Gender Based Violence in Haiti: The Case of the United Nations and the Haitian women they raped.
Traditionally when we have dichotomized oppression, we’ve outlined it using collective identity, and how it relates to a group of individuals. Very seldom is there consideration for the differences present within collective identity, and how those may alter experiences, and the way structural oppression may shape them differently. We consider that other identity categories within a denoted general margin are individual variations that have lesser implications not worth the mention (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1242).
When this is done, especially in organizing against oppression, it manifests itself in the disregard of interacting structures, which can and does hinder the capacity for the wider benefit of what is considered freedom. If we are to consider marginalized identity as a layered whole; oppressive structures perforate all levels. If in our effort to combat these structures, we do not consider all the layers, we are only partially withdrawing the knife, leaving some of the layers still perforated and no closer to a healed wound.
As Kemberle Crenshaw (1991, p. 1242) scrutinized, when we consider gender violence and racial oppression, it is often thought that they are two different categories of structures that do not intersect in certain groups or individuals in ways that shape a special experience. The efforts are then focused distinctly and respectively on each group, and so women of color and black women do not benefit from them, at least on an equal scale. This does not only apply for these two types of oppression. This is also true of economic class, education, ethnicity, nationality, and other socio-economic factors. In a sense, the more separate marginalized identities converge in a person, the more margins that person finds themselves within, layering their experience.
To explain this phenomenon, Crenshaw (1991) coined the term intersectionality. She denoted that it is both personal and structural. It is personal in the ways a person understands and sees themselves with those layers, and structural in the ways institutions shape their experiences and status in society. In addition, it is critical to consider within a collective identity. While an intersectional analysis can take its starting point in specific cases that analyze the implication of structures and circumstance, one can also begin with general overview of how the structures affect each part without intersection, then synthesize and conclude with where it meets in individuality. As previously mentioned, since different socio-economic settings affect individuals and groups differently, even prior to analysis, once we’ve identified the individual within our societal structures, we can generally deduce the obstacles that they are liable to face, and then use this to denote specifically how that has layered their respective experience.
Notably, in the case of sexual violence against Haitian women in Haiti, by United Nation soldiers, this can be observed. The United Nations, as a part of a stabilization mission in Haiti, sent soldiers to help the authorities with what has been qualified as efforts to maintained peace and political stability. This mission was formed in 2004, sending approximately 2500 soldiers, along with civilian personnel from various countries ranging from Brazil, France and other allies. Originally set to end in 2010, the mission was extended until 2017.
While some will argue that this mission was well-intentioned, with many benefits, in the case of Haitian women, it has been reported that many of the present soldiers engaged in sexual misconduct, notably using their power to obtain sexual favors from poor Haitian women whose villages they may have patrolled or been stationed nearby. To first understand the impact of said sexual misconduct, as per the framework of intersectionality, it is important to set the scene, on the victims, and their circumstances.
Haiti is one of the poorest countries of the Western Hemisphere. Our government, often riddled with corrupt officials, often does not have the reinforcing structures to provide socio-economic welfare to its citizens, even less so to its more marginalized citizens.
Haitian women in particular, while constitutionally protected from discrimination, and various forms of physical abuse, usually find themselves at the receiving end of these spectrums, regardless. In fact, gender-based violence in Haiti is prominent. According to the USAID (2018), from the ages of 15 to 49, it is reported that one in three Haitian women experience it, and that most times, there is very little legal involvement or defense. Outside of these ages, many younger children (reportedly ages 13 to 17), experience forms of sexual assault or misconduct at school or other public places. (USAID, 2018)
In addition, misogynistic attitudes on an interpersonal, or smaller group level, make these events precursors of shame and further alienation. Already, we observe a weak enforcement of the law, and judicial system, which contributes to high numbers of violence against Haitian women of all statuses. When we add class disparities, and then take into account the way this may hinder access and make victimization more prevalent, we are already observing the way their difficulties are layered. Their protection is already unequal due to gender, but protection can be totally inaccessible judicially, when one does not have the education or the means to seek it. This leaves a more open field for predatory behavior and thus skyrocketing their chances of being abused.
As recounted by the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of United Nations missionary soldiers, many of them, refer to the power dynamic between them and their predators. They explained that their mere presence was already imposing, with them carrying weapons. It made any approach already coercing in nature, as with the language barriers, many of them were unsure what was being said to them. In addition, when they understood the nature of the interaction, they felt threatened by the possible consequences of fighting the missionary soldiers off. For those who were approached with a language they could understand, they recall the exploitative nature of the relationship, where they were cornered and offered financial compensation, should they comply to the assault. Other Haitian women report being beaten, and violently shoved, after which the forced sexual intercourse happens. They’ve also reported that once the act is done, the soldiers often drive them to another location where they are left and never seen again. Due to the language barrier, the nature of the incident, and the aftermath, some of the victims never face the perpetrator again, nor do they know how to find them. (Al Jazeera, 2018)
According to a report of the United Nations, there were 85 allegations of similar incidents reported. Further surveys and other parties estimate the number to be closer to five hundred, as most women never officially report the incident. (Al Jazeera, 2018)
The interplay of misogynistic interpersonal attitudes, access and a weak judicial system are all important to take into account when telling these stories. A broader analysis, one might even consider, is how the mere presence of foreign military officials is also a demonstration of imperialism in Haiti, considering its place and depiction in the western hemisphere. The consequence of all its factors is the minimal involvement of the justice system in the matter, and the socio-cultural, long lasting effects to these women. It was recently found that in addition to having sexually exploited these women, a lot of them were left pregnant and in a situation where they were emotionally and financially unable to take care of the child. (Bartels, 2019)
Factoring in their financial status prior, for some victims who were young, this has meant leaving school, their homes, attempting (and often failing) to find work, and having to resort to inconvenient measures to provide for a child they did not consent to having. Because their status as victims is blamed on them, they are also ostracized in ways that may not be institutional, and more sociocultural, but that still reflect bigger mysoginistic structures. It also feeds into the illegitimacy of the case in front of the law, and particularly the United Nations. (Bartels, 2019)
The case has never gone to trial, and though the United Nations has acknowledged in its long mission in Haiti, that some hundred of their soldiers were involved in the exploitation of young Haitian women, specifically a sex ring and other incidents that we have explained; they’ve resolved the issue by sending the soldiers home, without any real consequences. Moreover, there has never been any form of compensation to the affected mothers from the United Nations. In fact, in 2010, when paternity lawsuits were filed, by the Haitian-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), the United Nations refused to release the DNA results, and provide any further cooperation to the case furthering their complicity in the violence their personnel induced. (Bartels, 2019) Once again their ability to maintain their position while being violently disregarding of the people they are intended to help and serve, also reflects the structural margins Haitian women are cornered by. It also alludes to the idea that they are unworthy victims. With this many allegations, and in some cases living proof that there has been violations of their terms, the United Nations did not deem it worthy to enforce ethical behavior. It speaks to how certain groups of people do not matter.
In understanding this case, one can easily see how taking out certain factors of these women’s identity could have possibly gotten them steps closer to justice. They are women, but black women. Their blackness is essential, but especially important in the context of their economic status; these were poor black women, already vulnerable due to their status as women, women in Haiti, and poor black women in Haiti. They were vulnerable before the arrival of the soliders, and the UN’s presence and violence, created another reflection of their margins. All of these things put them in no position to retaliate, protect themselves, or be in conditions where they would have not encountered such violence.
As Kemberle Crenshaw (1991) explained it, intersectionality is a tool for the consideration of all the structural factors that shape a group’s experiences. In this particular case, while many women can relate, there are specific patterns that are more prevalent only for the people concerned. In this way, any attempt at deconstructing harmful structures and eradicating gender-based violence, - if it intends to free all women, must consider the factors that affect all women accordingly.
Al Jazeera. (2018, March 27). UN Peacekeepers & Sexual Violence in HaitiYouTube [Youtube]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyMCqyI5RS0
Bartels, S. (2019, December 17). 'They put a few coins in your hands to drop a baby in you' ? 265 stories of Haitian children abandoned by UN fathers. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/they-put-a-few-coins-in-your-hands-to-drop-a-baby-in-you-265-stories-of-haitian-children-abandoned-by-un-fathers-114854
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241. doi:10.2307/1229039
Peltier, E. (2019, December 19). U.N. Peacekeepers in Haiti Said to Have Fathered Hundreds of Children. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/18/world/americas/haiti-un-peacekeepers.html
USAID. (2018, August 16). Gender Equity and Women's Empowerment. Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/haiti/gender-equity-and-womens-empowerment