This month, Port-au-Prince hailed Michel Martelly as he took office as president, trumpeting new hope for his disaster-stricken country. Elsewhere in the Haitian capital, hope was stifled in the smothered screams of women and girls.
More than a year after a massive earthquake sent the city crumbling to the ground, the chaos continues to reverberate in refugee camps through a wave of systematic sexual violence. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has reported widespread rape and sexual violence against women. The IOM notes that rising reports of sexual violence may be “linked to a growing trust between survivors and the police and service providers,” but safety protections for women and girls are still desperately lacking. And the primary problem remains that, nearly one year and a half after disaster struck, some 680,000 people still languish in squalid encampments.
Behind each assault is a swelling humanitarian crisis that has bred violence, fear and desperation. Lacking infrastructure and electricity, Haiti’s camps for displaced residents are a seedbed for social instability, and by extension, sexual assault and violence.
The advocacy organization MADRE, working with the local NGO KOFAVIV, has investigated and documented the brutalization of women since the earthquake. In one documented case, a group of men abducted a woman, gang raped her, choked her until she opened her mouth and “bit off her tongue.” Last July, a woman was reportedly attacked when she went out to use the bathroom at night. Countless cases of rape go unreported, and a precious few will ever be investigated or prosecuted, due to unresponsive and ineffective law enforcement. Rape was not officially a crime in Haiti until 2005.
Patterns of rape are a measure of a society’s inability to protect its most vulnerable. MADRE’s report explains the context of these attacks:
In the wake of disaster, women generally have less access to resources and are excluded from decision-making. This discrimination makes women and girls more vulnerable to the impact of disasters, including the specific conditions that give rise to sexual violence. Disproportionate vulnerability in times of disaster also exacerbates the consequences of sexual violence, such as disease, disability and depression. Women and girls are put at increased risk of rape by the collapse of social infrastructures, the erosion of family and community networks, inequitable access to social services, absence of law and order, lack of secure housing or safe neighborhoods and dependence resulting from economic dislocation.
The trauma that Haitian women have suffered has had the additional corrosive impact of marginalizing them further through stigma and terror—at a time that Haiti needs women’s voices more than ever to restore civil society and help guide the fractious recovery effort.
As Yifat Suskind, executive director of MADRE told me:
Our partners have told us that women who go to the police after an attack are afforded no privacy and are often blamed for the attacks. Women are told that they need medical certificates to prove that they have been raped, but they are made to wait hours or days before a doctor will see them at one of the overburdened hospitals. Unable to find another option, they are made to return to the camps and live alongside the attacker who raped them. Each of these dangers compounds the initial trauma of the attack.
In this climate, it’s not surprising that along with rape, the problem of child trafficking has intensified as well, according to the IOM:
Since January this year, IOM has identified close to 400 cases of trafficked children living in the displacement camps in extreme poverty, with about 50 percent of them having suffered physical and sexual abuse by the time they were rescued.
Martelly promised a turnaround at recent conference of civil society groups and officials, reports the charity SOS Children’s Village. He talked about ensuring that women agents would be posted at camps to facilitate the reporting of rapes. The majority party leader Joseph Lambert pledged to pass legislation to curb sexual violence.
So Haiti’s new government may finally be ready to confront the issue as the recovery sputters forward. But for the women who have to sleep in the camps tonight, their best hope is collective security, organizing themselves to keep watch over each other when no one else will. International donors have begun pumping in more resources for simple security measures, such as better lighting in public spaces, as well as grassroots safety training to help women stay out of threatening situations.
It’s too easy to frame rape in Haiti as a singular epidemic, reflecting a ravaged country that has come unhinged. Yet gender-based violence has afflicted communities around the world, particularly in war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 1,100 women are raped every day by some estimates. As some critics have pointed out, the reductive “cultural” explanations for systematic rapes in these situations don’t capture the full sweep of culpability. Rape is both a symptom and a cause of social devastation, which pervades any environment where extremes of power and subjugation have shattered the whole social structure, from the rule of law to the sovereignty of women’s bodies.
If there are social patterns that drive sexual violence, they often trace back to the impunity and indifference of those who bear witness and avert their eyes, and this happens not just in the camps or on the battlefield but in the media and our minds. Rape makes headlines when the assailants are political celebrities, not when the victims are nameless and faceless. Rape evokes our pity for the developing world while numbing us to its seemingly intractable “savagery.” Haiti’s crisis isn’t merely rape but the grotesque banality surrounding violence in Port-au-Prince, the fatigue that settles in the wake of tragedy.