(*Unless otherwise cited, the information in this article is based on GJC Program Intern Isabella Szabolcs’ interview with Haitian human rights advocate Jocie Philistin on June 6, 2014. It has been translated from French to English with Ms. Philistin’s consent.)
Jocie Philistin is sitting in the conference room of the Global Justice Center before catching a flight to London, where she will represent the most critical voice at the UK Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict: women working on the ground in conflict zones. She is thousands of miles away from her home in Haiti, where she works as a human rights advocate for Haitian survivors of sexual violence. When asked about what event impacted her most in her work with female survivors, Jocie recounted a story of a thirteen year-old girl who has been raped:
Just minutes after her water broke in Port au Prince, Haiti, the thirteen year-old girl was refusing to go into labor. She was terrified of giving birth to her own flesh and blood, a chilling reality that was all too literal. Raped by her twenty-eight-year-old brother, a member of Haiti’s military force, the girl was one of the few survivors of sexual violence to see her perpetrator imprisoned. Although her brother was detained, her trauma was far from over. He terrorized her over the phone threatening to kill her for reporting the assault, and his fellow paramilitaries attempted to set her on fire. In spite of the imminent death threats, it was the idea of bearing a child born of rape and incest, a child she could not accept or care for, that was the more frightening reality for the pregnant girl.
Had it not been for the support from the International Civilian Mission—who Jocie worked for—the girl’s story would have ended like so many others, culminating in further abuse or even death. As Jocie points out, this young girl’s harrowing account is not unique. This is the experience of thousands of women and children who are victims of sexual violence in armed conflict zones around the world. The traumatizing effects of sexual violence remain with the survivor forever.
“A girl never forgets the daunting memory of being sexually violated.”
Her Haitian name, as she proudly recounts, means “God is gracious.” For Jocie, her name became an emblem and a source of her empowerment as she began her mission of helping rape and sexual assault survivors find hope, peace, and justice.
When Jocie was sexually assaulted three times by a senior member of the military, she experienced stigmatization and a lack of adequate access to care. It became clear to her that greater attention had to be given to sexually abused victims. “When you are violated or sexually assaulted, you never forget the experience or its lasting effects. I wanted to help these girls, give them hope and prevent such dehumanization from happening again. My similar experience to these victims allowed us to understand and psychologically help each other.”
For the past 16 years, Jocie has worked with Haitian victims of sexual abuse, a population whose numbers increased drastically as a result of the 1991 military coup d’état and the 2010 earthquake. After the coup d’état, Jocie began her work at the International Civilian Mission, which is run by both the UN and the Organization of American States. Through the mission, she helped victims of sexual violence find justice and faith, and pressured the government to take action and to hold the perpetrators accountable. She also helped pioneer a seminal 2005 law making rape a crime in Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake, Jocie worked for the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, an international law firm that provided free legal and security assistance to survivors of sexual violence and KOFAVIV, a local grassroots organization whose acronym translates to the “Commission of Women Victims for Victims” and lends social, psychological, and medical support and empowerment to survivors.
Currently, Jocie works as an evangelical preacher and women’s rights advocate. She founded her own organization, the Yahweh-Rapha Foundation (“The Lord Who Heals” Foundation), where she trains youth groups to become knowledgeable activists in the church and community on the prevention and care of victims of sexual abuse. Her goal is to raise awareness about the reality of sexual violence in Haiti and reduce the stigmatization attached to these victims. By creating dialogue on a conventionally taboo subject, Jocie hopes to increase reporting for sexual violence crimes, end the vicious cycle of “victim-blaming” and ostracization, demand accountability, and ensure immediate medical attention within 72 hours of the attack.
Support and Hope for Survivors
Last week, the Global Justice Center had the privilege of bringing Jocie to attend the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London. Her presence at the Global Summit, like those of other survivors and those working with sexual violence survivors on the ground, is vital when the international community comes together to discuss ways to protect and respond to sexual violence against women in conflict zones. Jocie represents the voice of a victim and it is essential that policymakers give a platform to survivors to direct their own future. These are exactly the kind of voices that must be amplified and the Global Summit was the perfect opportunity.
Co-chaired by the UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague and the Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, and attended by 129 governments, foreign ministers, UN officials, and civil society, the summit was a milestone for women’s rights. This is the first global meeting to focus on sexual violence in conflict-affected areas. Yet this historical achievement is only the first step towards progress. The Summit raised many concerns and key areas for change that must be addressed in the struggle for ending sexual violence in conflict. One much-needed area for improvement in advancing these human rights is international support for civil society’s role in this fight for justice. However, the Summit, while ambitious in its scope, did not adequately incorporate human rights organizations and grassroots advocates in engaging “governments to take meaningful action…to stop rape and gender violence in conflict” and which limited the scope of the conversation. This effect was evident by the conclusion of the summit when only 46 of the governments made “any concrete commitment towards addressing the issue.”
As the Global Summit Chair’s report states, “survivors must be at the centre of the response to sexual violence in conflict, to ensure re-empowerment and to avoid further victimization.” The Global Justice Center aimed to do exactly that at the Summit by bringing experts such as Jocie, however as noted by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jody Williams, the opportunities to hear survivors’ voices were limited and many stories, such as Jocie’s, were never heard in the official sessions attended by ministerial policy makers.
Rape used as a Weapon of War & Structural Barriers to Justice
The purpose of the Global Summit was to address how to end impunity for perpetrators and bring justice to survivors. As concluded in the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence Chair’s Summary, it is essential to “improve accountability at the national and international level, through better documentation, investigations and prosecutions…and better legislation implementing international obligations and standards.”
Rape “or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity,” as included in 2002 by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, was declared a crime against humanity when systematically committed against civilians during armed conflict. Despite the devastating consequences for states and entities engaging in sexual violence in conflict, “no state has ever been held accountable for the use of rape as a prohibited tactic.” The failure to penalize states for using rape as a tactic of war contradicts the laws of war, unequivocally violates human rights, and explicitly discriminates against and subordinates women and children.
In Haiti where Jocie works, the destabilization that resulted from the coup d’etat and the earthquake “unleashed a wave of torture, massacre and systematic sexual violence against women.” The weakening of state systems of security and political control, contributed to an epidemic of sexual violence that to this day, ravages the country. Furthermore, the aftermath of the attack poses a second trauma for the victims. Their attackers continue reigning terror with impunity because rape cases seldom are prosecuted in court or result in a conviction. Even in cases where a conviction succeeds, the survivor’s safety is constantly under threat. It is common for perpetrators to bribe their way out of jail or to use friends and family to terrorize the victim. For this reason, safe homes (hebergements) were created to ensure that the victims receive adequate care and protection from their abuser.
As stated by the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, civilians – especially women and children – suffer the most devastating casualties in today’s war-ravaged areas. Rape is used as a strategic political and military tactic to terrorize enemies, destabilize society, destroy families and communities, and traumatize victims. Perpetrators use rape to assert their control and achieve objectives such as ethnic cleansing and deliberate dissemination of diseases such as the HIV virus.
Another common and devastating result of sexual violence in war is the impregnation of rape victims. Forced with the prospect of carrying out life-threatening pregnancies to bear the child of their rapists, survivors often resort to unsafe abortions or in too many tragic circumstances, suicide.
The dire need for legislation in international and national policy recognizing and punishing rape as a tactic of war, cannot take effect without a change in attitudes towards victims of sexual violence.
It is essential to listen to the voices of these survivors when discussing ways to combat and respond to sexual violence in conflict, a greater emphasis that should have been placed during last week’s Global Summit.
Women, specifically survivors of sexual violence, play a critical role in engaging communities in response, reconciliation and prevention efforts of sexual violence in conflict. The contribution of these women in sustaining international peace and security is crucial, since they often are more accepted and have greater access to such conflict zones than government officials and representatives. For this reason, it is imperative that victims of sexual violence are given a voice to be heard, especially in high-profile venues such as the Global Summit.
The Global Summit Chair’s Summary emphasized, “this Summit is just the beginning.” We need to translate rhetoric into action. The International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council must take further action to punish those responsible for the illegal use of rape as a tactic of war. In addition, donor states such as the U.S. must comply with the Geneva Conventions to ensure that its humanitarian aid to survivors of sexual violence in war provides “complete and non-discriminatory medical care” including access to safe abortion services in life-threatening circumstances.
Beyond the necessary international role, advocates such as Jocie are critical in effecting change. In order for such international policies to take effect, a new attitude towards victims of sexual violence must be taken. The population needs to internalize the belief that “there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence [but rather,] the shame is on the aggressor.” Only then, can these victims be treated with the dignity and respect that they so rightly deserve.