Even seven months after they returned from a fact-finding mission to haiti, it's hard for april Marcus ('11) to believe what she and a small group from CUNY Law have accomplished on a legal level and experienced on a personal level.
Marcus, as part of her work for CUNY Law's International Women's Human Rights (IWHR) Clinic, helped draft a successful petition in international law, laying the groundwork for strengthening women's rights in Haiti and around the world.
"People can practice law for years and never get a chance to have a successful petition under their belt. I feel really lucky to have chosen this project and to be on this team with people that are really motivated to make change," says Marcus.
Haiti still suffers from devastation caused by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked the central part of the country, including the capital, Port-au-Prince, in January 2010. hundreds of thousands of people died, and an estimated 1.5 million still live in displacement camps, where rape and sexual attacks on women have escalated.
"Anecdotal and statistical evidence have shown us that anytime you have disaster and conflict and people are living in displacement camps, you always have spikes in sexual violence," says Lisa Davis, who graduated from CUNY Law in 2008 and who now is an adjunct professor in the IWHR Clinic. She had learned of the situation in Haiti from MADRE, an international women's human rights organization, where she is director of human rights advocacy.
So, in October 2010, sensing how CUNY Law's IWHR Clinic could get involved, Davis led a student delegation to Haiti that included, along with April Marcus, Brenda Hasslinger ('11) and Thyra Smith ('10), as well as legal fellow Brad Parker ('10). Together they toured displacement camps, interviewing residents, security guards, representatives of women's groups, and U.N. agencies, as part of a fact-finding and documentation mission.
The CUNY Law group worked closely with KOFAVIV, a Haitian grassroots organization established by and for rape survivors; many of its members live and operate inside the displacement camps.
Hasslinger cannot forget seeing the KOFAVIV women for the first time, as they sat in a circle on the clinic's porch in Haiti.
"When they saw us, they began singing. I felt so incredibly moved by their song; I felt the strength, hope, empowerment, and thirst for change in the women's voices. I couldn't help but cry," says Hasslinger.
The CUNY Law students ultimately traveled to five out of 22 camps KOFAVIV monitors to document the violence women have suffered.
"While most of the stories of the women I heard from were terrifying, the women did not seem afraid. They were angry and were not going to accept defeat. They wanted safety for themselves and their daughters," Hasslinger says.
Squalid conditions were part of the problem in the camps. with no proper sewage system, bathrooms were often not fit for use, says Hasslinger, so people had to use containers or "go out in the open."
An even bigger problem was a lack of security and lighting that made women vulnerable to attacks. "Some of these camps are so dark you can't see your feet at night when you walk," Davis says, adding that some camps might have as many as 5,000 residents.
Debriefings led by Davis were often emotional, according to Marcus, who had never had a travel experience like this before.
"It's heartbreaking to see the kinds of conditions people have been living in," says Marcus. "People were stepping over the rubble. I couldn't believe that any progress had been made" since the earthquake.
Upon returning to the Law School, the IWHR Clinic students helped draft a petition requesting that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the organization of American States ask member-state Haiti to take immediate measures to prevent violence against women and girls in Haiti.
Two months after the CUNY delegation filed its petition, the commission ruled in favor of the IWHR-led petition, agreeing to the clinic's recommendations to Haiti, which included the provision of security and lighting in camps, access to medical care for rape victims, the removal of barriers to prosecution of perpetrators, and the future inclusion of grassroots groups at the planning table when issues are addressed by the government.
The commission's decision set precedents on two counts, according to davis; it had never before ruled in favor of petitioners holding the government liable under international law for rapes committed by a private actor—someone who was not a member of government—nor had it ever ruled in favor of rape victims who were unidentified, similar to a class action.
Even though the IWHR Clinic had a successful petition, it plans on continuing its work in Haiti. As for graduating students Hasslinger and Marcus, they are thankful for their hands-on Haiti experience with the clinic, something human rights clinics at other law schools rarely provide.