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Thursday, March 07, 2013

Students Work to Combat Rape in Haiti Through Legal Reforms

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2L Sasha Prokopets (2nd from left) conducting a training for a grassroots women's organization, a partner of CGRS, with students and the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women Rashida Manjoo (far right).

Gender-based violence tends to increase after natural disasters, researchers have found. Haiti, unfortunately, is no exception.

Following its 2010 7.0 magnitude quake, anecdotal evidence from grassroots groups in Port-au-Prince showed gender-based violence, which includes but is not limited to rape, was on the rise. It was nearly impossible for women to keep themselves safe. Many lived in tents in camps with poor lighting and insecure housing. The social safety net their town or neighborhood could have supplied had been destroyed.

This news sparked groups working in Haiti, including UC Hastings, to organize to stem the crime wave and empower Haitian women to advocate for better laws to protect themselves and punish aggressors.

This spring, Blaine Bookey '09, Associate Director and Staff Attorney at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) and Adjunct Professor for the Hastings-to-Haiti Partnership (HHP), traveled to Haiti with 2L Sasha Prokopets to participate in the third of three conferences sponsored by the World Bank and the Government of Haiti aimed at improving the Haitian response to gender-based violence.

The conference focused on legal reforms to the Haitian penal code that would facilitate prosecutions, for example, by defining rape on the basis of lack of consent, rather than a show of force. Reforms would also decriminalize abortion in limited circumstances, such as after a rape. UC Hastings provided recommendations for the reforms with MADRE, New York University and City University of New York law schools, Human Rights Watch, and the Institute for Justice & Democracy.

Working in conjunction with KOFAVIV, a grassroots women’s group based in Port-au-Prince, Bookey and Prokopets trained women to testify before government authorities about rape and its effects. KOFAVIV runs a rape victim center and safe house in Port-au-Prince that works with lawyers at the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux to pursue legal cases in the courts. Most if not all of its volunteers have been raped. Few have had their cases prosecuted, and none had previously testified before government officials.

“To date, rape has not been defined in Haitian law, which has posed a barrier to prosecution of individual incidents of rape,” Bookey said. “Without a definition for rape as well as the clear absence of a corroboration requirement, the de facto requirement that a woman must present a medical certificate from a state hospital about her injuries before a rape charge will be investigated means many of these crimes go unpunished.”

Grassroots women’s groups were not part of the discussion on what legal reforms and other remedies to pursue, she said. “Three years ago, it is unlikely that government officials would have come to a conference featuring KOFAVIV and grassroots leaders. Armed with the methods we have developed with them, the women have gained the ear and respect of the Haitian Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Women.”

Now, the police are collaborating with organizations like KOFAVIV. There is still a long way to go, Bookey said, and impunity for crimes of gender-motivated violence is still pervasive. But there has been much progress due to a concerted effort to address the problem at domestic, regional, and international levels.

Bookey and Prokopets said it is amazing how quickly, with focused attention, public opinion is changing and the laws are being reformed. The work has been successful in part due to UC Hastings’ ties and annual trips to Haiti, and CGRS’ research and documentation of gender-based violence in Haiti and elsewhere, primarily Central America. “Our Haiti advocacy programs are our most advanced given our longstanding and collaborative relationships with Haitian lawyers and advocates,” Bookey said.

Each spring since 1999, UC Hastings has sent scholars and students to a law school in Jérémie, Haiti, to help further its mandate of teaching social justice and public interest law to Haitian law students and lawyers. HHP enables students to have a direct international law experience by participating in joint workshops with Haitian students and Haitian and UC Hastings faculty in key areas of law and model clinical training.

Helping the Haitian law school launch the first and only clinical program in the country enables its faculty to better train young lawyers who intend to work for public interest and social justice, including providing services to survivors of sexual assault. In turn, the new clinic will support and strengthen the rule of law in Haiti.

Prokopets, who is part of the Hastings-to-Haiti Partnership, said the trip was the most inspiring human rights work she has done. Previously, she worked as a policy fellow for Polaris Project in Washington, D.C., documenting legislation designed to curb human trafficking.

It was refreshing to get out from behind a computer and work with grassroots groups that are making a difference, she said. “The women there are so hopeful, and fiercely intelligent and strategic and committed to advancing justice,” said Prokopets.

Prokopets continues to work with refugees fleeing violence as part of her ongoing clinic work with UC Hastings’ Refugee and Human Rights Clinic. She currently represents a Mexican national seeking asylum on the basis of LGBT discrimination.

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