– Shirley* seems like a typical young woman – energetic, excited and hopeful. Her smile is contagious and her voice clear and strong. However, when she begins to share the horrors she has experienced, her voice drops and her gaze turns downward.
The 20-year-old lost her mother and aunt in the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. With no place to go, she moved into one of the sprawling tent camps in the capital, Port-au-Prince. One night she came back to her tent to escape the rain. A man approached her and asked to go inside. She said he hit her and pushed her into the tent: “He threw me to the ground and raped me. After that I was haemorrhaging for a month.”
Explaining further, she said, “The tents are not secure. Anyone with a razor or knife can cut the tent and come inside. There are no walls and no protection and before you know it someone is there in your tent.”
Her ordeal is not unique. Twenty months after the catastrophic earthquake, conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate. Today, there are nearly 1,000 makeshift camps across Haiti and approximately 600,000 internally displaced people.
The International Organization for Migration manages most of the camps, but fading international interest has affected the humanitarian community’s ability to provide assistance. Women are particularly vulnerable in the camps, where there is little to no privacy, security or lighting. UN reports indicate sexual violence against women is occurring at alarming rates.
“Sixty-five per cent of the victims are minors,” said Jocie Philistin, a director of a local non-governmental organization known as KOFAVIV (Commission of Women Victims for Victims). “Since the earthquake we have been seeing more children, minors and babies aged one to 17 months who have been raped.” The NGO’s findings reflect a recent Amnesty International study that showed 50 per cent of rape victims were young girls.
In addition to having to live in unsafe conditions, Shirley had no way to pay for her basic expenses. She said her only way to make money was to become involved in survival sex. “After the earthquake there was a system where you could get food but you had to sleep with the guys who were in charge of the food, even though it had been given out by the government. So a lot of young women were forced into prostitution to survive,” she said.
As one of several organizations supporting the humanitarian efforts in Haiti, UNHCR interviewed women from 15 camps. They all reported that survival sex was a serious but invisible problem in their camps. With no gainful employment opportunities and widespread despair, Haitian women often feel there is no other option to access the food and water they and their children desperately need.
One woman living in a camp near the airport noted, “There was a girl who lived near me. She was raped. She had no parents and no one to defend her. That girl had no place to stay because she came from the provinces. She begged for money, but no one gave her what she needed. She had to turn to selling herself, and that was a form of sexual violence.”
To help combat widespread sexual violence in the camps, KOFAVIV has trained dozens of community outreach workers to locate victims and provide them with much needed services.
UNHCR is working with KOFAVIV to run one of the few safe house projects in Haiti for survivors of rape and forced prostitution in Port-au-Prince. Over the course of three months, the women receive shelter, health training, psychological support and business training. After they start to earn their own money, they will be moved to longer-term housing and supported as they continue to get back on their feet. This month (September) UNHCR chief António Guterres visited the safe house project and encouraged the local staff to continue their efforts.
Shirley is one of 15 women chosen to take part the project. Her nightmare ended in June when she finally moved out of the camp into the safe house. For the first time in over a year and a half, she has a bedroom door with a lock.
“Now I have a safe and secure place and a new family,” she said, smiling at the thought of returning to school and starting a small shoe business. Grateful for the help she’s received, she is also working with KOFAVIV to provide support to other rape survivors.
* Name changed for protection reasons
By Charity Tooze in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
With field reporting by Sarah Ahmed