Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

After the earthquake, protecting Haitian women and girls from violence

By Jennifer Bakody

ANSE-A-PITRE, Haiti, 29 March 2010 – The effects of the earthquake that struck Haiti some two and a half months ago have reverberated across the country. Both in and beyond the capital, Port-au-Prince, progress made in tackling long-standing human rights issues – including the problem of gender-based violence against women and girls – seems a distant memory.

In too many cases, the most vulnerable have been the victims of exploitation and abuse.

The small and isolated town of Anse-a-Pitre, located at Haiti’s most southern border crossing with the Dominican Republic, has suffered largely beneath the radar of the international community. Although the community’s modest, one-room houses and schools all remain standing, a population influx measuring in the thousands – combined with security pressures at the border – is breaking the back of families’ ability to cope.

Business in Anse-a-Pitre is anything but booming. To make matters worse, pre-existing aid and resources have been diverted to address post-quake needs elsewhere.

Few women and girls feel safe

Such dire conditions help to explain why five grassroots advocates travelled many miles recently for a chance to speak with UNICEF Haiti Gender-Based Violence Specialist Catherine Maternowska.

The six met in the backyard of small cement house located off a residential dirt road. Despite the importance they attached to this meeting, each of the three men and three women in attendance was patient and respectful.

Seated in the shade on a circle on wooden chairs, they spoke and listened in turn.

By the meeting’s end, the situation report was bleak: Like the capital’s overcrowded settlements for displaced people, the modest homes of host families in this rural region are under increasing duress. Daily life in the close quarters of a tent or one-room house has taken away any semblance of privacy. Come nightfall, poorly located latrines – or the complete lack thereof – require women and children to steal away to unlit areas. Few people feel safe.

“Since the earthquake, as the population here has increased, so have we seen an increase in cases of violence against women,” said Anse-a-Pitre Justice of the Peace Marc-Anglade Payoute. “The police and the justice system, we’re doing everything possible. We’re continuing to pursue arrests.”

Sexual violence is not inevitable

Ms. Maternowska first came to Haiti in the 1980s, working alongside local activists to advance women’s issues. She speaks fluent Creole and knows the issues.

For her, the problem isn’t new or surprising: Emergencies increase the vulnerability of girls and women to gender-based violence. She stresses, however, that such violence can be avoided. Local women’s, men’s and non-governmental organizations; the justice system; all UN actors; and the media all have crucial roles to play.

“Sexual violence is not inevitable,” says Ms. Maternowska. “Haiti’s women’s movement has worked long and hard to change archaic Haitian laws that put women and girls at a grave disadvantage from the day they are born. Today in Haiti, support groups are teaching both men and women how to prevent violence, as well as how to create safe spaces for their daughters.”

Preventing abuse, supporting survivors

In the aftermath of earthquake, UNICEF staff members have met with nearly a dozen groups in south-eastern Haiti, working to create an effective referral system for survivors of violence. Small plastic-coated referral cards, printed in Haitian Creole, instruct victims on where to go for medical care and support. The cards were developed by UNICEF, in collaboration with the Haitian Government, the International Rescue Committee, and UNFPA.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0361/Noorani
A girl braids a woman’s hair outside rows of makeshift shelters for Haitians displaced by the 12 January earthquake. Overcrowded conditions in homes and camps are increasing the danger of gender-based violence against women and girls.

“Information is key,” says Ms. Maternowska, “and placing that information in the hands of a survivor can save her life. The referral cards we’ve developed provide information on how and where to access essential medications to prevent pregnancy and HIV. And of course, the provision of timely information gives survivors access to full medical treatment, psycho-social support and justice.”

In partnership with NGOs and other UN agencies, UNICEF supports the Haitian Government’s push to include gender-based violence services as part of a comprehensive approach to women’s and girls’ health. Plans to develop dedicated health centres for women and girls are currently in the works in the areas hardest-hit by the earthquake – including Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Jacmel.

The partners’ goal is to expand these services to even the most remote corners of Haiti, including Anse-a-Pitre.

Safe spaces for women and girls

UNICEF is equally committed to the prevention of future violence through the establishment of child-friendly spaces, with activities designed to educate girls and boys about gender-based violence and help them develop life skills needed in the new and challenging camp settings. Working with an established local Haitian partner, Solidarity for Haitian Women, UNICEF has plans to create women-centered friendly spaces, as well.

Safe spaces for women and girls will address issues related to gender roles and violence through a locally produced curriculum based on gender-based violence prevention and basic rights. Group activities such as these provide the community-based psycho-social support that Haitian women and children need.

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