While the UN has reported that about 50 percent of women living in Haiti‘s shantytowns have been raped or sexually assaulted, documenting the individual events is a trying process. Victims will often not come forward for fear of incurring additional violence and ostracism within their communities, or out of frustration with the legal system. A medical certificate must be issued within 72 hours of the rape in for legal action to proceed, but they are only issued in a few hospitals and could take days to obtain. Many rape cases occur in Internally Displaced Persons camps, where it is especially difficult to identify and locate perpetrators — whose conviction, ultimately, is unlikely.
“There is a culture of impunity here”, said Emilie Reiser, the Haiti Programme Manager of Digital Democracy — an organisation that encourages civic engagement through digital technologies.
For KOFAVIV (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, The Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a rape crisis and victim advocacy centre founded by victims of rape, the process of bringing these cases to light was made that much more difficult when the earthquake struck Haiti on 12 January, 2010 — all the documents pertaining to rape cases they had collected since 2004 were lost.
Since February, Digital Democracy has been working with KOFAVIV to digitize their database of rape reports so that statistics from the reports can be generated and data published through Noula, an open-source incident reporting platform for crises in Haiti that translates to “We’re here”. Its goal is to provide a platform where data can be channelled between the general public and the government or international groups who are providing services.
Making quantifiable data accessible is the first step to changing denialist perspectives that impede proper resource allocation. Earlier this year, the lack of data on rapes prompted political blogger Brendan O’Neill to claim that reports of rape in Haiti are “overblown” and “unlikely”. But as Haiti Rewired’sAlister Wm Mcintyre pointed out, there is woeful under-reporting that confounds the ability to formally define the problem as “epidemic”.
When it comes to gender-based violence, “there has not been any comprehensive attempt at collecting data”, Reiser said, whereas with general health problems, there is an abundance of online documentation that the Haitian government and international groups can use to assess resource distribution and determine plans of action.
While there are several SMS-reporting databases that have been adapted to enable victims to report rape and child trafficking, Reiser said that these systems were not easily adopted because people don’t naturally share accounts of rape and other sensitive information in this way — they talk to trusted people.
The digitized database system at KOFAVIV is designed to integrate the process of collecting and reporting rape data with the process of providing services to victims. Reiser hopes that this method of reporting will then become the standard for similar centres.
“Our hope ideally with the database, which we built on an open source platform so it can be easily adaptive, is that once the system is effectively up and running, to have other [organisations that focus on gender-based violence] adopt this platform to match their intake process, so we have multiple reporters aggregating into the same place,” Reiser said.
The database will contain a digitised version of the paper dossiers that are filed at the KOFAVIV centre for each victim that comes in. In addition to confidential information that KOFAVIV’s legal partners, the BAI (Bureau des Avocats Internationaux) and IJDH (Institute for Justice & Democracy Haiti) would be able to use to prosecute rapists, the digital dossiers will provide information about the context of rape cases: time of day the rape was committed, location, if the victim was a minor or adult, if a medical certificate was received, and more.
At the end of each month, Digital Democracy and the database managers at KOFAVIV, who are all women, will create report suitable for public disclosure that will be used to provide various regulatory and service organizations with concrete statistics that these crimes are occurring.
Currently, KOFAVIV’s database managers are working to transform the paper dossiers that are filed at the centre into digital versions that will be backed up locally, in the cloud, and on an external hard drive. They receive 40-80 dossiers each month, and have already input all the data for January, February, and are working on data from March and the 459 cases reported to the centre in 2010.
It is the hope of all involved with this project that digitising and quantifying rape reports will help change the culture in Haiti that enables men to rape women with impunity. In the history of the 70 cases KOFAVIV has referred to the IJDH legal team, including a case that prosecuted a 53-year-old man for raping a one-year-old girl, no convictions occurred.
But seven cases have progressed to the penultimate stage, which ends with either the Judge d’Instruction dismissing the case or referring the case to the Tribunal Criminal for sentencing, according to Annie Gell, a lawyer with IJHD.
In addition to helping with the database, Digital Democracy has been engaging Haitian women in technical projects involving photography, blogging, and computer training at the WE-LEAD computer resource centre for women, an initiative launched by Heartland Alliance in partnership with KOFAVIV and MADRE. The centre is open to women only, Monday through Friday until 4pm. It has 10 computers, internet access, and everything is free.