Domestic and Sexual Violence in Haiti: Insufficient Remedies, Inadequate Response

A woman in the Petionville Camp at the edge of Port au Prince, Haiti, is interviewed by police officials after lodging a domestic violence complaint against her husband. Copyright: Paul Jeffrey
A woman in the Petionville Camp at the edge of Port au Prince, Haiti, is interviewed by police officials after lodging a domestic violence complaint against her husband.
Copyright: Paul Jeffrey

By Josh Doherty, Visiting Focus Blogger

Like many countries across the world, Haiti suffers from an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence. Although some efforts have been undertaken to reduce vulnerabilities within the IDP camps, and a number of initiatives have been proposed for the country as a whole, intimate partner violence continues to affect a significant proportion of the population.  This post will briefly summarize the current understanding of the scope of the problem of domestic and sexual violence in Haiti, lay out the legal framework currently in place in Haiti to address domestic violence, and highlight a number of key areas that have been identified for improvement. 

The government of Haiti has acknowledged the extent of domestic and intimate partner violence in the country within its most recent report to the CEDAW Committee, in which it identified a number of surveys that establish the widespread nature of domestic violence in Haiti.  One of the earliest empirical studies on violence against women carried out in Haiti dates from 1996, when the Haitian Centre for Research and Actions for the Advancement of Women, financed by UNICEF, evaluated physical, sexual, psychological, social, financial and political violence inflicted on women and girls. The study concluded that while 70% of Haitian women stated that they had suffered some form of violence, men claimed not to have committed violence against women (though they acknowledged their belief that such violence is sometimes justified). A 2000 study, which was repeated in 2005 and 2007 with similar results, concluded that 30% of Haitian women have suffered acts of violence from husbands or partners. Although this 30% figure appears substantially lower than the 70% reported by UNICEF in 1996, the discrepancy can be explained by the earlier study’s broader definition of “violence.” In 2007, another study was released that concluded that about a third of women believe that a man sometimes has the right to beat his spouse or partner. A 2009 Report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also documented the severity of the violence facing women in Haiti, and in particular highlights victims’ disinclination to seek legal remedy, declaring “victims and their families have no confidence in the ability of the justice system to right the wrongs committed, and are often mistreated when attempting to avail themselves of judicial remedies.  This combination of factors leaves the victims with a sense of insecurity, defenselessness and mistrust in the administration of justice.” More recent studies carried out by the U.S. Department of State, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, the United States Institute of Peace, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and NYU School of Law’s Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice have documented the extensive violence faced by women across the country, as well as in camps for internally displaced persons.  

This background data reflecting the extent of domestic and intimate partner violence within Haiti begs the question, “does Haiti have sufficient legal protections for victims of domestic violence in place?” The answer to this question depends on a number of factors: (1) whether Haiti’s domestic laws criminalize violence towards women and provide other effective remedies and preventative measures, (2) the enforcement of such legislation and effectiveness of the people responsible for upholding such laws, and (3) Haiti’s international obligations under a variety of treaties.

According to the 2012 U.S. Department of State’s 2012 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, referred to above:

“The law prohibits rape but does not recognize spousal rape as a crime. The penalty for rape is a minimum of 10 years of forced labor, increasing to a mandatory 15 years if the survivor was less than 16 years old or if the rapist was a person of authority. In the case of gang rape, the maximum penalty is lifelong forced labor. Actual sentences were often less rigorous, and prosecution frequently was not pursued due to lack of reporting and follow-up on survivors’ claims. At year’s end the HNP reported 546 allegations of rape, of which female minors brought 360 cases. In the cases of the 54 men convicted for rape in 2010-11, judges handed down sentences ranging from eight months to 15 years; one man–a priest–received life in prison. The criminal code excuses a husband who kills his wife or her partner found engaging in an act of adultery in his home, but a wife who kills her husband under similar circumstances is subject to prosecution. . . . Attorneys who represented rape survivors said that authorities were reasonably responsive to cases involving the rape of minors, as the law is clear and judicial measures exist to deal with such cases, which were often accompanied by outrage from local communities. However, authorities often dropped or did not pursue cases when the offender was also a minor or the survivor was an adult due to the lack of clear legal or administrative structures to deal with such cases. The attorneys claimed authorities often “provisionally released” juvenile offenders in rape cases back to their parents’ recognizance. . . . The law does not classify domestic violence against adults as a distinct crime. Women’s rights groups and human rights organizations reported that domestic violence against women remained commonplace and underreported. Police rarely arrested the perpetrators or investigated the incidents, and the survivor sometimes suffered further harassment and reprisals from perpetrators, at times prompting secondary displacement of survivors within IDP camps. Judges often released suspects arrested for domestic violence and rape.”

As discussed by the US State Department, Haiti’s penal code, while criminalizing rape under Article 279 (but only since an executive decree in 2005 rendered the act a crime rather than a violation of public decency), does not specifically criminalize marital rape, leaving judges, prosecutors and policeopen to selectively apply or ignore the rape law  when a wife accuses her husband of raping her; it also fails to properly define rape or sexual assault, leading to problems of inconsistent application, as identified by MINUSTAH. Furthermore, the penal code does not criminalize domestic violence, instead leaving victims to rely upon other more general provisions, such as those covering assault. Haiti’s Constitution guarantees the right to life, health and personal security, as well as freedom from discrimination, rights that are not adequately protected by the current legislation.

In addition to its domestic obligations to fight intimate partner violence, Haiti is party to a number of international treaties that require states to combat domestic and sexual violence, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, among others. Numerous reports have described serious deficiencies in Haitian authorities’ ability or willingness to investigate and prosecute domestic and sexual violence allegations. However, as has been described elsewhere, ratification of human rights treaties does not automatically translate into ideal and immediate respect for, protection of and fulfillment of human rights due to challenges such as a need in some cases for the states not only to ratify the treaty but also enact domestic legislation, limited reporting and oversight mechanisms, and the ability for states to attach reservations to their ratifications (meaning that the state carves out an exemption for itself at the time it ratifies a treaty). Chief among the complaints within Haiti is that for sexual assault cases, police require a medical report to be completed within 72 hours after the alleged assault. Additionally, investigators sometimes ask the victims what she did to provoke or invite the assault, or would otherwise blame the victim, though reportedly such behavior is beginning to change.

A number of organizations have proposed different remedies, including strengthening the current rape laws to include specific mention of marital rape and adopt an internationally recognized definition of rape and sexual assault; this includes the adoption of certain laws already proposed in the Haitian parliament. In addition, there have been several calls for the adoption of legislation criminalizing domestic violence and sexual harassment. Furthermore, Haiti has been called upon to strengthen the capacity of its institutions to better respond to complaints of domestic and sexual violence in order to ensure that such crimes are punished, and to provide free legal, medical, and psychological services to victims. A number of these different strategies have been pushed forward by Haitian women’s groups and the few female legislators that have been elected to Haiti’s parliament. While there is undoubtedly a role for international organizations, and in particular the United Nations, in changing the way in which intimate partner violence is addressed in Haiti, the strongest and most long-lasting gains will come from these Haitian voices changing attitudes within the broader population.