Surviving Amidst Gang Violence in Haiti: Resilience and Recovery

The situation in Haiti remains extremely precarious, with gang violence devastating communities and disrupting lives. For many Haitians, simply existing and going about daily activities means navigating constant threats and traumatic experiences. With the resurgence of violence related to armed groups’ activities in Port-au-Prince since 29 February, thousands of people have been killed, injured, or forced to flee for safety and protection, according to Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Haiti. So far more than 360,000 people left their communities and hundred of thousands are based in some camps around Port-au-Prince(schools, churches, state offices…)

Rampant violence continues in several districts of Port-au-Prince, where coordinated attacks are affecting hundreds of thousands of people. On 10 May, an attack in the Gressier commune (West Department) caused the displacement of around 4,400 people.

The number of survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) increased fivefold between the first two months of the year and March 2024, rising from 250 to 1,543. Sexual violence accounts for 75 per cent of the incidents reported, according to OCHA, on the 16th of May 2024.

The accounts shared here provide a sobering look at the realities on the ground, but also inspirational examples of resilience and the vital work being done to support survivors.

Psychologist Kate Ulysse paints a distressing picture of the violence playing out in areas like Croix des Bouquets and Cité Soleil near Port-au-Prince. “The different forms of violence people face include robberies, murders, rapes, intimidation and threats,” she explains. Armed gangs exert control over neighborhoods, setting up checkpoints and subjecting residents to searches and abuse. “At that moment, anything is possible.”

The impact on mental health is severe. Ulysse describes survivors grappling with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, anger and suicidal ideation in the aftermath. “These women’s psychological balance is delicate,” she laments. Many develop pathological conditions like panic attacks, reliving the trauma, and they “always feel in a state of imminent danger.” The stigma and dislocation compound the harm, leaving some feeling they must abandon their communities entirely.

Despite the daunting challenges, local organizations like ACT members Service Chretien d’Haiti  (SCH) and partner organizations like ORRAH working with ACT members DKH and LWF/NCA are doing vital work to protect survivors and help them reclaim their lives. Psychosocial support workers like 31-year-old Liliane Joseph provide a lifeline, conducting door-to-door outreach in hard-hit areas. “After, we had to open an office to receive survivors in complete confidentiality, so they feel confident to express themselves,” Joseph explains. “The survivors need support so they don’t continue being victimized.”

Empowerment is key, helping each woman to “know that she is a person, and she has rights – and needs support to guide her to necessary services.” This holistic approach encompasses psychological care but also economic empowerment, like the financial grants SCH provided. As Polone Cadet, a 49-year-old mother of three, expressed: “The support from SCH was very important and came at the right time… otherwise, we could die.”

The gratitude in the survivors’ own words is palpable. Cadet conveyed, “She was happy with the conversation and to see that people are interested in her story and what she is experiencing in her community.” For Helena Prophete*, a young woman who became pregnant after a brutal gang rape at age 14(now, she is 19 and she is at baccalaureate dreaming to be a doctor in the future to support as many girls and women as possible), SCH provided a vital outlet: “By talking about it more and more, I feel better. With SCH, I had this opportunity to find a space to talk, to discuss, and people who understand me.”

While sharing such traumatic accounts is undoubtedly difficult, giving voice to the survivors is crucial for driving awareness, empathy and action to address these crises. Ulysse underscores that supporting the psychosocial and economic needs of women and child survivors “is an expensive but essential program.” NGOs and aid must prioritize Haiti’s local organizations at the forefront of this work. 

As Ulysse emphasizes, “Violence harms thousands of people and endangers the lives of thousands of women and children, and it is imperative to support survivors after this trauma so that they can rebuild and take their place in society.” The resilience of the human spirit shines through in these stories of perseverance against adversity. While the road ahead remains long, survivors like Cadet plead: “May God change the situation in Haiti, and may the leaders find a way to agree and provide security in the country.”

Experts and advocates working in communities in Haiti have identified several critical steps to effectively address the issue of violence against women and children:

  • Increased Funding: Allocate adequate resources to support organizations providing essential services to survivors, including medical care, psychological counseling, legal aid, and economic support.
  • Improved Coordination: Foster collaboration among various organizations involved in addressing violence against women and children to ensure seamless access to services and prevent duplication of efforts.
  • Prevention Strategies: Implement comprehensive prevention programs that promote gender equality, respect for women and girls, and challenge harmful social norms that perpetuate violence.
  • Support for Survivors: Provide tailored support services to survivors, considering their individual needs and circumstances, including medical care, psychological counseling, legal assistance, and economic empowerment opportunities.
  • Community Engagement: Engage community members, including men and boys, in awareness-raising campaigns and prevention initiatives to foster a culture of respect and non-violence.
  • Strengthening the Justice System: Ensure accountability for perpetrators of violence against women and children by strengthening the justice system and ensuring fair and timely prosecution.

The situation in Haiti is dire, but there is a glimmer of hope. With concerted efforts from governments, international organizations, local communities, and individuals, we can collectively work towards ending the cycle of violence that plagues Haiti, particularly against women and children.

LWF and NCA; two members of the ACT Alliance, in Haiti urge you to join us in this fight by raising awareness, supporting organizations working on the ground, and advocating for policies that promote gender equality, protect human rights, and build a more just and peaceful society in Haiti.

Together, we can make a difference.