Michelle Faul, AT&T News, March 16, 2010
When the young woman needed to use the toilet, she went out into the darkened tent camp and was attacked by three men.
Women and children as young as 2, already traumatized by the loss of homes and loved ones in the Jan. 12 catastrophe, are now falling victim to rapists in the sprawling tent cities that have become home to hundreds of thousands of people.
With no lighting and no security, they are menacing places after sunset. Sexual assaults are daily occurrences in the biggest camps, aid workers say–and most attacks go unreported because of the shame, social stigma and fear of reprisals from attackers.
Rape was a big problem in Haiti even before the earthquake and frequently was used as a political weapon in times of upheaval. Both times the first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted, his enemies assassinated his male supporters and raped their wives and daughters.
But the quake that killed an estimated 200,000 people has made women and girls ever more vulnerable. They have lost their homes and are forced to sleep in flimsy tents or tarp-covered lean-tos. They’ve lost male protection with the deaths of husbands, brothers and sons. And they are living in close quarters with strangers.
Sex-for-food is not uncommon in the camps, said a report issued Tuesday by the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development in Haiti. “In particular, young girls have to negotiate sexually in order to get shelter from the rains and access to food aid.”
In this camp, some 47,000 people live crowded into what used to be a sports ground in a neighborhood that always has been dangerous. Residents include a dozen escaped prisoners, among them a man accused of a notorious murder, according to Fritznel Pierre, a human rights advocate who lives at the camp.
Pierre complained that the U.N. patrols are ineffective. “They only drive their cars down the one road that covers only a small portion of the camp. They never get out of their cars,” he said.
In the hilltop suburb of Petionville, where plush mansions look out over slums on hillsides and in ravines, a 7-year-old rape victim was being treated Monday in the hospital of a tent camp set up on a golf course. Another child, a 2-year-old, had been raped in the same camp two weeks earlier.
The toddler is taking antibiotics for a gonorrhea infection of the mouth, according to Alison Thompson, who is the volunteer medical coordinator for a Haitian relief group created by Sean Penn. She helped treat both children.
Besides sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, victims face possible HIV infection. Haiti has the highest infection rate for the virus that causes AIDS in the Western hemisphere, with one in 50 people infected.
Few rapes are reported because women often face humiliating scrutiny from police officers who suggest they invited the attacks and even nurses who contend young girls were “too hot” in their dress style, according to Delva Marie Eramithe, a KOFAVIV leader.
Police spokesman Gary Desrosiers said only 24 rapes have been reported to Haitian authorities this year. Several suspects were detained, but many escaped when prisons collapsed in the quake, he said.
Police Chief Mario Andresol blamed the attacks on the more than 7,000 prisoners who escaped. “Bandits are taking advantage to harass and rape women and young girls under the tents,” he told reporters two weeks after the quake.
“We are aware of problem . . . but it’s not a priority,” Information Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said last month.
Haitian police officers with stations minutes from some of the largest camps do not patrol–a fact that spokesman Desrosiers blames on the loss of dozens of officers killed in the quake, as well as scores who remain missing and more than 250 who were injured.
Still, that leaves some 9,600 Haitian police officers and 2,000 U.N. police officers.
The first signs of action came when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived Sunday, and a contingent of female U.N. and Haitian police officers set up a tent at the camp.
Ban promised the camps will be “safe and secure.”