Wednesday, September 26th, 2018
I recently visited our Haitian sister organization, Zanmi Lasante (ZL) in Haiti, to learn about the progress of a pilot project launched in 2014 in partnership with Partners In Health Canada (PIHC). It is believed to be the first sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) program in Haiti that links medical, psychosocial and legal systems to provide care for survivors, connect them to avenues for justice and shift attitudes around sexual violence. Until 2005, Haitian law considered rape to be not an assault, but a “crime against public morals”, and perpetrators could avoid punishment if they paid off or married their victims. The law only changed following a hard-fought campaign by Haitian feminist activists, but attitudinal and institutional change is still needed. Public perceptions of sexual violence often result in shaming and victim-blaming, and survivors of sexual assault struggle to access medical care or justice.
Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais, a teaching hospital built and supported by PIH, serves as a tertiary care centre for victims of GBV (Photo by Mark Brender / Partners In Health Canada)
While ZL ensures that all these services are available to patients at all SGBV project sites, an available service is not necessarily an accessible one. Many rural communities are located in remote areas high in the hills, and residents can only access a health centre via a long journey over rough mountain roads. We are addressing economic and transportation barriers in part by covering the transportation costs of assault survivors who visit ZL medical facilities. But beyond that, many are prevented from seeking care or recourse because they do not have information about the services available to them. Stigma and victim-blaming in their home communities may also prevent them from telling anyone about their assault or seeking care or recourse.
A view of the rough roads PIH staff take to visit GBV Committee meetings in rural villages. These are the same roads victims of GBV need to travel in order to access care. (Photo by Mark Brender / Partners In Health Canada)
Outreach into the community is therefore an essential part of this work, both to promote public awareness and begin a process of public attitudinal change, reducing stigma and, eventually, the prevalence of assault. One way we do this is through SGBV “commissions.” ZL first established SGBV commissions in major towns, bringing together representatives from institutions including police, the judiciary, the women’s affairs ministry, women’s organizations, the health system, and child protection to share information on SGBV cases, track incidence, and discuss responses, service improvements, and collaboration between sectors. Last year, we expanded this initiative to remote rural areas.
While in Haiti, I joined a ZL social worker as she traveled to a remote village to lead a GBV commission meeting. The commission was formed of volunteers from among community leaders: teachers, a minister, a municipal government representative, a member of a women’s association. We sat together on wooden benches in a village’s tin-roofed church high on a hilltop, and the social worker led the group in a discussion about how they perceive sexual and gender-based violence in their community, and how they have seen their neighbours respond to cases that have arisen in the past.
Members of a rural GBV Committee stand for a photo after meeting to discuss perceptions of sexual and gender-based violence in their community. (Photo by Mark Brender / Partners In Health Canada)
A member of the GBV committee displays an educational poster about seeking care for sexual assault on the wall of a rural church. (Photo by Mark Brender / Partners In Health Canada)
Occasions like Gender Equality Week offer an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on how we can contribute to the fight for gender equality and human rights both within Canada and beyond. PIHC is proud to stand in solidarity with Haitian women and girls. We hope this work will contribute to the broader social change around understandings of gender, sexuality, consent and human rights needed to begin reducing the frequency of sexual assault in Haiti.