Schools on the front line in the fight against sexual abuse in Haiti
by Trillium Hibbeln, Power of Education Foundation
Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is a significant public health concern for all girls and women in Haiti and particularly in the urban center of Port-au-Prince. One in three women in Haiti have experienced sexual violence and half of all rape victims are under age 17 at the time of the crime (Amnesty International 2008). Even these shocking statistics cannot begin to shed light on the true problem because of a lack of reporting of rape, sexual violence and physical violence. Sexual based harassment and violence are a major cause of girls and teens not finishing schooling, deepening the struggles of the most impoverished.
Although sexual predators proliferate throughout the world, they are especially free to violate their victims in situations with few government and inadequate legal follow-through. Can schools become a haven of safety and mechanism for community change?
At The Power of Education Foundation (La Puissance de L’Education), teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders are speaking out against abuse, responding to reports of abuse and supporting victims after an attack. It is only through a full community response do woman, girls and boys begin to feel safer in their communities.
Recently, our local board of directors called a community meeting of parents and other community leaders to discuss how they could work together to increase the safety of all of the children in the neighborhoods. Families learned about the warning signs associated with victim grooming and discussed how to keep their children safe even in the most dangerous of neighborhoods. The board is now planning additional parent education sessions, creating a response team to intervene in situations and creating a reintegration model.
Teachers themselves also have a crucial part to play in identifying children at-risk, creating a safe environment for students to report abuse and creating an environment where victims can return to school with the full support of their peers.
In a recent case, our teachers had to reintegrate a 13-year-old girl who had been raped, impregnated and then experienced a still birth. When she returned to school, her class stood up and cheered for her and her teacher embraced her. The teacher has spent time preparing for her return to ensure that her peers would accept her with love. As a child psychologist recently told them, “Be with her just for a moment in her pain. Acknowledge how difficult it must be for her. If she blurts something out in class about the attack, “Stop and say…That must have been very difficult. I am so very sorry.” This simple act of acknowledgement gives the victim the chance to feel heard and over time, they will work through their pain.
Unfortunately, many children like this never go back to school after the event because of the stigma attached to rape and because of the lack of support at school. Our teachers have banded together to discuss cases like these and develop strategies to support every student. Now they are working to identify the students whose life situations put them at greatest risk so they can support them to try to prevent an attack from occurring.
Quality schools can become not only havens of safety in an otherwise hostile environment for children and teens, but also have the potential to lead families and communities in efforts to stem the violence. School leaders and teachers who care deeply about children can be mobilized and trained to begin the dialogue among students and families as to what is acceptable and what behaviors in the community need to be stopped. Through rising their voices in defiance of the abuse of children, women and boys, the community can feel empowered to find local solutions that will be sustainable.
Trillium Hibbeln is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Power of Education Foundation.