By Athena Kolbe e Robert Muggah.
A text message was the first sign that something was wrong: “Nou genyen yon pwoblem” (“We have a problem”). A flurry of phone calls and emails ensued. In the week after Hurricane Sandy hit Haiti, our research team was south of the capital, Port-au-Prince, assessing the state of post-disaster crime and service provision in the wake of hurricane Sandy. The SMS was from a member of our team, an enthusiastic and bright graduate student we’ll call “Wendy.” It turns out that she was walking alone a few blocks from our hotel when she was accosted, forced into a house, and brutally raped.
The first priority was to ensure Wendy received medical attention. A doctor was tracked down but he refused to examine Wendy saying she needed to be seen by the authorities first. The police were contacted and after a grueling interview in which one repeatedly asked Wendy, “What did you do to make him violate you?” the officers said she was free to be seen by the doctor. The doctor, however, could not be located and did not respond to cell phone calls and texts. Police wryly suggested that he likely wished to avoid getting involved.
Haitian law requires rape victims to be examined within the first 70 hours by a doctor in order to “certify” the event occurred. This step is necessary in order to prosecute the perpetrator, though few victims are able or willing to satisfy this requirement. The reasons for which quickly became apparent. Police referred Wendy to a public clinic in the nearest town, a three-hour drive over roads washed out by the hurricane. When Wendy arrived she was told the doctor assigned to the clinic was out. No one knew when he would return and he had not been seen in weeks. A nurse mentioned that the doctor might be working at the private clinic he ran near his home.
It was now more than 16 hours since the attack. Wendy had neither slept nor bathed since we told her that the doctor would need to retrieve samples of the fluids left by the perpetrator. Her clothes were ripped and dirty. Dried blood matted her hair where the rapist had slammed her head against a cinder-block wall during the assault. And while it turned out that the doctor was at home, he nevertheless wanted verification from the police that a sexual assault complaint had been filed before he conducted an examination. The police were called but they claimed a “fee” was required before they would release a copy of the complaint to the doctor.
Frustrated, we called a women’s’ rights organization in the capital who said plainly that the police frequently demand bribes in order to file a complaint. They suggested we pay now and complain to the officer’s superiors later. Our research field coordinator quickly drove several hours back to the town where the assault had taken place, paid the roughly $25 bribe, and waited while the officer slowly typed up a report. The report, however, was useless. It merely stated that Wendy issued a complaint against a specific man but not that she had been violently raped by him. After arguing with the officer he agreed to change the report to include the allegation of sexual assault.
It took more than 24 hours before Wendy was finally examined by a medical professional. Astonishingly, the doctor claimed that he had never been trained to examine a rape victim. It took a few more calls by our research team to track down a gynecologist in Port-au-Prince who could coach the doctor via cell phone. Wendy cried quietly the entire time. Making matters worse, random people walked in and out of the room during the exam including patients, several nurses and a man who was there to visit his sick wife in an adjacent room. Privacy is a rare commodity in Haiti, including in the hospital.
In North America and Western Europe, women who are raped are often offered medication. These are intended to fight possible exposure to sexually transmitted disease and may also include the “the morning-after pill,” a concentrated dose of progestin that can stop the process of fertilization. Wendy was terrified of pregnancy. She privately declared that though she did not believe in abortion, she would rather “die” than have “that man put a baby inside of me.” Wendy had learned about the pill from a university class but was unaware if it was available or legal in Haiti. She asked the doctor after he completed the exam who falsely told her that because it had now been 24 hours since the rape, it would no longer be effective.
After Wendy’s exam the police were informed but they refused to pick up the medical report or fluid samples collected by the doctor. Instead these were unceremoniously bundled into a plastic bag and given back to Wendy who was told to take them to a state-run medical clinic for sexual assault victims in the capital, a 15-hour drive away. The doctor then demanded an exorbitant fee of $75 for the medical report in addition to the fee for the exam. The final document stated simply that Wendy complained of being raped and was examined and found to have evidence of sexual activity. Astonishingly, no record was made of the bruises covering her thighs or the many lacerations indicating the viciousness of her assault.
Despite being highly educated and experienced social workers, neither Wendy nor the other researcher assisting her were aware of the problems that these omissions in the doctor’s report could later cause. “Rape isn’t something that is prosecuted here, so I didn’t know what the report should include,” Wendy explained later. “I just wanted to change my clothes and take a shower. I could not wait to get out of that doctor’s office.” But before she could have a shower Wendy had to return to small town where the assault happened to be interviewed by the police again. The interview, which resembled an interrogation, lasted several hours and by the time it was done Wendy had repeated her story to five different police officers.
Our research field coordinator, meanwhile, was scouring pharmacies for the morning-after pill. He finally tracked down a pharmacist who knew what it was. This pharmacist was willing to sell it, but at a cost. The medication, like most pharmaceuticals in Haiti, was imported. The instructions were in Arabic and Portuguese, neither of which the pharmacist could read. He did not know whether the packet contained the morning after pill or rather hormones for post-menopausal women. The field coordinator closed his eyes and picked a box, which by chance happened to be the right one. He subsequently slipped the pharmacist a few dollars to keep quiet.
It was 40 hours since the attack and we still had not filed the report with the police. Wendy slept the entire ride home, helped into semblance of sleep by a glass of clarin (homemade gin) that the private doctor had advised she take to “ease the pain.” For all of his hesitancy to treat Wendy, he appeared to be genuinely concerned for her well-being. His parting words to Wendy’s companion were, “You do know they aren’t going to do anything to [the rapist], right? Don’t get her hopes up. Just take her home and let her forget about all this.”
Back in the capital, Port-au-Prince, we had no intention of sweeping this incident under the carpet. Calls were made and emails sent to the police, women’s rights organizations, and a suite of government ministries. After all, our research team routinely studies and publishes on crimes such as sexual assault. Ironically, Wendy is a lead surveyor in a study tracking violence against women. We spoke with the police chief from the area where the assault took place. He said that his officers had questioned the perpetrator who himself claimed that Wendy willingly had sex with him. Since the medical report made no mention of the violent nature of the assault, and despite the fact that police had seen Wendy’s bruises and cuts, the officer following her file said that there was nothing he could do.
Calls to the women’s rights organizations and other civil society groups confirmed that there was little to be done. “You could pay something, give them a gift so they arrest the guy,” one human rights worker suggested with a level voice. “But he’ll probably just pay another bribe and get out.” In the end, however, Wendy’s rape is a drop in the bucket. Although sexual assault rates in Haiti have fluctuated over the years, we know from our own statistical analysis that one in three Haitian women have been sexually abused or assaulted in their lifetime. Few will ever report the event because of the cultural stigma blaming victims for their own assault together with the complicated process needed to bring charges against a rapist.
And while our team is relatively educated, well-off, and connected, we were patently unprepared when the rape occurred. For her part, Wendy was emotionally battered by the process of reporting the rape. By the time she returned to Port-au-Prince, all she wanted was to dump the plastic bag of semen samples and return to her family. Her mother thanked us profusely for getting her medical attention but told us to never to mention the rape again. A traditional health practitioner was called in to treat Wendy and after a short ceremony prescribed rest and herbal tea. When the voodoo doctor left, Wendy told us that she did not want to pursue a case against the man who attacked her. As her doctor predicted, she just wanted to forget the whole thing ever happened.
We tried to convince her otherwise but she was adamant. She blamed herself for walking alone, for wearing a pair of pants borrowed from another researcher that were too small and tight, for smiling and saying hello when the man first approached her, for freezing up and not screaming when he attacked her. Despite her education, personal strength, and commitment to fighting violence against women, Wendy could not bring herself to face the grueling road that rape prosecution is in Haiti. So she dropped it and she asked us to do the same. When we told the women’s organization she did not want to pursue it, they were hardly surprised: “It happens all the time. We get dozens of cases each month and out of those, sometimes not even one woman will put herself through this [reporting] process.” Who can blame them?