TOPICS > Health

Violence Against Women Among Challenges in Haiti

BY Talea Miller  January 18, 2011 at 3:35 PM EDT

Woman in Port-au-Prince tent camp. NewsHour photo.

Among the many hardships facing the more than one million Haitians still living in tent camps after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake is the threat of sexual violence.

While there are differing accounts of how widespread rape is in the camps of Port-au-Prince, most analysts agree that sexual violence in Haiti has been exacerbated by the conditions in tent camps.

Amnesty International reported this month that the risk of rape for women living in camps has increased dramatically over the past year. The organization consulted grassroots groups working with women on the ground and interviewed more than 50 victims.

“Women and girls are in a situation of extreme vulnerability [in the camps], especially the girls without the protective measures like school or a safe place to play,” Ducos said. The attackers, he said, are usually groups of young men roaming camps looking for victims.

But Sylvie van den Wildenberg with the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) said sexual violence in the camps has decreased since the early months after the quake with the implementation of security measures. Regular patrols by MINUSTAH and the Haitian police were put in place to reign in crime and more lighting in the camps was added.

“Sexual violence was already a structural problem in the society, that is what we found out from the testimonies of the women in the camp,” van den Wildenberg said. “Yes, it was exacerbated by the earthquake and the situation in the camps, but in the camps now it’s reduced and I would say the women in the camps now are better protected than some of the women in other areas.”

The number of rapes that have taken place in the camps is unknown – the new report does not include an estimate but says hundreds of cases have been reported–and data on sexual crimes prior to the earthquake is also sporadic, says Emmanuelle Schneider, spokesperson for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti.

However, Schneider acknowledged that patrols are not set up for all of the more than 1,100 camps in and around Port-au-Prince, and that camps that are more informal and not as well serviced by aid organizations could be more vulnerable.

Amnesty International called for beefing up and expanding the current security measures, as well as encouraging community involvement in cutting down the crimes and full prosecution of perpetrators.

Madre, an international women’s rights group based in the United States, said its sister organization in Haiti, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, has documented more than 300 rapes in 22 camps it has worked in since the quake.

Many women are scared to come forward for medical help or to pursue prosecution, said Madre’s human rights advocacy director Lisa Davis. But the organization has observed that attackers are becoming more brazen and are acting with impunity because so few cases end in a conviction.

“A woman was pulled into a car in broad daylight by five men, so we are starting to see women raped during the day on the streets in front of people,” Davis said.

One of the rape survivors Amnesty International interviewed, ‘Denise,” told researchers she would have preferred to die in the earthquake instead of experiencing what she did.

“On 10 June, I was sleeping under my tarp shelter when three men ripped it, came in and raped me,” she told researchers “These men came to the camp to do just that. A young girl from the camp was also raped.”

On Wednesday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued recommendations to the Haitian government to take immediate action to prevent sexual violence against women and girls in the camps. The petition was submitted by Madre and other women’s rights advocacy groups, who will now use the decision to advocate action by the United Nations.

Amnesty also hopes the United Nations will start to expand its response to the issue.

“What we are recommending is that the government and the U.N. system and other humanitarian organizations make prevention and response to sexual violence a priority as part of the humanitarian response,” Amnesty’s Ducos said. “There is no alternative for these women and girls”