One of the more cunning strategies of the Algerian liberation movement was the use of female combatants who smuggled weapons under their haik: no one saw them coming. Although women have long played diverse roles in armed conflict, the idea of female agents of violence continues to shock and amaze.
Before interventions from women’s advocacy networks, policymakers routinely translated this shock into practice: in disarmament and reintegration programmes after Sierra Leone’s civil war, women – whether combatants, cooks or sex slaves – were classified simply as “dependants”. This ignored women’s nuanced experiences in conflict settings as victims, perpetrators and more.
Turning her attention to Haiti, Benedetta Faedi Duramy seeks to address gaps such as these in both the public and policy-based imagination, focusing on the under-examined subject of female perpetrators of gang violence.
To even the casual observer, Haiti’s violence is renowned. As Duramy outlines in a contextualising chapter, the brutal treatment of slaves by French colonisers set the stage for centuries of political, social and economic strife. Duramy’s book, however, is not a critique of the international community’s role in this violence; her study is situated squarely within it (see chapters 1 and 4 for detailed accounts of the international legal frameworks governing women’s and children’s rights). Those seeking something more critical on international aid’s contribution to Haiti’s plight might consult Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake (2012), edited by Mark Schuller and Pablo Morales, or Jonathan M. Katz’s The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (2013).
Most of Duramy’s research was conducted between 2006 and 2008, a period of heightened violence and political instability (although in her concluding chapter she also addresses the surge in violence after the 2010 earthquake). This period saw the proliferation in urban slums of armed gangs acting as both women’s abusers and protectors, often simultaneously.
Drawing from interviews with women in these communities, and detailing the social stigma, fragile legal framework and criminal justice corruption surrounding sexual abuse, Duramy details a culture of impunity that makes violence against women unlikely to be reported, let alone prosecuted (in 2006, just one rape case was successfully prosecuted in Haiti). In such circumstances, women’s resort to violence may be more of a turn to vigilantism: how else might they survive?
I was surprised by two omissions here – first, although Duramy contends that the women in her study joined gangs for survival rather than political purposes, it seems strange to overlook the historic blurring of these goals. A prime example is Fiyèt Lalo, the all-female section of the Tonton Macoutes, the dictator François Duvalier’s notorious paramilitary force. Second, by overlooking accusations of sexual violence against Haitian women and minors by UN peacekeepers (more than 100 of whom were dismissed after charges of abuse in 2007, and there have been numerous complaints since then), Duramy obscures the international community’s contribution to a culture of impunity.
Where the book succeeds is in its nuanced look at Haitian women’s relationships to violence, and its main strength is the use of women’s lived experiences to blur the categories of “victim” and “perpetrator”. Duramy’s case study, and especially chapter 6’s outline of strategies for action, will be useful to policymakers and international aid workers working on post-conflict reintegration programmes and criminal justice reforms that see women as more than just “dependants”.
The struggle continues in Haiti. Rates of violence remain high, although there are glimmers of hope: last year, changes were proposed to the Haitian Penal Code that would represent significant legal progress in combating gender-based violence. With luck, the international culture of impunity that contributes to violence in Haiti will also be addressed.
Gender and Violence in Haiti: Women’s Path from Victims to Agents
By Benedetta Faedi Duramy
Rutgers University Press, 192pp, £21.95
ISBN 9780813563152, 3145 and 3169 (e-book)
Published 22 April 2014