Along with widespread chaos and instability following the 12 January earthquake in Haiti, one of the most troubling reports of recent weeks is that attacks on women and girls have significantly increased in the temporary shelters that now populate the country. The almost daily reports of violence and rape of women and girls around the country come at a time when security is extremely unstable in the region.
Women have reportedly taken to drastic measures to protect themselves from violence in the tent camps that have formed in the aftermath of the earthquake. Some reports tell of mothers staying awake all night, not even able to go to the bathroom or get water, out of fear that men will come to rape their daughters while they sleep. Young girls have also reportedly been told to wear jeans underneath their clothes to further protect themselves at night.
Groups of local men have taken to protecting the women and girls of their camps and they use homemade weapons to ward off sex attackers. One reason they are so afraid is that many criminals from local prisons managed to escape following the earthquake, and have yet to be caught. However, even before the devastating earthquake, incidences of sexual violence in Haiti were among the highest in the world
Haiti has a long and dark history with sexual violence. Rape was only decriminalized under Haitian law in 2005 and has always been treated with a certain level of impunity in the country. It is a common cultural perception there that “rape” only happens to a young victim or to someone who is a virgin. Under Haitian law, it is seen as a crime against honor, and a great deal of shame is brought on the victim. In 2004, during the chaos before President Jean Bertrand Aristide fled the country, sexual violence and rapes were reportedly widespread amid the political upheaval. The attackers went unpunished and were rarely arrested, even when identified by the victims. One victim even claimed that she when she went crying to the police to report a rape, she was treated with false concern and was taken outside only to be raped, again, by the police officer.
Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of Equality Now, spoke to MediaGlobal about what is going on in Haiti. Bien-Aime said: “What is heartbreaking and outrageous is that the minute after the earthquake happened, we anticipated and feared that the incidences of rape and sexual violence would occur. Almost every day, stories are now published about sexual violence and rape in the tent camps or about how women fear for their safety from potential rapists…we must learn from past mistakes in our failure to protect women and girls in times of conflict or disasters. Haitian women are often taught to suffer in silence, but the international community cannot treat the unchecked sexual violence in post-earthquake Haiti against them as inevitable. We have done rapid assessments in the camps where we are working. We have come across similar reports of girls and women being the victim of gender-based violence. There is an urgent need to take appropriate measures in order to ensure their protection.”
Many development organizations who are working on the ground in Haiti are doing all they can to protect women and girls from violence. Solveig Routier, child protection and emergencies specialist from Plan, an international child-centered development organization told MediaGlobal: “In the child-friendly spaces that Plan is setting up within the tent camps, a referral system will be in place, so that any incident of sexual violence against women and girls can be reported in a safe environment. Trained staff will assess the level of psychosocial support needed for each individual case. Psychosocial support conducted by Plan staff begins within these spaces, but when a more involved intervention is deemed necessary, Plan will refer these persons to the appropriate mental health clinics in the area.”
Routier also told MediaGlobal that organizations like Plan are aware that they need to support camps and their management committees to setup further mechanisms to prevent gender-based violence before it happens. “This means improving the lighting and providing separate latrine and wash facilities for women and girls. Camp managed-security patrols are also vital to protect girls and women, particularly at night. And all of this obviously means strengthening work in collaboration with the police and justice systems, as well as the health services.” Routier said.
It is extremely important that aid organizations work together to protect women from these attacks. Accordingly, Bien-Aime urged the United Nations and other major international relief agencies to ensure that “preventive measures were put in place, not hap hazardly, but systematically, to protect women and girls from sexual violence and rape.”