Our visit to KOFAVIV may have been the most emotionally challenging stop on our Haiti tour. Our tour guide, Willa Shalit explained that KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims) is a center for young women who have experienced sexual assault in the camps. When Willa said “young women” I did not imagine that center would have girls as young as ten.
The girls were waiting for us in the courtyard, doing afternoon activities of arts and crafts. The center is hoping to develop some basic products, beaded necklaces or painted frames, that the girls can turn into a trade as a way to earn an income and avoid the transactional sex that is rife in the camps. The items they are creating now are trinkets, rudimentary, plastic beads strung on pieces of elastic and tie-dyed t-shirts. Fairwinds Trading is eager to work with KOFAVIV to develop products that both reflect Haiti’s culture and could be marketed to a retailer in the states. It’s clear that funding is needed both for the center and these girls.
Truth? I am a very white person in a very dark country. I tend to attract stares in rural areas. One young girl, we’ll call Lol (names and photos of the girls cannot be revealed in this blog post to protect their identity) kept narrowly circling me, shyly glancing and trying to make eye contact. When I reach out to Lol, she touches my hand and stands next to me, quietly. While I do not speak Creole, I am able to use my rusty French in this former colony. Most Haitians who have had some level of schooling can communicate with me. Lol and I chat about her age, her hair and her t-shirt. She’s wearing a pink shirt with three popsicles appliquéd on the front. She’s pretty, and all of 11 years with perfectly braided hair.
When I open my arms to hug Lol, she falls into my chest.
When I open my arms to hug Lol, she falls into my chest. I suspect correctly that she needs a mother. Josie, the organizer of KOFAVIV approaches me and says, “This girl is very sick. She had trauma after the earthquake and kept trying to go back in and find her Mother. Now with the assault…” Indeed, a few minutes later, while chatting with Lol she says, “My mere is morte.” (Translation: My mother is dead.)
KOFAVIV desperately needs help for girls like Lol. While there are no firm statistics available post-quake, the incidence of rape is frighteningly high in the camps. News reports describe the camps as “rape epicenters.” Doctors in tent cities report treating girls as young as two. When the sun goes down in the camp, young girls have no protection from roaming gangs looking for prey. Imagine a girl like Lol who has no mother to protect her and no way to get food. Some rapists demand sexual favors in exchange for food coupons. Added to all this risk is the fact that there is simply no tradition of reporting rape to the authorities in Haiti, party because of the stigma and shame, but also because nothing is done about it. KOFAVIV has actively pursued 459 rape cases last year alone. Of those,only 11 of the perpetrators are in jail and one convicted. A group called Digital Democracy is working with KOFAVIV to create a database to track the number of rapes in hopes that the accurate reporting of the sheer numbers will instigate action and world attention.
In addition to providing a safe haven for girls like Lol, KOFAVIV provides whistles and flashlights for young girls in the camp. Girls who have to get up in the middle of the night, have no choice but to go outside to find a lavatory. It is hoped that the whistles and flashlights might provide some protection. I don’t know Lol’s full history, but no doubt she has suffered from serious sustained assault. She may be one of the many young orphans in Haiti who is taken in as a domestic helper KOFAVIV reports that far too many of these scenarios result in forced slavery with young girls indentured to their owners and bandied about as a sexual play toy for all the male members of the family.
For the moment, Lol is safe in KOFAVIV. It’s obvious KOFAVIV and organizations like it, are doing all they can with limited funding to help young women in the camp. That day, we saw a dozen girls –though KOFAVIV treats many more. I give Lol one last hug and leave hopeful but far from assured that the thousands of girls like her will find the safety and security to make it through these next months and years.