She had been walking alone a few blocks from our hotel when she was forced into a house and brutally raped.
A TEXT MESSAGE was the first sign that something was wrong. In the week after Hurricane Sandy hit Haiti, our research team was assessing post-disaster crime, food security and service provision. The message came from a Haitian researcher in our group, an enthusiastic and talented graduate student whom we’ll call Wendy. She had been walking alone a few blocks from our hotel when she was forced into a house and brutally raped.
We quickly located a doctor but he refused to examine Wendy, saying she needed to be seen by the authorities first. We then contacted the police, and after a grueling interview in which one officer repeatedly asked Wendy, “What did you do to make him violate you?” the police said she was free to be examined. The doctor, however, couldn’t be found.
Although Haiti routinely suffers from political and natural disasters, rape is an especially insidious crisis. Haiti’s brutal dictatorships used rape as a political tool to undermine the opposition. A 2006 study reported that some 35,000 women and girls in Port-au-Prince were sexually assaulted in a single year. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, residents of the capital’s tent cities were 20 times more likely to report a sexual assault than other Haitians.
Haitian prosecutors are reluctant to pursue charges against rapists unless a victim is examined by a doctor within the first 72 hours to “certify” the assault, but few victims are able to satisfy this requirement. The police referred Wendy to a state-run clinic in the nearest large town, a three-hour drive over washed-out roads. When Wendy arrived she was told the doctor was out. A nurse mentioned that he could be found at a private clinic nearby.
It had been more than 16 hours since the attack. Wendy hadn’t slept or bathed. Her clothes were ripped and dirty. Dried blood matted her hair where the rapist had slammed her head against a wall. The doctor wanted verification from the police that a sexual assault complaint had been filed before he conducted an examination to retrieve fluids left by the perpetrator. The police were called but they claimed a “fee” was required before they would release a copy of the sexual assault complaint.