On the outskirts of Ansapit, the ruins of a concrete building provide the base camp for pepe traders who come from Marigot, Jacmel and Bell Anse to buy, and from Pedernales and Ansapit to sell. One late morning I caught a moto ride there for my first visit. A woman waved me toward a field at the back of the building where a crowd had gathered. At the center, a mother was holding a girl’s hand and shouting at a teenaged boy. “She was raped,” my translator said.
The girl, her daughter — a few years older than the girl I photographed here — cried as mom marched off to get the justice of the peace, whose office was about a mile away near the center of town. For some reason, the mother left her daughter with me. I held her hand. My translator, a man, tried to assume a mediating role, as if he were a justice himself. He asked the girl what happened. With the crowd of about 60 people closing in to watch, he tried to lift her little skirt to examine her. The girl cried harder, and, stepping out of my role as journalist, I told him to stop.
The boy, her cousin, denied the rape. The girl was making it up; her cousin had put it in her head, he said. He and the girl live in the same home and sleep in the same bed. Although rape is technically illegal in Haiti, only my presence seemed to inhibit the crowd from teasing and shaming the girl.
Finally an officer arrived, cuffed the teen, and the crowd slowly dispersed to the business of sorting, folding and stacking pepe.
That day in Ansapit, l learned that the apparent power of Haitian women — even the traders who boldly travel across the water to this place and pitch their tents amidst the mountains of clothes — is limited to a very narrow sphere. They are the workhorses and family centers in their country, but have no authority.
In Miami, a non-profit executive speaking off the record said that 50 years ago, rape was synonymous with dating in the Haitian generation she grew up in, Even if that were not the case, rape would be hard to avoid in homes where there is only one bed for all children to share.
According to Haiti’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, Marie Yanick Mezile, women represent 52 percent of the Haitian population, and 49 percent live below the poverty line. “That means they have a big problem,” said Mezile in our interview.
While the role of women is changing at the highest levels of government — Mezile’s position is one of several recently created by the Martelly administration, and Ansapit’s new mayor, Guilène Dachimis, is a woman — it will take longer for a woman-empowered culture to reach poor ti machann and madam saras.