Haitian Women Become Crime Targets After Quake

Paisley Dodds, Washington Post, February 6, 2010

Bernice Chamblain keeps a machete under her frayed mattress to ward off sexual predators and one leg wrapped around a bag of rice to stop nighttime thieves from stealing her daughters’ food.

She’s barely slept since Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake Jan. 12 forced her and other homeless women and children into tent camps, where they are easy targets for gangs of men.

Women have always had it bad in Haiti. Now things are worse.

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Reports of attacks are increasing: Women are robbed of coupons needed to obtain food at distribution points. Others relay rumors of rape and sexual intimidation at the outdoor camps, now home to more than a half million earthquake victims.

A curtain of darkness drops on most of the encampments at night. Only flickering candles or the glow of cell phones provide light. Families huddle under plastic tarps because there aren’t enough tents. With no showers and scant sanitation, men often lurk around places where women or young girls bathe out of buckets. Clusters of teenage girls sleep in the open streets while others wander the camps alone.

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Women who lined up for food before dawn Saturday said they were attacked by knife-wielding men who stole their coupons.

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Aid organizations set up women-only distribution schemes because they trust the primary caregivers to get that food to extended family, not resell it.

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Aid workers say they’ve been staging elaborate decoy operations to draw men to one area while food coupons are given to women in another. Each of the 16 daily distributions throughout Port-au-Prince presents its own security challenges, Montouroy said.

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Even if the women successfully make it back to the camps with their 55-pound (25-kilogram) bags of rice, that doesn’t mean their worries are over. Some camps are even providing special protection for women, with tents where they can receive trauma counseling or be alone to breast-feed and care for young children.

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Women have long been second-class citizens in Haiti.

According to the United Nations, the Haitian Constitution does not specifically prohibit sexual discrimination. Under Haitian law, the minimum legal age for marriage is 15 years for women and 18 years for men, and early marriage is common. A 2004 U.N. report estimated 19 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were married, divorced or widowed.

Rape was only made a criminal offense in Haiti in 2005.

In the months after a violent uprising ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, thousands of women were raped or sexually abused, the British medical journal Lancet reported. {snip}

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{snip} An additional threat is HIV; Haiti has the highest infection rate in the Caribbean.

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As women lined up for food at the National Palace on Saturday, U.S. soldiers kept the men behind a cordon.

“It’s discrimination!” said Thomas Louis, 40. “We’ve all lost mothers, sisters, wives. Without women we can’t get coupons. They’re treating men like we are animals.”

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