Note: In the aftermath of the earthquake, women in Haiti have faced a formidable outbreak of sexual violence. Guest blogger Liesl Gerntholtz, Researcher at Human Rights Watch, interviewed a young rape survivor as part of an investigation into sexual and other violence against women in the country. This is part three of a series of guest posts.
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 continuing 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.
A Rape Victim’s Story
I met “Gentile” in an empty tent, 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 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 not 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.”
Women’s Safety Continues to be Compromised
During our mission, we were in 15 of the largest camps for displaced Haitians, and we documented a number of 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. There is no separation of facilities for women and men-and no lighting-so these are unsafe after dark.
Violence against women was a problem in Haiti long before the earthquake, with rape only recognized as a crime in 2005. However, much can be done to protect women from sexual violence during the reconstruction of Haiti. Aid agencies continue to take steps to address these concerns: highlighting the need for lighting and security in the camps, safe food distribution, private washing facilities and latrines, access to health services for women who are assaulted and raped.
As the work continues, it is 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.