By Christina Boyle, New York Daily News
Cassandre St. Vil, 19, was raped by four men who broke into her tent after the Haiti earthquake. Months later, sexual violence remains a major concern in tent encampments.
The 19-year-old was asleep in the street under a canopy of sheets that had been her makeshift home in the two nights after the Jan. 12 earthquake.
“I couldn’t fight back,” said St. Vil, now living in a camp in Port-au-Prince. “They came in – we didn’t have a door – and they asked my mother and grandmother to leave.
“My mother said, ‘Don’t do that to my daughter,’ but they were armed and held a gun to my mother’s neck. They threatened to kill her if she called for help.
“It took place in front of my mother and grandmother,” she continued in a whisper.
“Four people raped me.
“I didn’t have the chance to scream. They covered my mouth,” she said, leaning in close. “While one had sex with me, the three others stood with my mother and grandmother.”
St. Vil is a bright, articulate young woman who was attending a university in Port-au-Prince. The quake shattered dreams of completing her studies, finding a good job, getting married.
She has joined the growing ranks of women who have been sexually abused after the quake, which collapsed the Port-au-Prince jail and unleashed criminals into the streets.
“They took my virginity,” she lamented. “I always dreamed of getting married a virgin – it was very important to me.”
After the rape, she and her family moved to the sprawling Champs de Mars camp near the Presidential Palace. There, she sought help from a local women’s group, KOFAVIV, which gives support to rape victims.
A founder, Eramithe Delva, says the group has helped 180 women raped since January. In the three months before the quake, there were just 25 cases.
The group has staked a claim to a small section of the Champs de Mars camp, a sanctuary for victims who hope there is safety in numbers.
Still, it’s hard to feel too secure. Many women sleep outside or in cramped quarters next to strangers, without a husband, father or brother as protector.
A few shelters away from St. Vil is another victim, Helia Lajeunesse, 49, gang raped with her daughter during sexual depravity that accompanied the 2004 coup.
Her daughter became pregnant. The child was a girl, now 5 years old. She, too, was raped – in late January in the provinces where her mother fled after the quake.
“[The girl] was going to buy a cup of rice,” LaJeunesse said. “A young man took the rice from her hands and she ran after him.
“He took her into the cemetery and a woman passing by saw him lying on top of her … She shouted at him and he ran off.
“Now she doesn’t eat, she has no appetite,” Lajeunesse said, wiping tears as the girl stared ahead vacantly. “Each night you hear the cries of the rapes, almost every night.”
When dark settles over the camp, women dare not venture to the toilets alone, using small buckets instead.
Aid groups are installing bright lights in the dark corners of some tent cities to deter attacks. Doctors Without Borders has midwives and clinical psychologists ready to treat rape victims at one of its clinics in the city.
Each camp also has a committee charged with maintaining order and security, with the authority to call on the National Police and United Nations guards.
Mario Joseph, a Haitian lawyer who is working to prosecute rapists, is hoping to set up a rape hotline and distribute whistles to women to call for help.
He says most of the attacks go unpunished, so perpetrators have little to fear.
“Judges are scared because prisoners are in the streets,” he said. “We need to build files against people and when we have the chance, bring them to court. But the priority now is to get the camps more secure.”