This report draws on the experiences and lessons learned from Digital Democracy’s work with Haitian women's organizations in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. With support from the U.S. Institute of Peace, Digital Democracy has conducted trainings for women activists in Haiti on how to use cell phone and other forms of information technology to prevent violence.

Summary

This report draws on the experiences and lessons learned from Digital Democracy’s work with Haitian women's organizations in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. With support from the U.S. Institute of Peace, Digital Democracy has conducted trainings for women activists in Haiti on how to use cell phone and other forms of information technology to prevent violence. Digital Democracy is a non-profit that empowers marginalized communities to use technology to address pressing human rights concerns. Emily Jacobi is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Digital Democracy.

Introduction

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook Haiti, killing an estimated 250,000 people and wounding some 300,000.  More than one million people were displaced, moving into tent encampments around the capital city of Port-au-Prince.  Nearly two years after the earthquake, just under 600,000 are estimated to still be residing in the camps with little security and sanitation.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Haitian women responded quickly, forming and strengthening informal networks to support those most in need. As incidents of gender-based violence rose in the tent camps, women's organizations redoubled their efforts to support the survivors and prevent future attacks. International advocacy groups released reports illustrating the need for better lighting, medical services, and women's participation in camp management.

Working with vulnerable populations in Haiti and worldwide, Digital Democracy has observed ways in which technology can connect women’s voices to decision-making processes, including remote participation through video chat, mobile phone surveys or multi-media testimony. Internationally, low-cost tools including mobile phones, SMS, blogging and mapping platforms and social networking are being used by women’s groups to organize and advocate for policy change.  In Haiti, Digital Democracy has worked to incorporate technology into the existing initiatives of a coalition of grassroots women's organizations. In the process, Digital Democracy has seen firsthand three successful ways in which Haitian women are using technology to prevent violence in their communities.

  1. Documenting the reality on the ground through blogs, photography, and social media
  2. Building the technical capacity of Haitian women's groups to collect data on gender-based violence at the local level and use this information to target interventions and advocate for policy change
  3. Fostering stronger ties with male allies to provide informal security in violence-prone camps

1. Documenting the reality on the ground

“We are a group of women living in camps and communities who are fighting to have our voices heard and to share … the real situation for women in Haiti.” – September 14, 2010, Fanm Pale (“Women Speak”)

Seven months after the earthquake, Haiti went to the polls to elect a new president. Recognizing the limited scope of what was being represented by reporters in the mainstream media, Digital Democracy worked with three grassroots women’s groups in early November 2010 to launch the blog Fanm Pale (“Women Speak”).  Written in English and Haitian Creole, the blog provided women living in tent camps and neighborhoods throughout Port-au-Prince with a safe, anonymous and international platform to post photos, share observations and offer opinions on the reality of what was happening in their communities.  Equipped with digital cameras and a few netbook laptops, women members of these grassroots groups began to share their stories via the blog.

Early blog posts described inadequate sanitation facilities in one of the major camps, bribes and intimidation during early election campaigns, reflections on the meaning of democracy in Haiti, and threats received by women activists in response to their participation in a peace protest. Following the period of electoral unrest in early December 2010, one contributor wrote, “We women in the camps have seen that since the elections results were released our situation has only gotten worse. Government offices in many provinces are being torn down and it means we are back in the position of starting over, over and over again.”

Over the past year, Digital Democracy has trained contributors to Fanm Pale in community journalism, interviewing techniques, and digital photography. Participants have learned how to maintain the blog, upload photographs, publish posts, and promote the blog via social networks like Facebook and Twitter.  Some have gone on to provide testimony at the international level, including the annual United Nations discussion on women’s rights in Geneva and the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C.
One Fanm Pale contributor explained, “I think that there are realities that we are living that if they remain hidden, we will never get help. If we make sure these realities don’t just stay within our own communities ... then we have a better chance at getting the support we need both nationally and internationally.”

2. Building the technical capacity to document gender-based violence

Gender-based violence in Haiti increased significantly following the 2010 earthquake.  Services available to survivors of sexual violence are proliferating due to the efforts of both domestic and international organizations. However, the lack of a nationwide, aggregated system for tracking incidents of violence has presented a significant obstacle to effective response.  Organizations lack data about where attacks are concentrated, victims’ ages, and perpetrators’ profiles.  Disaggregated data would allow them to target responsive and preventative measures like enhanced lighting, security patrols, and emergency medical care.

One of many grassroots organizations in Haiti mobilizing to address the issue of sexual violence is KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims).  KOFAVIV has been working since 2004 to provide services for survivors of sexual violence.  KOFAVIV works with interviews of victims, works with survivors in the camps, and runs Haiti’s first dedicated rape response hotline.

In 2011, Digital Democracy helped KOFAVIV launch an information management system that records, catalogues, and generates reports on sexual violence in Haiti. These reports not only provide the total number of cases of violence each month, but also map where incidents are taking place as well as profile both survivors and their aggressors.  KOFAVIV shares reports with local police precincts and medical providers in Port-au-Prince.

3. Fostering stronger ties with male allies

The success of such programs is not dependent upon women alone.  Based on the belief that true progress in peacebuilding and the reduction of gender-based violence will stem from redefining gender roles in society, KOFAVIV has set up a pilot project with 25 male agents.  Based in Place Petion in Champs de Mars, one of the camps where KOFAVIV documented the highest rates of rape in 2010, the male agents work with residents to help raise awareness and prevent violence in the area. Armed with mobile phones, whistles and basic training in conflict management, male agents are intended not to replace police and formal security, but to reinforce them.

To become integrated into the program, male agents receive training on gender, human rights, gender-based violence, and conflict mediation. They run group meetings with men in the area to discuss issues facing men and women in the community and often play an informal role in one-on-one or small group conversations in the camps, helping other men reflect on their behavior and the impact of violence on the community. In the evenings, agents escort women to public latrines, help control foot traffic in and out of the camp, and stay on the lookout for incidents of violence.

Women residents of the area report feeling more secure since the team established its presence in the camp, the rate of sexual violence KOFAVIV has documented in the area has decreased as well. In the 14 months prior to the formal launch of the men’s team in late February 2011, KOFAVIV recorded an average of 2.4 cases of rape per month in Place Petion. From March through November 2011, the average number of cases per month has dropped to .3 cases per month.
 

Recommendations

Technology is not a panacea.  In any successful project, it is only one piece of the puzzle. However, technological tools provide an opportunity to amplify peacebuilding efforts.  Some key recommendations from Digital Democracy’s recent experience working with women’s groups in Haiti include:

  • Survivors of sexual violence are not passive victims.  They are often strong, vocal advocates for change.
  • A shared blog can provide a powerful platform. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the blog Fanm Pale offered an opportunity for women to share their stories with the outside world.
  • Data matters. Accurate data can help target preventative and relief efforts. With technical skill-building, women can collect this data themselves.
  • Engaging male allies is crucial. Gender parity and respect for both sexes can only be achieved through engaging men and women alike to work for peace in their communities.

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