Although the January 2010 earthquake suspended the government’s work on a national strategy to combat violence against women, women’s organizations led by SOFA (Solidarite Fanm Ayisyen/Haitian Women’s Solidarity) have pressed on in their struggle.
SOFA is a national women’s organization focused on women’s right to health, the fight against violence against women, the promotion of the participation of women in decision-making, and stopping feminization of poverty. As part of their 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence in 2011, SOFA launched a national campaign entitled “Se Ra, Se Ta” (Later is too late) challenging the normalization of violence against women in Haitian society. The campaign implored both women and men to take their rightful roles in preventing gender-based violence. To ensure that all segments of society were sensitized, the campaign used multiple platforms such as print, radio, and popular theater.
The campaign aims to change permissive cultural attitudes that enable the subjugation of women in their private lives, especially physical violence. In undertaking the campaign SOFA and its allies hope to build a societal firewall to protect women. In doing so family members, neighbors, and strangers are urged and empowered to intervene wherever violence against women occurs.
The trajectory from societal norm to taboo behavior is a long process made longer by the structural violence women in Haiti face. For instance, women in Haiti have less access to education, lower rates of employment in the formal sector, less access to justice (especially in cases of rape), and limited-to-no access to institutionalized social services.
For rural women the situation is worse. Women constitute 50 percent of the rural population and agricultural labor force, yet have less access to agricultural extension services, including credit, than their male counterparts. Because of these structural barriers, women in Haiti must often choose between physical safety and economic security when contemplating ending abusive relationships.
The campaign was launched at a critical time for women and girls, especially the internally displaced living precariously in camps where their security is compromised because of poorly lit common areas, public bathing facilities, tents without locking mechanisms, and limited-to-no policing. At a Haiti Advocacy Working Group-sponsored briefing on Capitol Hill in January 2012, a number of women leaders in Haiti shared anecdotal evidence suggesting that sexual violence has been on the rise since the earthquake. (Their anecdotal evidence is supported by findings from Amnesty International and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.)They included the aforementioned factors as contributors to the violence along with discrimination and a culture of impunity that may recognize gender-based violence as a crime on paper, but rarely in practice.
Violence against women is a social disease with a social cure. The campaign to end physical and structural violence against women will not be won overnight, or even in a few years. Rather, it’s a decades-long public education process that must be buttressed by laws that are uniformly enforced. Everyone is implicated. Women in Haiti, along with their male allies, have taken a significant step toward a cure. But the struggle continues.
Graphic courtesy of La Via Campesina