And is likely to make the situation for women worse.

By: Connie May Fowler
Double X
January 28, 2010
http://www.doublex.com/section/news-politics/earthquake-killed-haitis-feminist-movement

Among the many dead after the earthquake in Haiti are
the three women who basically constituted the fledgling
women’s movement in Haiti. Myriam Merlet, Anne Marie
Coriolan, and Magalie Marcelin had just begun the work
of reforming a judiciary that never took rape seriously
and creating an infrastructure to protect girls and
women against domestic violence and trafficking. They
were killed at a time when they were most needed, since
post-earthquake chaos tends to leave women especially
vulnerable.

As heartbreaking as every lost life is, theirs seems
particularly tragic in a country where, until recently,
there was no notion of women’s rights and what did
exist was tenuous and fragile. Before 2005, rape was
rarely prosecuted and convictions were virtually
nonexistent. Marital rape was legal. Judges treated
sexual violence as a purely civil matter, sometimes
ordering meager monetary restitution or ruling that the
rapist marry the victim. They judged the severity of
the crime based on whether the woman or girl was a
virgin.

The three women started by lobbying the United Nations
to pressure Haiti to pass sexual-assault laws that
created a new area of criminal law. To ensure the
courts abided by them, the women in 2008 led a kind of
legal-flash-mob movement, getting women to flood
Haitian courtrooms during rape trials so that judges
would feel accountable. They began organizations that
provided safe houses and microloans to domestic-
violence victims. In 2001, in the midst of violent
political unrest, Merlet contacted playwright and
activist Eve Ensler and convinced her to bring,
improbably, The Vagina Monologues to Haiti. Using the
momentum from that event, the women successfully built
the V-Day Haiti Sorority Safe House in Port-au-Prince.

“The fact that they existed at all, that they were
doing the kind of work they did, was totally
innovative. Until they came along, women’s rights were
totally ignored,” says Sabrina Solomon, director of the
Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami [2], who
also lost friends and family in the earthquake.

In 2000, the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights [3]
issued a scathing report about Haiti’s treatment of
women. “The lack of adequate legislation . results in a
culture of non-reporting and of acceptance of violence
against women,” the report noted. Sixty-six percent of
female victims never reported acts of violence, the
report concluded, “for fear of reprisals and societal
prejudice.” It gave this as a common example: “If a
girl is raped by her teacher it is generally expected
that the rapist marry the victim and no criminal case
is brought against the perpetrator.”

In 2007, when 108 U.N. peacekeeping forces from Sri
Lanka were discovered to have serially raped Haitian
women and girls as young as 7, Marcelin told the Los
Angeles Times [4], “That a soldier can do this to a
girl he’s supposed to be protecting comes from the same
mentality that allows a professor to do it to his
student or a father to his daughter. In this society,
women’s bodies are regarded as meat.”

Merlet fled Haiti in the 1970s. She moved to Canada,
where she studied feminist theory and was active in the
Haitian diaspora movement. In 1986, she returned to
Haiti to advocate for women and children. Eventually
she led the newly created Ministry for Gender and the
Rights of Women, which collected the data that became
the basis for the 2000 U.N. report.

Coriolan concentrated on education. In Haiti, education
is not free, and families-especially in rural
areas-often elect to educate only their male children
while putting female children to work, primarily as
domestics, factory workers, or field hands.

Marcelin, a lawyer and actress, founded Kay Fanm [5], a
women’s rights group that offered safe haven and
microloans to domestic violence victims. The three of
them founded Haiti’s first domestic violence shelters.

When the country stabilizes, there is no guarantee that
the work they did will pick up where they left it. From
what we know about post-disaster environments, the day-
to-day reality for women and girls looks grim. Because
of Haiti’s instability, human trafficking was always
“very bad,” says Robin Thompson, the Senior Program
Manager at Florida State University’s Center for the
Advancement of Human Rights [6], and she believes it is
likely to get worse. “Trafficking (and other forms of
violence against women and children) almost always
flourishes, as it did after the tsunami, during this
kind of instability.”

On Jan. 22, UNICEF documented 15 cases of children
disappearing from hospitals. Their families have no
idea where the children might be, and there is growing
concern that human traffickers are already at work.

After the Sri Lankan U.N. peacekeepers rape scandal,
women’s organizations asked that the U.N. make a
concerted effort to recruit more female troops. Two
years later, the U.N. launched its “Power to Empower”
campaign, with the aim of increasing the current 8
percent female troop level to 20 percent by 2014. But
of the approximately 2,000 U.N. police in Haiti, about
90 are women [7]. “If you’re going into a disaster area
to help, women’s safety is primary. But I don’t think
it’s high on anyone’s list right now,” says Rita Smith,
director of the National Coalition Against Domestic
Violence.

Salomon, for one, is not optimistic. “What they were
doing was in its infancy. No one is sure what will
happen next, because no one knows who or what is left.
We don’t even know if the shelter is still standing. I
suspect it’s not.”

Source URL:
http://www.doublex.com/section/news-politics/earthquake-killed-haitis-feminist-movement

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