Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Sexual Predators Haunt Haiti’s Camps

By Gabriel Elizondo, Al Jazeera’s The Americas Blog
http://blogs.aljazeera.net/americas/2010/03/29/sexual-predators-haunt-haitis-camps

Photo by EPA

Camps set up for those displaced by quake offer woman and children no protection from attackers, especially at night.

A research delegation from Amnesty International recently spent three weeks in Haiti examining the human rights conditions in the country.

The preliminary report findings, which can be downloaded here, is a much needed wake-up call to Haitian authorities, especially when it comes to the vulnerability of women and girls in the camps.

Consider this:

An 8-year-old girl alone in a tent raped at night.

A 15-year-old girl raped in a camp at night when she went outside to use the restroom.

Nineteen women raped in one camp alone.

These are just a few of the troubling findings by Amnesty International.

Authorities in Haiti must prioritise strengthening the police presence in camps, especially at night, including capacity to protect women and girls from sexual violence and to respond adequately to reported cases

Chiara Liguori, Amnesty International researcher

I wish I could say the report surprises me, but it doesn’t. I have been to Haiti three times since the quake and been able to see the progression of development in the camps.

Here is the good news: At first impression the situation in the camps is getting better.

Unlike the first time I arrived in Port au Prince a few days after the quake, many camps now have sturdy tents (with logos on the outside from the NGOs or international organisations who donated then).

Some camps have mobile toilets, and the lucky ones also have fresh water storage facilities.

I am in Port au Prince now as I write this, and for the first time I am seeing what they are calling “temporary/permanent” camps.

These are organised in rows of tens, on rocks to avoid flooding during rains.

These camps are encircled by barb wire and with flood lights for night time security. This is not ideal, and there is a real risk these temporary/permanent camps become permanent slums, continuing the cycle of poverty. But for now, at least for the few people that have access to these camps, it’s one step closer out of hell.

Here is the bad news: On all my trips into camps in Port au Prince, including my most recent visit on Saturday, this is the total number of police I have seen providing security: 0. Yes, zero.

There are about 1.2 million people still living in camps in Port au Prince, and the vast majority of those who are women and children are provided no security from sexual predators at night. Most camps don’t have electricity.

When you, your wife, sister or daughter goes to bed at night, the door can be locked in order to sleep in peace. In the camps, the women don’t have such a luxury.

So while the women might have sturdier tents to sleep in, their physical well being is no better than it was two months ago.

In almost every camp I hear of tales of women raped or abused at night. In one camp the situation was so bad, men, unofficial camps organisers, took matters into their own hands and began patrolling at night with machetes to protect their sisters and mothers.

This was and still is common practice.

Why isn’t a larger focus being put on the camp security, especially at night?

Why aren’t there police posts set up in camps at night?

And what good is a sturdy tent and hand outs of rice if at night you are still at risk of having your body assaulted?

There has been a lot of focus by UN and foreign military/security forces on protecting assets (read: airports, ports, equipment) but what about protecting the human assets?

I have no doubt the Haitian political elite have heard the reports of what is happening to some of their women in the camps. What they are doing about it – or how seriously they are taking it – is not evident to me based on what I see on the ground.

This week at the donor’s conference there will be a lot of talk about the billions of dollars of money for reconstruction, and the next steps in the development of Port au Prince.

There will be bold promises made in front of flashbulbs and video cameras at press conferences in New York.

There will be people shaking hands and smiling and giving fancy speeches.

And at night the decision-makers will go out for fancy dinners in New York and retire to their hotel rooms.

And as the Amnesty report so rightly indicates, back in Port au Prince, under the cover of pitch darkness, there will be hundreds of thousands of women and children still going to bed each night not knowing if they will be safe from sexual predators.

Yes, I know there are lots of problems in Haiti that need urgent attention. I get that. But you can’t tell me one item on the agenda that is more important than protecting vulnerable women from rapists. This is not a discretionary issue to take up.

This is a basic human right we are talking about. The security of woman in camps needed to be addressed and dealt with in the days following the quake.

It’s been over 75 days – months after the quake – and I am sad to say I am unconvinced much has been done about it.

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