Trigger warning: This post contains testimony from Haitian women and girls describing their rape or sexual assault.
My name is XXXX. I am a victim of the January 12 earthquake. I have survived the loss of my husband, three rapes (two since the earthquake), suicide attempts and threats on my life. I am living in the Champ de Mars camp in Port-au-Prince and live in constant fear that I will be raped or harmed again, but I have nowhere else to go. The police provide no protection.
For several months, I did not have a tent, just a tarp.
— Declaration of a woman who was a victim of rape, included in a petition on behalf of Haitian women and girls living in the post-earthquake IDP camps
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Press freedoms are under attack now, more than ever.
Last week, a group of human rights advocates and attorneys fighting for the well-being and safety of Haitian women and girls in the aftermath of January’s earthquake, said enough is enough.
The group filed a petition (PDF) with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of Haitian women and girls (including the woman whose testimony you see above and others whose testimony you will see throughout this post, living in displacement camps), imploring the agency to take urgent action to confront an epidemic of sexual violence in the camps. The petition comes after months and months of waiting for aid from the United States and other countries, as well as funding from international aid agencies – most of which has yet to arrive. The delay is leaving Haitian women and girls to fend for themselves in extremely dangerous conditions.
The petition calls for precautionary measures to be taken specifically “on behalf of 13 Haitian women and girls, as well as the Haitian women and girls who have experienced human rights violations of sexual violence or are under the threat of sexual violence, living in 22 Port-au-Prince internally displaced persons (IDP) camps…”. It also requests the IACHR to require that the government of Haiti and the international community take immediate action to ensure security and install lighting in the camps.
My name is XXX. I am 19 years old and a victim of Haiti’s earthquake…Now I live in a camp called Mosolee near the center of Port au Prince. I no longer have the chance to go to school.
On July 26, 2010, I went to use the toilet at night. The toilet is located on the outside of the camp and it is very dark. Three men were hiding inside the toilet. When I opened the door, they grabbed me and all of them raped me.
After the rape I told a friend of mine who is a police officer…what happened. He told me there was nothing the police could do…The police provide no protection.
A perfect storm of conditions have created an alarming environment for Haitian women and girls who survived the earthquake, only to find themselves living in fear of the sexual violence which has become widespread in the displacement camps. Grassroots groups of women advocates have banded together to offer security, protection and support to their fellow females in the camps as they face a lack of security, insufficient lighting, and unmet housing needs.
One of these groups, on the ground, is KOFAVIV. The nonprofit organization was formed in 2004 by poor women living in the Haitian city of Port-au-Prince and who were raped during the early 1990s military dictatorship.
The women of KOFAVIV are guiding women and girls along poorly lit paths in the camps to the bathrooms at night, protecting women and girls living under tarps or in tents with absolutely no means to protect themselves, and distributing basic hygiene kits and whistles sent from sister groups in the United States. Some members of KOFAVIV have faced death threats for helping the women and girls in the camps.
My name is XXXX. I am 30 years old and a KOFAVIV agent working in the Place St. Anne camp. I have twice been a victim of sexual violence and have now received threats to my life for helping other victims.
KOFAVIV documented the current security situation in the 22 camps where rape cases have been reported, noting which camps have improved the lighting and security and which ones have implemented other measures to prevent further sexual violence. Most camps have no police presence at all, according to the report. Others have implemented a security presence during the day – but not at night. Seventeen of the camps have no – or inadequate lighting. Without “informal groups” banding together, most residents – women, children, men – have no formal protection. Is this the best the global community can do?
Research reveals that after disasters or conflicts, women and girls living in IDP camps are especially vulnerable to sexual violence. Though KOFAVIV and individual advocates and groups are doing all they can to protect women and girls in the camps, as well as to raise awareness of the rape and sexual violence occurring, the lack of a coordinated international effort to address the issue has kept an effective response at bay. As well, these groups were not and continue not to be included in discussions related to their own country’s reconstruction – a significantly overlooked opportunity to ensure the money and resources make it exactly where they need to be.
Lisa Davis, MADRE Human Rights Advocacy Director and professor of law at CUNY School of Law, and one of the advocates petitioning the IACHR said:
“Women in the camps in Haiti have mobilized to create immediate strategies to combat violence, such as establishing night watch patrols and distributing whistles to deter rapists. But these initiatives are no substitute for governments meeting their obligations to protect women’s human rights. With the capacity of the Haitian government badly undermined even before the earthquake, the international community must join together in seeking a solution to the crisis of women’s human rights in Haiti.”
In May and June of this year, Davis and fellow attorneys and activists, along with a women’s health specialist formed a delegation to Haiti to investigate reports of rape in the IDP camps. The delegation interviewed over 50 women who had survived rape or attempted rape, in the camps, after the earthquake. These women were referred to delegates by KOFAVIV and fellow grassroots Haitian women’s rights organizations, FAVILEK and KONAMAVID, some members of which live in the camps.
I did not go to the doctor [after the rape in the camp] until the group KONAMAVID found me and brought me to a law office four days after the rape. A woman at the law office accompanied me to the doctor and I received some treatment. Without this group, I would not have known where to go.
These attorneys and advocates have interviewed over 300 victims of sexual violence in the 22 IDP camps named in the petition and conducted numerous site visits to the camps, to check on whether progress has been made in implementing safety measures. Unfortunately, what they found was that these camps still experienced high rates of rape and sexual violence because of the ongoing lack of adequate security and lighting.
According to the petition, prior to the earthquake some gains were being made, in Haiti. In 2006, a National Plan to Combat Violence Against Women was adopted. With this change came a change to the Haitian rape law to recognize rape as criminal where it had previously been called an “offense against morals.” The earthquake in January shook Haiti to its core and this progress has not only since been eroded, notes the petition, the violence has been exacerbated. With the violence – or threats of violence – come immense physical and psychological impacts, which reveal themselves in many ways. Without proper medical care or assessments, women are at risk for contracting a variety of STDs, for which they are not able to receive treatment. The physical trauma from rape can be immense, and women have presented, when they are seen, with “severe ob/gyn pathology,” rashes, high blood pressure, malnourishment and more. Women, when interviewed, have been assessed with overwhelming anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, memory loss, difficulty sleeping, major depression, and suicidal tendencies.
Recently, the head of the U.S. stabilization mission in Haiti, Edmund Mulet, announced an “anti-rape” campaign to raise awareness of the ways in which to prevent and respond to sexual violence. However, for girls and women living in the camps who face immediate and ongoing threats to their safety this campaign will have little effect.
Other groups signing onto the petition include the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, Women’s Link Worldwide and the Center for Constitutional Rights, with the support of Haitian grassroots organizations including KOFAVIV, FAVILEK and KONAMAVID.