Feature story

Supporting women and girls affected by gang violence in Haiti

29 June 2023

At Refuge des Femmes d'Haiti, a small women's community-based organization in the commune of Croix-des-Bouquets, Port-au-Prince, Martha Norcimè, a 34-year-old pregnant woman from the nearby commune of Delmas, completes her training in sewing and macramé—a form of textile produced using knotting techniques.

She is part of a group of vulnerable women deeply affected by the gang violence and warfare that has impacted several areas of the capital since early 2022. Most of her peers came from Croix-de-Bouquets. All of them—including women with HIV—living in challenging circumstances, who have seen their livelihood completely disappear throughout these past two years as violence rose.

"I will soon give birth to my first child. I used to sell food and cleaning products that I was buying on the Haitian-Dominican border between Jimani and Malpasse, and I was then selling in markets in the city and in my neighborhood,” recalls Martha. “But I could no longer continue, given the blockade of the North city entry controlled by armed gangs. So many women traders are raped, kidnapped, or robbed by them."

In the fall of 2022, a joint UN project coordinated by the UNAIDS Country Office in Haiti, with participation from UNFPA, UNDP, and UNICEF, has been launched in partnership with Refuge des Femmes d’Haiti and with the support of FOSREF, a Haitian non-governmental organization. The goal is to support women and girls living this daily reality by empowering and giving them the tools to remain healthy and overcome the feminization of HIV in Haiti.

Haiti’s significant gains made over the past decade in controlling its HIV epidemic are now under threat, particularly in the capital, where a third of the 11.8 million Haitians reside. The brunt of an ongoing socio-economic and security crisis triggered by the assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021 is borne by adolescent girls, young and adult women.

The feminization of HIV has long been a feature of the Haiti pandemic with HIV prevalence for females at 2.3%, compared to 1.6% among men. Still, the continuing multi-faced and profound crisis, fueled by such levels of violence, is exposing thousands of women to HIV infection.

In October 2022, a joint human rights report published by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), entitled Sexual violence in Port-au-Prince: a weapon used by gangs to instill fear denounced collective rape by gangs in the capital as a weapon of war. In May 2023, research conducted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime in Cité-Soleil, another impoverished commune in Port-au-Prince deeply hit by gang activity, found that 80% of the women and girls who participated in the study had been victims of one or more forms of gender-based violence by one or multiple perpetrators.

"We work closely with UN Agencies to support women, victims of violence, make them financially independent and thus reduce the feminization of HIV, sexual and gender-based violence and maternal and neonatal mortality," says Novia Augustin, President of Ref-Haiti, and of the Federation of Women Organizations for the Equality and Human Rights (FEDOFEDH). "Difficulties are several, but the biggest is insecurity and the lack of financial resources. My motivation comes from our results: When I look at the satisfaction on the faces of the women we have accompanied, the recognition they show, I tell myself that it is worth it, despite all the difficulties encountered and the risks incurred."

Martha recalls how Novia opened the door to her for intensive training every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. At the time, she was already pregnant. And despite the pregnancy-related fatigue, she did not miss a single day of class. “I can sew skirts, bonnets, blouses and even sandals!" she says proudly. "But I can't do anything now because of this crisis. Sometimes I even miss my pre-natal appointments with the doctor just because I am afraid to go out."

Besides training, Ref-Haiti also included discussions  on HIV risk and prevention, gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health, family planning, and cholera. The awareness-raising activities targeted women beneficiaries and hundreds of young girls of other affected communes.

"We are working to support an integrated health response for women and girls so severely affected by gang violence and by socio-economic inequality”, says Christian Mouala, UNAIDS Country Director for Haiti. “We are proud of women-led local organizations such as Refuge des Femmes and their immeasurable efforts to support women to overcome the challenges they face."

All photos by UNDP Haiti