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Rape looms large over Haiti slums

Human rights organisation Amnesty International is calling on the Haitian government to do more to tackle the widespread rape of girls, often by gangs of armed men.

Silhouette of Mary Jane (Image blurred to protect her identity)
Mary Jane spent two years in jail for killing a man who raped her

Amnesty says 55% of the 105 rapes reported so far this year were of girls aged under 18.

In August, the BBC's Xanthe Hinchey visited Haiti where one young woman told her story of being raped.

Mary Jane is a shy and skinny 16-year-old.

She speaks quickly and so quietly that you almost have to stop breathing to hear her speak.

She stares straight ahead when she tells me what happened to her two years ago.

"I was on my way to buy water for my mother when a man from my neighbourhood grabbed me and said he would rape me," she says.

"As soon as he said that I ran. But he ran after me and trapped me in a corridor.

Rape has been used as a political weapon in this country since 1986
Myriam Merlet
Head of the Ministry of Women

"After he raped me he didn't want to let me go. He hit me. But I was holding a pair of scissors that I had been using to make some T-shirts so I pushed them into his stomach and I ran home," she says.

The man died.

Mary Jane says that same night the other members from the man's gang then tried to kill her and burned down her family's home.

The next day she was arrested and imprisoned for two years in an adult jail.

It was not Mary Jane's first encounter with violence. Her attacker had been part of a neighbourhood gang who had raped her when she was 12 years old.

"It was at night on Christmas Eve and right there, in the street, these men grabbed me and all three raped me."

Weak justice

Two years ago, the United Nations in Haiti acknowledged widespread rape in the vast slums in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

A view of Port-au-Prince from the UN headquarters
Almost half of the young women in conflict-zone slums have been raped

The UN said that almost half of the girls and young women, living in conflict-zone slums, like Cite Soleil and Martissant, had been raped.

But Amnesty says that not enough has been done to stamp out widespread rape which is on the rise again.

Rape was only made a criminal offence in Haiti in 2005. Before then judges would negotiate a sum of money to be paid to the victim's family.

But despite the new law, the prosecution rate for rape remains extremely low.

One of the chief tasks of Minustah, the UN peacekeeping and stabilisation mission sent to Haiti four years ago, is to help the Haitian government to reform the country's weak justice and penal system.

Hedi Annabi, head of the United Nations mission in Haiti, says that about 90% of the people in prisons have not been sentenced.

"It's important to get those who are accused of serious crimes before a court and get them sentenced so the message starts spreading that immunity is no longer assured," he says.


Street gangs have the full power to terrorise the population as they wish
Myriam Merlet
Head of the Ministry of Women

"But success is never immediate when you work on these difficult problems."

Mary Jane is angry that there is no justice in Haiti.

"I shouldn't have been sent to jail because I was a victim several times," she says.

"The gang burnt down my house, they beat me and they raped me."

Political weapon

Myriam Merlet, who heads the government's Ministry of Women, blames the high rate of rape in Haiti's slums on the political turmoil that has stained the country since the Duvalier family dictatorship was ousted in the mid-1980s.

"Rape has been used as a political weapon in this country since 1986. The soldiers in the army used rape to frighten people. The Chimeres (mainly pro-Aristide gangs) used rape to control the population," she says.


When I go out I have to keep watching. I have to keep watching all the time
Mary Jane

"Now the street gangs in the slums use rape as a powerful weapon of war."

She also says that there is a "state absence" in the slums and the gangs have "full power to terrorise the population as they wish".

But until drastic action is taken, Mary Jane - like so many other girls in Haiti - will have to continue to live in daily fear of being raped.

"I don't feel that I am living now because if someone is not free, that person will never feel good," she says.

"I want to live with my mother but the gang could find me and hurt me.

"When I go out I have to keep watching. I have to keep watching all the time."


Mary Jane's name has been changed to protect her identity

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SEE ALSO
Targeting Haiti's kidnap trade
24 Jul 08 |  Crossing Continents
UN admits Haiti 'needs more work'
16 Apr 05 |  Americas
Country profile: Haiti
10 Nov 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Haiti
10 Nov 08 |  Country profiles

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