Haiti Eyes Tougher Law To Tackle Sexual Violence
Haiti is putting the finishing touches on new legislation to tackle a scourge of post-quake sexual violence in a country where rape has only been a crime since 2005 and rights groups say enforcement is sporadic at best.
The new laws, if passed, aim to provide a legal framework for victims of sexual violence to receive better emergency and medical care, place tougher sanctions against all forms of physical violence against women and ensure better training for officials involved in sexual assault cases.
These proposals could see survivors of sexual violence get better access to justice and lead to more rape convictions.
“The new law aims to allow the state and other actors to find common ground on how to treat and help victims,” Hemanex Gonzague, director general of the Haitian women’s ministry, told TrustLaw.
“It’s an important step to improve women’s rights in general and it aims to provide greater protection to victims through the whole process.”
Exact figures are impossible to come by but local rights groups say levels of sexual violence have shot up following the January 2010 earthquake.
They point to poor or non-existent lighting, overcrowding and little police presence in the scores of squalid camps in the capital. Around 500,000 Haitians who lost their homes in the earthquake still live under tarpaulin and scrap metal.
Kofaviv, a grassroots women’s group active in some of the “tent cities”, documented 269 rape cases in and around Port-au-Prince between March and October. Last month alone, it dealt with 49 cases, of which more than half involved children.
Haiti’s judicial system is largely based on French law dating back to the 19th century. Until 2005, rape was not even considered a crime against the victim. Rather it was a crime against morals -- or against the honour of the family.
“One of our biggest challenges is that our laws are no longer up-to-date,” Gonzague said. “We need to modernize them. Everyone agrees that sexual violence laws need to be updated.”
The new legislation is due to be submitted to Haiti’s parliament in the next few weeks.
“I’ll present the final draft to parliament within weeks,” said Rene Magloire, a former justice minister, who now leads the drafting of new laws on sexual violence as part of a presidential commission on judicial reform. “How long it takes to vote on and become law depends on parliament.”
He said the bill also aims to give more power to the police and prosecutors involved in investigating cases of sexual assault and place more onus on the police to gather evidence that can be used in court.
“One of the most important changes being proposed is that the police and prosecutors have more power to investigate and lead an investigation,” Magloire said.
“At the moment, the judges tend to lead investigations, and they often work in secrecy. We want police and prosecutors to do more, which we hope will lead to less secrecy and corruption.”
The drafting of the bill follows a landmark decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December 2010, which requested the Haitian government to take urgent measures to tackle rising levels of rape and sexual abuse and address impunity surrounding such cases.
Over the last two years, Kofaviv and other women's groups have been working with the Haitian women’s ministry in the drafting of new legislation, contributing their suggestions on how to reduce sexual violence and improve women’s rights through clearer laws and better access to justice.
Some of those recommendations have been based on comparative international legal research commissioned by MADRE, a U.S.-based international women’s rights group, which works with Kofaviv, its sister organisation in Haiti.
The report was produced by a team of lawyers from four international firms, brought together by Thomson Reuters Foundation’s TrustLaw Connect network of international pro bono lawyers.
The report examines international laws on sexual violence and best practices on prosecuting sexual abuse and rape cases from six countries, which could guide and be applied to help Haiti address sexual violence against women.
“Kofaviv gathered input from other grassroots women's groups to contribute to the drafting of the legislation,” Lisa Davis, human rights advocacy director at MADRE, told TrustLaw.
“The draft legislation includes many new provisions crucial to ensuring Haitian women and girls are protected. These provisions include a clear and expanded definition of rape, incest and sexual violence, and trainings for medical, legal and judiciary personnel and enforcement officers around questions of violence against women.”
Davis said the draft legislation had been welcomed by women’s rights groups in Haiti.
“They view the legislation as a potential powerful tool which can be utilized to combat the crisis of violence against women,” she said.
But she added that questions had been raised about whether Haiti’s notoriously slow and dysfunctional judicial system could implement the proposed reforms.
“There are those within the judicial system who could use this legislation as a tool to improve women's lives,” Davis said. “But there is also a critical lack of capacity within the Haitian government generally, and particularly within the judicial system, especially following the earthquake.”
(Editing by Tim Large)