In-depth: Haiti and HIV: "Gen espwa" - new hope dawns

HAITI: Treatment centre reports rising sexual violence and HIV

Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN
Not enough love
PORT-AU-PRINCE, 1 November 2007 (PlusNews) - Apart from HIV, sexual violence against women in Haiti is another virus that has so far proved resistant to a cure. Activists say they are unsure whether the rise in cases over the last few years is due to violence becoming more widespread, or the result of campaigns calling on women to speak out.

Either way, human rights groups say it is an indictment of the way the society treats its women. According to a study published by UK-based medical journal The Lancet, 35,000 women were subject to sexual violence around the capital, Port-au-Prince, between 2003 and 2005; more than half were younger than 18 years. [www.thelancet.com]

In 2004, political tensions in Haiti degenerated into violence as a rebel group made up of anti-government gangs and demobilised soldiers began to seize towns; President Jean-Baptiste Aristide was forced into exile.

"The year 2004 saw the climax of the violence, particularly sexual violence," said Dr Brunel Delonnay, a senior official in a government unit that coordinates programmes on sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

The violence continued in 2005 and early 2006 with 'Operation Baghdad', launched by armed Aristide supporters demanding his return despite the presence of a United Nations peacekeeping force.

Before the unrest, the Gheskio Centre, the largest HIV treatment centres in Port-au-Prince, was seeing just a handful of women requesting HIV testing after sexual assaults. In 2006 numbers rose to between 40 or 50 cases a month, many of them gang rapes.

"At first it was slow - one case here, one case there," said the centre's secretary-general, Dr Marie Deschamps. "Now the women come, but [nearly half] of them come too late." Post-exposure prophylaxis, which cuts the risk of HIV infection, must be administered within 72 hours of the attack.

''Sexual violence drastically increased with the outbreak of violence in 2004..''
Twelve percent of the women reporting to the centre are pregnant, and around two percent are HIV-positive, said Deschamps. "In 90 percent of cases, the victims come to get screened for HIV because they are scared. If they thought we couldn't prevent HIV infection, they wouldn't come."

Haiti has an HIV prevalence rate of 3.8 percent, the highest in the region.

Sexual violence linked to political insecurity is just the tip of the iceberg. "This situation [of political instability] has obscured habitual sexual violence happening behind closed doors, which was hidden and not brought to justice," said Delonnay.

Dr Jean-William Pape, director and co-founder of the Gheskio Centre, agrees. "At the start, the [recorded] incidents of sexual violence were committed by persons who were unknown and armed, but this has changed; now many of the victims know their attackers," he said.

Pressed by human rights activists, the Haitian government is beginning to improve the legal protection of women. Legislation was passed in 2005 that reclassified rape as a stand-alone crime carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment; previously it was categorised as part of the wider crime of sexual molestation.

The definition of adultery had also contained gender double standards: when committed by a man it was only recognised if it was actually committed in the marital bed, but in the case of a woman the location did not matter, a distinction that has now been done away with.

Despite these attempts at legal reforms, perpetrators of sexual violence still enjoy a level of impunity; women are often too ashamed to testify against their attacker, and when the assailant is a man in uniform, too scared. According to the Lancet study, 14 percent of cases of sexual assault were attributed to members of the police force.

Although the police insist they "do not tolerate such acts", the behaviour of the police on the streets has been denounced by human rights organisations and sex workers.

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Links and References

Country Profile: Haiti
Human Rights Watch
The Synergy Project
Global Fund in Haiti
PEPFAR in Haiti
UNAIDS Country progress report
National survey on mortality, morbidity and HIV/AIDS
Panos Institute of the Caribbean
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