“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” I have used this saying by Rabbi Tarfon from Pirke Avot many times, but until last week, I hadn’t truly comprehended the meaning behind these words. Over the course of three days, I had the honor of meeting a delegation of Haitian Civil Society leaders who came to Washington to meet with officials in connection to the two-year anniversary of the earthquake. They came as part of the Haiti Advocacy Working Group, a collection of U.S. organizations devoted to a fair and more effective reconstruction process in Haiti, that AJWS hosts. Two of them, Marguerite Salomon, Director of GCFV (Group Concertation des Femmes Victims), and Emmania Durchard, Director of AJWS’s grantee KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims), have been fighting to protect women from sexual and domestic violence in Haiti for decades. When the earthquake hit, the situation became exponentially worse. Instead of giving up, these women continued forward. As Emmania described “…after the earthquake, the rate of sexual violence was so high, that we needed to support all of them. We have more work to do, not only to provide support, but to advocate and educate.”*
The focus of their work is in the camps in Haiti. Marguerite described her experience when she visits a camp: “…there is no security, no food, no housing, no tents, numerous health problems, no schools and no sanitation. They are all just trying to survive.” For a woman, including some as young as seven, sexual violence is an additional danger. Sexual assaults occur not just in individuals’ tents but even outside while women and girls are walking through the camp. In one case that Marguerite described the violence occurred right in front of a police station. Yet, the police have done little. What’s more, women are afraid to file reports because they are afraid the perpetrators will find out and kill them. There is no justice for these women.
Marguerite told me about a common experience that occurred during the distribution of food aid following the earthquake. The presidents of each of the camps were given cards by the NGOs that were supposed to be given to each family as a ticket for the food aid. In order to get the card, the women were instructed to go to the president of the specific camp. The president then promised each woman that she would receive food and shelter only in exchange for sex. Each woman complied, but never received the food and shelter they were promised. Many young girls became pregnant due to these acts.
Marguerite and Emmania are helping young girls and women find support, educate each other and advocate on behalf of the victims. They are also fighting to create a more just judicial system in Haiti. According to these women, the primary concern is security and shelter in the camps—an adequate place to live without the constant threat of people entering their living space and abusing them.
AJWS is helping to fund many organizations working for this change. KOFAVIV and The Haiti Advocacy Working Group are helping to amplify the voices of Haitians whose stories of oppression are often ignored.
We need the United States and the Haitian governments to work with these groups to ensure the protection against gender-based violence. The stories of women in the camps remind us that we must keep fighting.
*The interviews were conducted via a translator and all quotes are based on the given translation.