Participants share thoughts and experiences at a recent SEROvie focus group. Photo courtesy of SEROvie.
Our Observer Nathalie Margi spent four months in Port au Prince working with local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights groups. She brings us this account of the worrying state of LGBT rights in post-earthquake Haiti.
In the unrelenting heat of Port-au-Prince, 30 LGBT youth and sex workers gathered under a large blue tent to talk about the impact of the January 12th earthquake on their daily lives.
The tent stands in the place of what used to be the conference room of SEROvie, a grassroots Haitian organization working on HIV/AIDS prevention and the only institution in the country that addresses the needs of sexual minorities. SEROvie serves over 3,000 LGBT people and sex workers across five regions in Haiti. At the time of the disaster, the NGO was hosting its weekly support group meeting. Its office was destroyed and 14 of its members were killed. SEROvie put up some tents where its building once stood and continues to hold regular support groups, skills trainings and prevention workshops.
The discussion was recorded and broadcast on several radio stations across the country. The aim was to raise awareness of how the earthquake had affected sexual minorities. Participants spoke about the challenges they faced, from stigma and discrimination to a dearth of economic opportunities and a lack of access to appropriate, sensitive and respectful health services.
A man in his mid-twenties was handed the microphone. He explained that it has been difficult for him to get anti-retroviral drugs for his HIV treatment. Others described the neglect, stigma and humiliation they frequently experienced on the part of medical personnel, either because they disclosed their sexual orientation or because of the way they were perceived.
"When I try to take a shower in the camp where I am staying, other men harass me and tell me they don't want a faggot to see them naked"
A soft-spoken gay man shared, “When I try to take a shower in the camp where I am staying, other men harass me and tell me they don’t want a masisi [faggot]to see them naked.” Another man explained, “After the earthquake, my [same-sex] partner and I could not get [aid distribution] cards because they only gave them to women and we don’t have a woman in our household.”
The lives of LGBT people and sex workers are affected not only by this oversight on the part of mainstream humanitarian efforts but also by an increase in discrimination and violence since the earthquake. Sexual minorities and women who don’t conform to perceived social norms have been scapegoated and blamed for the earthquake. Many people in their communities have accused them of causing this disaster by bringing about a "curse" because of their "immoral" behavior.
On the day of the earthquake, passersby beat a transgender woman who was trapped under the rubble when they discovered her gender identity. In July, police and community members assaulted SEROvie volunteers and staff while they were organizing awareness-raising sessions about sexual orientation. Their tents were burned and two of them were hospitalized. In August, eight men violently attacked and gang raped a young lesbian. “Now I know not to take that street on my way home,” she said, angry but resigned.
In Haiti, there are no laws outlawing discrimination or violence on the basis of sexual orientation, nor is there any mention of sexual orientation in legislation. This means that there is no specific legal protection for sexual minorities against attacks based on their sexuality, despite the frequency and brutality of the abuse they face. In addition, rape survivors are often afraid to file a complaint because they fear more violence from their abusers.
Arbitrary arrests of homosexuals
On the other hand, the absence of sexual minorities in legislation means that homosexuality is not prohibited under Haitian law. Yet some advocate for a law criminalizing homosexuality. Mr. Gédéon, Port-au-Prince Police Commissioner, has started a campaign of arbitrary arrests, detention and harassment to punish sexual behaviors he deems unacceptable in order to “save Haitian society.”
In early September, the police arrested 18 gay and bisexual men and held them in custody for three days for “disrupting public order” while they were having a party. On September 13th, 40 women were arrested in the Champs de Mars camp for “practicing ‘woman on woman’ activities in tents,” according to the local television station Télé Eclair.
In a TV interview, Gédéon said that he had consulted a legal expert in the government to determine the charges for which these women could be arrested. Since there is no law prohibiting homosexual behavior, Gédéon arrested the women for “immorality” and “indecency” according to the Haitian Penal Code. In a press conference, Gédéon said that the operation initiated in the Champs de Mars camp would be expanded to other areas.
Local media and police officials described the situation in unclear and inconsistent ways, conflating prostitution and homosexuality. The Télé Eclair journalist said that “the police prohibits prostitution and ‘woman to woman’ activities.” Without explicitly specifying the nature of the behavior the arrests were penalizing, Gédéon said that “these activities should not be exhibited in public view, where impressionable children and others can see them.” He added that “these activities attract criminals because after kidnapping people, they enjoy spending their money on these types of activities.”
The women were released on September 15th after two days of detention in overcrowded prison cells.
SEROvie is investigating the case and has joined forces with KOFAVIV (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim [Commission of Women Victims for Victims]), a local women’s rights organization supporting survivors of gender-based violence, to explore ways in which the two NGOs can collaborate on prevention, support and advocacy initiatives against these types of violations.
"I would have expected the earthquake to bring people closer together in a feeling of solidarity. Instead, violence has increased"
Malya Villard, co-coordinator of KOFAVIV and Réginald Dupont, program coordinator at SEROvie discussed the recent abuses against women and sexual minorities. “I would have expected the earthquake to bring people closer together in a feeling of solidarity,” Villard sighed, “instead, violence has increased.”
In the absence of official statistics on gender-based violence, KOFAVIV activists have worked tirelessly to record cases of rape and sexual assault. Between January and June, they registered 264 cases against women, girls and even infants. This represents an alarming increase from the pre-earthquake average of 12 monthly cases. Eramithe Delva, KOFAVIV co-coordinator, said that cases of sexual violence against young children have increased most dramatically since the disaster. As always with sexual violence, these figures only illustrate part of the problem since most cases go unreported.
Like SEROvie and countless other organizations, KOFAVIV lost its office and many of its members on January 12th. At least 332 women whom the organization served died in the earthquake, and KOFAVIV lost touch with many more who have likely been displaced. In the post-disaster context, KOFAVIV has continued to provide services to rape survivors by searching for displaced and wounded members and re-establishing support networks for women. The NGO organizes night patrols with male allies and empowers women and girls to feel safer and defend themselves by providing them with flashlights, whistles and cell phones.
Dupont emphasized the importance of building alliances between organizations promoting women’s rights and LGBT rights. Using broad human rights language to highlight the links between different kinds of discrimination and violence is a crucial tool for activists. As Dupont explained, citing a Creole proverb: “Se menm baton ki bat chyen nwa se li ki bat chyen blan” – “the same stick that beat the black dog can also beat the white dog.”