Rape has always been a major problem in Haiti. But since January’s earthquake, women and girls have become easy targets. In the lawless environment of the tent camps, no one is safe from the gangs who prey on vulnerable victims.
It’s a daily occurrence in every camp in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. Aid workers are raising the alarm about the large-scale sexual violence against women and girls. The victims are often those whose husband, father or brothers perished in the earthquake and who have been left unprotected in the tent camps.
Prisoners roaming free
Everyone agrees on the identity of the rapists, says Amélie Gauthier, who has spent years conducting research among the women of Haiti:
"The earthquake destroyed the prisons. Between 3,000 and 5,000 inmates were suddenly free to roam the streets. All of the gangs have regrouped in Port-au-Prince. And they are the ones perpetrating this sexual violence against women."
Seized after dark
The stories of the victims are very similar: they are seized after dark, at the latrines, in the camp’s narrow streets or even in their own tents. No one is safe. The youngest victim is a two-year-old girl, now being taken care of at a medical post.
Most of the cases involve gang rape, say the victims who have told their story through Human Rights Watch. In addition to unwanted pregnancy and venereal disease, the women also live in fear of being infected with HIV. Haiti has the highest rate of HIV infection in the Caribbean.
Researcher Amélie Gauthier reveals that sexual abuse is also taking place in exchange for food or shelter. The victims are often too frightened or ashamed to report the culprits to the authorities:
"Sex in exchange for food is a new phenomenon. It is a disastrous development for Haitian women. They feel defiled, humiliated. Many of them have lost their husband, their home and their community. They are completely marginalised. And of course they have children to take care of. Their situation has become far more precarious since the earthquake. They have to do everything they can just to survive."
The rapists have little to fear from the UN troops deployed to maintain order. When Human Rights Watch issued its first warning about sexual violence in a camp located on playing fields near the capital, it took three weeks before the first patrol vehicle was sighted. It drove across the only accessible road through the camp – home to 47,000 earthquake victims – with its windows and doors firmly closed.
But there at least a glimmer of hope. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the camp last Sunday, and promised that things would improve. He announced that a post would be set up inside the camp with female UN personnel and police officers.