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Moving Women's Rights from Paper to Practice in Post-Earthquake Haiti

The locations may differ, but the stories are terribly similar. Armed intruders break into a woman's home and threaten her life for speaking out against human rights violations. Women band together in defense of a friend facing violence from her husband. Women running a rape crisis center get a distraught phone call in the middle of the night.

As women's human rights activists, we are no strangers to emergencies. Too many women worldwide live on the brink. We know we must mobilize our resources to pull them to safer ground and to sustain them, their families and communities. But we also know that we will continue to face these emergencies, unless we can work together across the local-global spectrum to make real and lasting change.

To do this, we must recognize the need to combine direct service provision with human rights advocacy, holistically. This nexus of service and advocacy is both necessary and powerful for improving the wellbeing of women on the frontlines of crisis.

Women worldwide are responsible for meeting the basic needs of their families and communities. We must find ways to ensure that women can move beyond meeting daily needs to playing leadership roles in creating positive change, both in their communities and at the level of policy.

The synthesis of direct services and human rights advocacy ensures not only that urgent needs will be met, but that women and communities are able to move beyond survival to enhance their capacities to create positive social change. By strengthening community-based women's organizations, we can build local resilience and sustainability, leaving skills, resources and knowledge in women's hands for the long term.

Legal Reform to Combat Violence against Haitian Women

After disaster, women confront an escalated danger of violence, including rape and sexual assault. In the chaos and loss of social cohesion that routinely follow disaster, women and girls are rendered more vulnerable to attack. This was the reality faced by thousands of Haitian women and girls after 2010's earthquake.

The efforts of grassroots women's groups to rebuild communities are often the only source of protection available to displaced women impacted by disaster. After the earthquake in Haiti, the grassroots women's group KOFAVIV, a MADRE partner, worked tirelessly to provide for urgent needs for food, clothing and shelter.

KOFAVIV is an organization founded by and for rape survivors. Their years of experience organizing to confront sexual violence primed them to immediately recognize the need to provide urgent protection and care and to re-weave frayed social fabric as a way to protect vulnerable women against violence.

Since the earthquake, KOFAVIV's core membership has continued to live and organize in Haiti's displacement camps. Together, we have worked to prevent rape, care for survivors, improve safety and living conditions in the camps and ensure that women displaced by the earthquake have the advocacy, training and resources they need to play leadership roles in ending violence and rebuilding their communities and their country.

KOFAVIV's Women's Center was reestablished and provides a safe haven that offers psycho-social, legal and other support to women and girls who have experienced violence. A campaign called Blow the Whistle on Rape was launched and whistles and solar flashlights were provided, giving women simple but effective tools to enhance safety. Training and peer counseling sessions became opportunities for women to reconstitute shattered social networks, build leadership and reclaim strength and self-confidence. Women were empowered to begin political organizing in the camps, staging demonstrations to demand services and mounting far-reaching public education and advocacy campaigns.

Moving Beyond Survival

As post-disaster reconstruction progressed, the very women who were pulling their communities back from the brink were often excluded from decision-making. Displacement camps that were set up or managed with little attention to the needs of women and girls exacerbated the violent threats they faced. A lack of lighting and security patrols put women at severe risk of attack when they walked through the camps. Discriminatory attitudes among law enforcement or medical service providers meant that women endured stigma and hostility when they sought to report their rape. Meanwhile, grassroots women's groups seeking to influence the reconstruction agenda struggled to be heard.

In October 2010, Haitian grassroots women, in partnership with MADRE and other allies, submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the biggest human rights court in the region, requesting that the Commission "issue precautionary measures urgently needed to prevent the irreparable harm of rape, sexual violence, and death of women and girls and women's human rights defenders." The substance of the petition was crafted through extensive consultations with women in the camps.

On December 22, 2010, the Commission ruled in favor, issuing a set of five legally-binding recommendations, or "precautionary measures, " to the Haitian government that mirrored the petition's demands, thus mapping out an essential blueprint for addressing rape:

  1. Ensure medical and psychological care to rape survivors;
  2. Install lighting and implement effective security measures in displacement camps;
  3. Ensure that public officials are trained to respond appropriately to incidents of sexual violence;
  4. Create special units within law enforcement to investigate violence against women and girls; and
  5. Guarantee access for grassroots women's groups in planning and policy-making to address sexual violence.

Bringing Human Rights Home

Since that favorable decision from the Commission, MADRE has worked with KOFAVIV, other Haitian grassroots organizations, and members of the Haitian government to implement the Commission's recommendations. Three interactive workshops were held in Port-au-Prince in 2012 and 2013. The third was co-sponsored by the Nobel Women's Initiative and WE ADVANCE, whose co-founder Rebecca Guillaume joins me in Belfast for NWI's international conference of women peace activists. These workshops brought together representatives from civil society, various sectors of the Haitian government and members of the international human rights community for collaborative dialogues on ways to address gender-based violence in Haiti. These workshops resulted in:

  • Enhanced cooperation between the Haitian National Police and KOFAVIV. This included an agreement on the immediate referral of survivors of rape to KOFAVIV's Women's Center by the police;

  • The collaborative creation by civil society organizations, Haitian government officials and international human rights experts of protocols for the treatment of survivors of gender-based violence by police, medical personnel, judges and lawyers;

  • A comprehensive series of revisions to the Haitian legal code addressing gender-based violence.

These revisions would expand the definition of rape and sexual assault, including violations within the context of marriage, making consent a central priority. The revisions would legalize first trimester abortions, or abortions before 12 weeks, with provisions to account for dangers to the health of the pregnant woman. The revisions would also prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, increasing penalties for such actions. The revisions to the Haitian legal code, if approved by the Haitian Parliament, would be a major advancement in legislation addressing gender-based violence and discrimination in Haiti. They have the potential to dramatically advance the discourse on women's rights in Haiti.

Once the revisions are passed into law, the battle for implementation begins anew. Obstacles include women's limited political participation and gaps between high-level policymakers and grassroots women.

Our strongest hope to overcome these obstacles lies in the combination of direct service provision and human rights advocacy in partnership with grassroots women. This is the model that has enabled the victories to date, as we support grassroots Haitian women to rebuild their lives and communities and as we accompany them through the long and arduous process of changing the law.

By Yifat Susskind, Executive Director

Originally published by openDemocracy