Haiti: The Hidden Crisis
Women and girls who survived the earthquake now face sexual violence.
After the horrifying earthquake that hit Haiti this past January, photos and eyewitness accounts chronicled the physical devastation of the country, the agonizing deaths and injuries, the shattering of families, and the desperate need for lifesaving necessities like food, water and medical supplies. Two hundred thousand people were killed, and 1.2 million people were left homeless.
But lost amid all the coverage was another story about the earthquake’s aftermath, one that was equally appalling, though considerably more hidden: the sexual violence against women and girls in the refugee camps that sprang up after homes and buildings were destroyed.
“We know about rape as a weapon of war,” says Liesl Gerntholtz of the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, which reports on human-rights abuses throughout the world. “But sexual violence in emergency situations, in humanitarian crises, is something that’s been relatively unexplored.” She said similar incidents occurred following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
Sexual violence in the Haitian refugee camps has not been covered nearly as extensively as, say, stories of survivors being pulled from the rubble, perhaps in part because victims of sexual assault anywhere are frequently unwilling to talk about it. Gerntholtz says, however, that Human Rights Watch got some reports of the “gender-based” violence from both journalists and relief organizations.
Gerntholtz, who is based in London, was part of a three-person team who went to the refugee camps within a month of the January 12 earthquake to find out how vulnerable women and girls were. In an 11-day visit to 15 of the largest refugee camps (there are more than 300 around the capital of Port-au-Prince), Gerntholtz and her team documented four gang rapes in just one camp. They also talked with a young woman who had been raped by five men, who then severely beat her before dumping her in a nearby street. With nowhere else go to, she had to return to the camp, in all likelihood the same camp where her attackers lived—and remained free.
The team might never have talked to her except for the efforts of a local man, a human-rights activist who is himself living in the camps, who took the young woman to a nearby hospital. “I really need somebody to be with me in this suffering,” the woman quietly told Gerntholtz.
What causes people like the woman’s attackers – who have just suffered a trauma themselves – to inflict still more pain on others? Gerntholtz cites several causes, including the generalized rage that stems from the “anxiety and desperation and fear” people feel at the unimaginable conditions in the camps, and their constant struggle for food. “There were people there who hadn’t eaten for days,” Gerntholtz says.
The disaster also broke up social networks that would normally protect women. “The earthquake happened at 4:45 p.m., at a time when many people were coming home from work or were away from their homes,” Gerntholtz says. “So when they took shelter where they were, they didn’t necessarily end up with their neighbors. They’re not with anyone they know.” And women’s groups in Haiti, who normally provide services for survivors of rape and domestic violence, were hard hit in the earthquake; the headquarters of one major group was destroyed and key staffers were killed. “They themselves are struggling with survival,” Gerntholtz says.