Monday, 18 January 2021

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Beyond mountains there are mountains


27 May 2014 - When the Norwegian police officer Else Gun Ommundsen was prepared to leave from Oslo airport one October day last year, she was filled with many different thoughts. Her destination country was Haiti, where she would work in the UN Stabilization Mission’s Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Team. Her inner realist warned her that the coming year would entail many challenges. But the idealist in her was ready to take them on.

In the afternoon hours of January 12, 2010, an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude struck Haiti. In less than a minute, the ruthless ruptures killed 225.000 people, injured 300.000 and displaced 2.3 million. Populations that were already disadvantaged became even more vulnerable.

Along with the physical disruption came societal disruption as well: massive displacement of populations and desperate struggles for daily life in a context of limited resources and collapsing institutions. The ruins of the earthquake also included the shattered pieces of the few protective mechanisms that had existed to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Family and community structures were left in pieces and law enforcement agencies were crippled. SGBV was already a challenge in pre-quake Haiti, but existing structural realities regarding gender, social class and disability were reinforced following the disaster, thus increasing the vulnerability for SGBV victimization.

To counter post-earthquake SGBV, the UN Security Council requested member states to contribute with targeted efforts through the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Among these efforts was the establishment of the SGBV Team, in which Norwegian and Canadian police officers work to increase capacity within the Haitian police regarding the issue. One of these dedicated police officers is Else Gun Ommundsen, who is deployed for a one-year mission in MINUSTAH’s Delta Camp in Port-au-Prince.

The team Ommundsen is a part of focuses both on building human capacities within the Haitian National Police, by training them in how to conduct thorough investigations of SGBV cases, and on developing infrastructures where the investigations can be executed, through renovating offices and building new premises. But the starting-point for the team’s efforts often begins at the most basic levels.

“The Haitian police are lacking practically everything, from technical equipment to fuel in the police cars. Many places are also lack office facilities, so the police just execute the interrogations under a tree in the village”, explains Ommundsen.

The physical necessities to perform investigations, such as premises, computers, cameras and printers, are not only fundamental in order to secure evidence, but also to ensure dignity for the offended. However, a substantial number of victims do not even make it to the police station. The stigma connected to victimization is still a major obstacle. And it also feeds into the law enforcement agencies:

“Many victims, maybe even the majority of them, prefer to suffer in silence,” according to Ommundsen. One of the most important and challenging parts of the team’s work is therefore to contribute to an attitude change within the Haitian police force in itself, so that SGBV investigations are taken more seriously.

So far, 1164 out of a total of 12 000 Haitian police officers have participated in the SGBV Team’s training program, and it is now a part of the curriculum for the students at the National Police Academy. In order to make the efforts sustainable, the team has also educated 35 instructors from the Haitian police to continue the training(s) after their mission has ended. Ommundsen underscores the importance “of enabling the local police, which has the necessary language and culture expertise to train their own officers on SGBV investigations. Sustainable change must ultimately come from within”.

Progress is indeed being made, even though the phenomenon of SGBV is highly complex and requires long-term efforts. But as the Creole saying goes “deye mon gen mon” – beyond mountains there are mountains. It means that as you solve a problem, another problem appears. But giving up is never an option; you just go on and solve that one too.

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