BBC World Service

On Sunday afternoon, May 26, more than a thousand Haitians took to the streets of Port-au-Prince, protesting sexual violence and impunity for offenders. The protests were triggered by a horrific sexual assault by a group of men on two female students on their way home from their Quisqueya University campus the week before. Haitians have had enough of what they see as a deteriorating security situation in the small Caribbean country. In Sunday’s march, the protesters, all dressed in white, carried signs denouncing rape, violence against women, corruption, and impunity, while calling for taking rape victims seriously and believing their stories. The march’s Creole slogan, #PaFeSilans, meaning "do not be silent”, referred to underreporting of rape caused by feelings of shame or fear. Fittingly, the demonstrations took place on the Haitian Mother’s Day.

An offence against morals

In Haiti, one in three women (ages 15 to 49) have experienced gender-based violence. Rape, which was previously considered an “offence against morals”, was not criminalised until 2005. Military and paramilitary groups in Haiti also have a history of using rape as a political tool to undermine the opposition. Further, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2010, gender-based sexual violence escalated in the chaotic and unsecure environments of the massive displacement camps.

Both domestic and international actors have contributed to a stronger focus on combatting violence against women and justice for victims, and more cases of sexual and gender-based violence are making their way to court. Still, impunity for offenders is widespread in Haiti. Parts of this can be attributed to the state of the Haitian legal system, which poses both structural and social barrier towards women victims of violence seeking justice.  Years of instability and poverty have left the Haitian justice system in disarray. During the past few decades, Haiti has experienced several coup d’états, dictatorships and military rule, democratic transitions and embargo on humanitarian aid. The 2010 earthquake only worsened things, as both material and human losses affected political institutions seriously.

This is something that I have witnessed first hand during my first weeks of fieldwork in Haiti, where I am studying the role of women judges for my PhD at CMI. I had an appointment with one judge at the Port-au-Prince appeals court. The court is still located on what was supposed to be temporary grounds after the earthquake, in a building formerly used by USAID. When I entered the premises, I was told that the electricity was gone. According to one female judge, this is something that happens every other day. The judiciary is allocated very little in the state budget, and one of the consequences is that judges are not able to do what they are supposed to. As stated by one male judge: “Sometimes we don’t even have the paper we need to call in people to court”. Further, judges report that the preservation, analysis and use of forensic evidence is highly underdeveloped, which hampers the process of gathering evidence in gender-based violence cases.

One of the consequences is an intense backlog of cases. This, in addition to low wages for judges, drives corruption, which permeates the Haitian justice system. Those who are able and willing to pay a little extra, gets their cases prioritized. In fact, according to the U.S. State Department 2014 Haiti Human Rights Report, “bribes were often the principal factor in a judge’s decision to hear a case” in lower courts. This affects poorer victims of violence disproportionally, and may even lead victims without representation and knowledge of the system to drop their complaints entirely.

The people I have talked to in Haiti this far have repeatedly presented the lack of independence of the judiciary as another challenge facing the Haitian judiciary. This is exemplified by a recent case. The Haitian judiciary has been dysfunctional for months due to an absence of judges in the courts. Many judges have been waiting for the renewal of their mandate to get back to work. Earlier in May, the CSPJ (Conseil Supérieur du Pouvoir Judiciaire) handed a list of 103 judges to the president for the renewal of their mandate or promotion. So far, the president has accepted only 41 of these mandates. Facing the socio-political crisis that has affected Haiti for the past year, this process may take a while. The consequence of this continuing understaffing is that fewer victims of violence obtain justice in courts.

On top of all this, Haiti is a highly patriarchal society, where women make up just 10% of judges and as little as 3% of deputies. Female victims of violence face gender discrimination both within the judiciary and elsewhere. However, Sunday’s march shows that Haitians are starting to take women’s rights seriously. It also shows that a lack of protection for women is a symptom of the Haitian justice system’s dire straits, and that people are ready to fight impunity.

This is a fieldnote from our PhD-student Marianne Tørraasen who is in Haiti.

Illustration photo: BBC World Services on The photo is taken at a protest after the earth quake that left the country in ruins in 2010. 

Marianne Tøraasen

Post Doctoral Researcher, Coordinator Rights & Gender