PORT-AU-PRINCE, Mar 7 2013 (IPS) - Haiti is poised to enact major reforms to its penal code to make it easier for victims of rape to prosecute their attackers.
The amendments to the penal code would precisely define sexual assault in accordance with international law, legalize certain types of post-rape abortions, and criminalize marital rape.
The changes also mandate state-funded legal aid to victims who cannot pay for counsel. Discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” would be banned in limited circumstances, in a first for Haitian law.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, said in February at a conference on the reforms. “It’s a small start with the penal code, but it’s a good start.”
Lawyers and activists at the conference pored over a three-page draft of the reforms. They’re optimistic that Haiti’s parliament will approve them within the year. Haiti’s prime minister and the ministry of justice have indicated they support the amendments.
But Manjoo warned that the law won’t be fully implemented or enforced without adequate funding from donors and participation by the public.
In the three years since the 2010 earthquake, the issue of sexual violence has gained an increasingly high profile. Foreign media reports referred to a “rape epidemic” in the tent camps scattered throughout Port-au-Prince.
A January 2012 study by a coalition of legal and women’s groups found that at least one member of 14 percent of all households displaced by the quake had been sexually assaulted.
Some experts, notably anthropologist and author Timothy Schwartz, cite a lack of independent data and question whether the prevalence of rape has been exaggerated by some of the advocacy organizations mentioned in this report.
But even Schwartz applauds the effort to reform the penal code by these same groups. He said it represents a welcome departure from the usual approach to structural problems in Haiti, where non-governmental organisations stage piecemeal interventions instead of bolstering the state.
Improvements at the grassroots
In the meantime, Haitian citizens, the police, and lawyers have attempted to address the violence at the grassroots.
In some tent camps, internally displaced Haitian formed brigades to safeguard against criminal threats, including rapists. A report by Poto Fanm+Fi found that these brigades, because of their strong community bonds, were usually more effective than patrols by United Nations peacekeeping troops at stopping sexual violence.
At police stations throughout the capital city, there are now officers trained to receive and assist female victims, Marie Gauthier, the Haitian National Police’s Coordinator for Women’s Affairs, told IPS.
“Carrefour, Fort National, Kenscoff, Port-au-Prince, Cite Soleil, Delmas, Croix de Bouquet. . .” Gauthier listed off the different stations in city districts. Still, “now we need vehicles,” she said, “to go quickly and arrest the perpetrator.”
Survivors of sexual violence often turn to KOFAVIV, a Haitian women’s group, for moral and humanitarian support. The quake destroyed the group’s headquarters, displacing its founders into a tent camp.
But the group secured funding from international donors, including the U.S. government, allowing it to move from the camp into a two-storey office and expand its programmes. Women come from every corner of Port-au-Prince for bi-weekly gatherings where survivors can bond and share information with one another.
In the courts, significantly more rape cases are going to trial, according to lawyers for Bureaus des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a prominent Haitian law firm. Nearly a third of criminal trials during last summer’s court session in Port-au-Prince were for rape charges.
Thirteen convicted rapists were sentenced – a majority of those to maximum jail time. More prosecutions followed in the fall.
“It’s extremely significant, considering that a mere 10 years ago, barely any cases were being prosecuted,” Nicole Phillips, an attorney with the BAI, told IPS. She called the prosecutions and reforms to the penal code “a massive step forward.”
In the past, judges would demand victims present medical certificates obtained within 48 to 72 hours demonstrating they were raped. But it was difficult or impossible to get them, due to stigma, trauma, and prohibitive costs.
“The trials are getting more sophisticated,” Phillips said. The courts now rely more on expert witness testimony from medical professionals. She praised judges and the police in Port-au-Prince for taking rape accusations more seriously.
More work to be done
But Haiti’s progress in combating violence against women faced a high-profile test at the beginning of the year, and arguably failed.
When Marie-Danielle Bernadin first told her close friends she was sexually assaulted by her boss, the president of Haiti’s electoral council, their advice was simple: Leave Haiti.
“Where are you going to find justice here? Don’t file a complaint,” she remembers them saying. “Just go.”
After all, “normally one wouldn’t waste time” pressing charges against a high-ranking official, she said.
“But for me, I can’t keep something like this inside,” she told IPS in an exclusive interview. “When someone beats you, rapes you, and it’s all over – you just keep it inside you? That would make me crazy.”
Bernadin went to the police in November, shortly after the incident. She alleged that the official, Josue Pierre-Louis, had violently raped her after she confronted him about pictures of naked women on his cell phone.
She had been his assistant for two months. Pierre-Louis strenuously denied the charges and accused her of “espionage”, but the case went to trial.
At a pretrial hearing in January, supporters of Pierre-Louis – one of the most powerful men in the country – muscled their way into the hallway outside the courtroom, brandishing signs and chanting in his support. It took 15 minutes for police to arrive before they removed the protesters.
Five days later, Bernadin asked her lawyers to withdraw the charges. She issued a written statement to the press, saying: “I’ve decided to abandon the charges… but I reaffirm that I was beaten and raped by Josue Pierre-Louis.”
She described the previous months as some of the most difficult in her life. Supporters of Pierre-Louis attempted to shut her up using various methods, she said: her father was offered a job overseas, violent threats were phoned in to her family members in New Jersey, and a fake image of her was circulated online.
Her lawyers asked reporters not to take her photo, but they tried anyway every time she left the courthouse. She tried in vain to cover her head with a lawyer’s vest. The reporters ripped it before she could get to the car.
In her written statement, Bernadin denounced the threats made against her, judicial corruption, and described the tumult at the courthouse as “a horrible scene”.
Prior to the experience, she didn’t know that groups supporting victims of sexual violence existed in Haiti. She told IPS the justice system should prosecute Pierre-Louis of its own volition and “shine a light on the issue.”
“This way, if someone is raped, she could feel proud,” she said. “She could feel courageous enough to press charges. And rapists would be more afraid to commit these acts.”