Some 14 months after Haiti's earthquake, activists say there is an ongoing epidemic of rape and gender-based violence (GBV) in the country's more than 1,000 squalid displaced persons camps, where nearly a million people are still awaiting permanent housing.
According to Annie Gell, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux's coordinator of the Rape Accountability and Prevention Project in Port-au-Prince, "The lack of lighting, the lack of patrols, the inability of women to lock their doors" contribute to the "incredibly insecure situation for women and girls" in the camps.
She accused MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, of "generally (staying) on the perimetre of camps," instead of going into the areas where women's lives are actually at risk, especially at night.
According to a March 2011 survey conducted by the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law, "an alarming 14 percent of households surveyed reported that, since the earthquake, one or more members of their household had been victimised by rape or unwanted touching or both."
Marie Françoise Vital Metellus, a gender unit officer with MINUSTAH, told IPS the peacekeeping force has created a trained unit - the UNPOLs - to patrol in the camps and provide specialised assistance to women victims of GBV.
But she acknowledged that the number of camps is huge, and most of them are overcrowded. That makes the UNPOLs' work, along with the National Haitian Police's, particularly difficult.
"We're seeing more women coming forward to report rapes and GBV," Gell told IPS that adding, "a lot of people are moving out of camps because they're so insecure, so dangerous."
"Grassroots groups have the expertise of what needs to be done on the ground, because they live and work in the camps," Lisa Davis, human rights advocacy director with the women's group MADRE and an adjunct professor of law for the International Women's Human Rights Clinic at CUNY Law School, told IPS.
Among these groups is KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims), a Haitian organisation founded in 2004 by rape survivors to provide assistance to others, which recreated itself in the camps after the earthquake.
On Mar. 25, women activists from MADRE, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, CUNY School of Law and Women's Link Worldwide testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington about the severe problems in the camps.
Three Haitian women - Malya Appolon-Villard, Marie Eramithe Delva and Jocie Philistin – attended the hearing to convey the reality of life in the camps, a "nightmare", according to Gell.
But "their voices (of grassroots movements) are being excluded from the planning sessions," Davis told IPS.
She said that while the United Nations GBV cluster should bring together all the actors dealing with sexual violence in Haiti, "(it) is not working with the grassroots groups."
"We're (thus) hoping … that the commission will reinforce that the grassroots groups' voices must be included in planning sessions to end sexual violence," Gell said.
The decision the IACHR will take after all the hearings – likely in a week or two - is "binding on Haiti in a sense that Haiti is a member of the Organisation of American States (OAS), and the Commission is a body that interprets the treaties and laws" signed under the OAS, Gell explained to IPS.
But the government itself was crippled by the earthquake, and lacks the capacity to fully address the issue of gender- based violence. Despite the existence since 1994 of a Ministry of Women's Affairs and Women's Rights (MCFDF, Ministère à la Condition Féminine et aux Droits des Femmes), its programmes are weak due to a lack of resources, Vital Metellus of MINUSTAH told IPS.
She nevertheless stressed that "the state is the key actor", adding, "In its current state, it needs the support from women's groups and U.N. agencies."
As Gell noted, "It's not necessarily that they (the Haitian government) don't want to help women and girls, it's that they don't have the capacity or the will right now to do that."
The organisations hope that donor countries will provide more funding to target the GBV problem, Davis told IPS.
According to Gell, that requires "mak(ing) not only the government of Haiti but the world aware (of the) epidemic of violence against women and girls."
"(In order to) reinforce the capacity of the government's action to be effective in protecting women and girls," emphasised Gell, the organisations are using the petition and the hearings before the IACHR as a way to put pressure on the Haitian government and at the same time on the international community, particularly the donors.
She also stressed to IPS "the need for supporting domestic mechanisms for prosecution," since the attackers usually go unpunished.