By Megan Janetsky and Fernanda Pesce, AP —
Nadia hushes the crying 3-month-old baby swaddled in her arms, gently planting kisses on her forehead.
She was 19, not ready to be a mother. But the young Haitian’s life changed when she was walking home from class on the dusty streets of a gang-controlled area of Haiti’s capital last year.
She was dragged into a car by a group of men, blindfolded and kidnapped. For three days, she was beaten, starved and gang-raped.
Months later, she learned that she was pregnant. In an instant, her dreams of studying and economically lifting her family dissolved.
As Haiti’s toxic slate of gangs continue to plunder the crisis-stricken Caribbean nation, kidnapping, displacing and extorting civilians with nothing left to give, they are increasingly weaponizing women’s bodies in their war for control.
Women like Nadia live with the consequences.
“The most difficult part is that I have nothing to give her,” Nadia said of her daughter. “I’m scared because as she gets older to ask about her father, I won’t know what to tell her. … But I will have to explain to her that I was raped.”
The woman offered only the name of Nadia, which is not her real one, to The Associated Press, which does not identify survivors of sexual violence.
Long plagued by crisis — natural disasters, political turmoil, deep poverty and waves of cholera — Haiti spiraled into chaos after the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
Sexual violence has long been used as an instrument of war around the world, a barbaric way to sow terror in communities and assert control.
“They’re running out of tools to control people,” said Renata Segura, deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean for International Crisis Group. “They extort, but there’s only so much money that can be extorted from people that are really poor. This is the one thing they have they can inflict on the population.”
That fear has rippled across Port-au-Prince. Parents hesitate to send their children to school, worried they could be kidnapped or raped by gangs. By night, the buzzing streets of the city empty.
For women especially, going outside the house is a risk. So is fleeing: Gangs use the threat of rape to stop communities from abandoning the areas they control.
Helen La Lime, U.N. special envoy in Haiti, told the Security Council in late January that the gangs employ sexual violence to “destroy the social fabric of communities,” particularly in zones controlled by rival gangs.
They rape girls and boys as young as 10, she said.
Compounding that is severe underreporting, making it difficult for any authority to grasp the full extent of the damage. Women fear gangs will seek revenge on them and trust Haitian police just about as much.
The country’s current government, which many view as illegitimate, declined to comment on what it is doing to address the issue.
The U.N. documented 2,645 cases of sexual violence in 2022, a 45% increase from the year before. That figure is just a fraction of the real number of assaults.
Nadia was among those who did not report.
She struggled over if she would keep the baby when she learned that she was pregnant, but decided to give her daughter the best life that she could. In Port-au-Prince, a place already lacking in opportunity with high levels of poverty, it became impossible for the new mother to work or continue her studies.
Meanwhile doctors like Jovania Michel are trying to fill in the gaps.
Michel works in one of the only hospitals in Cite Soleil, the epicenter of the gang wars in Port-au-Prince. There, she sees mothers who were gang-raped after their husbands were killed; sexual violence survivors living on the streets, unable to return home out of fear that it could happen again; and survivors suffering from sexually transmitted infections.
“Sexual violence is a way to paralyze, to scare people. The minute there’s an increase in sexual violence, everyone stops moving, people don’t go to work because they’re scared,” Michel said. “It’s a weapon, it’s a way to send a message.”
That was the case for one 36-year-old woman, who spoke with the AP dressed in a shirt with bright red roses, her hair pulled back carefully in braids. She asked to remain unnamed for fear of retaliation.
The woman once ran a boutique with her husband in Haiti’s capital to put her two daughters and son through school. In July, a group of armed men, members of the gang G-Pep, showed up on their doorstep and told them they needed money for bullets.
Unable to get the cash, the men took her husband away at 8 p.m.
The next day, she found his body in a gutter. She fled the neighborhood, sending her children to live with friends and family in other parts of the city. Meanwhile, she slept alone on the streets, joining at least 155,000 other Haitians forcibly displaced by violence.
In December, when she tried to return home, the gangsters raped and beat her.
“I’m a professional, and out of nowhere these bandits come … and made me lose everything. I’m not good. I’m not okay. It all makes me really angry. I got to a point that I wanted to kill myself,” the woman said.
Standing straight with a firm jaw and her head tilted upward, she brushed tears from her face.
When she tried to report the rape to police, they told her that they didn’t handle gang cases.
Today, sleeping in a park with other forcibly displaced Haitians, the one thing that brings her hope is that her children, whom she rarely sees, may still live a better life.
But she worries what deep instability and rising gang control in Haiti will mean.
“I’m not living in a good country,” she said.
Featured image: A woman who did not want to give her name for fear of retaliation poses for a photo during an interview at a clinic near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. The 36-year-old sent her two children to live with family in another part of the city after her husband was kidnapped and killed. Later, the men gang-raped her and forced her to flee her home. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)