But, two years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the spirit of resilience among Haitian women struggling to stop these abuses, is embodied in Delna Charlotin.
Inside Haiti’s decaying camps, women like Delna Charlotin are on the frontlines.
Since the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, there are still half a million refugees living in squalid, unsafe camps spread throughout the city, including in front of the collapsed Presidential Palace, on the Champs De Mars, the main plaza. The refugees living here are among the most vulnerable. They are the poorest of Haiti’s population, with no recourse but their own resilience in surviving. This is one of the camps that United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has identified as having an alarming increase in rapes of women and young adolescent girls.
Among the sinuous small alleys that form this tent city, a 16-year old sat on a small stool nursing an infant. Her indolent expression betrayed a deep scar. A sense of loss of identity. She says she was gang-raped by ten men and became pregnant. She tells us she can’t escape the anguish. But worse, her face clouded by an indescribable degree of pain, she says she turned to prostitution to feed her child. Looking up, her eyes begged for a new life, though she didn’t know where to turn to. No family and no income. Her protection is from two strong young Haitian men who have taken it upon themselves to protect the young girls in the camp, disgusted at the extent of rampant violence with impunity. One of them, Ludner, says they are trying to protect all the women here, but they alone cannot. “We can’t, we just can’t,” Ludner says in desperation.
Delna is among the early pioneers of women’s rights in Haiti. Her gentle, humble demeanor is disarming in its frankness and selflessness. In the 1990’s, she worked as a produce vendor on the street like so many other Haitian women. She had seen her share of abuse and saw it in the other women vendors around her. She decided to organize them to “start talking and exchange our hardship. To create a place where we women could finally speak out about the traditional acceptance of violence against women and how to fight it.” But in those days, it was dangerous to challenge the status quo.
The taboo and political repression at the time did not intimidate her. She found a sympathetic store owner who lent her his cellar to use for weekly “gatherings.” Starting with just a handful of women, the group grew to over one hundred women. They became the “Femmes Vaillantes de Bolos,” or “Courageous Women of Bolos.” Bolos is the name of the neighborhood where she and the other women lived.
Today, Delna is an earthquake refugee living at Camp Nicaragua on the outskirts of the capital. She is also the president of a watchdog network, numbering 16 groups that live in the camps to prevent abuses against the women and young girls. With support from Concern, an international NGO, she provides the women with flashlights and whistles and training to be on alert. If any woman or young girl is threatened, she can blow her whistle, explains Delna, and people in the camp will know, will be alerted and will come to her rescue. Delna’s fight is not just prevention. She has also started workshops to include young men and sensitize them to the wrongs of indiscriminate violence against young and older women.
In Haiti, very few women have the strength to overcome the taboos, or withstand the alienation and fear of speaking out. When one meets Delna, one would never imagine that behind the gentle smile is a self-educated woman with iron determination that came from the very poorest of the population and is today its pillar of hope.
Ingrid Arnesen is an award winning television news and print journalist with 25 years of experience covering Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia Minor for CBS News, ABC News and CNN. Ms. Arnesen has covered Haiti from 1986, before the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship through the present. This assignment was for Global Health Frontline News.
Click here to see our video about rape in the Haiti camps.