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03.09.10

Haiti's Rape Crisis

As Obama meets with Haiti's president, the aftershocks of the Port-au-Prince earthquake are hitting especially hard among displaced women, who face an outbreak of sexual violence. Liesl Gerntholtz on the awful toll—and how to help.

Driving through Port-au-Prince’s Parc Jean Marie Vincent camp, the first thing I notice is how massive and congested it is. After that, the smell and the heat hit me. I had come to the camp to interview a young rape survivor, as part of a Human Rights Watch mission to Haiti to investigate sexual and other violence against women in the aftermath of the earthquake. Sexual violence often increases in emergencies, when normal structures have broken down and women struggle to meet basic needs for food, water, shelter and hygiene.

As one emergency worker told me, referring to sexual violence, “You can just feel it when you walk into those camps.”

In Parc Jean Marie Vincent, some 27,000 people had crammed themselves and their meager belongings into what was formerly a concrete sports park. Squalid shelters are built of sheets and other pieces of material slung over sticks and anything else that might hold them up. I wondered where women washed, changed sanitary pads and fed their babies, as these shelters so obviously provided no privacy. As we parked our car, my first question at least was answered: a young woman, naked from the waist down was trying to wash herself. I was conscious of many young men watching her.

I met “Gentile” in an empty tent that had been left at the camp by one of the humanitarian groups, giving us at least a little privacy. We sat in the oppressive heat, and she quietly described how, a few nights earlier, she had been grabbed by five men and taken into a nearby house. There she was raped, forced to perform oral sex, and brutally beaten. When she finally managed to escape, the men chased her and beat her in the street, where a man finally rescued her and took her to his home. Later that morning, she returned to the streets, as she literally has nowhere else to go.

Gentile, whose name I have changed for her protection, was lucky, if that is the right word, to meet up with a human rights advocate whose home had also been destroyed in the earthquake and who was now living in the camp. He took her to a hospital, where she received some medical treatment. She was not sure what medication she had been given, as the doctor who helped her did not speak Creole and there was no one to translate what he was saying. As Gentile told me, “I really need somebody to be with me in this suffering … I am not sleeping … I feel weak.”

On top of the catastrophic earthquake that has left more than 200,000 dead and 1.2 million people homeless, the sexual violence felt to me like an unimaginable betrayal of humanity. But once you’ve seen the camps for Haiti’s displaced, it is easy to understand how the abuse of women and girls can happen.

During our mission, we were in 15 of the largest camps for displaced Haitians, and we documented four gang rapes in Parc Jean Marie Vincent camp alone. The camps are unsafe places, and many women live with strangers, having lost contact with family members and friends. Their access to food and water is compromised. They bathe and wash children in public places. Although some latrines have been provided, there is no separation of facilities for women and men—and no lighting—so these are unsafe after dark. Three weeks after the quake, Parc Jean Marie Vincent camp had not received any food, contributing to an atmosphere of anger and anxiety. There were no police or U.N. forces patrolling. The camp is on open ground, allowing anyone to enter the camp and the shelters.

As one emergency worker told me, referring to sexual violence, “You can just feel it when you walk into those camps.”

Violence against women was a problem in Haiti long before the earthquake, with rape only recognized as a crime in 2005. The earthquake has only increased the dangers for women and girls, though, and they will live with that increased risk for many months, if not years, to come. No reliable data is available, in part because the quake has disrupted existing reporting and care systems for rape and gender-based violence, undermining the capacity of local organizations to help women and delaying access to essential medical and mental health services. New reports from Human Rights Watch and Refugees International leave little doubt that the international response to the need to protect women and girls remains inadequate.

However, much can be done to protect women from sexual violence, both immediately and during the coming reconstruction of Haiti. Aid agencies have already taken some steps to address these concerns: highlighting the need for lighting and security in the camps, safe food distribution, private washing facilities and latrines, and access to health services for women who are assaulted and raped. All of these measures, if adequately implemented, will contribute to making women safer.

In the longer term, we need to make sure that Haitian women’s rights are protected in the reconstruction phase. After security needs are met, it will be most essential to re-build the capacity of local women’s organizations that can lead the struggle against violence. Many have lost key activists and other staff members, and the remaining members have personal losses and their offices have been destroyed. Strengthening these groups and individuals will be key to protecting Haitian women and girls during rebuilding.

While we were in Haiti, Human Rights Watch’s top objective was to press for greater safety for women and girls in the camps. This week we were advised by the UN mission in Haiti that at last there will be regular security patrols at camp Parc Jean Vincent. I hope that this means that Gentile and the thousands of women and girls in the camp will sleep a little better tonight.

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Liesl Gerntholtz, the director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, has just returned from a research mission to Haiti.