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Haitian Women Face Violence in the Camps

March 25, 2010

Even before disaster struck in January, Haiti was a dangerous place to be a woman.  As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, women were already marginalized in education, income, health and political participation.  After the earthquake hit and chaos reigned, these disparities were even more compounded. One particular problem, out of many, that women have been facing is heightened sexual violence. Even before the earthquake, rape was a huge issue. It was only recognized as a crime in 2005. Before then it was considered more of an honor crime that was settled between the two families, if reported at all, and tended to be settled with a monetary payment to the victim’s family, compensating more for the stealing of virginity than anything else. Rape ran rampant as a secular violent crime, a tool for political warfare or in exchange for rent or job security. Even now that it is illegal, many rape cases are ignored, forgotten or prosecuted at an alarmingly low rate. It was estimated that at least 72% of Haitian women had been raped at least once.

It’s widely known that sexual violence often increases in the wake of emergencies, and Haiti is no exception. When normal societal structures have been broken and people are struggling to meet the most basic of needs, women are often targeted to bear the brunt of men’s anger. With 1.2 million people displaced by the near leveling of the country, shelters are packed and ill-equipped, leading to inevitable violence. Women, of course, are the most vulnerable. They are forced to live with strangers, their access to food and water is compromised, they need to bathe in public places and the latrines are not separated by sex and don’t have lighting.  Prisons have collapsed, sending thousands of criminals loose. Many policemen have died and there are only a few forces patrolling. There are no statistics available about just how bad the situation is, but reports are streaming in and it is obvious that this is a crisis in the aftermath of a crisis.

Along with the physical dangers, women face huge blows to their morale. The earthquake destroyed hospitals, schools for girls and the handful of women’s rights organizations that were fighting for them. Not only were their families, friends and support groups killed, but the most respected and loved feminist leaders were killed as well. Myriam Merlet was the head of the government’s Ministry of Women and was making great strides in protecting women against sexual violence. It was she that is credited most with the illegalization of rape in 2005. She also brought The Vagina Monologues to Haiti. One of her partners, Magalie Marcelin was also killed. A lawyer and an actress, she created the Kay Fanm, an organization that deals with domestic violence and offers services and shelter to women in need. It also makes microcredits available to women trying to create financial solidarity. Their absence leaves a spiritual vulnerability to women, without their leaders and role models to turn to and count on.

Yet, despite everything, there is reason for optimism in Haiti’s camps. Women’s rights organizations around the world thinks the disaster can be looked at as a clean slate, providing opportunities to rebuild a nation that is more protective of its women.  Concerning their immediate needs, aid agencies are already taking steps specifically addressing the needs of women, like emphasizing the need for lighting and security in the camps, safe food distribution, private washing facilities and access to health services for those who have been assaulted. There is the hope that women will step up to leadership roles and take action in creating a society that benefits them. It will be a slow path to recovery, but this could be a chance for Haiti to become a place where a woman can feel safe walking around her neighborhood.

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