Documenting the Backlash: LGBTI Rights in Haiti

By Benetech, posted on

I recently returned from a weeklong training in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I worked with our partner, Housing Works, to set up a nation-wide human rights documentation project using Martus, Benetech’s secure, open source documentation tool. The new initiative follows on the heels of a spate of homophobic violence experienced by the Haitian LGBTI community earlier this year. While lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons have been organizing in the country for decades now, this kind of public, high-profile homophobia is a relatively new addition to the list of challenges already facing the LGBTI community.

While I was in Haiti, I learned more about vodou (a collection of various mixed traditions and practices commonly observed by many Haitians) and the history of acceptance and celebration of gender variance and same-sex practices that has often characterized vodou. Despite this history, homophobia, lesbophobia and transphobia are on the rise in Haiti with the growth of a fervent anti-gay movement, similar to that seen elsewhere in the Caribbean (especially in Jamaica, where we have also trained LGBTI groups on Martus in the past) and in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Following the Haitian LGBTI community’s organization of activities for IDAHO (International Day Against Homo/Lesbo/Transphobia) in May 2013, they have experienced quite a backlash that has instilled fear and frustration in the community. This included a highly publicized anti-gay march organized by a federation of churches, the beating and alleged death of two men, and outings and attacks of several LGBTI persons.

Despite these events and a persistent stream of violations both before and since, no systematic effort has yet ensured that human rights violations targeting this community are well documented and preserved. Yet substantiated and secured documentation is a vital component of strong legal defense of victims as well as the basis for successful public education campaigns and appropriate service provision, and ultimately an important part of the long-term struggle for social and policy change.

In recognition of the lack of and need for documentation in Haiti, Housing Works, a major U.S. nonprofit that works in both the United States and Haiti, reached out to Benetech to enlist our help in creating a secure, nation-wide human rights documentation system. Last November—together with 20 human rights defenders and service providers working with HIV-positive persons, the LGBTI community, and women and girls—we established an interactive and secure reporting system to document incidents of gender-based violence and discrimination across Haiti. By the end of our training week, we graduated 20 new Martus Human Rights monitors representing 10 organizations working across the country with the goal of ensuring that no human rights violation motivated by homophobia, misogyny or stigma based on HIV status goes undocumented.

This coalition of human rights defenders has some very clear objectives. Haiti was the second independent state in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States). In its more than 200 year history, it never put an anti-sodomy law on the books, unlike many of its neighbors in the Caribbean that were colonized by European states for longer, especially those that adopted the harsh British penal code of the period.

Hence, unlike many of our partners advancing LGBTI rights in other contexts—for example, in Eastern and Southern Africa, where decriminalization is a priority—our partners in Haiti aren’t looking to overturn laws outlawing same-sex intimacy. But they are seeking to fight for needed legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They also plan to launch a campaign to educate the public about sexual orientation and gender identity issues with the aim of reducing public stigma against HIV positive and LGBTI persons.

The courageous and hard work of our partners in Haiti is part of the larger fight for justice around the world for LGBTI communities and other minorities, and Martus is one of the tools they are using to support this effort. Throughout our training in Haiti, the diagram of the Martus system we were building together over the course of the week hung on the wall at the front of the room to remind us all of “where we are going” and what we are working towards. By the end of our week together, all 20 participants had checked off their names on the project information flow diagram, indicating that they had completed the configuration of their Martus accounts to join in as nodes in the Martus system. After a week of training modules covering Martus, digital security basics (including public key cryptography 101), and human rights documentation concepts and practices (including issues of consent, interviewing sensitivity skills, and interview design and practice, to name a few), they were ready to go.

Not one of us left untransformed. During the week, we talked about the relative merits of collecting data using checkboxes vs. dropdowns and covered lessons on explaining the difference between public and private encryption keys… but we also talked about overcoming fear, identities, hopes and dreams for change, and even falling in love.

Such issues are often part of the conversations with our field partners during Martus trainings and, indeed, one of my roles as a trainer is to effectively facilitate these conversations: helping our partners think strategically about their goals and identify why and how secure documentation might help them achieve these goals. This kind of in-person support on the ground, we have learned, is key to harnessing the power of technology to strengthen human rights documentation and to advancing our own human rights mission of supporting the groups that are documenting violations in their communities.