Sitting with a group of parents and their children on the porch of Profamil's headquarters, Mariola Dhema recounted vividly the day her three-year old daughter was raped by a 10 and a four-year old boys. Shifting on her chair and visibly uncomfortable, Dhema said the older boy pinned her daughter down while the other one jumped on top of her, leaving her bruised and bloodied.
Dhema, 40, who has another child, a 14-year old boy, said she discovered the abuse later that night, as she was bathing her daughter and saw blood trickling out of her vagina. A street vendor, who spent her entire day peddling her goods, Dhema, went to the local police precinct and filed a report. Like most victims of gender-based violence, neighbors blamed her for being an absentee mother and her little girl for being “loose”.
“The say that if I have the boys arrested, it would be unfair,” Dhema said, her voice cracking. “My little girl is innocent. But they don't see the abuse they've done to my daughter and me. I don't know if she'll come out of this okay. She is so young. How can they do that to her?”
The boys are now in jail, awaiting trial for the rape. Dhema, fearing for retribution left the camp where she had lived after losing their homes in the January 2010 earthquake.
In many ways, Dhema is unusual because she is one of the rare people to report a rape in a country where the crime goes often unreported because of the social stigma and feared retaliation from perpetrators.
Women's and human rights groups say that since the earthquake, a crisis of gender-based violence is growing and festering. Adding to the mix is that dozens of cases of rapes and other abuses are filed against United Nations peacekeepers sent to the country ostensibly to stabilize escalating political violence in 2004.
Researchers with the Global Justice Center and Center for Human Rights and Global Justice estimate that 14 percent of households reported that at least one member of the household had been a victim of sexual violence since the earthquake. Victims were typically young, female, and deprived of access to food, water and sanitation, the researches added.
Combating this problem takes a Herculean effort and with its limited resources, Profamil has been working largely to educate young women and girls about the dangers of being alone, particularly at night and what to do in the event they find themselves in harms way.
“Obviously this is an extremely delicate and complex issue,” Dr. Gardner Michaud said. He is Profamil's executive director. “We intervene in ways that we can be most effective.”
Dr. Michaud said that when they hear of cases like that of Dhema's little girl, they can alert the authorities for the parents and help guide them to the cumbersome judicial process. They also provide comfort and a warm environment.
Until a year ago, Profamil hired a psychologist who provided counseling to victims, but he was let go because of budget cuts.
Given the precarious legal system, most of the aggressors are not being prosecuted. Investigators are not familiar with gathering basic medical evidence and there is poor coordination between the police, health care officials and the judiciary. Dr. Michaud said that with enough resources, Profamil can play a leading role in helping investigators collect evidence to be sure the issue of gender-based violence is not a post earthquake phenomenon in Haiti and it transcends class and age groups.
According to the World Bank, about 70 percent of Haitian women are victims of gender-based violence. Rape and violence are also a sobering reality for Haitian women in the home. A survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health found that out of 10,757 women surveyed between the ages 15 to 49, 10.8 percent reported experiencing sexual violence from an intimate partner.
Odette Bien-Aime, 30, has been living with the father of her two children since 2003. Like most relationships there are rocky moments. But in 2006, her common law husband began beating her during arguments. She was punched so severely one time that Bien-Aime had to go to the emergency room for treatment.
Thus began a dark trend with her husband delivering beatings on her at will. He spent one night hitting and burning her with cigarette butts. Bien-Aime has left her husband many times but because she depends on him for financial support, she continues to endure the abuses. She has never called the police on him.
“I'm enduring this for the children,” Bien-Aime said in an almost sheepish voice. “I can't help them if he's locked up. “
Bien-Aime is a virtual slave. She stays inside and goes out occasionally and when she does, she is often accompanied by her husband or one of his surrogates. Still, he accuses her of being unfaithful and uses that as an excuse for his abuses, Bien-Aime said.
In the past, Bien-Aime would be able to turn to many women's rights organization. But in a strange twist of fate, many of these organizations lost key members during the earthquake and are now trying to regroup and re-launch their activism on behalf of women. Even the Ministry of Women's Affairs lost senior staff members who were drafting laws to protect women's rights. Now the process has been stalled and no one knows when or if these proposals will be presented to Parliament for a vote.
Rape perpetrators are not exclusively Haitians. The United Nations mission in Haiti, which was sent to the politically troubled country in 2004 after the ouster of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has been embroiled in many allegations of rape and abuses by its soldiers.
The situation was so alarming that Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, made a special trip to Haiti earlier this year to address the issue.
“Allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by some mission personnel have badly eroded support (for the U.N.) and undermined its work,” Rice told reporters at that time. “We are deeply troubled by these allegations and expect the United Nations to redouble its efforts to prevent any further incidents and to hold those responsible, accountable.”
Garry Pierre-Pierre is the founder of Haitian Times. He is currently the executive director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism.