Challenging Violence: Haitian Women Unite Women’s Rights and Human Rights
I am privileged to present on this page an analysis quite sobering yet optimistic, on the legal, judicial, and political aspects of a major social ill: Violence Against Women, as it occurs in Haiti.
The article, entitled "Challenging Violence: Haitian Women Unite Women's Rights and Human Rights" from Anne Fuller, originally appeared in the Women and War bulletin by the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars in their Spring/Summer 1999 issue. Anne graciously submitted the article to Windows on Haiti to broaden its reach. I invite you to read it, and reflect on the means to bring about a sharp reduction in the inordinate number of daily instances of violence against Haitian Women.
Certainly, this is not a Haitian problem at its core, as the manifestations of violence against women occur universally. However, societies differ in the ways they go about protecting the rights of their members. In Haiti, legal protection and redress for women are substantially weaker, and we need to aggressively reinforce them. In particular, we need to ask why, during Haiti's recurring periods of political repression, the rape of women, often in plain view of their family members, becomes such a widespread tactic. Secondly, we must challenge the notion that is prevalent in some quarters in Haiti that wife-beating is a private matter, perhaps even one of marriage's rights. Thirdly, there is the endemic problem of the restaveks, disproportionately female, who are so ordinarily abused physically as punishment for every transgression, small or large, real or imagined.
Women Rights is nothing more than Human Rights, and as a society we need be reminded that we are EQUALLY human, and must be treated accordingly. On this note, I invite you to read Anne Fuller's treatment of this topic, which follows.
Guy S. Antoine
Challenging Violence: Haitian Women Unite Women’s Rights and Human Rights
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 1999 by the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. Special Bulletin on Women and War. ACAS website: http://acas.prairienet.org.
In Haiti before the 1991 coup d’état, human rights and feminism were rarely mentioned in the same breath. The concept of human rights received broad although often insincere support, while feminism and women’s rights were often treated as marginal and even risible concerns. Haiti’s 29 years of dictatorship under Duvalier father and son (1957-1986) was viewed through the lens of political repression (politics) and human rights violations (human rights) but rarely through a gendered scope. In recent years, however, since violence against women has begun to be accepted as a human rights concern, popular opposition to it has grown, human rights organizations have moved to adopt it as an issue, and the state has come under pressure to make reforms.
This article examines the growth and evolution of the Haitian women’s movement, especially its approach to issues of violence. How has the movement located violence in relation to international human rights concerns, to politics in Haiti and to the Haitian human rights movement? How far has it succeeded in raising general awareness about violence and discrimination against women and what actual changes has it contributed to effecting? What human rights protections have Haitian women secured and how significant are they in practice?
Haiti’s Record on Ratification of Human Rights Instruments
Haiti has ratified a number of major human rights treaties, including some pertaining specifically to women, and has given significant formal recognition to human rights in its Constitution. As one of the original members of the United Nations, Haiti took part in the proclamation on December 10, 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Haitian Constitution, ratified by 99% of voters in 1987, accords a place of honor to the Universal Declaration, enshrining it in its preamble alongside Haiti's 1804 independence declaration. The Constitution also specifically guarantees many of the political, civil, economic and social rights that the Declaration upholds. Article 276-2 of the Constitution states that treaties duly ratified by the country become law without requiring any activating legislation.
Article 276-2: “Les Traités, ou accords internationaux, une fois sanctionnés et ratifiés dans les formes prévues par la Constitution, font partie de la Législation du Pays et abrogent toutes les Lois qui leur sont contraires.”
Haiti ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1981, and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, known as the ”Belem do Para Convention” in 1996. The record shows that Haiti has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1972), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1991, although signed in 1966), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1996).
Haiti has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights or the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, among other human rights instruments.
Ratification, however, is but one step, and in Haiti’s case, it has had little practical or even formal significance. With regard to the CEDAW, under both dictatorship and democracy, Haiti has ignored its commitment to make implementation-progress reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Neither the initial report due in 1982, nor follow-up report in 1986, 1990, 1994 and 1998 have been submitted.
Haitian government delegations have participated in all UN international conferences on women, although there is scant record of their role before Beijing. In Mexico in 1975, the Haitian representative spoke about protective laws adopted by her government in favor of women. (Anglade 1995, 167) The 1995 Beijing Conference saw both a governmental (from the newly created Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights) and an NGO delegation, and NGOs, in particular, disseminated a great deal of information about the conference, both before and afterward.
Women under Haitian Law
Strictly speaking, thus, the rights and protections of CEDAW and Belem do Para have become part of Haitian legislation. However, despite anecdotal evidence that Belem do Para has been cited in a Haitian court since its ratification, these instruments are not yet truly recognized by the Haitian legal system. Haiti’s courts function day-to-day using codes of laws in the French tradition. Jurisprudence is little developed and Penal and Civil Codes are essentially 19th century instruments. In 1982, a landmark decree made women equal to men, particularly within marriage, but different penalties for breaches of laws continue to be applied, even though they may contradict this decree, the 1987 Constitution, and ratified treaties.
Haitian women activists cite several areas where the law discriminates against women and requires urgent change:
§ Adultery is classified as a delit, or second-level crime, and women who are caught are punished with three months to two years imprisonment, while men pay only a fine. Murder committed by a husband who discovers his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto may be excused by a judge and, in any event, punished by no more than two years in prison.
§ Rape is never actually defined in the law but is classified among crimes against morals, (“atteintes aux bonnes moeurs”) The courts have attributed less importance to the rape of a woman who is not a virgin on the pretext that her honor is not at issue. Medical certificates are required to prove rape and are difficult to impossible for most women to obtain
§ Abortion is illegal under all circumstances, even for therapeutic purposes, and punishable by 3-9 years in prison. A doctor or other person who performs an abortion can be jailed for 3-15 years. Girls and young women are usually dismissed from school and domestic workers from jobs if they become pregnant and they are among those most as risk for complications from illegal abortions. Prosecutions for abortion, however, are very rare.
§ Violence is punished by laws against assault and battery, according to the circumstances of the attack and the degree of injury to the victim. Assault on a parent or adoptive parent is singled out for additional penalties, but no special mention is made of assault by men on women. Domestic abuse has traditionally been seen as an internal family matter and not penalized.
§ The rights of women in common-law marriage (plaçage) are not recognized. Only a minority of Haitian couples are legally married, yet the law does not recognize many rights, particularly of inheritance, of the woman living in plaçage, the most common form of stable union. Children born to women not married to their father also suffer. Although exclusive fidelity by women is a firmly recognized social norm, it is implicitly admitted that men have more than one sexual partner. In a recent survey, 32.5% of men in stable unions also reported having had more than one sexual partner during the previous month.” (Adrien & Cayemittes, cited in CIFD 1991, 67) Among other distortions caused by the law’s non-recognition of widespread social practices, a married man may not recognize children born of a woman other than his wife, leading such children to sometimes be falsely registered as the children of the married woman.
Measuring Violence Against Women
There is little data on the extent of the problem of violence against women. A 1996 UNICEF-supported investigation by the Centre Haïtien de Recherches et d’Actions pour la Promotion Féminine, is criticized for methodological weaknesses, and by some for its premise that violence against women and girls is “a social phenomena, an ancestral heritage, linked to our customs (moeurs) and habits as a people and consequently independent of social conditions, matrimonial status, religious convictions or level of education of its victims.” (CHREPROF, 1996, 4) It was published in a popular illustrated version, is fairly well known and widely used despite these shortcomings.
Seven out of ten women interviewed by CHREPROF said they had been victims of violence, with the most common form (37%) being sexual violence (defined as including rape, sexual aggression, seduction [use of lies or tricks to obtain sexual favors], and sexual harassment). Fifty percent of the aggressors were husbands or boyfriends. One third of respondents said they had been victims of physical violence (blows, beatings). Girls were proportionately more frequently victims of sexual violence, and 87% of violence against girls was by family or close friends.
The study found that level of education and relative economic status of the men and women implicated made little difference, and that violence was found in similar proportions among Catholics, Protestants, Vodouisants, and non religious. Sixty-six percent of victims said they had kept their experience secret, for fear of “social judgement” (32%), “reprisal” (22%) or lack of appropriate legal measures (14%).
One of the most interesting findings concerned men’s views: 90% of those interviewed said they had never used violence against a woman, but fully 80% believed that violence was sometimes justified, such as in cases where women were rowdy (tapageuse), extravagant, refuse to obey, or commit adultery.
CHREPROF and other sources cite a finding from an investigation into sexual behavior and AIDS (cited in CIFD 1991, 65) that 29% of women had not consented to their first sexual experience. The same study noted a prevalence of violent expressions commonly used by men to describe sexual intercourse (crushing, hitting, beating, etc.).
Studies about violence against women in Latin America may be considered to have certain relevance for Haiti. One out of four Latin American and Caribbean women is victim of physical abuse in her home, and only 5-15% report the crime, according to a recent study done for the Inter-American Development Bank. (IPS, 12/3/1998)
In a related area, with abortion illegal under all circumstances, the number of illegal abortions performed is unknown. However, Haiti has the lowest life expectancy (57 in 1996) and highest maternal mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere (600 per 100,000 in 1987-89) and this is “believed to be related to clandestine, unsafe abortions” (World Bank, 1998, 2: 13).
A World Health Organization study recently estimated that “41 of every 1,000 Latin American and Caribbean women undergo abortions in unsafe or life-threatening conditions – a proportion three times higher than the average for the industrialized countries.” (IPS, 10/12/1998)
The Development of the Haitian Women’s Movement
The first Haitian feminist organization was the Women’s League for Social Action (Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale) founded in 1934 by a group of women intellectuals, professionals and activists from the middle and upper classes. It played an important role in politics for the next 25 years, focusing mainly on legal rights – suffrage, access to education, equality for married women. The Constitution of 1950 gave women a limited right to vote (with their husbands’ permission); in 1957 they obtained full equal suffrage. This was the election that brought to power François (Papa Doc) Duvalier. “¼[I]n a bitter twist of fate, gaining access to the vote entailed the elimination of ‘protective’ paternalist state policies that defined women as dependent persons. The brutally repressive regime of the Duvalier’ dictatorship was to turn Haitian women into full political subjects.” (Charles, 1995, 147)
Many members of the League became victims under François Duvalier (1957-1971) and his son, Jean-Claude(1971-1986.) The arrest and torture of prominent journalist Yvonne Hakim Rimpel in 1958 was one of the earliest examples of Papa Doc’s brutal violence. Hakim Rimpel, together with her two daughters, was taken from her house in the night, stripped naked, tortured, and possibly raped. (Zéphir, 1991, 27) The League immediately published a protest note signed by 36 courageous women and called for an investigation. Soon after this, it like other independent political organizations, was driven into silence.
In the 1970s, a few charitable and professional women’s groups began to form within Haiti, while a new women’s movement was emerging among exiles in the United States and Canada. The movement was situated “within the broad framework of anti-imperialist struggles” (Charles, 1995, 150), with Haiti’s liberation the priority, but eventually, Haitian women in New York and Montreal began to focus on specific women’s issues, “especially the problems encountered by women in political organizations, within households and as immigrants.” (Charles, 1995, 150) They were influenced by the women’s movement in the U.S. and Canada and by the United Nations’ Declaration of the 1975-1985 Decade on Women.
1986-1991: Flourishing of Civil Society Organizations
With the fall of Duvalier in 1986, many activists returned to Haiti and helped create women‘s organizations there, in what Charles describes as the “transnationalization” of Haitian women’s struggles. At least 60% of the founding members of new groups like Solidarité Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA, Haitian Women’s Solidarity) and Kay Fanm (Women’s House) had lived outside of Haiti. (Charles, 1995, 152)
Two months after the liberation, on April 3, 1986, more than 30,000 women took to the streets of Port-au-Prince in a peaceful protest organized by some 15 different groups. “It was a revolt against exclusion. The country was being remade and we didn’t want it to be remade without us” (nou pa t vle peyi a ta refet san nou). (Personal conversation with Myriam Merlet, Enfofanm, March 17, 1999). The issues on the banners of the marchers were many: poverty, sexual harassment, rape, loans for women, joblessness, education. The April 3 anniversary is recalled each year and has been proposed as a national women’s day.
In a parallel fashion, human rights activists who had established organizations in the Dominican Republic (Centre Œcumenique des Droits Humains) and the United States (Centre Haitien des Droits et Libertés) opened offices in Haiti, where they were joined by others who had remained in the country (Ligue des Anciens Prisonniers Politiques, etc.). This was the second wave of Haitian human rights organizations; the first had been the emergence in the late 1970’s of the Ligue Haïtienne pour les Droits de l’Homme, swiftly crushed after a brief period of liberalization. The emerging women’s movement and the human rights movement, although part of the same broad assertion of democratic civil society, established very different agendas. Human rights groups were at first concerned with establishing the truth and obtaining justice for the killings, torture and disappearances of 1957-1986. This was a task they never completed as their attentions were forced to new violations committed by the largely military rulers of the period.
From 1986 to 1991, taking advantage of freedoms of association and speech despite successive coups d’état, all sorts of organizations of civil society were created, grew, and sometimes splintered. Groups like the Papaye Peasant Movement (Mouvement Paysan de Papaye) began to have significant female membership and women’s sections. Women themselves formed professional groups, alumni associations, women’s clubs, cooperatives and feminist groups.
SOFA launched the first public campaign against violence against women in 1987, focusing around November 25, the International Day Against Violence Against Women, recognized by the United Nations and marked since 1981 in other Caribbean countries. In the next few years, there was a certain amount of mobilization around the issue – for the November 25 date – but women’s groups mostly had other priorities.
1991-1994: A New Degree of Violence
At the end of September 1991, when the military seized power from President Jean Bertrand Aristide, most independent groups went underground. The head of one leading human rights group, however, became prime minister in the first military government, justifying the military putsch as a response to what he saw as human rights violations and anti-democratic actions by Aristide. The President and his ministers were expelled from the country and spent three years in exile, organizing resistance and pressuring the international community to help return democracy to Haiti. A new generation of human rights NGOs organized a fax bulletin that went around the world, and information about human rights abuses inside Haiti played an important part in the international campaign against military rule. President Aristide sought a presence of international human rights monitors inside Haiti, and in 1993 the United Nations/Organization of American States International Civilian Mission in Haiti (MICIVIH) was created.
Human rights groups’ reports did not single out violations against women, but women’s organizations had been collecting specific information on attacks on women, including rapes, and were indignant that human rights NGOs were paying insufficient attention. Cases like that of Diana Laguerre outraged women activists. A mother of six, Laguerre was killed in December 1992 by her former companion, a military attaché, after she left him. He reportedly shot her and then in front of witnesses turned a knife in her vagina, saying she’d “never use it again to cuckold him.”(Se bòbot ou ki fè ou ap fè frekan konsa; kounya a sa fini.) (Komite Adòk kont Vyolans sou Fanm, 1992, 14) They organized in March 1993, the three-day-long First National Meeting on Violence Against Women (Premier Rencontre Nationale sur la Violence Faite aux Femmes).
Human rights abuses increased sharply in mid-1993, and rape, which had been infrequently reported, became much more common. Several human rights groups began to offer refuge and direct assistance to victims of abuse and Kay Fanm started its safe house for women.
The International Civilian Mission reported 66 instances of rape “of a political nature” between January and May 1994. (MICIVIH, June 17, 1994.) The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in a May visit documented 21 cases first-hand. Human Rights Watch/NCHR published “Rape in Haiti: a Weapon of Terror,” based on a February 1994 investigation, reporting “a campaign of systematic violations of human rights that clearly includes rape.” (HRW/NCHR 1994, 4)
A report published by the MICIVIH after Aristide’s return shed light on the identity of the rape victims. Most (52%) of the women rape victims received by the MICIVIH’s Medical Unit during one sample period were close relatives of activists, while only18% were activists themselves (defined as members of organizations or political parties). In another sample of men and women victims of different types of abuse, 64% of men were activists and 20% sympathizers, while corresponding figures for women were 30% and 40%. (MICIVIH, 1997, 34-38)
During this period, a confidential cable (dated April 12, 1994) from the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince to the State Department was leaked to the press. Its report on rape (and the supposed fabrication of human rights violations) caused an immediate outcry:
“The Haitian left, including President Aristide and his supporters in Washington and here, consistently manipulate or even fabricate human rights abuses as a propaganda tool... they see the truth as a flexible means to obtain a worthy political end. A case in point is the sudden epidemic of rapes reported both by pro-Aristide human rights activists and by the ICM [International Civilian Mission-MICIVIH]. For a range of cultural reasons (not pleasant to contemplate), rape has never been considered or reported as a serious crime here. Hard-line, ideological Aristide supporters here regularly compare the human rights situation in Haiti to the carnage in Bosnia. We are, frankly, suspicious of the sudden, high number of reported rapes, particularly in this culture, occurring at the same time that Aristide activists seek to draw a comparison between Haiti and Bosnia.”
The rapes were, unfortunately, quite real. But the public discussion of political rapes did eventually help open the door to discussion of rape in general; legitimizing public discussion of what had been a forbidden topic.
1995-1998: Mobilization Against Violence Against Women Moves Center-Stage
The post coup d’état years have seen important mobilization by the women’s movement against violence, and a certain increasing involvement by human rights groups in the issue. There have been a few, largely symbolic, steps by government to address women’s concerns The most important was the creation of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Women’s Rights; Dr. Lise-Marie Dejean, a leading member of SOFA, was named the first Minister in 1994. The Minister headed Haiti’s delegation to the Fourth International Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. On April 3, 1996, parliament ratified the Belem do Para Convention.
Efforts to jump-start prosecutions for cases of rape during the coup floundered, with the justice system stalled in a crisis of incapacity, fear and disinterest. Relations between the Ministry and feminist NGOs were often tense, with NGOs criticizing the Ministry for inaction. Ministers came and went and the budget was reduced. In 1996/1997, there was serious discussion of closing the Women’s Ministry, to which women’s organizations responded by affirming its importance.
The report issued by Haiti’s Truth and Justice Commission about human rights during the three years of military rule was handed to the President in February 1996, but it was many months before it became public. Its finding on abuse of women were similar to those made by NGOs and the MICIVIH during the coup but its recommendations concerning rape and to a lesser extent, other specific violence against women, broke new ground.
The Commission, which was headed by a woman, noted “a direct link between the generalization of violence during the period covered by the mandate of the Commission and the dramatic increase in the incidence of rape and other forms of sexual aggression.” (all cites here from Commission Nationale de Verité et de Justice, 1996) It acknowledged that “the social context makes women very vulnerable and little inclined to file complaints” and recommended directives to police affirming that sexual aggressions are serious crimes deserving priority treatment in investigations.
The Commission’s report called for:
1) rape to be redefined as an attack on physical integrity and well-being rather than honor, and for acts of “conjugal and family violence” to be explicitly defined as “forms of physical, moral and/or sexual aggression, and thus, breaches of law subject to graduated penalties”;
2) legal proceedings to be instituted against the presumed authors of abuses noted in report, together with compensation for victims;
3) the protection of victims’ private life in trials;
4) modification of rules on medical certificates of rape, extending the competence to draw them up beyond physicians;
5) development of educational programs to improve the treatment of rape victims by police, judges, doctors and others;
6) creation of services and programs for victims;
7) a campaign to educate and inform the public about rape.
Partly in reaction to the government’s failure to implement these recommendations, women began to organize what was to become another milestone in the struggle against Violence Against Women: the International Tribunal Against Violence Against Women in Haiti, held November 24-26, 1997. Attended by several hundred women and men, the Tribunal heard testimony, often from behind a curtain, of women who had been victims. Radio stations rebroadcast some of the dramatic testimony—stories that had never been talked about in public before.
The Tribunal addressed violence of four types: Domestic violence, sexual violence, political violence and violence against handicapped women. A speaker at the Tribunal described handicapped women as experiencing enormous discrimination and violence. Some men believe it’s good luck to sleep with a handicapped woman; many victims are young and either deaf/dumb or mentally handicapped and unable to report what happens to them. Sign language is little taught and most handicapped are illiterate also. (Lespinasse 1997, 12)
A panel of judges was drawn from international experts and representatives of Haitian human rights groups. Their recommendations at the close of the Tribunal (all cites in Ayitifanm 1997, 10-11) went well beyond those of the Truth and Justice Commission issued 20 months earlier.
Noting “serious shortcomings” in the judicial system, police practices and procedures, and “ineffectiveness, lack of initiative and shortcomings of the social and public health services” the panel called for the government to work with a coalition of women’s organizations to prepare a law for the elimination of all forms of violence against women.
It also recommended: legalizing abortion in cases of rape, incest and danger to the woman’s health; decriminalizing adultery and introducing it to the civil code as motive for marital breakup; amending the Civil Code to recognize common-law marriage; various measures affecting the legal system including establishing a police unit composed of women to receive complaints and conduct investigations on anti-woman violence, and measures to protect plaintiffs and witnesses in trials; establishing shelters for women who are victims of violence or other problems; adoption by schools of education programs that incorporate principles of non-sexist education, including demystifying the patriarchal foundations of society and its link to violence against women, and education on human rights where the rights of women are recognized as human rights.
The Tribunal has been followed by other important activities that have further raised awareness of the problem. A Colloquium of Haitian and Dominican Women Against Violence (Kòlòk Ayisyano Dominiken, Tèt ansamn kont vyolans sou fanm) held in Port-au-Prince, January 30-February 2, 1998, brought together 47 Haitian delegates from 26 organizations with 33 Dominican delegates from 17 organizations.
In 1998 and 1999, Kay Fanm put together Carnival floats with the theme, “No to Violence Against Women.” A popular rap group, King Posse, released a single for March 8, 1999, using Kay Fanm lyrics about violence against women. (Personal conversation with Magalie Marcelin and Marie Jose Vaval, Kay Fanm, March 18, 1999)
Many activists and observers feel that advances have been made in the popular awareness of violence against women. “Men will now deny that they themselves commit violence. It’s the other guy, they say.” (Personal conversation with Myriam Merlet, Enfofanm, March 17, 1999) They cite cases where neighbors have intervened in domestic dispute to protect a woman from abuse.
One such case, which also illustrates the failure of the police to respond to domestic violence, occurred in Lilavois in the Port-au-Prince suburbs, Nov. 1, 1998. (Lespinasse, Oct-Nov 1998, 8) A man known (Ti frè) was beating his wife (Ilari). Neighbors heard her cries and intervened; they seized the man and his weapon, a pointed metal stick (frenn), and then called the police. After a long wait and no police, they asked an off-duty officer nearby who had a police car for help, but he said it wasn’t his responsibility. Neighbors eventually located the driver of a pick-up truck who would take the woman to the hospital and the man to the local police post. En route, they encountered an ambulance that had been sent by the police. At the police station, there was another scene, with police sitting on their hands as people began in frustration to beat up Ti frè. Finally the neighbors had to transport him to the main police station at Croix des Bouquets, where they left him together with the frenn he had used as evidence. Two days later, on November 3, Ilari went to the police to file her formal complaint. She was told there was no one available to hear it and that she should return the next day. On November 4, police let Ti frè go. He returned home and started fighting with his wife again. When she screamed, the neighbors gathered and told him he’d better not hurt her again. But they feared this would not be enough because the man had a reputation for violence.
If public awareness may have advanced, in other areas progress has been very slow. There is still only one women’s shelter in this country of seven million, that of Kay Fanm. A promising dialogue initiated in 1998 between women’s groups and parliament on legal reforms concerning women, stalled with the political crisis that led to the January 1999 dissolution of parliament by President Preval. Of four urgent legal reforms that women had made priorities -- decriminalizing abortion in certain circumstances, legal protections for domestic workers, decriminalizing adultery, and making rape a crime against the person, only one was enacted -- and this equalized the penalty for adultery for men and women rather than decriminalizing it all around. Still, important steps have been taken and the dynamism and creativity demonstrated by the women’s movement seems likely to continue to lead to advances on these issues.
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