PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Mislande’s nightmare began as it does for so many women and girls here, with a trip across a gang-controlled area to buy tomatoes, onions and other vegetables to sell in her neighborhood.
The 24-year-old was returning with seven others from a downtown market last March to their homes in Cité Soleil, the capital’s largest shantytown, when they were attacked by armed gang members.
The assailants shot the five men in Mislande’s group and tossed their bodies onto a pile of putrefying corpses covered with plastic. Then three of them raped her, one after the other, in broad daylight. She gave birth in December to a girl conceived in the attack.
Heavily armed gangs are terrorizing this beleaguered Caribbean nation. They’ve killed thousands in Port-au-Prince alone and driven more than 200,000 from their homes. The violence has worsened since the still-unsolved 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
Now Mislande is one of what’s believed to be a growing number of victims of a familiar but chilling weapon: Systematic rape.
Gangs are using sexual assaults, including “collective rapes,” to “instill fear, punish, subjugate and inflict pain on local populations with the ultimate goal of expanding their areas of influence,” U.N. officials here have reported.
Comprehensive dataon the attacks is difficult to compile, rights advocates say, in part because many gang-controlled areas are inaccessible and in part because stigma, scarce police resources and fear of reprisal discourages many survivors from reporting. For these reasons, whatever figures do exist are probably undercounts.
Doctors Without Borders supported more than 3,700 survivors of sexual violence and intimate partner violence in Haiti in 2023, a preliminary account indicates, up 42 percent from the previous year, the organization said. Most of the victims since 2022 were not assaulted by intimate partners, it said.
Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network documented 52 rapes in 10 days during a gang war in Cité Soleil in July 2022. At least 49 women were “collectively raped” during a gang attack last April in the Brooklyn area of Cité Soleil, the U.N. office here reported.
Some victims are assaulted in front of their parents, spouses and children, aid groups say.
“It’s not only physical violence,” said Pascale Solages, co-founder of the Haitian feminist group Nègès Mawon. “It’s to break the dignity, break the humanity of the survivor.”
The Washington Post interviewed a dozen people, including aid workers, counselors and five survivors of rape by gangs. The survivors consented to their first names being published in The Post, which generally does not identify victims of sexual violence.
The use of rape as a weapon isn’t new in Haiti. During military rule in the 1990s, troops sexually assaulted civilians to repress political dissent. But now, the phenomenon is so “pervasive” in marginalized areas “that it has come to be considered as an inevitable part of life,” U.N. agencies reported in 2022.
In some cases, rights advocates say, gang members rape those they believe to be supporters of rival gangs — or who simply live in areas under rival gang control — to demonstrate their power and humiliate their foes. Sexual assault is used also to pressure people into paying ransoms for kidnapped loved ones.
Arnaud Gustave Royer, chief of the human rights section at the U.N. office in Haiti, arrived in Port-au-Prince fromSouth Sudan, where rights groups say government forces and allied militias used rape as a weapon during the bloody civil war from 2013 to 2020.
He was “surprised” by what he has observed in Haiti, a country not at war, but where the use of rape as a weapon has become a “systemic” feature of the gang violence.
“That’s pretty serious,” Royer said, “for the social fabric of the country.”
Rape wasn’t classified as a criminal offense here until 2005. But for most survivors, justice — and adequate support — remain elusive. “Impunity,” the U.N. agencies said in the 2022 report, “remains the norm.”
Haiti’s justice system is broken. The security crisis forces overwhelmed hospitals, clinics and aid groups to limit services or shut down. Access to aid is impeded. Few groups are able to provide specialized psychological care, and private options are costly.
Abortion, meanwhile, is illegal. A new penal code that would allow for the termination of pregnancies in some circumstances has long been delayed by Haiti’s political dysfunction and the expiration of its elected government.
Nathalie Vilgrain, co-founder of the feminist group Marijàn, said a busy month once meant helping 30 women. Now, that number has climbed to 120, most of them rape victims. The group has three social workers and no psychologists.
Vilgrain recalled a day last year when 40 sexual assault survivors showed up at the office.
“What I saw in those faces — I don’t even have the word to describe it,” she said. “It’s like hope is not there. … There’s no hope for tomorrow.”
Aid workers say rape survivors often have needs beyond medical care. Some are homeless or afraid to return to their communities and require shelter. Some don’t have the means to leave a dangerous situation. Some need food or financial support.
In Haiti, women are often breadwinners. Several survivors interviewed by The Post were “Madan Sara,” women like Mislande who sell food and other necessities in their communities, and have no choice but to travel across areas under gang control to earn their livings.
The attacks upend their finances and futures.
Oldwine, 23, was sexually assaulted by armed gang members wearing balaclavas in Cité Soleil last year. When she learned she had become pregnant as a result, she cried. She would have to stop going to school and would struggle to earn a living.
“I wanted a better future than that,” she said.
Yvetta, 36, was on her way to buy bananas, yams and beans to sell at a market in 2022 when gang members stopped the bus she was on. They ordered the 14 passengers out, beat them, robbed them and raped the women. She, too, became pregnant as a result of the attack.
“Now that this child is here, I accept the situation, but it’s not my choice,” shesaid. “I hope this kid becomes a good person despite its birth circumstances.”
Junia was raped by several gang members in December 2022 in Dèyè Mi, an open space in Cité Soleil that separates areas controlled by rival gangs where many such attacks occur.
When she, too, became pregnant, the woman with whom she was living threw her out. Now, she has nowhere to live and spends most of her days begging for food in the streets.
Many survivors of sexual assault by gangs face stigma from their families and communities.
Guislène, a 41-year-old woman with a child conceived in rape, said the father of her other five children left after he found out she was pregnant. He called her “the wife of rapists.” Her other children have not warmed up to their new sibling.
She was on her way to buy fruits to sell when she was attacked. “I was a poor woman looking for a good life,” she said. “I ask God for help, but nothing comes to save me.”
When Mislande told her boyfriend she had become pregnant, he stopped speaking to her. “I asked him to tell me something — anything — but he did not say much,” she said.
Eventually, he left. Her daughter was born with a fever and a swollen stomach, she said, and the medicines doctors have prescribed have been little help.
Mislande hopes that her girl will grow up in a different Haiti, that she will be happy and find success. She thinks about the day when the girl will ask about her father, what she will tell her and how her daughter might respond.
“If she asks me,” Mislande said, “I will be honest.”
By Widlore Mérancourt Widlore Mérancourt is a Haitian reporter and editor-in-chief of AyiboPost, a renowned online news organization. He has covered major news events in Haiti for The Washington Post, including the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Twitter
By Amanda Coletta Amanda Coletta is a Toronto-based correspondent who covers Canada and the Caribbean for The Washington Post. She previously worked in London, first at the Economist and then the Wall Street Journal. Twitter