It’s Sunday evening in Port-au-Prince and the temperature has cooled after a hot day. I’ve only been here since Friday, but already I feel immersed in so much news, updates and complexities. Some things have changed in the three months since I’ve been here. So much has not.
Many news organizations, from CNN to AP have taken the 6 month anniversary of the earthquake earlier this month to report on how little rubble has been cleared. I don’t know how they’re keeping track, but certainly very little seems to have been removed from the roads and camps and I know from April.
The General Hospital, on the other hand, is markedly different. In April, it was bustling with activity (even on a Sunday) and tents outside the buildings were filled with people. There were other problems, too – staff hadn’t paid since October of last year. Today, another Sunday, it was clear they’ve made great strides. The Haitian staff are now being paid, the tents have been removed, and the campus seemed quite clean and orderly … a paradise compared to the nearby Champ Mars camps which have surrounded the crushed National Palace since January.
Meanwhile, the epidemic of violence against women – specifically rapes (mostly by strangers) in the camps – continues. At a meeting of Kofaviv (Commission of Women Victims for Victims) which I attended on Friday, five women reported being raped in the past week. A 25-year-old with an adorable daughter told how she was gang-raped. An 8-year-old introduced herself – she is also a victim.
How can I even process this information? How can you? I’m not sure I can. I repeat these stories just to make them real, in my own mind. To bear witness. To not forget.
I accompanied another group, Favilek (Women Victims Get up Stand up) to distribute additional whistles to a camp where they’ve been working. After two taxi drives and a hike up an utterly destroyed road, we reached the Camp Bo Marché. It’s in a hilly area of Port-au-Prince that was badly hit by the quake. As we walked around, speaking to women and handing off the plastic whistles, our guides kept showing us the problems – the ragged states of their tents, the lack of protection against tropical storms, how close their quarters were. I saw women bathing and dressing as I walked through the space.
But the women in Bo Marché also talked of how useful the whistles have been in preventing intruders from attacking women in their tents. One said she tells her friends to always have the whistle nearby – “treat it like your flashlight & phone.” Another explained that when one person starts using the whistle in the night, everyone nearby will use hers as well to surround a would-be attacker and provide protection. When we asked how they provide protection, they vaguely mentioned people with machetes. No – really.
Our partners the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and Madre will be releasing their report within the week from their fact-finding mission on the issue of Rape in Haiti. We’re collaborating with them and the awesome New Media Advocay Project on a Rape Accountability and Action Project. While I’m here, I’m talking with the women about how mobile phones and other tools can aid their work, building off of the model of Handheld Human Rights in Southeast Asia.
There are no easy answers but it’s truly an honor to be working with these women. Their grace under pressure and willingness to share harrowing stories in pursuit of justice has been quite an honor to witness. You can keep up with all of this work on the Digital Democracy website – http://www.digital-democracy.org.