PORT-AU-PRINCE – As she tells her story, Jeane Andrena Laventure begins to choke up. But she keeps going – detailing a decade of abuse at the hands of her husband and the father of her two children. On the night of August 24, he beat her almost to death. Two weeks ago, on the advice of a friend, she came to Kay Fanm, a woman’s organization downtown.
Kay Fanm, and other centers which provide services and shelter to female victims of violence, say more and more women are coming to them for help. Between 2005 and 2007, the overall number more than doubled to 3012. Last year, over 2000 women sought help at four organizations in the first half of the year alone.
Paradoxically, these growing numbers offer hope say women’s rights activists. Marine Desmousseaux, who compiles Haiti’s annual statistics on gender-based violence, says these figures – which are only the tip of the iceberg – don’t necessarily mean violence is increasing. What they do point to, she says, is that more and more women are having the courage to speak out against their abusers, a sign that the work of those fighting for women’s equality is paying off.
Women’s rights activists say while much remains to be done, more than ever before Haiti is tackling the problem of gender-based violence.
This is the fruit of 30 years of hard work by feminist organizations says Maryse Jean Jacques who runs a shelter for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights.
What’s changed is that they are working in concert with the government.
In 2003, the Concertation National Contre la Violence Faites aux Femmes was created.
The group includes several government ministries (health, justice and women’s affairs), women’s rights organizations, and international health organizations and donors. It sets strategies, coordinates the work of its members and serves as a place for civil society to lobby the government on issues relating to women’s safety.
Before the group was created, “it was only women’s organizations that talked about the problem of violence against women,” said Dr. Marjory Joseph who trains health professionals and judges in how to work with female victims.
“A woman who’d been beaten was reluctant to complain,” said Dr. Joseph. If she did, “the judge might ask, what did you do to your husband?”
Activists say the changes talking place in Haiti today are in large part a product of the work of activists seeking justice for victims of one of the darkest chapters in Haiti’s recent history.
In the aftermath of the overthrow, in 1991, of Jean Bertrand Aristide, the ruling junta unleashed violent attacks against Aristide’s supporters. In many instances, rape was used as a weapon.
“It was something we’d never seen in Haiti,” said Jean Jacques who worked underground with female victims. “Rape had become a political tool.”
It was out of those dark years, women’s movement veterans say, that a lot of the momentum for change sprang forth.
A turning point says, Magalie Marcelin (one Kay Fanm’s founders), was a symbolic public trial held in Port-au-Prince in 1996 which brought judges from around the world. It didn’t have the legal status to convict and sentence people, but it served as a popular forum for women to come out of the shadows and describe what had happened to them.
“It had a big impact,” said Marcelin. Women’s rights groups banded together, delivered a series of resolutions to parliament and began negotiating with lawmakers to change legislation.
In 1999, URAMEL (Unite de Recherche et d’Action Medico-Legale) was founded to seek justice for victims of violence after the coup, says its Coordinator, Dr. Joseph. Today a lot of its work centers on working within the health and legal systems to combat gender-based violence.
Women’s rights groups point to a number of achievements in recent years as signs that Haiti is confronting the problem of violence against women.
Only a few years ago, says Dr. Joseph, the law didn’t talk about sexual assault, it referred to attacks on morals. In 2005 these laws were revised and the punishment for rape was increased from a three to nine year sentence, to a mandatory 10-year sentence with longer jail terms for aggravating circumstances.
A medical certificate has been created to help gather proof in rape cases. After lobbying from women’s rights groups the certificate is now offered at no cost.
Under the Concertation’s 5-year national plan, all new and current national police officers will be trained in how to assist female victims of violence. The first class of graduates will staff a special center to receive women and girls which opened at the police station in the neighborhood of Belair in the capital last month. The police plan to open more such centers throughout the country.
In addition to police officers, judges and health professionals are also being trained in how to handle cases involving violence against women so that justice is served.
Last year the Ministry of Women’s Affairs opened its first shelter for battered women.
And there are ongoing campaigns in the media and in classrooms to change public attitudes towards gender-based violence and get to the roots of the problem.
At Kay Fanm’s offices, Marcelin points to different materials the organization has produced as part of public awareness campaigns. One is a sticker depicting a purple drum with a yellow skin over top. Across the drum is written in Creole words that translate as, The drum beats so that women and children will stop being raped and abused.
“It’s very symbolic in the Haitian cultural imagination,” says Marcelin. “The sound of the drum is the sound of freedom, it’s the sound of slaves breaking with slavery.”
As they try to change attitudes advocates say they are confronting deeply held social customs that value paternal authority and honor.
“A girl or a woman who is raped, will often be forced into marrying her aggressor in order to protect the honor of her family, said Dr. Joseph.
These attitudes are changing but she says a judge recently asked her if she thought it might better for a young rape victim if no one knew about it.
Another challenge women face is that judges often fail to charge men in cases of conjugal violence and seek instead to work out a resolution between the couple rather than apply the law, according to Smith Maxime (accent aigue on the “e”) national program officer for rights and gender with the United Nations Population Fund.
There are no special penalties for conjugal violence because it is not a separate crime under Haitian law, but a violent assault by anyone is still a crime according to the penal code and should result in prosecution, says Maxime.
That was the case for Jeane Andrena Laventure who said she’s been seeking a divorce for years from her abusive husband whose never been prosecuted for beating her.
A proposed national law on gender-based violence would distinguish between conjugal violence and other assaults, but it is still in the works.
There are also no programs to rehabilitate men who have been convicted of violence against women.
The new government run women’s shelter and the stories of the women who live there reveal both the progress Haiti is making and how far it has to go in assuring women’s safety.
The sprawling split level whitewashed building is set on verdant grounds. Lush trees grow in the building’s inner courtyard.
Inside, the airy rooms have high ceilings and generous windows. But the medical examination room is bare and no longer has a regularly visiting doctor.
Its director Maryse Jean Jacques says the shelter only opened last summer after long delays and her work has been hampered by poor planning at the ministry and her need to get everything approved by ill-informed bureaucrats.
Today there are only 13 beds though plans called for 50 – Jean Jacques says there will soon be 30 beds in total. There is no play area for the children who live with their mothers at the shelter, though Jean Jacques says staff supplement the center’s meager resources by bringing toys for the children.
Chief social worker Fernide Chavanne, says the shelter has no armed guards and a request for neighborhood patrols by the police has gone unanswered.
On a weekday at lunchtime there is a subdued air as four women and four children sit down to a meal of wheat berries and turkey in the shelter’s large dining room. Most of the women are young and poor and they bear the physical scars of the violence they’ve suffered.
A young woman with a sweet face in a striped white dress just came back from a month-long stay in the hospital after suffering from an acute reaction to the anti-retroviral drugs she needs after she contracted HIV when she was gang-raped last year.
A heavy-set woman in a blue shirt and dark skirt walks with a limp, on her hand and foot are gashes from an attack by her husband that left their daughter dead. She can’t leave the shelter because her husband is still threatening to kill her.
“Marie” (not her real name) is a slender woman with a vacant look in her eyes. She doesn’t know how old she is, only that she’s been on the street since she was 10 and like her mother, has been a prostitute since she was 13. An 8-inch scar runs down the back of her right arm where she was shot last year in an attempted mugging. This is her second stay at the shelter.
Jean Jacques says that while they can provide food, shelter, as well as medical and psychological treatment, once the women leave, she doesn’t have the resources to help them find jobs and reintegrate society. She wishes the shelter could offer them help with work and supply them with micro-credit.
“We call them once in a while,” Chavanne said.
“I’d like to find work as a maid,” said Marie, “but working in the street is the only way I know how to make money.”