LONDON (AlertNet) – Overcrowding and insecurity in the camps housing Haiti’s quake survivors have put women and girls at increasing risk of rape and much more must be done to police the makeshift villages effectively, human rights activists say.
Some 1.2 million Haitians are crammed into 460 camps in Port-au-Prince alone, often separated from their neighbours by little more than a hanging bed sheet, forced to bathe in public or to walk through dark passages at night. Other survivors are living on the streets, after losing their homes and families.
Haiti’s police and judicial services were decimated by the quake and more than 4,000 prisoners escaped from the main jail. Women have lost their male protectors and many men are jobless and frustrated.
Sexual violence was a reality for many in Haiti before Jan. 12 but the quake has exacerbated the problem. Preventing rape and providing medical and psychological support to victims are proving major challenges for local authorities and relief agencies.
“All the vulnerability factors that existed before are now increased because of the situation in the camps, because of the overcrowding … and the fact that the justice and policing structures were completely overwhelmed themselves by the earthquake.” said Chiara Liguori, Caribbean researcher at Amnesty International, who returned last week from a three-week research trip to Haiti.
Liguori interviewed rape victims aged mostly between 13 and 21. There have been reports of much younger victims. Amnesty concluded that sexual violence was “widespread” in the camps.
“Rape is a systemic problem in Haiti. Now, with no security in the camps and no privacy … and a lot of escaped prisoners, this is something that was waiting to happen,” said Louis Herns Marcelin, chancellor of the Haiti-based Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED).
In a survey released this month of residents living in the capital’s notoriously dangerous Cite Soleil neighbourhood, INURED found that sex-for-food and sex-for-shelter were becoming common practice.
ATTACKING THE PROBLEM
Tracking down data on sexual abuse is difficult in post-quake Haiti. Sexual violence is traditionally under-reported. Shame, social stigma and fear of repeat attacks plague rape survivors, especially those living in camps they often share with their aggressors, activists say.
Nevertheless, Jayne Fleming, a U.S. human rights lawyer who visited Haiti earlier this month, met 30 rape victims during a one-week stay. She said some had nowhere to sleep, others felt suicidal and many had not received any medical treatment for prevention of pregnancy or HIV/AIDS.
Haiti has the worst rate of HIV infection in the region and officials fear the quake will set back years of progress in fighting the virus.
Local authorities and relief agencies have put in place a host of measures on rape prevention and victim support.
Steps taken by the United Nations’ Population Fund (UNFPA) – leading a group of agencies targeting gender-based violence in post-quake Haiti – include regular radio bulletins in Creole and leaflets telling women how to protect themselves against rape and to report to a medical facility within 72 hours of a rape for emergency contraception and treatment against HIV/AIDS.
Tents for women and children, called ‘safe spaces’, are being installed in some camps. Thousands of solar flashlights will be distributed to women in camps and the United Nations is also looking at installing LED street lights in settlements.
Policing has also been stepped up in some camps and seems to be yielding results, said Lina Abirafeh, coordinator of the gender-based violence subcluster of agencies.
“We’ve encouraged police to patrol inside the camps on foot at night, which is different from before when they just did a big loop on the main road but didn’t actually go in,” Abirafeh told AlertNet from Port-au-Prince.
Abirafeh said women in the downtown Champs de Mars camp had told her they’d noticed more patrols in past weeks and one potential perpetrator had been caught.
But Abirafeh and others acknowledged much more needed to be done on policing and on victim support.
“It’s definitely not enough. There’s not enough of anything … but we also have to manage our expectations. We’ve lost so many services, human resources and data,” she said.
Marcelin said patrols were barely reaching Cite Soleil and also urged officials to find ways to connect police forces with local community and neighbourhood associations that could provide them with good information.
Liguori welcomed a suggestion being mooted to create police cells in the camps – of up to four officers including one woman. Temporary women’s shelters were also needed – one existed before the quake but was no longer operating.
“One of the perceptions is that women don’t report rape because they don’t have another place to go so a temporary shelter could provide this,” she said.
Activists stress that rape in Haiti is not just a product of the quake’s aftermath but part of the country’s history and culture.
“Sexual violence has been used in Haiti as a weapon of war during times of political crisis,” said Fleming, adding that a generation of men has been educated to believe that women were to be “repressed, victimised, controlled and overpowered”.
Rape has been used as a tool of political repression and retaliation during years of political upheaval since the mid-1980s and particularly during the double ousting of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Women who have been raped once are more vulnerable to attack a second or third time, said Fleming, who came across numerous multiple rape victims.
Haitian society was already reacting to sexual violence before the quake. Rape was finally criminalised in 2005, partly thanks to a growing and powerful women’s movement, and a national plan to fight violence against women had been drawn up, a joint effort between government and civil society.
The key now is to recapture that momentum, said Abirafeh.
Some of the structures dessimated by the earthquake are already building themselves back up.
KOFAVIV, a coalition of survivors of child slavery and violence which is working for human rights, lost its headquarters and some 300 members in the quake, but it continues to operate out of a tent in a camp, doing its best to protect women and children.
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