One Year Later, Sexual Violence in Haiti Still Rampant


Read more of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the 2010 earthquake in Haiiti – in particular as it affects the health and lives of Haitian women and girls – written by journalists from Haiti and the U.S., health advocates and our own RH Reality Check community.

One year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed close to 250,000 people, women and girls living in the displacement camps remain as vulnerable to sexual violence as they did immediately following the disaster. There are still more than 1,000,000 Haitians living in appalling conditions in the 1,000 tent cities and camps. Disease and danger lurk everywhere. And while there is passing mention of the epidemic of sexual violence in some of the “One Year After” reports on Haiti, to a large degree this issue has been severely under-reported and under-examined by the media and the world’s governments. And despite immense amounts of economic aid promised to Haiti from the international community and the private and public sectors in the U.S., including from millions of Americans stepping up to donate upwards of $1.3 billion, much of the funding has yet to make it to the country or the groups on the ground who need it to make a concrete difference in the lives of Haitians. It means, simply, that the sexual violence is not only continuing for women and girls, it’s worsening.

In a report released last week, by Amnesty International, entitled Aftershocks: Women Speak Out About Sexual Violence (PDF) data shows that incidences of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls in the camps are widespread. Armed men “roam the camps after dark” and rape survivors visit the offices of a local women’s support group daily. In other words, nothing has changed.

According to MADRE, the global human rights organization at the forefront of monitoring and reporting on the epidemic of sexual violence against women and girls in Haiti:

Despite tireless efforts by Haitian women in the camps, incidents of rape continue to rise. Over the year, deteriorating conditions in the camps, a deadly cholera outbreak, political upheaval and persistent impunity for rape have actually increased insecurity and the risk of sexual violence for women.

In the first 150 days alone, following the earthquake, more than 250 cases of rape were reported in the various camps. MADRE’s recently released report, Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitian Women Continue to Fight Against Sexual Violence, notes:

“…as of January 6, 2011, KOFAVIV [Haitian women rape survivors’/advocates’ group] has documented over 640 cases of rape since the earthquake. Similarly, SOFA, a well-known Haitian Women’s Health Organization, documented 718 cases of gender-based violence against women and girls in its clinics from January to June 2010.” [emphasis mine]

Why is the epidemic of sexual violence only increasing? And what’s being done to stop it?

Lisa Davis, MADRE’s Human Rights Advocacy Director and co-author of the report, says:

“Unfortunately, the only difference between six months ago and today is that sexual violence in displacement camps is only now being recognized as an issue, but still not much is being done. Grassroots women’s organizations in Haiti remain committed to bringing this issue to light, and they have been working relentlessly to combat the epidemic of sexual violence. It is time for the international community to join with these women to find a solution to the women’s rights crisis in Haiti.”

It is the grassroots women’s organizations in Haiti that are responsible for most of the assistance thus far. There is evidence of some progress on the global front, however. The Inter-American Committee on Human Rights (IACHR) accepted a list of recommendations last week, filed in a petition by MADRE and a host of human rights advocates, to present to the Haitian government. The petition includes a request to both the Haitian government – and the international community at large – to take immediate measures to prevent violence against women and girls in Haiti. The recommendations include implementing security measures like installing lighting and ensuring more security guards throughout the camps.

The petition was written, in part, to advocate on behalf of 13 Haitian women and girls whose testimony of horrific sexual violence bores through its pages as a painful reminder of exactly what is at stake for all Haitian women and girls living in the camps.

It was filed, as well, to highlight, for both the Haitian government and the international community, how Haitian women’s rape advocates have operated with little to no support from their own government or the larger international aid community:

“One year after the earthquake in Haiti, sexual violence against women and girls continues to occur at shocking levels,” said Annie Gell, the BAI’s Rape Accountability and Prevention Project Coordinator. “Haitian grassroots groups and their partners have been working tirelessly and at great personal risk to protect and empower women and girls. However, the international community has largely failed to do its part despite its vast resources. We call on all actors in Haiti to work together to end gender-based violence in the country.”

Sadly, we know that gender-based violence is only one of many issues exacerbated by the earthquake and the lack of an effective response to Haitian women’s and girl’s needs. Haiti has had – long before the earthquake hit – the worst maternal mortality rates in the world. Tamara Kreinin [executive director of women and population for the United Nations Foundation], in an interview with the United Nation Foundation’s blog, UN Dispatch, says of the current situation:

“Haiti, pre-earthquake, was not a great place for women…Post-earthquake…we see tragic challenges. Gender-based violence and teenage pregnancy, yes. And we anticipate soon we’ll see higher rates of HIV and STDs…Over a million people are living in tent camps. Some of them are spontaneous tent camps…almost everywhere you look you still see tents sandwiched in between buildings in an organized fashion, in a park or cement playground, every which way in the medians of streets….Imagine women wanting to bathe themselves or just go to the bathroom. They’re walking and walking in darkness. We’re seeing both violence that’s just opportunity – someone just sees a young girl walking, as well as targeted violence – men who are watching girls for periods of time, identifying the girl or women they want to assault and going after her.”

Kreinin spent time on the ground in Haiti and says she was amazed that when asked what they wanted the most, the majority of Haitians she spoke with did not say housing (though, says Kreinin, that’s more likely because Haitians don’t believe housing will happen anytime soon). They all said “lighting.” The United Nations Foundation, through UNFPA, has invested in the provision of solar lights for the camps – to ensure a lighted pathway to latrines. In consultation with the women living in the camps who decide where they want the lights installed (taking into account the routes which must be traveled in order to reach the latrines, and where it’s darkest), UNFPA has provided the solar lights.

MADRE’s report is clear on this. Sexual violence is deterred by security and lighting in the camps. In a previous report, thirty camps were found to have “far lower rates” of rape when both of these were present. Moreover, as Kreinin notes, grassroots groups like KOFAVIV must be included in any coordinated response to combating and preventing sexual violence in the camps. KOFAVIV has been a key actor in efforts to protect, support, counsel and advocate for women and girls in the camps. There is more that must be done, though. The IACHR recommendations also state that the United Nations, Donor States and NGOs in Haiti, working with the Haitian government, must “ensure adequate and accessible medical care, an appropriate response to complaints of sexual violence,” and the assurance that instances of violence against women are investigated and prosecuted. It’s far from too much to ask. It’s what must be done – one year later.

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