Haiti: The Crisis for Women Continues

Most Americans would agree that violence toward women is detrimental to society on a global scale. Beyond being morally reprehensible, a society that condones violence against women suffers – because the costs of violence to women and girls are much higher than the physical and emotional pain the victim suffers. Costs include direct expenses for services to treat and support abused women and children and to bring perpetrators to justice, as well as untold costs that may be inflicted on families and communities across generations, reinforcing other prevalent forms of violence.

The story of Rose, the 22-year old that was abducted and raped repeatedly is unfortunately, not uncommon. Despite being raped seven or eight times, she says it was the place that her kidnappers chose to imprison her, in the ruins of a home, that she found to be the worst part of the whole ordeal. In the June 23, 2010 article in The New York Times she is quoted as explaining, “since I had not slept under any roof since the earthquake, I was so scared I could not breathe.” Rose and her relatives had moved back to their proprieties after being threatened with eviction from the place where they were squatting. They were sleeping outside their damaged but fixable property. Even before her kidnapping they had been afraid of the “young thugs in Mafia sunglasses,” according to her cousin.

Among Haiti’s other well-known woes, violence against women seems an entrenched one. For three years following the military coup that ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, rape was part of the repressive tactics used by the military and paramilitary forces to crush opposition. The U.N. was forced to send peacekeepers to Haiti in 2004 to address the shockingly high level of violence against women. It was estimated by the medical journal The Lancet that between February 2004 and December 2005 almost 19,000 out of every 100,000 girls were raped in the capital, Port-au-Prince. It was only in 2005 that rape was even recognized as a crime.

Since the January 12th earthquake, the miseries of women have only been exacerbated. A huge percentage of rape cases go unrecorded, making it difficult to get reliable statistics. However, two dozen case workers of Kofaviv, a grass-roots organization in Port-au-Prince, reported counseling 264 victims since the earthquake, triple the number of last year. There are still more than a million people displaced, many living in overcrowded refugee camps. International relief groups have expressed concerns about violence against women in camps that have poor or nonexistent lighting, unlockable latrines, adjacent men’s and women’s showers, and inadequate police protection. Add to that the presence of thousands of prisoners who have escaped and you have “an ideal climate for rape,” according to the director of Kofaviv.

Haiti’s list of what things need to be fixed is distressingly long but keeping women and children safe deserves top priority.  According to an editorial in The New York Times on June 18, 2010, there have been some improvements in security in eight big camps, with joint Haitian-United Nations police patrols. But with 1,2000 encampments throughout Haiti, most are left to their own defenses. More needs to be done.

In April, InterAction – “a coalition of more than 160 humanitarian organizations working on disaster relief, refugee-assistance, and sustainable development programs worldwide” – recommended that the international community and donor governments working in collaboration with the government of Haiti do several things: Take immediate steps to improve security by addressing safety concerns in the camps, proactively monitor the risks women and girls face; improve gender-based violence prevention, response and coordination; and ensure full consultation with women and girls throughout the humanitarian response.

Natural disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti are obviously unpredictable. However, there is currently a piece of legislation that if made into law would codify the mechanisms the United States needs to respond to emergency outbreaks in violence. The International Violence Against Women Act would create emergency response units as well as provide funding for humanitarian assistance to help nations in crisis. The Department of State would make eradicating violence against women a diplomatic priority by giving assistance to programs of international organizations that prevent and respond to violence against women and girls in humanitarian relief, conflict, and post-conflict settings. Furthermore, this bill would build the capacity of humanitarian organizations and government authorities to address the special protection needs of women and children; provide immediate assistance to survivors of violence through education, trauma counseling, medical assistance, and economic opportunity programs; and provide legal services for women and girls who are victims of violence.

It is time that the United States shows the global community that it is dedicated to a creating a world where women and children are free from fear of abuse and sexual assault. This bill is an important step towards that goal.

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