By Ruth Levine, Center for Global Development
January 25th, 2010
Even before the earthquake, it was hard to be young and female in Haiti. It’s estimated that more than 35,000 women and girls have been the victims of sexual violence in Haiti since 2004. Gender inequality, poverty and economic vulnerability, along with cultural factors have put girls and women at heightened risk of sexual assault in recent years in Haiti. Rape, particularly gang rape, is used as a means of social control.
About half of the rapes in the country are among girls below the age of 18 and first sexual experiences are often forced. In a sample of Haitian girls in a GHESKIO study, one-third reported that they had been persuaded, tricked or forced into having sex the first time. There is also systematic and widespread violence against “restavek” domestic workers—children, generally young girls, whose families are unable to support them and who have been sent to work for other families who provide them with food and shelter.
As more than half a million people made homeless by Haiti’s earthquake are resettled temporarily into tented villages, those coordinating the relief efforts should be keenly aware of these underlying risks, amplified by the difficult circumstances that now prevail. They can and must take protect girls and young women. If they fail to do so, we will be reading stories of avoidable tragedies, as we have in other refugee situations: the teenage girls who, left unattended by both their families and official agencies, experience unimaginable physical and psychological trauma in temporary settlements after natural disasters or during conflict.
What’s to be done? Start with this:
- In each settlement, create a “safe space” to which adolescent girls can go at any hour of the day or night for protection, and publicize it widely. Get older women to keep things organized, but make sure it’s a girls- and women-only area.
- Make sure that the Minimum Initial Service Package of reproductive health care is part of the health services provided through relief agencies, and make them available to adolescent girls, regardless of marital status. All women, including girls, continue to have a range of reproductive health needs during times of complex humanitarian emergencies, and ignoring those will only make a bad situation worse.
- Plan footpaths for water, food and other necessities with the safety of girls in mind. Teenage girls are often the family members sent to collect coal or wood, get water and do other types of daily errands. Those trips, sometimes to dark or remote areas, expose girls to danger. The risks can be lessened with temporary streetlights and ensuring that the routes are not isolated. Organizing girls into groups can also reduce opportunities for victimization.
- Involve girls and young women in helping to solve the community’s problems. Girls and young women represent tremendous community resources, and can be brought into activities such as planning, construction, food and water distribution and many other tasks that are needed to support life in the tented villages.
This is just the beginning of what can be done to ensure the safety and health of the teenage girls in Haiti’s new tented villages. To find the motivation to follow through with these tasks and to expand upon them, those leading and implementing the relief effort need to answer just one simple question: “What if it were your daughter?”
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