Haiti: Rape and the refugees

April 2012
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It was around seven at night. The man came up from behind and put a gun to my head."
Getting food, clean water and medical treatment in Haiti's refugee camps is challenging enough for families displaced by the earthquake.

But now, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is reporting an alarming increase in rapes and violence against young girls and adult women in these camps.

One refugee told GHFN, “It was around seven at night. This man came up from behind and put a gun to my head.”

Another rape victim told us, “You can try to resign yourself, but you can never forget. An act like that, one can never forget.”

Still another said, “I felt my life was finished. That I would never again be able to function in society again.”

They are all victims of one of the worst forms of violence against women. Yet in Haiti, rape wasn’t even a crime until seven years ago.

Jocie Philistin, a coordinator of an organization running one of the few camp “safe houses” told us, "Violence against women and young girls in Haiti has always been taken for granted. It's been a huge victory in Haiti, that now it is considered a crime under Haitian law."

Jocie Philistin is one of the pioneers of the 2005 law that finally made rape a crime.

A former rape victim, today she is the coordinator of Kofaviv, a Haitian women’s rights organization formed by rape victims. She says the law has helped educate women on their rights, but few cases have been brought to justice, especially in a country where human rights groups say poverty and weak state institutions foster a climate of impunity.

“There's always a problem applying the law when you have a dysfunctional justice system that instills fear among the population, especially the victims who are the most vulnerable and live in marginalized conditions."

In January 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti's densely populated capital, killing more than 200,000 people. With 2.8 million inhabitants mostly living in overcrowded poor neighborhoods, its long-term impact is catastrophic.

A million and a half Haitians were left homeless, finding shelter in tent-cities that mushroomed overnight throughout the capital. Thousands of children, adolescents and adult women were thrust into a no-man's land, with no protection.

Jocie told us, "These are people who lived in low income neighborhoods. Even if they lived in slums, they lived in a community where everyone knew each other.”

Within seconds, that social safety net of communities was leveled and transformed overnight into a chaotic landscape of survivors.

"You find yourself in a camp where you don't know your neighbor. You look around, up, down, to the side, and you don't know a soul. People are living in inhumane, degrading conditions and everyone is exposed. There is no security."

More than two years later, half a million-plus refugees still remain in the decaying camps.

With international emergency aid exhausted, they are among the most vulnerable, no longer receiving basic needs like drinking water, sanitation services or security.

The UNHCR says one of the most notorious camps, where an upsurge in rape attacks has been taking place, is Champs de Mars camp, right in front of the collapsed presidential palace.

In its narrow alleys we found Yuseline Marcellus, a 16-year old girl who says she was gang-raped in the camp last November.

She became pregnant. Without family and nowhere to turn, she says, she turned to prostitution to feed her 4-month old child.

With her head in her hands, she told us, "There were ten of them. It's hard. It hurts a lot, it's always in my mind. I can't forget."

We were led to Yuseline's tent by two young men, Carlos and Ludner, who volunteer to protect her and other young women here.

Carolos told us, "Since I've been living in the camp for two years, I see many little girls been raped, nine-year old girls, young people, old people, they don't care.”

“We try to stop that right now. We made a group, fifty guys, to try to stop the rape, but you know we can't, we just can't."

Philistin says there's been notable progress and help from the Haitian police, pointing to 450 officially registered complaints so far this year. But with a judicial system still in limbo, many of those cases may never see their day in court.

On the other side of town, at Camp Nicaragua, Delna Charlotin is both refugee and president of the camp's women watchdog group, one of sixteen "frontline" volunteer associations working day and night throughout the camps.

Delna and her committee check regularly through the camp to make sure everyone’s flashlight has working batteries, and especially that every female has a whistle.

"We give all the women a whistle so that if any of them feel threatened, they can just blow it and everyone will be on alert and come to her rescue."

When they locate a victim in a camp, they refer her to a place like Kofaviv, which has one of the few safehouses in the capital.

Kofaviv's community workers are for the most part victims of rape or other violence themselves.

Philistin explained, “In a first phase we relocate the victim and her family. The mother and children are placed in a secure setting. During that time, the victim is sensitized to issues of reproductive health, gender-based violence, family planning and community support."

"The second phase is the reintegration of these victims. Once they leave the safehouse, they don't return to the camp."

In the final stages, Kofaviv will ensure up to a year's rent for the woman and her family, and pay for the children's schooling and health.

"We want the assistance to help them get back on their feet," Philistin says.

But for most of these women, it's hard to forget.

Rosamirlande, one of the camp inhabitants, told us she still has hope.

Smiling, she said, “Yes, I think I can have a second life.”

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