By Kinal M. Patel, Virginia Law Weekly
On Monday, student organizations hosted “Strategies for Change in Haiti: Tackling the Challenges of Gender Based Violence in Post-Earthquake Haiti,” a talk featuring Tamara R. Brown, Eramithe Delva, and Prof. Deena Hurwitz. The three speakers discussed the regularity and increased frequency of gender-based violence and rape against women and girls in post-earthquake Haiti.
Haiti is no stranger to gender-based violence. During the 1990s, the Cedras government used rape and other forms of gender-based violence as a tool to ward off support for democratic change. Following the departure of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, Amnesty International reported that the interim government engaged in gender-based violence, and rape again became a political tool to punish women believed to have supported democratic change. A mortality study conducted in Port-au-Prince, published in The Lancet, concluded that political actors perpetrated 12 percent of the 35,000 identified rapes between March 2004 and December 2006 where victims actually identified the rapist.
The Haitian government itself began to take measures to tackle the crisis beginning in 2003, when the government launched a task force to increase coordination between various governmental offices in order to develop and implement a national solution. By 2005, Haiti realized this goal and implemented a national strategy, effective from 2006 to 2011.
The earthquake of Jan. 12, crippled Haiti’s government, and the earthquake’s aftermath has consumed government resources. It also threw hundreds of thousands of Haiti’s population into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and destroyed support networks and livelihoods. Food and water are not guaranteed. Lighting, safety, sanitation, and the rule of law are practically non-existent. This insecurity has bred gender-based violence, both through transactional sex (food in exchange for sex) and rape.
A recent report by the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) found that women and girls in displacement camps are vulnerable to gender-based violence, including rape. Whereas before the earthquake women and girls could rely on family networks and simple amenities such as lighting to ward off assailants, now they face a different reality living in displacement camps. The IJDH interviewed residents of IDP camps in Port-au-Prince and discovered that the camps are overcrowded, lack security, and lack the safety net provided by small communities. Women and girls often sleep on the ground under little more than a blanket and bathe publically in front of men and boys. The IJDH reports that a majority of those interviewed have been raped. Assailants are often armed, and the rapes occur primarily at night.
In addition to the loss of government resources, the lack of a police presence in the camps and around the country is a contributory factor to the current crisis facing women and girls in Haiti. As of April, Amnesty International reported there was one police officer for every 3,981 people. In June, Bangladesh sent an all-female regiment to patrol some of the camps. However, the IJDH reports that camp residents continue to report unguarded nights.
The speakers jointly urged more international attention and action to the issue. Before the IJDH released its report, most international organizations denied the existence of this crisis.
The Black Law Students Association is planning a trip to the recovering nation in January to investigate gender-based violence following the earthquake. Eight law students plan to participate and their findings will be contributed to the Human Rights Clinic for assessment during the spring semester.
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