Efforts Target Rapists In Haiti Wednesday will mark the one year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which killed 300 thousand people and left more than a million homeless, living in makeshift camps amid the rubble. In addition to other crime and hardship, the incidence of rape for women and children is reportedly on the rise in the camps. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lisa Armstrong, who has written about this disturbing trend and efforts to prosecute rapists, for Essence magazine.
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Efforts Target Rapists In Haiti

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Efforts Target Rapists In Haiti

Efforts Target Rapists In Haiti

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Every year the huge consumer electronics show shows off some of the latest and greatest digital play things. But we want to know, what were the coolest? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But, first, we go behind closed doors as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people often keep private. As this week marks the one-year anniversary of that huge earthquake in Haiti that took so many lives and disrupted so many others, we wanted to take a look at how the quake has opened up the vulnerabilities of women and children in particular.

There's no privacy for those in the camps, of course. But it turns out that women and children there are far less secure than they should be and at much higher risk of sexual violence. Lisa Armstrong is a journalist who wrote a piece about that. It's called "Fighting Back," in this month's issue of Essence magazine. She's been reporting in Haiti over the past year through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

She stopped in our New York bureau on her way back to Haiti and she's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. LISA ARMSTRONG (Journalist): Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I guess if you think about it, it's intuitively obvious that people would be more vulnerable if they don't have a secure place to live. But how bad is it?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: It's really bad in that aside from the people who are living in these large tent cities, there are also people who set up informal shelters and there's absolutely no security at all and there are few people around. And the woman that I wrote about in the Essence piece lived in one of these types of shelters and was raped.

And, also, in the camps, often when women are raped, nobody comes. The police are not patrolling. MINUSTAH, which is the U.N. peacekeeping agency, these women say, are not patrolling and not protecting them. So there really is no security anywhere.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about the woman you wrote about who opened your piece. And I'll just warn our listeners, this is a very difficult story to hear.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, Andrela(ph) lives in Jacmel, which is about three hours away from Port-au-Prince and it was also destroyed during the earthquake. And her house collapsed. Well, not collapsed. It was damaged during the earthquake. And so she moved into a large field with some other families. And one night, shortly after the earthquake, she was in her tent, it was about 1:00 in the morning. She heard someone trip over one of the ropes that holds the tent up and by the time she'd sat up, there were already seven men inside her tent.

They raped her and then also raped her two daughters, who were 12 and 14, while she was there. And she basically stayed there overnight until morning when help came in the form of a neighbor who saw that her tent had been cut open and realized what had happened and basically gave her a needle and thread to stitch the hole up so that people wouldn't know what had happened to her.

MARTIN: Why is that? Is it that women are stigmatized for having been raped?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I mean, there's a shame in being a rape victim. And so, you know, you don't want anybody to know that you've been raped. And it was kind of like, the way that Andrela described it, it was sort of like an almost wordless exchange where the woman gave her a needle and thread and implied, you know, stitch up your tent so that no one will know what happened to you.

MARTIN: Is there any recourse for women like her? Are there any security forces, police trying to achieve justice?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, what the woman has said is that, you know, and I heard over and over again, in speaking with women, they would distinguish between whether they knew the rapist, whether someone who was their friend or a relative and whether they didn't know the person. And they would say, you know, if they didn't know the person, there's no sense in going to the police at all.

And even if they did know the person and they did go to the police, women said to me that the police did not take them seriously. There were instances where the police made remarks basically implying that the women had asked to be raped. On the other hand, when I went and interviewed people from the police force, they said that they were doing everything that they could, but there are limited numbers of police officers and they couldn't be everywhere at all times.

The other issue is that, as I mentioned, MINUSTAH, which is the U.N. peacekeeping force, women have said that they want MINUSTAH to do more to protect them. And then in speaking with people from MINUSTAH, their feeling is that this is a job for the police and, you know, the police are the ones who should be providing security.

MARTIN: So, no one is prioritizing this, essentially.


MARTIN: But there is one other point that you made in the piece which I do think is fair to mention. You also point that there was a fairly lax judicial attitude toward rape as a crime to begin with. Until 2005, you make the point that rape was considered a crime of passion, that rapists were not routinely imprisoned. So, do you think that there still is kind of an attitude - men, let's just say it that way - don't think it's a big deal.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I mean, again, there's this attitude that it doesn't really matter what happens to women and the women themselves said to me, you know, they feel like they're being raped and nothing happens because they are poor. And then it's also, you know, one woman I spoke with said that you can have this rapist arrested, but he'll walk in the front door and as you're sitting outside waiting for justice, you know, the police will just let him out the back. So there's this attitude that men don't really care about what is happening to women.

MARTIN: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'm speaking with Lisa Armstrong, a journalist who spent the past year reporting on the increase in sexual violence aimed at women and children in Haiti.

The piece you wrote for essence is titled "Fighting Back."

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Why was it titled that way? What are the women doing to fight back?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: In that particular story I wrote about a woman called Mary Lucy, and she runs an organization that before the earthquake, was helping people who affected and infected by HIV. And what she has been doing is she takes care of a large number of orphan girls.

And how I came to this story was I was actually looking at HIV and interviewing some teenagers who were homeless after the earthquake and in speaking with them heard that they had all been raped. And so through that I spoke with Mary Lucy more about the work that she's been doing to try to help the girls to find shelter. She was helping Andrella(ph) just in terms of, you know, after her daughters were raped she found medication for one of the girls who was infected with the disease. And she's been trying to do whatever she can to find food and shelter for women and girls.

Then in Port-au-Prince, there's also an organization called KOFAVIV, and that organization is made up of women who have been raped themselves. They have tried to do self defense courses, and they've tried to encourage women to go to the police and to put pressure on the police so that they will take these crimes seriously.

MARTIN: And finally, I know that youre a journalist you're continuing to report on these and other stories. From what you saw, what will it take to achieve progress?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think it's going to take a lot of international intervention. But also listening Haitian women in hearing their ideas as to what can be done to improve the situation. So there needs to be a collaboration between government, the Haitian people and these lawyers and other advocates from other countries.

MARTIN: Well, presumably stable housing would help.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, yes. I mean stable housing obviously is the first thing. But I mean with a million people still displaced, there needs to be something done immediately, and the immediate solution is to have some sort of patrolling, have some sort of policing to provide security. But, yes, obviously, you know, if people can be housed, that's ideal.

MARTIN: Lisa Armstrong wrote about sexual violence against women and children in Haiti for this month's issue of Essence magazine. The piece is titled "Fighting Back." She's been reporting in Haiti over the past year through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She's actually on her way to Haiti now, but she was kind enough to stop first in our bureau in New York.

Lisa Armstrong, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you so much for having me.

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