic fetus to term caused “violence to human dignity.” The Colombian Constitutional Court relied upon concerns about human dignity to strike down abortion prohibition in instances where the pregnancy is the result of rape, involves a nonviable fetus, or a threat to the woman’s life or health.

Certainly, abortion rights are still severely restricted in some of the above-mentioned countries, and elsewhere throughout the world. Nevertheless, there is strong national and international precedent for locating abortion rights in the square of human dignity.

And where else would they be located? If dignity is all about permitting people to make decisions of fundamental personal importance, and it turns out, as it did with Texas, that politicians have thrown “women’s health and safety” smoke pellets to obscure the true purpose of laws like HB 2—to ban abortion entirely—where’s the dignity in that?

Perhaps I’m being too grumpy. Perhaps I should just take the win—and it is an important win that will shape abortion rights for a generation—and shut my trap. But I want more from Kennedy. I want him to demonstrate that he’s not a hopelessly patriarchal figure who has icky feelings when it comes to abortion. I want him to recognize that some women have abortions and it’s not the worst decision they’ve ever made or the worst thing that ever happened to him. I want him to recognize that women are people who deserve dignity irrespective of their choices regarding whether and when to become a mother. And, ultimately, I want him to write about a woman’s right to choose using the same flowery language that he uses to discuss LGBTQ rights and the dignity of LGBTQ people.  He could have done so here.

Forcing the closure of clinics based on empty promises of advancing public health is an affront to the basic dignity of women. Not only do such lies—and they are lies, as evidenced by the myriad anti-choice Texan politicians who have come right out and said that passing HB 2 was about closing clinics and making abortion inaccessible—operate to deprive women of the dignity to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term, they also presume that the American public is too stupid to truly grasp what’s going on.

And that is quintessentially undignified.

Commentary Violence

Inciting Hatred and Violence: Unfortunately, This Is Who We Are As a Nation

Jodi Jacobson

As a country, we are more like those we condemn for espousing hatred than most Americans would like to admit.

“This is not who we are.” “This is not America.” These sentiments have become a common refrain in recent years in the response to everything from mass shootings to police abuse of power and police brutality toward protesters, to blatantly racist acts by members of a fraternity. In response to a CIA report describing the extent of torture and brutality used on prisoners in the “war on terror,” President Barack Obama asserted “this is not who we are,” because torture is “contrary to our values.” And in the wake of the mass shootings last year in San Bernardino, California, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that: “Violence like this has no place in this country. This is not what we stand for, this is not what we do.”

But these statements are at best aspirational for a country in which the leaders of at least one major political party regularly exploit intolerance, fear, and “morality” to win campaigns, and in which the leaders of the other too often hide behind platitudes and half-measures intended to placate specific constituencies, but not fundamentally challenge those realities. They are at best aspirational for a country in which the beliefs of Islamic fundamentalists are condemned, but the same views when espoused by conservative Christian fundamentalists are given legal and social approval by both parties, because … religion. They are at best aspirational for a country in which women’s rights to their own bodies are a subject of ongoing debate, medical professionals are villainized and murdered, and rape and sexual assault are often blamed on the victim. These statements are also aspirational in a country in which we imprison people of color of every age, sex, and gender at rates far higher than whites; actively rip families apart by deporting millions of undocumented persons; and pass laws denying people access to basic human needs, like bathrooms, due to their gender identity.

We are not what we say. We are what we do.

Consider the events of the last 24 hours. A U.S.-born citizen (born in New York, living in Florida) opens fire in a large gay nightclub, killing at least 50 people and injuring at least 53 more. The shooter’s father suggested that the rampage was not due to religion but “may” have been incited by his son’s anger at seeing two men kissing. His former wife described him as being violent and unstable. He allegedly made a call to 9-1-1 to declare himself a supporter of ISIS. He used a military-grade assault rifle to carry out what is being called one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.

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In the immediate aftermath, even before details were known, the following happened: First, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has most recently worked strenuously to oppose the rights of transgender students in his state’s schools, tweeted and shared on Facebook the biblical quote from Galatians, 6:7, stating that “a man reaps what he sows.” Translation: The people killed had it coming because they were gay. (His staff later said the tweet was prescheduled. It stayed up for four hours.)

Before any details were shared by the FBI or Florida law enforcement, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), known for scapegoating Muslim Americans and calling for racial and religious profiling, was on CNN claiming that the U.S.-born shooter was “from Afghanistan.”

In short order, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) joined the fray by appearing on CNN. According to the transcript:

“If in fact this terrorist attack is one inspired by radical Islamic ideology, it is quite frankly not surprising that they would target this community in this horrifying way, and I think it’s something we’ll have to talk about some more here, across the country,” he said.

Rubio [also] said it’s not yet clear what the shooter’s motivations were, but that if radical Islamic beliefs were behind the shooting, “common sense tells you he specifically targeted the gay community because of the views that exist in the radical Islamic community with regard to the gay community.”

Rubio would appear to share those views “with regard to the gay community.” He is against same-sex marriage and made that opposition a key issue during his recent run for the GOP presidential nomination. He opposes legislation to make employment discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation illegal, supports “conversion therapy,” and is against the rights of gay persons to adopt children.

What, exactly, is the difference between the hatred spewed by radical Islamists and that by conservative Christian fundamentalists in the United States? How can any less responsibility be laid at the feet of the U.S. politicians and their supporters for violence and terror when they espouse the same forms of hatred and marginalization as those they blame for that terror? Why are we so quick to connect the lone gunman in Orlando with Islam and so unwilling to connect the “lone wolves” like Robert Dear, Angel Dillard, and Scott Roeder with the Christian right, or to hold young white star athletes accountable for the violence they commit against women? Why are we so loath to talk about rational limits on an AK-47 assault rifle, a weapon of war, when mass murders have become routine?

It may not be pretty and it may be hard to acknowledge, but as a country we are more like those we rush to condemn than we are willing to admit. We are a country founded on and fed by a strong historical current of patriarchy, white supremacy, systemic racism, misogyny, discrimination, and scapegoating, all of which in turn feeds hatred, violence, and terror. That is part of who we are as a nation. Pretending that is not the case is like pretending that your severely dysfunctional family is just fine, and that the violence you experience daily within it is just an aberration and not a fact of life.

But it is not an aberration. Christian fundamentalist hatred is not “better” than Islamic fundamentalist hatred. White American misogyny is not “better” than Islamic fundamentalist misogyny. Discrimination and the abrogation of rights of undocumented persons, people of color, LGBTQ people, or any other group by U.S. politicians is not different morally or otherwise than that practiced by “other” fundamentalists against marginalized groups in their own country.

We are what we do.

We like to act the victim, but we are the perpetrators. Until we come to grips with our own realities as a country and take responsibility for the ways in which politicians, the media, and corporate backers of both help bring about, excuse, and otherwise foster discrimination and hatred, we can’t even begin to escape the violence, and we certainly can’t blame anyone else. We must aspire to do better, but that won’t happen unless we take responsibility for our own part in the hatred at the start.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify the details around the Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweet.