Cries in a Soundproof Room : Two Studies of Sexual Assault in Haiti and India (Updated)

Posted: January 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

(Update I and II, below)

From Amnesty international a newly released report on the wildly high incidents of rape and sexual violence in Haiti: “Women and girls living in Haiti’s makeshift camps face an increasing risk of rape and sexual violence. One year after the earthquake which killed 230,000 people and injured 300,000, more than one million people still live in appalling conditions in tent cities in the capital Port-au-Prince and in the south of Haiti, where women are at serious risk of sexual attacks. Those responsible are predominately armed men who roam the camps after dark.”

More than 250 cases of rape in several camps were reported in the first 150 days after January’s earthquake, according to data cited in the new Amnesty International report, Aftershocks: Women speak out against sexual violence in Haiti’s camps (pdf).

Camp, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

One year on, rape survivors continue to arrive at the office of a local women’s support group almost every other day.“Women, already struggling to come to terms with losing their loved ones, homes and livelihoods in the earthquake, now face the additional trauma of living under the constant threat of sexual attack,” said Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International’s Haiti researcher.

“For the prevalence of sexual violence to end, the incoming government must ensure that the protection of women and girls in the camps is a priority. This has so far been largely ignored in the response to the wider humanitarian crisis.”

Sexual violence was widespread in Haiti before January 2010 but this has been exacerbated by the conditions since the earthquake. The limited assistance the authorities previously provided has been undermined by the destruction of police stations and court houses. This has made it more difficult to report sexual violence.

The report references 50 cases of assault including the case of a 14 year old girl Machou who: lives in a camp for displaced people in Carrefour Feuilles, south-west Port-au-Prince who was raped when she when she went to the toilet.

“A boy came in after me and opened the door. He gagged me with his hand and did what he wanted to do…He hit me. He punched me. I didn’t go to the police because I don’t know the boy, it wouldn’t help. I feel really sad all the time…I’m afraid it will happen again.”

Also Suzie, recounts how she was living in a makeshift shelter with her two sons and a friend when they were attacked around 1am on 8 May. Both were bound, blindfolded and raped in front of their children by a gang of men who had forced their way into their makeshift shelter.

“After they left I didn’t do anything. I didn’t have any reaction…Women victims of rape should go to hospital but I didn’t because I didn’t have any money… I don’t know where there is a clinic offering treatment for victims of violence,” Suzie says in the report.

Suzie lost her parents, brothers and husband in the January earthquake. Her home was also destroyed.

The response by police officers to survivors of rape is described as inadequate. Many survivors of rape recollected how when they sought police help they were told officers could do nothing.

“There has been a complete breakdown in Haiti’s already fragile law and order system since the earthquake with women living in insecure overcrowded camps,” said Gerardo Ducos.

“There is no security for the women and girls in the camps. They feel abandoned and vulnerable to being attacked. Armed gangs attack at will; safe in the knowledge that there is still little prospect that they will be brought to justice.”

Jasmeen Patheja and Blank Noise, Moments of a Long Pause. 2009

Blank Noise looks at the question of assault and harassment in the broad context of Eve Teasing (a Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Nepalese euphemism for sexual harassment or molestation in public). This form of assault shows the foundations of dismissal of personhood for the recipient of this behaviour which lays the ground for rape and its various forms. As Jasmeen Patheja says,  “Eve Teasing is experienced by women on the streets of their cities everyday (comments, stalking, touching, groping, flashing at, rubbing against, whistling, staring at body parts) and is dismissed as a joke, as something boys do for ‘fun.’ ”

Hot News / Taaza Samachar (“fresh news” Hindi, one of the 22 official languages of India) is a video performance by Jasmeen Patheja and was triggered by numerous reports by local Indian newspapers of sexual violence during a  three month period in 2003. The video below was created early on in the history of the Blank Noise project (which Ms. Patheja initiated) and was created to critique the absence and silences in public postures regarding all types of sexual violence ranging from ‘eve-teasing’ to rape.

“Blank Noise started as an art project, I was experiencing street sexual violence every day, and if not every day it was the threat of it that kept me on guard, hyper and alert. Moreover, it wasn’t being taken seriously by those around me — ‘It happens,’ ‘there’s nothing you can do about it,’ ‘It’s only teasing.”’ Jasmeen Patheja

Jasmeen Patheja Blank Noise Project, Step by Step Guide to Unapologetic Walking 2010


For Further Background information on Sexual Assault (other countries and statistics), check here.  And for Jasmeen Patheja and Blank Noise, Moments of a Long Pause (video) questions and Answers.


Update I:

Miranda Fricker (Philosopher and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy) looks at the epistemic conditions of Powerlessness and Social Interpretation and how this informs sexual violence and its communal perpetuations:

…social understanding—in particular our understanding of our own social experiences—is a sphere of epistemic activity in which relations of identity and power can create a particular kind of epistemic injustice, with the upshot that some social groups are unable to dissent from distorted understandings of their social experiences. …

For the lack of proper understanding of women’s experience of sexual harassment was a collective disadvantage more or less shared by all. Prior to the collective appreciation of sexual harassment as such, the absence of a proper understanding of what men were doing to women when they treated them like that was ex hypothesi quite general (Feminist Susan Brownmiller’s story of Sexual Harassment quoted by Fricker) ….In the present example, harasser and harassee alike are cognitively handicapped by the hermeneutical lacuna—neither has a proper understanding of how he is treating her—but the harasser’s cognitive disablement is not a significant disadvantage to him. Indeed there is an obvious sense in which it suits his purpose. (Or at least it suits his immediate purpose in that it leaves his conduct unchallenged. This is not to deny that if he is a decent person underneath, so that a better understanding of the seriousness of his bad behaviour would have led him to refrain, then the hermeneutical lacuna is for him a source of epistemic and moral bad luck.) By contrast, the harassee’s cognitive disablement is seriously disadvantageous to her. The cognitive disablement prevents her from understanding an important patch of her own experience; that is, a patch of experience which it is strongly in her interests to understand, for without that understanding she is left deeply troubled, confused, and isolated, not to mention vulnerable to continued harassment. Her hermeneutical disadvantage renders her unable to make sense of her ongoing mistreatment, and this in turn prevents her from protesting it, let alone securing effective measures to stop it.

Published in the (onetime) online journal Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology. Fricker’s essay is definitely worth working through..

Update II:

Regarding the recent Scandinavian and Congo problematics with sexual assault and rape check here.

  1. […] Cries in a Soundproof Room : Two Studies of Sexual Assault in Haiti and India […]

  2. maaretta says:

    Painful important post. Feels like whenever there’s a major catastrophe – like war, natural disasters, extreme poverty – the ones to suffer the most are women and children (especially female children).
    “Eve teasing” is a fairly new term. Not many now about it. But fairly big problem. Good thing that you wrote about this! Especially appreciated that you but in some art pieces addressing this problem.
    And thank you for the link in Update II!
    / Maaretta

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