MONTREAL — In partnership with lawyers, Haitian relief organizations and other NGOs, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has begun a program to relocate rape victims in Haiti to Canada. The Canadian government has agreed to grant these women permanent residence. The program has also been able to provide temporary residence in the United State for victims in especially dangerous situations.
UNHCR’s work is particularly important for victims of rape in Haiti.
Instances of rape and sexual assault increased dramatically after the earthquake in January 2010. The natural disaster displaced many, forcing people to live in camps. The flimsy unsafe tent structures, along with the tightly packed campsites, left many women and girls vulnerable. Since then hundreds of females have been raped.
There is a harsh social stigma in the Haitian community that criticizes the victim rather than the perpetrator. And, according to UNHCR, the Haitian government has failed to prosecute the majority of reported rapes. This has left Haitian rape survivors feeling humiliated, hopeless and marginalized.
Since the program’s commencement, UNHCR has successfully relocated 40 rape survivors and their dependents, a total of 145 people, to Canada. The women who now live in Canada were granted residence because of their urgent need for psychological support.
The Haitian women were selected because of the severe levels of trauma they endured, as many were minors or raped several times. Others were in danger of being attacked again because they had filed legal action against their attackers.
One key organization helping to document and present Haitian women’s rape cases to the UNHCR in an effort to help them gain Canadian residence is the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, KOFAVIV. It is a grassroots group established by and for rape victims. KOFAVIV also offers medical and legal assistance to victims and has been a key player in advocating for the women of Haiti.
Both KOFAVIV and UNHCR seek to give these survivors a new start in Canada and the United States. An essential part of the relocation program includes regular psychical support. The aim is to provide a life for the survivors in which they recover from their experiences with the support they need.
Though residence in Canada offers these Haitian women a safe haven, the process and transition to living in a new country proves difficult. Many do not have proper documents, such as birth certificates, which makes the process even longer.
And although the women collect financial and other forms of support once they arrive in Canada, many still have trouble becoming completely economically independent. Language and education barriers are two of the biggest issues as many of the women are illiterate.
Haitians who were moved to the United States faced more obstacles because their stay requires sponsors who provide financial support and housing. Additionally, their residency was only granted for a year and if they wish to stay they must keep reapplying.
Although the transition process is difficult, UNHCR’s work is providing new lives for these women, all of whom chose and continue to support the decision they made to move. UNHCR continues to advocate for continued relocation of rape survivors in Haiti to provide them with the assistance and security they need.
– Kathleen Egan