Saturday, January 30, 2010

VIDEO: Another Casualty of the Haiti Earthquake - The Women's Movement // Democracy Now!


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, who also lost friends and family in the earthquake.

In 2000, the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights 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, “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, 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, 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. “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.”

In Memoriam

Haitian Feminist Leader Myriam Merlet (1953-2010)


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