Anti-rape legal experts mobilize for change in Haiti

Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Displaced Haitians Set Up Camp on Port-au-Prince golf grounds as an elderly and younger woman is seen on the grounds of the Petionville Club, a golf and tennis resort where an estimated 50,000 Haitians displaced by the earthquake have pitched makeshift tents for shelter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Image: UN Multimedia / Sophia Paris

Images of Port-au-Prince, Haiti under massive death, destruction and rubble are starting to fade from the media, but conditions of squalor and psychological aftershocks remain as Haiti deals with a persistent crisis – an ongoing sexual violence directed against innocent women and girls.

Releasing a strategic plan for family housing for an estimated 1.3 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who occupy one thousand camps in the region, including twenty-two named separate displacement camps inside Port-au-Prince, the government of Haiti is beginning a new focus in the handling of rape crime, with promises to push legislative measures throughout the system. The goal is to bring greater security to all women in Haiti.

“We need to change all this. It is our will and our mission to change all this, to make sure the rule of law reigns in Haiti, that justice is for everybody, that the police do their job,” said Haiti’s new President-elect Michel Martelly, following a recent May 6, 2011 TrustLaw project anti-rape forum on sexual violence in Port-au-Prince.

Providing a pro-bono global network of 160 corporate counsels and law firms, individual attorneys and legal teams are now making themselves available to assist women in diverse global regions who have little to no access to any legal assistance. The TrustLaw Connect initiative, sponsored by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, is assisting to bring expert information together on current conditions covering sexual violence and violence against women in Haiti. Initiatives like the recent forum in Port-au-Prince are helping to compare law legislation in South Africa, Brazil, France, Sweden, Canada and the United States, along with a review of Haiti’s current laws.

Bringing together attorneys, Members of the Haitian Parliament, medical doctors, health-workers, police officers and women’s organizations, the forum on sexual violence against women discussed many critical needs and critical solutions. “The problem is very serious and I don’t underestimate the problem of sexual violence,” continued President-elect Martelly.

“More female police officers should be appointed to help change attitudes in precincts and provide better support for rape survivors,” said the consensus among the participants of the recent TrustLaw forum.

The problems are more than numerous. They are often overwhelming. Swift medical treatment following rape has been almost non-existent inside the camps with victims of rape falling into every age group. Girl victims are also often common targets. A recent University of Michigan (U.S.) sponsored study in Port-au-Prince estimates that over half of the victims in their survey on sexual assault were under the age of eighteen.

Proper procedure in gathering evidence on rape cases, along with greater sensitivity to privacy and attention to medical needs, are part of a solutions-based focus. For members of the HNP – Haitian National Police in Port-au-Prince this means more than a brief training on rape violence is needed. A majority of recent training programs for Haiti’s police force, in cooperation with U.S. funding, has centered on counternarcotics enforcement.

“Medical needs for dignity and privacy with exams and in gathering forensic evidence with the crime is also an important part of proper procedure when a rape has been reported,” says a 2004 U.S. Department of Justice – Office on Violence Against Women report that is now used in many U.S. police training manuals. “It is critical that all examiners, regardless of their discipline, are committed to providing compassionate and quality care for patients disclosing sexual assault, collecting evidence competently, and testifying in court as needed,” continues the report.

As stronger knowledgeable police presence is needed in the camps, a comprehensive understanding of the violent nature of attacks ,that can include severe bodily damage, is also needed.

“I went to Cafeteria Police Station that same night to report the rape and file a complaint,” said 34-year-old rape victim, Josette, in a 2010 Amnesty International on-the-ground interview. “The police officer on duty asked me for money to buy fuel for the police car but he did not write anything down on paper!” she said. Josette, an earthquake widow and mother of four, has not been able to regain her business as a street vendor since the earthquake and its after-shocks first hit Port-au-Prince.

Only 385 arrests out of 622 rape crime reports were made in 2010, shared Port-au-Prince Chief of Police, Mario Andresol,  during the recent forum on sexual violence. Of those arrested in 2010 only a small portion, 45 rape criminals to date, have been convicted of their crime.

It is hoped that specifically directed legal advocacy can help. “Through a comparative legal study launched via our international network of pro-bono lawyers, we hope the experience and best practices of other countries will help Haiti strengthen its anti-rape laws and tackle impunity,” said Reuters AlertNet editor and TrustLaw Emergency Information Service officer Timothy Large during a recent Women News Network interview.

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