It was love at first sight for Madeline, who first met Baptiste at a church retreat in Haiti’s southern port town of Aux Cayes in 2002. As infatuated teenagers, they eventually wed and settled in the Caribbean country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
With a growing family and unsteady work selling sodas and food staples, the couple could only afford to rent in Cité Soleil, a seaside shantytown where armed groups have turned streets into battlegrounds.
The gang violence became so intense in July that Madeline and Baptiste sent their six children away to a shelter for safety. Days later, the pair awoke in the middle of the night to find the neighbourhood in flames.
Grabbing what belongings they could, they fled towards Carrefour Lanmò, or the “Crossroads of Death” – an intersection frequented by armed groups. They made it through, Madeline recalled, but an armed gang stopped them afterwards and dragged them on to a side street.
Baptiste was pushed to the ground and beaten before a tyre was thrown around his neck and he was set on fire. His last words were: “Can’t you see that we are poor?”
Madeline was raped by more than a dozen gang members. After they were done, she was told to run, forcing her to abandon Baptiste’s body.
“I was never a victim until then,” said Madeline, 35, who, like the other victims interviewed for this article asked to use a pseudonym for security reasons.
Haitian women and children are not just being caught up in the country’s spiralling gang wars – they are increasingly being targeted for rapes, torture, kidnappings and killings by the 200 armed groups that now control 60% of the capital.
Their plight has been compounded by a lack of safe shelters or refuge. More than 96,000 people have been displaced by the gang violence, but neither the Haitian government nor the international community has mandated formal displacement sites – which have been set up during previous bouts of instability or disasters.
Dozens of women and girls have been raped at some of the 33 makeshift displacement camps, according to the Haiti-based Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), a legal group trying to assist some of the women who have been attacked.
In an effort to gather data to better understand the extent of the problem, reporters spoke to more than a dozen victims, as well as aid workers, civil society groups, rights groups and government officials who said they are struggling to keep up with the unprecedented surge in cases.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which still operates a clinic in the capital, said that it recorded some 32 cases of rape or other gender-based violence in just two days in September.
Before gang violence took root, the NGO would see between three and four patients a day who reported such abuse, according to Honorine Uwaringenz, MSF’s team leader at the clinic. Now, however, about 130 victims of gender-based violence are seen each month. Of those, 100 are rape victims.
“Speaking about 10 cases means there are 1,000 unreported; speaking about 100 means that there are 10,000,” said Lara Chlela, a focal person for the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse with Unicef.
Armed groups have proliferated since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, and despite the rampant violence, a political solution has yet to materialise. Haiti’s de facto leader, Ariel Henry, has called for foreign troops to intervene, but nearly 100 civil society groups want a “Haitian-led solution” and oppose a foreign intervention.
‘Weapons of war’
In the same wave of violence that drove Madeline and Baptiste from their home in July, Nathalie – then six months pregnant and already a mother of four – said she was raped by armed men as she returned from searching for purified water near a crossing between two rival gangs in Port-au-Prince.
Since the attack, Nathalie has put three of her four children into an orphanage.
“It’s not that I don’t love my children,” said Nathalie, explaining that she feared her two boys and youngest daughter could be recruited into the gangs if they stayed. “I just couldn’t handle the situation any more.”
She did not report the rape, fearing retaliation.
With more than 60% of the population unemployed and nearly 77% living on less than $2 (£1.7) a day, much of the youth turn to gangs as a means of survival.
The wave of gang violence has prevented women from reporting such cases. MSF, for example, recorded roughly 980 cases of sexual violence in 2021 – a 23% drop from 1,275 cases in 2020, and one that Uwaringenz attributes to women not being able to report cases to police or fearing retribution.
“We are in a multidimensional crisis in Haiti,” said Pascale Solages, co-founder of the women’s rights organisation, Nèges Mawon.
Gangs have also used sexual violence as a weapon against communities collaborating with rival factions.
Other women have been forcibly recruited, earning money to collect information or stealing from homes, according to women who have fled gang-controlled areas and others working in such places.
Some women have formed their own gangs or affiliated with others, often with deadly consequences.
In April 2022, 17 women who called themselves Baz Koko Fè or “Iron Pussy” and were affiliated with a gang called Chen Mechan, or “Evil Dogs”, were allegedly raped and killed by the 400 Mawozo gang, according to the National Human Rights Network.
“There are effectively no paths beyond this world, and so the only way to make a living is to engage in this insular world that was created,” said Sasha Filippova, senior staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which partners with BAI on legal cases.
Madeline, who was reunited with her six children shortly after Baptiste’s killing, now sleeps among some 3,000 people living in the Plaza Hugo Chávez, an open-air public park in the capital a short walk from the international airport.
Ever since a young girl was raped in the camp by a gang member, she sleeps with her legs draped over her five daughters.
Spontaneous displacement sites have mushroomed across the capital, but since none are official sites, services and support have been sporadic. In some camps, more than 60% of the displaced are women and girls.
Giuseppe Loprete, a former country director of the UN’s migration agency (IOM) who left Haiti in September, said the conditions were unimaginable.
“It’s too out of control to allow for a proper response,” Loprete said.
Lawyers have been assisting more than 30 women who have reported rapes, sexual assaults or exploitation at the Carrefour site – a gymnasium that once held more than 1,000 people but closed in July – according to Mario Joseph, who heads BAI.
Some of the alleged abuse was at the hands of local aid workers or government officials, according to Joseph, who said neither UN agencies nor the Haitian government were taking action to address the problem.
So far, formal displacement centres are being seen as a last resort, said Jerry Chandler, the general director of Haiti’s civil protection agency.
The agency saw its budget cut in half this year to just $417,000 (£357,734), even though the country is still coping with tens of thousands displaced by an August 2021 earthquake that killed more than 2,200 people in the country’s southern peninsula.
Angélika said she lost all four of her children to gang violence, including her daughter, who was raped and killed in July.
Some victims and humanitarian workers said that some gang leaders use their authority to take the virginity of any young girl in their territory.
“Women’s bodies are weaponised,” said Rosy Auguste Ducena, programmes manager at the National Human Rights Network (RNDDH). “It’s a symptom of the trivialisation of rape.”
Rape was originally used as a weapon of control before Haiti gained independence in 1804, largely by colonial powers that enslaved the population and pillaged the land.
Since then, it was only recognised in Haiti as a crime after 2005, and although Moïse was set to adopt a raft of new measures that would have given women more protections – including the legalisation of abortion – no new changes can be adopted until elections.
“Women need everything right now … water, food, safe shelter, psychosocial medical care and prophylactics to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of sexual diseases,” said Filippova. “And it’s urgent. The situation is getting worse, not better.”
This article was originally published by the New Humanitarian, a news agency specializing in reporting humanitarian crises