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Two years after the country’s devastating earthquake, the UNHCR reports an alarming upsurge in rape cases against women and children of all ages in the squalid refugee camps. But there are some who have had the courage to take on the system and become crusaders for women's rights.
Jocie Philistin has been fighting to criminalize rape and stop violence against women in Haiti for 15 years. A first victory was making rape a crime in 2005.
"Violence against women and young girls in Haiti has always been taken for granted,” says Jocie. “It's been a huge victory in Haiti, that now it is considered a crime under Haitian law."
Jocie runs Kofaviv, one of the first women's rights organizations in Haiti founded by rape victims. She says it took time to effect change, but becoming a victim of violence herself galvanized her efforts.
In 1994, as a law student, Jocie was on a routine student committee meeting with the military government.
"One of the officials called me into his office. The door slammed shut. It was one of those doors that could only open when pressing a button. He took my clothes off and I fought him off. Thank God the penetration was not all the way, but the atrocity of his violence was hard to fight. He finally let me go."
Jocie says she kept he assault a secret, even while working as an advocate for other rape victims. “I had reconciled myself to the fact that my virginity had not been completely violated. And thought it could be forgotten."
Still, she filed a complaint, never expecting to see him again. "I was working in prisons… preaching. When I saw him in jail, I relived all the atrocities of that day. That's when I realized the post-traumatic conditions were still very much alive."
It proved a turning point for Jocie. Today she coordinates Kofaviv, providing one of the few “safe houses” in a dilapidated capital that remains dangerous territory for unprotected women and children living in appalling conditions in the refugee camps.
Despite the change in the law, few rape cases have been brought to justice, especially in a country where human rights groups say poverty and weak state institutions foster a climate of impunity. Jocie told us, “There's always a problem applying the law when you have a dysfunctional justice system that instills fear among the population, especially the victims who are the most vulnerable and live in marginalized conditions."
But while she will never forget, she still has hope.
“One can, over time, maybe heal a little, self-channel. But it's an act you can never forget. Because you don't want a rape to diminish you, to marginalize you in society. And that is our fight, to make the victim understand that you don't have to be ashamed."
For more on the plight of women in Haiti’s refugee camps, see http://www.ghfn.org/3-stories_videos-individual/haiti-rape-and-the-refugees