London ~~ Sunday December 2 2007
The rape epidemic
According to the UN, 50 per cent of young women in the violent shantytowns of Haiti have been raped or sexually assaulted. Of the handful of victims who seek justice, a third are under 13. Alex Renton reports from a Caribbean hell crippled by poverty and torn by gang violence, and talks to the women who live in daily fear of sexual abuse
Cité Soleil is called the worst slum in the western hemisphere. It's an ant hill of a third of a million people that seethes and swelters on the salt marshes between the blue Caribbean and the outskirts of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. Soleil lies, as third-world slums so often do, next to the international airport, under the irony-laden roar of jets taking off to leave the country.
One of these, a small passenger plane, crashed into the slum in September, the day we arrived. No one died, but it was front-page news in Haiti's daily papers. They told how, within an hour of the crash, everything had been stripped from the plane: the luggage, copper wiring, the fuel from the tanks, the passengers' seats, 'despite the blood still fresh upon them'.
I thought about this a few days later, after some time spent wandering around the slums talking to people who live in them, and to some of the Haitians who try to help them. We were there to find out what, in a place whose incessant violence has meant years of neglect by government and the aid agencies, can be done to tackle a scary Aids rate, coupled with a mind-boggling ignorance about the basics of sexual health. That meant talking about sex in Haiti, and that, we soon discovered, meant talking about rape - and why rape is so horrifyingly common.
According to the United Nations' collation of research, almost half of all the girls in Cité Soleil and the country's other 'conflict-zone' slums have been raped or subjected to other sexual violence. These figures compare with those that emerge from the wars in Congo and Darfur - but this is not a country at war. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas, but it has a functioning democratic government, courts, police and a free press, all assisted by a three-year-old United Nations stabilisation mission that has been widely hailed as a success.
If the UN's figures are correct, there could be some 80,000 young women in Cité Soleil - a suburb smaller than Croydon - who have been sexually assaulted. What could turn a population to such voracious and cruel abuse of itself? Annacius Duportal, an aid worker funded by Oxfam who looks after HIV-positive women in the slums, told me the answer is simple - that the stripping of the plane and the high incidence of rape were caused by the same thing. Not culture, not tradition, but poverty. 'It is the source of all this. Poverty stops these young people from using their abilities, from fulfilling their promise. It compromises their sexuality, it forces the young women to use their sexuality so they can get money and assistance from the young men. And that has meant those who steal property seem to think it's also acceptable to steal women.'
Stealing women. This is no metaphor: one of the curses of the slums of Haiti over the past couple of years has been an epidemic of people-theft - of kidnapping for ransom, or for intimidation and control. At the beginning of this year, kidnaps in Cité Soleil alone were running at over 100 a month. Rape or the threat of it is a feature of kidnap, a key tool of those gangs. No one knows how much rape there is in Haiti - until very recently places like Cité Soleil were no-go areas for the Haitian police, and even the UN peacekeeping soldiers patrol the shantytown only in armoured personnel carriers.
So, clearly, the reporting and proper follow-up of alleged rape attacks is not exactly systematic. Only one of a dozen or so rape cases we looked into had been reported; in that instance, the gang-rape of a 12-year-old, the police had told the family it would be too dangerous to carry out an investigation. One American researcher on violence against children in Haiti told me that no rape victim she had ever met in the country had told the police about the crime.
Thus the only definitive statistics on rape in Haiti come from the legal system. They don't tell you much, but what they tell you is terrible. Like this: in the first judicial semester of 2007 in Port-au-Prince, 41 cases of rape came to trial. Twenty-one of them concerned teenage women, and 13 others girls who were younger. But only one resulted in a conviction. This is a conviction rate twice as bad as Britain's - which in itself is shamefully low, at just one in 20 of all cases. And a third of the victims were under 13.
Rape's entry in any honest history of Haiti is a long one. Columbus's men raped and murdered the indigenous tribes they found when they landed on Hispaniola in 1492; French planters used the slaves they shipped from Africa for sex; and when those slaves threw out the French and declared the first Republic, rape and murder accompanied the event. In the 200 years since then, Haiti has seen nearly half its 60-odd heads of state overthrown or assassinated - and sexual violence has been a feature of most of that turmoil. But rape, until just two years ago, was not even a serious crime in the country; and to this day many Haitians - including some in the police and judicial system - believe that forced sex is only 'rape' if the victim is a virgin.
The rich and the lucky of Haiti - which is largely a few businessmen, the staff of the United Nations and the diplomats - live high up above Port-au-Prince in the leafy suburbs that rise on the hillsides. Here the breeze is cool and the great slums below are hidden in a haze of dust and cooking smoke. As you descend into the old city, the streets get shabbier and noisier - then you head towards the airport and the sea. When you've got nearly as far as you can go the streets turn flat and the breezeblock walls are eroded like bad teeth, the result of too much salt in the cement.
This is Cité Soleil. Haiti is the only country, you're often told, that needs international peacekeepers even though it isn't actually at war. But Cité Soleil looks like somewhere used to battle. The façades of the few buildings more than a storey high are pocked with bullet holes, like wormy old driftwood. Burnt-out cars lie axle-deep in the drifts of rubbish that rise in every open space.
Myryam, Oxfam's translator, is wide-eyed at the scene. 'We have a culture here, that when things go wrong, people decide to destroy,' she mutters to herself. This is her first visit to this part of her hometown in 12 years; indeed she is one of the few middle-class Haitians I met who had ever been there. As Myryam stares, a UN armoured personnel carrier, brilliant white in the blinding sunlight, roars past us and on down the road through an open market. Guns and blue helmets poke from its apertures.
Our car pushes through the razor-wired security gates of the suburb's chief hospital, St Catherine Labouré. We're told how, until January this year, it was virtually impossible for humanitarian agencies to do any work inside Cité Soleil, and it still remains a no-go zone for the United Nations organisations and most embassies. That has been the case since 2004, when, with the ousting of president Bertrand Aristide, street gangs fiercely loyal to his popularist vision rose to fight the new regime. They became notorious as the Chimères - the Ghosts. But when it became clear that Aristide was not coming back, the gangs turned to kidnap, rape and extortion to raise money to buy weapons; that violence in turn gave birth to vigilante gangs and neighbourhood protection groups, also hungry for weapons. Increasingly children and women became targets of violence.
We wander through the streets near the hospital with some of the young men and women who have been trained by Oxfam's partner agency, Vidwa, to act as advisers in sexual health and as condom distributors in Cité Soleil. This is crucial work. Haiti has the world's highest Aids rate outside Africa, and Vidwa's director, Dr Jacklin St Fleur, has found that one in 12 of the pregnant women who have visited his clinic at the hospital is HIV-positive.
It's calm on the streets and we're able to chat to the teenagers who huddle in any patch of shade available. When we've talked, about sex a little and rather more about politics - every Haitian's obsession - I ask each of them what they want more than anything else. Though a couple say 'a job', or money to go to school, nine out of 10 say that what they really want is some food.
One of Vidwa's health agents is an older woman, Rosemarie Duplessis. I ask her about rape in Cité Soleil - I've heard it's a problem. She looks at me as though I've just told her the sewage system in the slum isn't much good: 'Of course it's a problem,' she says. 'It is everywhere, every day, every night. Every woman is at risk.' Would I like to see the violated women's centre, she asks? As we walk, she tells me that 50 or 60 women arrive in Vidwa's office weekly, having been raped. 'I give them counselling, arrange for them to see the doctor and, if they need it, shelter.' She has no idea how many rapes there are every night in Cité Soleil - all she knows is that, since she started working with Vidwa nine months ago, the numbers coming to her have risen every week.
The 'centre' turns out to be Rosemarie's two-room home. It's cold, almost devoid of furniture and the cement floors are wet with flood water from last night's storms. Sitting between the puddles are two girls, Marie, 18, and Jose-Ange, 15. Rosemarie has been looking after the pair, who are sisters, since they were attacked by a gang a week ago. Heads lowered in the gloom, they tell us their story.
They'd gone to the area where they used to live to see their old home. Some boys dragged them into the bushes. They were beaten with sticks. Marie was raped three times, Jose-Ange once. It would have been more but a man came along and disturbed the boys. Neither had ever had sex before. Now they can't go home, because the boys told everyone what they had done, and the kids are singing songs about them.
'We have been dishonoured,' says Marie. The words, in French, sound curiously Victorian. And then I think, there's no playing down this problem as a cultural normality. It is a horror for each and every woman, and it means the same to them, wherever in the world they have been abused. Though there are differences - when I ask the girls if they have had an Aids test after the assault, they don't really know what I am talking about. But they have both had a pregnancy test, and that was negative.
'I've never had a lover,' says Marie as she finishes her story, her voice low, 'and now I'll never have one.' Rosemarie says sharply: 'You are young, you cannot say you won't have a boyfriend. Don't say your life is over. It is not.' As we open the door and some light enters the room, I realise that Marie was hiding her face not just because she was crying, as I thought, but because it is discoloured and puffy with bruises.
Why is there so much rape? Rosemarie shrugs. The layout of the streets in Cité Soleil, the lack of electricity and street lighting, make the place dangerous for women. Women have to walk in the dark to get water and food. Lack of education and most important, lack of jobs. Ninety-five per cent of the young people in Cité Soleil are unemployed. 'And the young men who are unemployed are often in gangs.'
The slums of Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities are indeed dominated by gangs - in Cité Soleil, between 2004 and the beginning of 2007, gangs were the only authority. And the gangs do indeed use rape as a tool in their control of their districts. Some, according to a report on armed violence and women in Haiti produced for the United Nations in 2006, exist in order to rape. The report's author, Wiza Loutis, identified teenage groups like the Vagabonds and the Chimères whose principal activity is gang-rape of young girls and adolescent women.
She found groups of older men, the Bandits, who use rape as a means to intimidate and control the local population, to punish women who will not sleep with them, or as a means of extorting money. Other reports talk of the Cannibal Armies, a pro-Aristide paramilitary group who carried out rape for political reasons. These gangs are not all male, either. Loutis writes of organised groups of adolescent lesbians who carry out rapes of young women, sometimes acting in concert with the male gangs.
In a public report on children and armed conflict, produced by the UN Secretary General for the Security Council in October 2006, there is a section on Haiti that makes astonishing reading. According to 'research of the UN and other aid agencies', almost half of all the girls in Haiti's conflict areas, like Cité Soleil, have been victims of rape or sexual violence. In other slums the phenomenon of gang rape is common.
The report goes on to accuse the Haitian National Police of the rape of female children in custody, and of murder and the mutilation of children living on the street - this the very force that the UN, since 2004, has been in Haiti to help reform. I ask one senior UN staffer in Haiti why these amazing allegations have not been acted on, or publicised further. 'You cannot imagine the lack of interest there is in the UN system in this problem,' he says. He blames lack of education in the organisation, and diplomatic fears of upsetting the Haitian government, with whom the UN mission is mandated to cooperate.
At this point, I find myself wondering if Haiti's epidemic of sexual violence can really be explained as simply as it is by Rosemarie and Annacius. Poverty and boredom equals rape? As a man, I have to confess I don't understand rape, in the sense that I do understand, say, murder. By this I mean that I can imagine killing, especially in hot blood; I can see how I might react to an attack, on me or my family, seize a weapon, lash out in anger or in fear. But rape? No, I can't picture myself doing that. Joanna Bourke, in her fascinating and recently published Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present, analyses stories of the behaviour of groups of GIs during the Vietnam war, men who later regretted their rapes of Vietnamese civilians, but clearly were driven by fear, hatred and, most of all, peer pressure to commit a crime they would never have believed possible. But, still, no, I don't believe that I am - as conventional feminist thinking has it - a potential rapist.
The classic feminist interpretation of the act of rape was - and is - that it is about power, domination and control. 'Rape is not a sexual but an aggressive act,' the feminist writer Ruth Seiffert puts it. That puts an interesting light on the behaviour of those soldier-gangs raping in Vietnam; I've reported wars in the Balkans and in Africa and I know that the exaggerated sense of self that a gun gives to a soldier results in a lot of rape - well, I know that war means rape. Bourke quotes a rape prosecutor, Alice Vachss, who maintained that people who 'think rape is about sex' are confusing 'the weapon with the motivation'. And certainly the acts of the bandit gangs in the Haiti slums, using rape as a means of controlling and disciplining the female population of their quartiers can be explained by the thesis that they are using their penises as weapons to assert authority. But I'm not sure that's the whole picture.
The most striking thing about discussing rape in Haiti, which I did with a lot of Haitians, including some members of gangs in the slums, was not that anyone denied its importance as an issue (as some researchers did), but how everyone explained it in the same way - it's the lack of policing, of proper governance, the unemployment, and the failed economy. Rape did not have the special status, as the psychopathic gender crime, that feminist theory has given it. Rather, and quite simply, people described it as part of the general breakdown in society. 'We have kidnappers and gangs for whom rape is a habit,' said Natacha Joaccine, 33, a counsellor working on HIV/Aids awareness and young people's sexual habits in the Carrefour-Feuilles slum area. 'I think it's because the state doesn't take responsibility - the bandits feel they can do what they like.' Natacha also mentioned, as did several other aid workers, that among the urban Haitian youth there is an obsession with sex.
I began to think this might be significant during a bizarre encounter at a clinic run by an Oxfam-supported local NGO, Aprosifa, in Carrefour-Feuilles. Patrick, 31, an air-conditioning engineer, was there with his girlfriend Marly, 20, because she had recently had a miscarriage. I'd noticed them because, during the compulsory Aids-awareness lecture given by Natacha Joaccine before the clinic opened, Patrick had been one of the few people who admitted knowing someone who had died of Aids. This is a big taboo in Haiti, where the disease's popular name is diare masisi - homosexual's diarrhoea.
We talked about Patrick's friend, a heterosexual, who had tried to kill himself after finding out he was HIV-positive. And then we moved more generally into Haitian men's sexual practices. Patrick said he thought that Haitian men were sex addicts. Rape and 'sodomy' were their favourite activities. 'There's a habit among young men who live at home and don't have anything to do to go out and do these things, It's one of the reasons young men who don't earn a living go out and join gangs.'
Perhaps because he wanted to impress Myryam, my interpreter, Patrick was soon going into more detail than we really wanted to hear. This is straight from my notebook:
'I'm not that keen on sex so I only have one girlfriend. So I don't use a condom - skin to skin is best [Marly giggles shyly when we ask if this OK with her]. My friends don't believe in condoms though, they say Aids is a rumour invented by white men to stop people having fun and making love. My friends have more girlfriends and they use drugs so they last longer when they have sex... They have a little bottle with a bean called pwa and they spray the liquid on their penis, and they can go for an hour without ejaculating. And they also take a gasket from a Suzuki Tracker headlight [he looks in his wallet and brings out a black rubber ring] and put it on the end of their penis..."
The Suzuki Tracker is a cheapish four-wheel-drive, much used by the middle classes to negotiate Port-au-Prince's rutted roads. And yes, Myryam confirmed later, Suzuki Trackers do have a problem. Vandals are always smashing their headlights. 'Now I know why!' she laughed.
Two men working in NGOs confirmed some of these details. And one, an Italian, said that he found Haitian male sexuality bizarre to the point of disturbing. The habit of slicing open the skin of the penis and inserting pieces of metal was very common, and a source of health problems. Another area of concern was the use of hougans - voodoo priests - both for love potions and for Aids prophylactics, and then for cures to sexual diseases.
I spent one jaw-dropping afternoon in a room in the Carrefour-Feuilles slum watching Aprosifa staff trying to educate young people about Aids and problems associated with it. By the end of the 90-minute session it was clear that two of the teenage girls, both of them mothers, would not be budged from their conviction that they knew two sure-fire ways to avoid Aids. One was by having sex in the sea. The other: getting their boyfriends to drink a potion made of the water they had used to wash their private parts. Nothing, it seemed, was going to persuade them otherwise. And neither had much hope of persuading their boyfriends to use a condom.
To be fair, Oxfam's street-level NGO partners like Aprosifa and Vidwa seem to be doing effective work in getting information out to these young people, and in persuading them to use condoms. All this in the face of a non-existent public-health system and considerable opposition, not least from the Catholic church. The NGOs have run training sessions with the voodoo priests, too - particularly in order to try and address the dangerous practice of the priests sleeping with women in order to cure them of their sexual diseases. 'We tell the hougan that, even if they diagnose that the possessing spirit has Aids, to send the person to us after they have done their voodoo treatment,' said Natacha Joaccine.
Joanna Bourke's book makes a point of rejecting the traditional feminist view of rape. 'I think the power-sex dichotomy is a red herring. Clearly rape is about both,' she told me. And in order to understand rapists properly and address the problem in any way that will have results, she believes that the fact that rapists themselves see rape as a sexual and pleasurable act must be tackled. 'The person who sexually tortures others is a reasoning being who has made choices; those can change... Rapists are not born, they become,' she writes. If we begin by demystifying the rapist, she argues, 'we can forge a future without sexual violence'.
I was interested to talk to Professor Bourke because she spent part of her childhood in Haiti, where her father was a doctor. She lived there long enough to remember how violence seemed a part of ordinary life, in that 'everyone had a weapon - knives, guns, machetes'. Her schoolfriends never talked about rape. 'But you couldn't avoid seeing violence and knowing that sexual violence was around. My girlfriends were always being beaten up, they were bruised, by the guy next door, their brothers, their fathers.'
But she is stern in rejecting the cultural explanations of this violence. 'It's too easy to say, and people did, "oh, this problem is just about primitive Haitians. They're ungovernable, black, freed slaves, what do you expect?" But the problem comes out of poverty; brutalised lives. It's because it's a war zone.'
Professor Bourke could be echoing the words of Annacius Duportal, the wise Oxfam/Aprosifa worker I met at the drop-in centre for HIV-positive women in Carrefour-Feuilles. He had talked of how poverty compromises the sexuality of the poor - allows women and their sexuality to be something that can be stolen. Bourke says: 'For the poor, the whole notion of sexuality is difficult: it's not a matter of identity as we see it in a modern, affluent Western society. Rather, in poor societies sexuality is something you use to find shelter, food and safety. It has a use; it has a value.'
Defeating poverty and providing education, says Professor Bourke, are the only way to rescue Haiti's women from having their sexuality used to help them survive. 'It's so clear - you can show in all societies that the lower the rape rate is, the higher the employment figures will be. The greater the equality between the sexes, the lower the statistics for violence against women.' Luc St Vil, Oxfam's programme development officer in Haiti, backs this view. 'The imbalance of power here between men and women is aggravated by the lack of social and economic opportunities. If women are not autonomous in deciding the mode and type of sexual relationship, then it's difficult for them to control other issues, like health and HIV.'
And there perhaps lies a cure to Haiti's plague of violence against women. But first - and here again Bourke agrees with everyone I spoke to in Haiti who does work on the ground on violence and women's rights - rape has to be taken more seriously by the authorities in Haiti and especially by the United Nations mission. It has a duty, mandated by the Security Council, to assist and promote reform of the country's policing and judicial systems, as it does to restore the rights of ordinary Haitians, especially women and children.It is clear by any standard that it is not succeeding in that.
A couple of foreign researchers on violence against women in Haiti told me that women there see rape as a secondary problem - they're more worried about their children's security or the difficulty of feeding them. But, as Joanna Bourke says, rape is a source of poverty, too. 'It affects women's ability to work, or to find a husband. They may be injured, their health may be harmed. They may be pregnant. Reading the testimony of Victorian rape victims, as I have, again and again you come across one phrase that illustrated their fears about what the assault meant for their future: "He left me wet". Meaning, the man had ejaculated - they might be pregnant. Rape does harm way beyond the act itself.' In Haiti it may have damaged an entire generation of women.
Some names have been changed. Alex Renton and Caroline Irby's trip to Haiti was hosted by Oxfam. To find out more about the organisation's work in Haiti and its worldwide programmes tackling violence against women, visit www.oxfam.org.uk.