PORT-AU-PRINCE – Women who are victims of violence now have a dedicated place to seek help from the police in this capital city.

The center housed within the police station at Fort National was inaugurated in a ceremony last week. A group of specially trained officers in blue and beige uniforms stood tall outside the police station on a hill overlooking downtown as samba played from loudspeakers, courtesy of Brazilian peacekeepers.

The project is the result of several years of advocacy and planning by women’s rights organizations, the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety and the Ministry of Women’s affairs and Women’s rights, with funding and technical support provided by the UN and foreign donors.

While there aren’t reliable statistics on the exact scale of the problem, in large part because so many crimes go unreported. But women’s rights groups say gender-based violence is a big problem in the country. They say incidents of rape increase during the carnival period and women are particularly vulnerable at times of political instability and general insecurity, conditions which Haiti has only emerged from in the past year and a half.

The facility at Fort National – and a second one due to open shortly in nearby Delmas – is part of a broader push by the national police force and the government to address the problem of gender-based violence.
“We must overcome the taboos and the macho culture within our society in our struggle to combat violence against women,” said Stanley Jean Brice, police chief for the West department, which includes Port-au-Prince.

The police force’s national coordinator for women’s affairs, Marie-Louise Gauthier, says courses on violence against women and gender relations will be given to all new police recruits and there are plans to extend training to all officers already serving.

The two pilot sites at Fort National and in Delmas will be used to develop other women’s centers in police stations across the country. Gauthier says Fort National was chosen as the inaugural location because its serves Bel Air, a poor neighborhood with a high crime rate.

The center at Fort National is based on a Brazilian model of police stations specially designed for female victims. It consists of a suite of four simply furnished rooms; a reception area, an investigations office and a small room at the back with two beds for women to rest.

The officers in charge have been trained in how to sensitively question and comfort victims. “You don’t want to further victimize someone by asking the wrong kinds of questions,” says Gauthier.

They also investigate the crimes, make sure women get the proper medical documents required by the courts, and refer them to medical, psychological and residential services after they leave the station.

Beyond providing aid to women in need, advocates hope these centers will encourage more women to come forth and in so doing end the cycle of shame and impunity.

“The goal is to break the silence that surrounds rape and conjugal violence, and to allow the police to get a sense of the problem and to deal with it.” says Baudouine Kamatari head of the UN Peacekeeping Mission’s (MINUSTAH) Gender Unit.

Gauthier says tackling violence is a long-term process, the next step, she says, is getting the word out that there is a safe place for women to come forward.

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