Report: The Rights of Haitian Women (January 2005)
Rewinding History: The Rights of Haitian Women
The Let Haiti Live Women’s Rights Delegation sponsored by the
Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean (EPICA)
In a climate of deep insecurity and escalating violence, Haitian
women, the backbone of Haitian society and economy, are facing
insurmountable challenges. Although Haitian women support the
majority of Haiti’s economic activities and hold families together
throughout the country, they have historically occupied an inferior
social position. Under the regime of U.S.-backed Prime Minister
Gerard Latortue, Haitian women are caught in the middle of what many
Haitians are calling a “rewind” back to the time of the
d’etat, a period characterized by random violence in poor
neighborhoods, a terror campaign employing rape, murder and
disappearance as tactics, and rapidly increasing insecurity
undermining all economic activity of the informal sector.
In this setting the international community, led by the United States
and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH),
pushing for elections before year’s end, in apparent disregard
legitimate democratic elections cannot possibly be held in the
current climate. The international aid industry is rolling into
action and is ready to program more than a billion dollars, which
will do little to change the standard of living for the Haitian poor.
Most of this aid will benefit either the Haitian elite or return to
donor countries in the form of private contracts. The Interim Haitian
Government (IHG), considered illegitimate by the majority of
Haitians, is made up of representatives from the private sector.
Their interests are clearly served by the on-going decimation of the
informal sector – Haiti’s poor, while they enjoy tax breaks
anticipate the profits of Haiti’s international assistance,
the end will add to Haiti’s already burdensome international
From January 13-22, 2005, a delegation of eight independent women
investigated women’s rights in Haiti. They traveled under the
auspices of the Let Haiti Live: Coalition for a Just U.S. Policy,
collaborative effort of over fifty North American organizations. The
Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean, a
Washington, D.C.-based peace and justice organization, sponsored the
majority of the investigation was carried out in Haiti’s capital,
Port-au-Prince, with one day in a rural area. The following is a
summary of briefings, observations and recommendations.
Observations and Briefings
I. Violation of Women’s Rights Due to Violence and Insecurity
The climate in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital is one of deep
insecurity and escalating violence.
• The delegation witnessed firsthand the climate of violence
exists in Port-au-Prince. During the delegation’s stay, the
observed a body in front of the National Palace. The group was
briefed on summary executions by the police and armed groups that
occur daily in the capital.
• In some zones of Port-au-Prince it was unsafe to pass early
day because of frequent arson attacks taking place while cars are
stuck in traffic jams. Haitians spoke of their unwillingness to be
the road during certain hours because of these incidents. Due to the
fact that two major parts of the city – Bel Air and Delmas 2
been completely isolated by violence and insecurity, traffic crowds
other routes. During the heavy travel hours each morning, small
groups of armed individuals have held drivers and passengers at
gunpoint while setting their cars on fire. Sometimes drivers are
forced to burn their own cars. The delegation observed the burned
remains of dozens of cars in different areas of the city notorious
for these attacks.
• The most impoverished and overpopulated neighborhoods of
Port-au-Prince, known as katyè popilè, have become war
feuding gangs, some of which are funded by political organizations,
are victimizing tens of thousands of innocent civilians. While
traveling to St. Catherine’s Hospital in Cite Soleil, an area
has been gripped by gang violence, the delegation observed the
remains of arson attacks in the zone. Although the popular perception
of the populations in these areas is that they support one or another
of the gangs, the team heard repeated testimony that these armed
groups are raping women and young girls, robbing families and burning
This general insecurity is affecting women on several different
levels. With sections of the city closed, economic activity has been
greatly impeded (see below, Violation of Economic Rights, for more).
FONKOZE, a national organization dedicated to supporting and
enhancing women’s economic activities, noted that with economic
insecurity women are forced into vulnerable and compromised
situations with men. As a result, there has been a rise in incidents
of forced sex. Members of the national labor movement, Confederation
des Travailleurs Haitienne (CTH) explained that due to the lack of
economic opportunities in both formal and informal sectors women are
having sex for money. A number of sources confided to the team that
women and girls who cannot afford to attend school are having sex
with older men to finance their educations.
When looked at in tandem with the rise in forced sex, the recent
spike in politically motivated rapes is a clear indication that
women’s bodies are being abused sexually as a result of increasing
insecurity. The increase in frequency of rapes was confirmed by the
director of the gynecology department at the General Hospital.
Testimony from victims of rapes heard by the delegation highlighted
several patterns in the attacks. Attackers beat their victims into
submission, often striking their eyes so they will not be able to
identify them. Attackers are often masked and heavily armed. Women
are usually raped by more than one attacker, and the victims’
children are often witnesses to the rape. After the attack, most
women have nowhere else to go and are forced to return to the
location of their rape (their homes and the yards in front of their
homes) to sleep at night.
Women accused armed bandits/gang members of committing the rapes,
most cannot identify their attacker(s) either because they were
masked or because the victim was beaten and could not see the
identity of her attacker(s). Most victims have been forced to find
alternative places to stay and are afraid to go out during the day.
Children conceived during rapes are deeply stigmatized in Haiti. One
woman told the team that her daughter is taunted with the name
“little rape” by the other children in her neighborhood.
In one neighborhood a Women’s Commission for Victims of Rape
created and has received nearly fifty new victims since September
They hold meetings with women from katyè popilè and
they record new
rape victims each week.
The team was shocked and outraged to learn that rapes are treated
an infraction in the eyes of the Haitian law, and although rape was
prevalent tool of political repression during the 1991-94 coup
period, no rape has ever been prosecuted in Haiti. A spokesperson
the Ministry of Women’s Affairs stated that the law regarding
has recently been changed, but until perpetrators of these brutal
crimes are brought to justice this change will have no impact.
In addition to the ways in which women’s bodies are sexually
other physical abuse is part of the political repression as well.
team heard repeated testimony of women who were beaten and robbed
their homes, on the way to the market or at the market. Arson attacks
in poor neighborhoods have also left women and their children without
shelter. Some have been forced to climb high into the hills above
their neighborhoods to sleep in makeshift refugee camps on open rocks.
of Women’s Economic Rights
The majority of struggling Haitian women find their livelihoods in
the informal sector. Women who sell produce and other goods in the
market are called ti machann, little merchants. Many women work as
domestic laborers, or cook food to sell on the street. In addition
their work in the informal sector, women run most households in
Haiti. They spend inordinate amounts of time carrying water from
public faucets or other sources due to lack of infrastructure, and
prepare meals for their children, wash laundry, and are also required
to earn enough money to put food on the table each day.
The informal sector is reeling from the Interim Haitian Government’s
(IHG) decision to raise import tariffs on the merchandise they import
for resale in the market. At the same time, the IHG granted a
three-year grace period on taxes to the largest business owners. In
addition, following the coup d’etat on February 29th, thousands
government workers were fired. According to the CTH labor movement,
there are 80,000 fewer workers employed in industry than there were
one year ago. The consequence is that a large number of newly
unemployed people are forced to integrate into an already crowded
Haiti’s industries are concentrated on assembly of clothing,
in the industrial sector are mainly given to young women. According
to CTH, the minimum wage of 70 Haitian gourdes (about $2 U.S.) is
barely enough to cover the cost of transportation to and from the
factory each day. A woman with a factory job would be lucky to return
home with 7 gourdes at the end of the day, not enough to feed her
family more than once or twice each week.
According to CTH, forced sex appears in the context of economic human
rights of women as well. This is because in the formal sector, such
as assembly factories, women are forced to have sex with their
managers in order to keep their jobs. In the informal sector, women
are often forced to have sex while transporting goods to market.
The grave issue of food insecurity was brought to the delegation’s
attention not only in urban areas, but in rural areas as well. Cheap
imported goods have been undercutting national production for decades
according to Tet Kole Ti Peyizan, a national peasant movement. Hunger
is a part of daily life for most Haitians. Women are not allowed to
own land, putting them at a further disadvantage. A woman may work
her husband’s plot of land in hopes of selling the produce to
food for herself and her children. But when it is time to sell the
harvest, it is her husband who will have the legal rights to all the
funds received from his wife’s work.As observed by the delegation,
the state of health care in Port-au-Prince has collapsed. The great
majority of the Haitian population is without access to adequate health
care. Hospitals are without equipment, materials and even electricity.
visited Port-au-Prince’s General Hospital during week four of
doctor’s strike. Although there were patients in the different
there were no doctors to attend to them. Even when doctors are
present, patients have to bring all the equipment necessary for their
consultations and treatment. Those who require surgery must provide
gas for the generator to ensure there will be power for the entire
At St. Catherine’s Hospital in Cite Soleil the delegation witnessed
rooms that stand empty while the residents of the neighborhood go
without basic care because funding for the facility has dried up.
Rural women often rely on traditional medicine, leaf doctors and fanm
saj, or midwives. The cost on women’s lives is very high, with
women lost in childbirth. Tet Kole national peasant movement reported
a high rate of cervical cancer and infectious diseases among rural
women, as well as eclampsia-related deaths, a condition confirmed
be prevalent by doctors at St. Catherine’s and the General Hospital.
Finally, while education is an unrealized dream for the majority of
impoverished Haitians, for women it is an especially distant goal.
mentioned above, some girls resort to having sex with older or
wealthy men in order to raise funds for their school fees. Families
that can afford to send one or two of their children to school will
often send boys rather than girls. In response to the number of
children not attending school, spontaneous or improvised schools are
being organized by women’s groups. These schools suffer from
space, materials and funding to pay teachers.
III. Violation of Women’s Rights to Justice:
The Failure of the Judicial System
The Women’s Delegation was granted the opportunity to visit
women’s prison in Petionville, a facility that at the time held
female prisoners. According to Article 26 of the Haitian
Constitution, no prisoner should be held more than forty-eight hours
before seeing a judge. Most of the women with whom we spoke had not
yet seen a judge, in violation of their Constitutional rights.
Several women reported other violations of constitutional rights
including: being held at a commisseriat, police station, for more
than forty-eight hours (Article 26), and being arrested during the
night (Article 24-3, d. “Except where the perpetrator of the
caught in the act, no arrest by warrant and no search may take place
between six p.m. and six a.m.”)
One fifteen-year-old prisoner claims she was held for several days
the fire station before being transferred to the prison, and that
while in custody there she was beaten and raped.
Many of the women prisoners reported that their husbands had been
arrested previous to them, or at the same time. The children of these
couples have been left to fend for themselves, often in dangerous
neighborhoods. One woman reported that her child was abandoned upon
her arrest and begged members of the delegation to visit her home
check for the child’s whereabouts and safety. Several women
that they were arrested because their husbands were arrested.
In addition, the women at the prison do not have regular access to
doctors or medical assistance. The delegation observed wounds on a
number of prisoners that had occurred during arrest, including an
alarming festering wound on the breast of an eighteen-year-old
prisoner. Moreover, the delegation interviewed a woman who was
separated from her three-month-old baby. The prison would not allow
her other children to bring the infant to nurse, and the family is
without the means to purchase substitute milk. The mother was showing
signs of growing illness and the delegation feared for her child’s
From the interviews at the women’s prison, the delegation unanimously
concluded that justice is very much for sale in Haiti. Those who have
the means to hire lawyers are able to see judges and have their cases
dealt with swiftly and to their advantage. The poor suffer indefinite
detention and are denied the right to see a judge because they cannot
afford to hire a lawyer.
Although Haiti’s young democracy inherited problems from decades
dictatorships and little has been done to reform the system, it is
not an overstatement to describe the system as a failure.
The current Minister of Justice, Bernard Gousse, should be
immediately investigated for the corruption and violations that have
taken place under his authority. In addition, meaningful
Haitian-directed reform needs to happen at every level of the
judicial system. Following the guidelines set out in the Haitian
Constitution, justice should be decentralized, democratized and made
available to all Haitians, regardless of class or education level.
The Let Haiti Live Women’s Rights Delegation found that Haiti’s
are facing challenges and violations of their human rights on many
levels today. The rising violence and insecurity, particularly in
katyè popilè is dealing a fatal blow to the livelihoods
merchant women. Politically-motivated rapes are occurring at
frightening frequency. Bodies are found daily in the streets of
Port-au-Prince. Women are being held in prison solely because they
cannot afford an attorney to represent them in court and are
therefore being denied the right to appear before a judge.
Under the reprehensibly indifferent eyes of the United Nations
Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the regime of Prime
Minister Gerard Latortue is reigning over a climate of dramatic
insecurity and a campaign of terror. The situation is profoundly
disturbing in its similarity to the 1991-94 reign of the brutal coup
regime, when soldiers of the Forces Armes d’Haiti, Haitian Armed
Forces (FADH) performed summary executions and disappearances of the
poor at will. Soldiers and paramilitary gang members raped women in
poor neighborhoods to terrorize them and dissuade them from
continuing their work to end the impunity granted to their attackers.
In the wake of the interim Haitian government’s highly controversial
decision to compensate these former soldiers, international pressure
must be brought to bear on interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.
must immediately begin prosecution of the violent and terrifying
rapes being committed under his regime. MINUSTAH is obligated by its
mandate to promote and protect human rights, and must take every
opportunity to vigorously denounce the resurgence of rape as a
In the face of the overwhelming injustices in Haiti today, solutions
require the participation of several actors and entities. Everyone
has a role to play in making right the wrongs of Haiti. It is with
grace and strength that Haiti’s women are facing their challenges,
and it is our hope that the recommendations below serve their
Let Haiti Live Women’s Rights Delegation
The members of the Let Haiti Live Women’s Rights Delegation,
sponsored by the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the
Caribbean (EPICA), unanimously offer these recommendations for
actions to benefit our Haitian sisters:
Violation of Women’s Rights due to Violence and Insecurity:
• In order to restore security in Port-au-Prince and in Haiti
whole, a systematic and comprehensive disarmament campaign must be
carried out. With the understanding that the United Nations
Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is mandated to assist the
Interim Haitian Government (IHG) in disarmament. The Let Haiti Live
Women’s Rights Delegation recommends that MINUSTAH and the IHG
jointly disarm all former members of the Forces Armed d’Haiti,
Forces of Haiti (FADH), must be disarmed, alongside irregular armed
individuals and groups. Disarmament must be comprehensive.
• While carrying out disarmament, the Haitian National Police,
the mandated support of the MINUSTAH, must provide security that will
enable small merchant women to return to their work in safety, in
each and every popular neighborhood in Port-au-Prince and throughout
• In the face of the alarming rise in the frequency of rapes,
Interim Haitian Government must respond with rape crisis facilities
making available medical, psychiatric and legal assistance to
victims, while also providing the legal and financial support
necessary for these crimes to be prosecuted. In addition, the IHG
must put in place meaningful deterrents to rape, and immediately
begin prosecuting rape cases.
• The international solidarity movement for Haiti has an important
role to play. Individuals and organizations can help Haitian women
supporting the Fon Fanm, an emergency fund for women which will help
them rebuild their economic activity, find housing, and find
counseling. A rape crisis center and public defenders for women
prisoners are priorities for fundraising and institutional support.
• Finally, the women’s delegation calls for the presence
Violation of Women’s Economic Rights
• MINUSTAH must provide security so that economic activity vital
women and their households can be resumed, particularly in the
overcrowded markets of downtown Port-au-Prince, and in dangerous
neighborhoods in all of Haiti’s urban areas.
• The women’s delegation understands that building a culture
respect for fundamental human rights is a long-term process. However,
the Interim Haitian Government, the MINUSTAH, and members of the
international community who support the UN mission must condemn
violations of human rights and take concrete actions to address these
• Health care, access to safe drinking water and education are
fundamental human rights. These rights are undermined by the chronic
poverty of the majority of Haiti’s population and a highly
centralized government that does little to provide these basic
services. In response, the international community must focus on
grassroots-based Haitian solutions to resolve the problems currently
facing Haiti. Large infusions of aid to internationally-based
contractors and Haitian private sector interests undermines democracy
building and increases the debt of generations of Haitians to come.
Violation of Women’s Rights to Justice:
• The MINUSTAH and the international community that supports
Mission must pressure the Haitian National Police to actively protect
the basic human rights of the Haitian people.
• Haiti’s judicial system is seriously in need of fundamental
a crisis that has persisted for decades. Reform of the judicial
system must be carried out by a democratically elected Haitian
government. The international community should provide meaningful
support for the Haitian-directed reform, which must be transparent.
• Human rights violations must be addressed by the MINUSTAH,
the OAS and the international community.
• In response to the rise in politically motivated rape, the
begin immediate prosecution of rape cases. In addition, efforts to
prevent rape including sensitizing of the Haitian National Police
public service announcements should be undertaken.