By Amy Lieberman, WeNews correspondent
A female U.N. police force from Bangladesh is bringing hope of better protection to Haitian women in makeshift camps for those displaced by the earthquake. Women’s activists in one camp say it’s not enough. They need help urgently.
UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Marie Eramithe Delva’s 17-year-old daughter narrowly escaped a rape attempt in one of Haiti’s largest internally displaced persons camps at the beginning of March. The 42-year-old mother and grassroots activist tried to report the assault and the attacker’s subsequent threats.
A police officer just laughed and told her it was the problem of Rene Preval, president of the country that on Jan. 12 suffered an earthquake that killed approximately 230,000 people and left upwards of 1.3 million homeless.
“They did nothing,” Delva told Women’s eNews in a phone interview, assisted by a Creole translator from the camp Champ-de-Mars, in Port-au-Prince, home to roughly 50,000 people. “The only help we found came from members of the camp.”
Today or tomorrow an all-female policing unit is journeying from Bangladesh to protect and serve as allies to Haitian women, said Gerardo Chaumont, police commissioner of the U.N.’s Stabilization Mission in Haiti.
Exactly how they will accomplish that, however, is hard to ascertain from official interviews.
The Haiti U.N. mission’s police spokesperson Fred Blaise said the new female policing unit will be stationed at the U.N. headquarters in Delta Camp, in Tabarre, just north of Port-au-Prince. The policewomen will work on a rotating basis inside the U.N.’s approximately 700 makeshift camps for internally displaced persons, where they will be responsible for crowd control, disturbances and other regular duties, just as their male counterparts, he said in an e-mail interview.
That doesn’t necessarily mean immediate or direct help for Delva, a co-coordinator of KOFAVIV, a Haitian grassroots female empowerment organization.
“What we need is security,” Delva said. “Right now we have none and the rapes are happening not only at night, but in the daytime.”
Tracking Sex Assault Victims
She and her partner, Malya Villard Appolon, 50, both say they will continue tracking victims of sex assault in Champ-de-Mars and other camps for displaced Haitian women and girls.
Delva and Villard live together with 18 extended family members, including their six and eight children, respectively, in one tent. They work daily to document reports of sexual violence in the crowded, poorly lit camps, which lack private bathing facilities. They then guide the women to medical clinics and police posts to report the crime, a vain effort they often find.
“Almost every day we are taking testimony of someone who has been raped,” said Delva through translator Beverly Bell, an American social justice activist who has worked closely with the activist group for years. “Every day in the hospital we find someone who has been raped.”
Chaumont denied that Haitian police are unwilling to aid civilians and report and follow up on cases of sexual assault.
“Many police also suffered the loss of families so at the beginning, following the earthquake, they were focused on saving their own relatives and helping themselves” the police commissioner told Women’s eNews. “But that isn’t the case anymore. Security is under control. We have police posts stationed, with women there, where you can go and report these crimes.”
When pressed about Delva’s case specifically, Chaumont said he has not heard of any such disregarded incidents, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, he conceded.
Relief and reconstruction efforts are underway, but sexual violence has worsened in the temporary housing camps, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha Rose-Migiro said in an April 15 press conference in response to a question from Women’s eNews.
Raising Cautious Hope
Amid the deteriorating situation, Bangladesh’s mostly female U.N. policing unit–130 women supported by 30 men–is raising cautious hope.
Edmond Mulet, head of the Haiti U.N. mission, said he hopes the Bangladeshi troops will prove as helpful as the U.N.’s first all-female unit, which came from India, was in Liberia, where rape was used as a systematic weapon of war during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Bangladeshi troops will be operating in a post-disaster zone, not a post-conflict zone as was the case in Liberia. But officials say that in addition to sex assault in the camps, Haiti has a rooted history of sexual assault that merits increasing women’s protection.
The three-year-old all-female units in Liberia are widely credited with encouraging women to report on sex assault.
“It’s a whole world of difference for women who have been victimized to see women police, and we see the reporting of cases of gender-based sexual crimes increase when they are there,” said Lea Angela Biason, a gender affairs associate for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping, in a recent interview.
The Liberian all-female deployment has also been credited with providing women with a positive role model. An example of that is the slight but significant increase in women’s participation in Liberia’s national security forces. In 2008 women constituted almost 13 percent of Liberia’s national police force and by the following year, 2009, the figure was up to 15 percent, according to the U.N. mission in Liberia.
Increase in Female Peacekeepers
Female peacekeepers from Austria, Rwanda and Nigeria, as well as an additional female unit from India, are slated to be deployed to various countries in the coming months, Biason said.
Women currently make up 6.5 percent of U.N. peacekeeping forces, but a recruitment effort aims for 20 percent by 2014, Biason said.
At Delva’s Champ-de-Mars camp, KOFAVIV organizers–all victims of sexual assault themselves–found in a recent informal survey an average of 15.3 incidents of rape in the two months, per camp, following the earthquake.
Bell, the American activist, noted that almost none of the organizers are literate and that their work cannot replace formal documentation, which does not exist.
The earthquake destroyed the formal data system for tracking and reporting cases of gender-based sexual violence that the United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, was developing.
Bell said it’s hard to know how these numbers would compare to an intensive assessment, but the testimony of girls and women she recently met reveal an overwhelming atmosphere of fear in the camps.
“I spoke with a woman who sleeps with a machete under her blanket, in case men come after her 18-year-old daughter who sleeps next to her,” Bell said. “I heard from a woman in the general hospital of a 1-½-year-old baby whose mother’s boyfriend raped her.”
Delva says her group is continuing its difficult work in the camps, as she also tries to find a way for her family and herself out of the tent city.
Appolon, her co-coordinator, said they have a responsibility to defend girls and women who are living in the camps. “The police are crazy and laugh when we tell them these things, but we cannot stop doing what we are doing. There is no other way,” she said.
Amy Lieberman is a journalist based out of the U.N. Secretariat, where she writes primarily for a Brazilian newswire.
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