In a combined effort to get vital information out to the public covering ongoing conditions for women and girls' safety in Haiti on the second anniversary of the crisis that hit the region causing over 608,000 people to become homeless, human rights advocacy group for women – MADRE – has teamed up with on-the-ground legal experts and women's advocates in Haiti to release a new report, “Struggling to Survive – Sexual Exploitation of Displaced Women and Girls in Port au Prince, Haiti.”
According to numbers reported by the IFRC – International Federation of Red Cross, nearly half a million people are still living in tent cities in Haiti today; a situation that marks women and girls as ‘compromised' victims in a continuing crisis of violence that plagues camps that are set as the only homes for those who were forced to leave crumbling structures following the earthquake.
Recent interviews conducted with displaced girls and women, ranging from 13 to 30-year old girls and women who have been impacted by hardship and violence in the camps following the devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake, makes up some of the most compelling findings in the report.
“Women and girls in Haiti's dangerous displacement camps are still routinely targeted with sexual violence. Vulnerability to rape is the result of conditions in the camps that have barely improved since the earthquake,” said Ms. Yifat Susskind, MADRE ExecutiveDirector, in a recent one-on-one interview with WNN – Women News Network. “The dangers stem from lack of lighting, lack of security, lack of shelter and the fact that family and social networks that once offered protection were destroyed in the disaster. Underlying all of these conditions is life-threatening discrimination of women that results in rape and sexual abuse,” she continued.
Teaming up with the release of the report is the International Women's Human Rights Clinic at CUNY School of Law, the UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, NYU Global Justice Clinic under the guidance of local Haitian women's advocates KOFAVIV – The Commission of Women Victims for Victims in Haiti, along with MADRE.
The findings are overwhelming and eye-opening. Following the “wake of the earthquake , Haiti experienced an alarming increase in gender-based violence and an increase in sexual exploitation, particularly of those living in IDP camps.”
“A social science researcher has recently found a staggering twenty-two percent of IDPs and two percent of general community members have been victims of sexual assault [in Port-au-Prince],” continues the report.
The combined effort by advocacy agencies outlines some of the causes to why women and girls displaced in Haiti have suffered from violence under impunity. Extreme poverty that existed before and after the massive destruction of homes during the earthquake is a large contributing factor. To investigate the problems of sexual exploitation in Haiti, “Struggling to Survive,” attempts to answer the question: How did conditions on the ground grow into such large crisis conditions so quickly for women and girls.
“Haiti has signed many international treaties but the government has not been respecting them. It's almost as if these treaties were stuffed into drawers and forgotten,” said KOFAVIV co-founder and sexual assault survivor, Earamithe Delva. “But through our advocacy work, we want to put these treaties back on the table, get the discussion going around them so that all the protections of women and girls can be applied.”
Through interviews with those who suffered inside the camps the report documents how women and girls tried to survive as local Haitian officials did not ‘do enough' immediately to stop sexual attacks where knowledge of nightly rapes was the norm. It also highlights the conditions of widespread sexual exploitation – known as survival sex – in the camps.
“Survival sex” is defined here as the exchange of sex in circumstances where those exchanging sex for survival lack other options,” outlines the report. Survival sex is something which forced on girls and women who are in extreme compromised positions where they began to have sex in exchange for food, favours, money or protection from danger, especially from even greater violence in the camps in Port-au-Prince.
Sexual exploitation in times of crisis is not a new phenomenon in any part of the globe, “Struggling to Survive” highlights human rights restrictions and vulnerability of women and girls who have worked through severe natural disaster to survive. It also explores any solution that can be found now among the rubble.
“Women and girls are vulnerable at all phases of conflict or natural disasters,” said the UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund in 2002 programme brief.
In absence of proper security patrols in the IDP camps crisis in the Port-au-Prince accelerated as violence, rape and child prostitution became what the report terms as “rampant.” And the problems aren't going away.
“GBV [Gender Based Violence] is happening in the camps and around the country; young girls are getting raped, getting pregnant and having children at a very young age. There has been violence against pregnant women as well. If there is a better economic situation for women, there will be less GBV…. Once we change the socio-economic situation of women, we will be able to see a reduction in GBV,” said Haiti's Minister of Women's Affairs and Women's Rights at a recent December 16 conference in Port-au-Prince.
“…the research team focused on the practice of survival sex: that is, situations in which a person has exchanged sex to obtain money, water, food, housing, jobs, education, or any other resource that they or their family needed to survive. Research into this phenomenon was focused on youth between the ages of 13 and 22 years of age and on young women under 33, since they are reportedly the populations most at risk for survival sex,” says the report describing mechanisms used to gather information.
“Displaced women and girls are being forced by circumstance into survival sex. It is an epidemic, but one that has gotten little attention from the Haitian government or international community,” says KOFAVIV's co-founder Earamithe Delva.
With the latest on Haiti, some things have improved to help conditions for women in girls in the camps, but the work to provide complete safety is still far away with a long uphill climb.
Without the work of dedicated human rights and women's agencies inside Haiti much of the partial progress that has been made to protect and offer aid to women and girls would not exist today.
“Haitian women have been courageous in demanding an end to this violence. Working with MADRE and other partners, they have generated some positive results, including increased awareness on the part of the Haitian government and the international community,” continued Susskind.
“A new draft law addressing violence against women holds some promise for combating rape more effectively, but other trends are more negative,” adds MADRE's executive director Susskind. “As aid agencies begin to pull out of Haiti, there are actually fewer resources in some of the hardest hit areas. Women in the camps are working hard to protect themselves and improve conditions, but they still need support from people around the world.”
For more information on this topic read the entire new report: “Struggling to Survive – Sexual Exploitation of Displaced Women and Girls in Port au Prince, Haiti.”