Eight months after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, having no home is still not the hardest thing to bear. Thousands of women living in makeshift camps in southern Haiti dare not speak about the sexual and domestic violence they are subjected to in the camps. Faced with being stigmatized by police and society, or with revenge and impunity for the perpetrators, they remain silent—and some say the situation is getting worse.
One of the most devastating earthquakes of our time left 3 million people homeless, deprived them of their loved ones, and forced them live in camps where they lack food, clean water, and basic necessities.
More than half of the 1.5 million Haitians in the temporary shelters are women and young girls. But despite being in the majority, they are still the most vulnerable and most easily taken advantage of. Lamercie Charles-Pierre, general coordinator of OFAVA, a Port-au-Prince-based organization working to protect the rights of Haitian women, says living conditions in the camps have gotten worse.
“Women are subject of violence and suffer from mental problems. Typhoid fever and malaria are widely spread. The lack of working opportunities makes things even harder for women to survive,” said Charles-Pierre by phone from Haiti.
Another organization, KOFAVIV, works with 33 organizations around the world to help women contact police and access medical care. Nearly 300 cases of sexual violence and 60 cases of domestic violence have been registered with KOFAVIV since January when the earthquake hit.
“Women and girls are forced into prostitution in order to obtain basic necessities like food, etc. They are raped on a regular basis by members of the camps committee, who are in charge of distribution of food supplies in the camps. These committees consist of men,” said Jocie Philistin, KOFAVIV Project Coordinator in a telephone interview from Haiti.
According to Diana Duarte, Media Coordinator of the New York-based women rights organization MADRE, rape is a constant threat to Haitian women in the camps.
“We have heard stories of women attacked in their tents or attacked as they walk to the bathrooms at night. Women who face these violations often do not have access to necessary medical services and are treated dismissively by the police,” says Duarte.
Now MADRE is appealing to the United Nations, the Haitian government, and major aid agencies to exert pressure to ensure that immediate measures are taken to improve security in the camps, such as through installing lighting.
Solving the problems faced by women in Haiti requires close collaboration between state agencies and aid organizations. Melanie Megevand, Protection Coordinator of the American Refugee Committee (ARC), is optimistic about the role of the government and believes it is prepared to deal with the problems.
Megevand says that the Ministry of Women's Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Health, and the national police are all prepared to deal with home violence, sexual abuse, or other forms of exploitation.
“The scale of the issue is huge and the coordination and collaboration need to be continuously dealt with. The question now is how to respond to the abuses on a wider scale and more effectively,” said Megevand by phone from Haiti.
So far ARC has provided shelter assistance to three camps with a total of 30,000 inhabitants.
ARC also works with men, offering training and education. “If men are not seen as essential actors in the community to keep women safe, the prevention of violence against women will be unsuccessful,” says Megevand. She reports that there has been a “small but steadily increasing number of men” seeking help at the women's centers.
Giordano Cossu, an investigative journalist from Italy who focuses on problems typically forgotten by the international media, sees a more complicated picture.
“The action of service is too slow and stays at the level of ideas. What Haitians see is that with all the money that has been donated, basic problems are not tackled, and the international aid organizations spend weeks discussing, most of the times with no Haitians present, what should be more appropriate to do, rather than implementing solutions quickly and on a large scale in all camps,” says Cossu.
Cossu runs the Solidar'IT project that aims to give voice to locals in Haiti as well as to show the reality of Haiti's reconstruction. From his observations, the problem would not go away even if by magic all tents turned into wooden huts. There are many other causes beyond basic housing that need to be addressed—the lack of lighting, families that have been separated, the lack of information about whom to contact for justice and help, the total lack of interest by the police to investigate the crimes, and of course, the male culture.
Cossu and his team of collaborators are watching the situation in Haiti filming every step of the process. He has found two groups in Haiti that are helping women speak from the heart about the hidden violence.
Marie Sofonie works for Ayiti SMS SOS, a project which allows victims or witnesses of abuse to send an SMS to a free number. Messages are then mapped geographically and classified based on the type of crime or help request, location, and so on.
Sofonie tells her own story:
“In the camp, the situation was really terrible; we were exposed to everything: sexual assaults, thefts, rapes, all that. After a week, people there began to take the habit, as there was no reply, they were not afraid anymore and they began to steal, rape, I was afraid it could happen to me, and I said to myself, I am going to stay in my house, whatever happens, die or live, I give up but I will not accept to be raped by some crooks. I was afraid to become BAD, because I don't think I would have let anybody do what he wanted to me.”
Charles-Pierre from OFAVA started a program called “Women: The Box of Grief” which consists of workshops that encourage women to share their experiences and find solutions to their problems.
Since many women are afraid to speak up, Charles-Pierre created what she called a “box of grief,” a box that she puts in the middle of the workshop room as a place where women can deposit their stories after writing them down. Every Friday she opens the box and reads out the stories to the group.
“The atmosphere gets rather tense, and face expressions reveal the concealed anguish. Small weeps and moans are heard during the reading of these terrible stories. In the audio portfolio that follows, everybody can listen to the stories and share in this hard but necessary moment of revelation,” writes Giordano Cossu on the website of Solidar'IT.
Here are three of the testimonies from the “box of grief,” which remain anonymous.
“It's a young girl who after the 12 January has faced not violence, but financial difficulties, and how can I say… domestic violence, because in the house it was her who did everything to find something to eat.”
“This is a young girl who received sexual violence from her own father. Every time she tried to say something, her father promised to kill her. She has come to live in the camp.”
“It's a young girl aged 16. She is an orphan, she has been abused sexually and so far she has not been allowed to go to the hospital. She wants help from us, to get over this rape problem.”
And after the therapy is finished, according to Haitian custom, everybody starts to sing and laugh joyfully, venting away and leaving behind everything bad.