In writing stories about gender-based violence in Haiti, I’ve gone to experts to explain why there have been so many rapes since the earthquake. But I also wanted to hear from men themselves, and so on this trip decided to see if I could find rapists who would be willing to speak with me.
I first asked lawyers and police officers I’d interviewed in the past if they’d be able to help me to get into a prison so that I could interview an accused rapist. One lawyer laughed and said that since Haiti has such a poor track record when it comes to arresting and prosecuting rapists, I’d be hard pressed to find a rapist in prison. And while one police officer was helpful and said he thought he’d be able to get me into the prison, I was ultimately turned away by a female officer who, I guess, didn’t trust my motives.
I was finally able to interview a 26-year-old man a few days ago in Champs de Mars, one of the largest and most dangerous camps for those displaced by the earthquake. The man, I’ll call him Pierre, was jumpy. He’d been brought to the tent where we met by Gregory, one of the camp committee leaders, whom I’d met a few days before. It was clear from the start that Pierre did not really want to speak with me. He did not want his picture taken, and he said that I couldn’t record the interview. He was afraid that I was working with the police, and that if he admitted to anything, he’d be arrested. Then, he said I’d have to pay him for the interview as he was hungry and considered speaking with me a job, for which he should be paid.
I first told Pierre that I was not going to pay him, and also assured him that I wasn’t trying to trap him. I simply wanted to hear his story, and was not there to judge.
He agreed to stay, and I started by asking him some basic questions about his family—he has a girlfriend and two children—and about what it was like living in the camp. And then we discussed the things he had done, the things he was ashamed to even think about because, he said later, “When you have changed and then you think about what you have done before, it is very stressful.”
Pierre said that to escape life in the camp, he would go to parties, drink, and then, on the nights he felt sexually aroused, would take advantage of women. Most of the time, he would have sex with prostitutes and then refuse to pay them. Sometimes, he would just call out to a girl, “Honey, I need you.”
“And as a man,” Pierre said, “I am powerful. So she had to do what I wanted to do.”
At this point in the story, Pierre checked the time on his cell phone and informed me he had to leave. There was an important soccer match on, and he had to go watch it. I tried to get him to stay, but he refused, so I asked whether we could meet later, after the match. He said maybe, but didn’t seem keen on that idea either, so I wasn’t expecting to ever hear from him again.
Pierre did, reluctantly, show up at our hotel later that evening. He said that Gregory had told him he had to come. I thanked him, because I could see in his eyes, by his nervous twitching and the way he kept anxiously looking at his phone, that he did not want to speak with me. Most of the time Pierre spoke, he wouldn’t look at me directly.
When I resumed the interview where we’d left off, Pierre said that the only thing he had ever done was to “take sex from prostitutes without paying, like if someone is selling fruit, and you steal one without paying.” He said he had never taken advantage of any other women, and he had never considered what he was doing to the prostitutes wrong until Gregory had told him that it was.
“Gregory told me, ‘That woman that is standing under the pillar, on the sidewalk, she is also a human being. The fact that she is standing there means maybe she was forced to stand there, or it’s because she doesn’t have money, so she has to humiliate herself and her family by doing this,’” said Pierre.
Gregory had tried to get Pierre to see each of these women as a sister, a mother, a wife, to imagine how he would feel if someone he loved was forced to prostitute herself, and was then taken advantage of by a man.
Pierre says that in the five months that Gregory has been meeting with him, he has changed his mentality. He says he no longer goes out at night, and does not take advantage of women. He is less violent with his girlfriend.
“I have learned from Greg and other people that violence is not about only rape and rape is not only about having sex with someone,” said Pierre. “When you meet a woman and you slap her, it is violence, it is some kind of rape.”
He said that he was able to change because there was always that little spark of goodness inside him that made him want to treat women differently. Pierre said he had never really witnessed any violence in his home, and so he couldn’t really tell me why he’d grown up thinking that women were somehow beneath him.
“That mentality did not come from someone else, it was just inside of me. Like a criminal when he is killing people, that does not happen because something happened to him, sometimes it is just for pleasure. It was the same for me,” he said.
After the interview, our fixer Andre asked if I believed that Pierre had really changed. I felt that Pierre was sincere, and Gregory said that Pierre’s girlfriend calls him “Father” because Pierre is now at home every night, instead of going out and getting into trouble.
But one thing I don’t believe is that this attitude towards women was somehow just inside Pierre, that it came from nowhere. I think it is hard for a boy to grow up in the impoverished neighborhood where Pierre grew up without witnessing violence, without learning, somehow, that women should be subservient to men.
A few days earlier, Gregory had introduced us to a 15-year-old who quite confidently told me that as a man, he had to fight with women, because they didn’t listen and they were always unfaithful, and so he felt that men had to use violence to keep women in line. When I asked why he thought that, the boy told me that his mother had told him these things. Gregory later told me that the boy had also learned from his brother, who had a similar view of women and had raped a few women in the months after the earthquake.