On a quest to find a new project for the University of Virginia School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic, clinic director and law professor Deena Hurwitz headed to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in early May with a delegation of lawyers to research gender-based violence. The group got a look at post-disaster Port-au-Prince from the perspective of displaced women and girls who had been raped in tent camps. Hurwitz, 53, said the delegation met with victims and people who had been and should be helping these women, including government officials.
“While it appears from an objective viewpoint that the Haitian government would be overwhelmed and effectively dysfunctional, the crises before and after the earthquake do not relieve the government from the responsibility to protect citizens from violations of their rights,” she said. Hurwitz said that the victims don't know their perpetrators, can have difficulty getting adequate medical help and aren't necessarily successful in getting help from police. The law professor, who also is the director of the law school's Human Rights Program, said a DNA identification database would be a “revolution” but is a long-term goal.
Q. Prior to the earthquake, what was the incidence of gender-based violence in Haiti?
A. I haven't been that involved in Haiti before this, but my guess is it was more a problem of domestic violence, and I think that colors how the government and some international organizations view how things are now. We hear comments like “there is a lot of promiscuity” or “people get drunk.” What we saw is a terrible criminal situation where there are women being gang raped, or raped by multiple individuals who attack together, by people who they never knew before. They enter their tents often armed with knives and threaten them if they tell anybody.
Q. How are these acts of violence able to happen?
A. Imagine a big park and lean-to emergency tents erected all over the place. You're walking in between the tents on muddy pathways. The outermost tent is on the road. There might be a gate or fence, but you can just jump over it. There are no locks on tents or security. The people in camps by and large are the really poor. Part of it is the opportunity and the anarchy. We met people who had been raped in 2004 after the coup d'etat, so that was politically motivated and involved retribution. This seems to be very random. Transactional sex is a huge problem. What happens is humanitarian organizations provide food cards that can be traded for food. Corruption being what it is, people will sell those cards or give them out based on favoritism. They've been selling them for sex and sexual favors. Women are desperate, and they will do that.
Q. Is there medical care available for rape victims?
A. A lot of the women we interviewed had infections from the rape. Part of the problem is that the clinics that are able to deal with women were just inundated. One woman said the line was so long that [she] left. It costs money to get to the clinic, so how are people who don't have much money going to pay the bus fare to get to the clinic?
Q. Are victims reporting the rapes to the authorities?
A. For the most part, there is a pretty cynical feeling towards the government. We heard stories of women who were told by the police that if you see the guy, bring him to me, or if you're having problems with rape, go tell the president. It's his problem.
We did meet with the head of the [Haitian National Police]. He was very responsive and he understood the problem. He created a gender unit within the National Police and we were able to meet with the deputy head to talk about training officers to be more responsive. We were told there were woman officers in every precinct station. If it's true, it's very unlikely that these women are the ones out front. The issue would be educating the victims to ask for a woman officer that they can report to and not take no for an answer.
Q. What can be done to help these women?
A. There is an information card that organizations have distributed that has information about reporting and getting medical checkups, but there were a lot of wrong numbers on the card. There is a law firm that is working on translating a [card with accurate information] into Creole. Part of the prosecution is collecting the testimony and the evidence, so that's one of the things that lawyers and maybe law students can assist with. When we were down there, it was pretty clear that the importance of preserving evidence isn't under-stood by the victims. In the tents, it's just a mud floor … If a woman had something that could be evidence, where is she going to keep that?