By Anastasia Moloney, Reuters AlertNet
BOGOTA – Some are ambushed as they return from washing themselves or in their flimsy tents in the middle of the night, others are confronted by two or three attackers at a time.
Local and international aid groups have reported a sharp increase in rape and sexual assault against Haitian women still living in makeshift camps sprawled across the capital following the earthquake in January.
But the Haitian government and international aid community are failing to tackle rising incidences of sexual violence in a country where, even before the disaster, sexual abuse was pervasive, rights activists say.
“Women are scared and they live in fear. Women told us how their tents were ripped open with knives and that they were also attacked on the way to or from the bathroom,” said Lisa Davis, human rights advocacy director at women’s rights group MADRE.
Last month, MADRE released a report that said rapes in the camps were dramatically under-reported, and that the Haitian government and international community “have not effectively deployed their resources to provide adequate protection”.
“Though official statistics are lacking, there is overwhelming evidence that the problem of gender-based violence, especially the rape of women and girls, has dramatically escalated in Haiti since the earthquake,” the joint report said. “Our bodies are still trembling: Haitian women’s fight against rape” was compiled with the TransAfrica Forum rights group, the Universities of Minnesota and Virginia law schools and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH).
FEAR AND STIGMA
The medical charity, Doctors without Borders, treated 212 patients for sexual violence during the five months following the earthquake while Kofaviv, a Haitian grassroots women’s group, reported 230 rapes in 15 of the capital’s camps in the first two months after the disaster.
But the real figure is thought to be much higher, campaigners say, because many victims are too afraid of the stigma to tell the authorities about their attacks. Few women have faith in the police to hunt down perpetrators.
Many women report being raped by two or more men, almost always armed and at night.
Rights groups point to poor or non-existent lighting, overcrowding, few separate washing areas for women, and little police presence as the reasons behind the rising levels of sexual violence in the capital’s estimated 500 camps.
“Some camps have 5,000 people living in tents on top of each other and women sometimes have to live with strangers in the same tent,” Davis said.
In June, around 100 Bangladeshi policewomen arrived in the Caribbean nation — as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH — to help with community policing and deal with sexual violence in several of the biggest camps.
But such initiatives are not enough, say rights groups that are urging the Haitian government to train more police to deal with sexual violence, increase the number of female officers in its police force, and investigate crimes.
At night, it is rare to find local and or MINUSTAH police patrolling inside the camps, activists say.
“By the middle of February, MINUSTAH had stopped patrolling at night. The local police have told us that they have felt afraid to go into the camps at night,” said Davis, who recently returned from a trip to Haiti.
For many rape survivors, local grassroots organisations provide one of the few sources of solace available in the camps.
Local women’s group Kofaviv provides counselling and organises escorts for women going to the bathroom. They and other aid agencies have distributed whistles, flashlights and more than 100,000 solar lanterns in some of the largest camps to improve security.
Some camps have organised their own informal security patrols, involving groups of around seven volunteers working on 12-hour shifts.
The Haitian government, which is struggling to rebuild and provide safe shelter to over one million homeless Haitians still living in tents and tarps, is both unwilling and unable to respond, rights groups say.
“It’s a combination of the lack of political will to address the issue and the lack of government capacity, including funds and resources, to deal with the problem,” said Davis.
She said the national emergency crime number was not working properly and the national rape hotline has yet to be set up.
Ingrained social attitudes about sexual violence in Haiti have made tackling the problem only more difficult. Some Haitians believe that sexual violence occurs because women are promiscuous. Rape was criminalised only in 2005.
“These stereotypes are ridiculous,” said Davis. “We ran into one local government official who believes this. It’s infuriating and ties back to Haiti’s blame women culture.”
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