Warning: The story below contains descriptions of sexual violence
The men came before sunrise, burning and destroying everything in their path before they reached *Sarah’s sheet-metal home in the impoverished Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Cite Soleil. Then, they broke down the door.
“If it wasn’t for God, they would have killed me for sure,” the young Haitian woman told Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen (SOFA), a feminist civil society group in Haiti, about the July 2022 attack. She said three men raped her in front of her mother and two children before they let them all go.
“Thank God they didn’t do anything to my mother and children,” Sarah said in her testimonial, which was shared with Al Jazeera this month. “They let us go, but after a few minutes they set our house on fire.”
Sexual violence has surged in Haiti amid widespread gang killings and kidnappings, a political stalemate that has crippled most state institutions, and socioeconomic uncertainty across the Caribbean nation.
Over the past several months, criminal gangs vying for control of territory have enacted a campaign of terror in the capital of Port-au-Prince. They have used sexual violence “to instill fear and to punish and to terrorise” residents, a United Nations official recently warned.
“We are in an abysmal situation,” said Elizabeth Richard, programme coordinator at ActionAid Haiti, a non-profit group working to support sexual violence survivors in the country. With videos of gang attacks circulated widely on social media, Richard said a sense of numbness and dehumanisation has set in, eclipsing the scope of the problem.
“I don’t want it to be normal – because we have to reach a point where we say, ‘OK that’s enough’,” she told Al Jazeera. “In Haiti, [women] are the pillar of the society. If you have women experiencing this type of issue, how can you have a society at all in a sense?”
SOFA, which operates five centres in support of sexual violence survivors in Haiti’s northwestern region of Grand’Anse as well as another centre in Port-au-Prince, documented a sixfold increase in reported rape cases in the capital between January and December of last year.
A senior SOFA representative, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said approximately 20 rape victims sought out the organisation’s help in Port-au-Prince each month between January and September 2022.
In November, that figure shot up to 77 – and it reached 123 in December. But the real number of sexual assaults is likely much higher because many cases go unreported, the representative said. “Every time that insecurity increases, women are the first targets,” they said in an interview this week, adding that incidents of gang rape also have become more common.
Fanm Deside, a women’s rights group based in Jacmel in southern Haiti, also said in its year-end report that it provided support to 508 victims of violence in 2022, including 39 rape survivors and five survivors of gang rape. Ten others were victims of attempted rape.
Both the SOFA representative and Richard at ActionAid Haiti said female Haitian merchants, many of whom are forced to travel across gang-controlled areas to make a living, are among those most vulnerable to attacks by gang members.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also found in an October report (PDF) that gangs have tried to disrupt Haiti’s “social fabric” by targeting “women and girls crossing ‘frontlines’ or moving across neighborhoods on foot or in public transport to carry out their daily livelihood activities, such as going to work, to marketplaces or to schools”.
The result in many cases of sexual violence, said Richard, is that women abandon their jobs for fear of being attacked again, or are forced to seek out alternative fields of employment, which are scarce. “So of course this has repercussions on [household] income,” she said.
Access to justice
In the meantime, Haiti’s virtually non-existent government system has made seeking justice for acts of violence a seemingly impossible task.
The country no longer has any elected representatives as it last held national elections in 2016, and the administration of acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry – who took office two weeks after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021 – faces a crisis of legitimacy.
In its October report, the UN said “impunity remains the norm” for sexual violence perpetrated by Haitian gangs, while the lack of accountability is made worse by insecurity and weak state agencies, including specialised police units that lack resources and gender sensitivity training.
“Rule of law institutions are not only under-resourced and understaffed, but they are affected by lack of independence and corruption. Their representatives are also subjected to intimidation and reprisals by gang elements,” the report found.
According to the SOFA representative, “the judicial system practically doesn’t exist” in the country. “So when women come and don’t find results … they get discouraged. And for us, too, we feel diminished compared to the type of service that we’re used to providing,” the representative said.
Richard at ActionAid Haiti also said many civil society groups working to stem sexual violence have few resources to respond to survivors’ needs, which include medical as well as psychological support. “You can try your best to respond to the need or to give the basic help needed, but the level of treatment that [is required] is tremendous,” she said.
But she said she remained optimistic that the veil of impunity could be broken. “Hope is possible, but officials and also the community, the international community, really need to support our justice system for these women to get the justice they deserve,” Richard said.
That is what *Sarah in Cite Soleil hopes for as she struggles to cope with the July attack.
“If there is a state in this country, I only ask for justice,” she told SOFA. “Since I was raped I don’t feel like a human anymore. I don’t feel like a human being anymore … I don’t feel like I have a life anymore. I ask for justice.”
*Pseudonym used for fear of reprisals