Last month, I returned to my homeland of Haiti to witness firsthand the situation of women and girls living in some of the 1300 spontaneous settlements in and around Port-au-Prince, the capital. Images of the camps, now home to the 1.3 million persons, are all too familiar to the outside world by now: sprawling landscapes of makeshift tents where food, water, and sanitation are in short supply. Less evident in these media images is the struggle of women and girls amongst the desperation and violence of the camps. Nor do they capture an emerging shadow crisis: a wave of forced pregnancies that result from the rape of young girls.
For the last several years, I have been working with Partners In Health in Rwanda to assist their government to develop its national community health program and, more recently, with women’s organizations there to address the needs of vulnerabIe women and girls at the community level. Although Rwanda remains a poor country, it has recovered from the 1994 genocide in part because of a strong focus on gender equity. I hoped that my visits to the camps in urban Haiti would allow me to identify areas of possible Rwandan-Haitian collaboration.
The situation of women in Haiti has always been precarious, but this last trip, I found thousands of women in the camps on the brink of survival. Access to the most basic human needs of food, water, proper shelter, and school is severely limited for everyone. Women face, however, a double dilemma: satisfying these needs often places them and young girls at high risk of sexual violence and exploitation.
In the overcrowded camp in Park Jean-Marie Vincent (PJMV), I met ten-year old Virginie. The day after the earthquake that left her father dead, she moved with her mother and four siblings to the settlement at the outskirts of downtown Port-au-Prince. “Settlement” is not the right word for the mushrooming encampment of tens of thousands of refugees from the choked ruins of Port-au-Prince. Virginie’s mother has sought work in town, lugging produce for market women, to provide food for her children, forcing her to leave Virginie responsible for her younger siblings. In her mother’s absence, men have repeatedly raped Virginie. The improvised house of sticks and other scavenged materials she lives in provide little protection from the men who prey on young girls.
As I speak with Virginie, I think of my own daughters, aged 12 and 3, and the heartbreaking decisions her mother is forced to make between physical and social vulnerabilities: hunger versus protection.
Sexual assault and rape were common in pre-earthquake Haiti—hence some of our own ethnographic studies of “forced sex” in rural Haiti—but the social structures of family and neighborhood networks provided some protection for Haiti’s women and girls. The collapse of this social infrastructure on January 12 brought with it a destruction of the physical and social safeguards against violence, leaving women and girls completely vulnerable to sexual violence. Many girls spoke of being raped.
As vulnerable as Virginie is within her family’s “shelter,” she and other girls are at even greater risk when they venture to the bathroom––little more than a crude dark closet with a hole in the ground where they squat in darkness. Latrines are far away. Numerous girls described being followed and attacked on the way to the toilets. While armed police may patrol some camps in the day, and citizen brigades have formed in some camps to help escort women and girls to latrines and cooking areas at dark, armed men continue to prey upon them.
Shortly before my visit, PJMV’s women’s committee identified Virginie’s family as among the most vulnerable in the settlement. Fabiola Coqmard, PIH's Women’s Health Coordinator, begun to address the family’s most immediate needs, first by providing a proper tent. Soon, they will help Virginie’s family to relocate to a less populous camp, where she will attend school, and they will help her mother start a small income generating activity so she can care for her children while remaining with them in the camp.
When I spoke to Virginie, I asked her what she wanted for her future. She emphasized that she would like to go to school and became a nurse—indicating one of the nurses working in the camps—so that she can repay her mother for her hard work caring of the family. While these efforts provide some protection for Virginie and her family, her future, and that of Haiti’s young girls depends on a broader investment in their education and empowerment. This means ready access to school and a decent shot at a decent job after their education is complete.
These sexual assaults, combined with inhumane living conditions, have led to an epidemic of unplanned and forced pregnancies in adolescent girls and women. The medical coordinator for Partners In Health in the PJMV camp expects hundreds of pregnancies in the coming year if conditions are not improved—and these numbers are likely to climb even higher in coming months. Many women will deliver their children in the shelters of bed sheets and rubbish that make up their temporary homes. When 28-year-old Martine gave birth to a child in the camp after the earthquake, she had nowhere to place the newborn but in a bowl of dirty towels. With only bed sheets and linens as cover, the future of Martine’s newborn and others born in the camp is bleak.
Leaving the camp, I felt compelled to increase awareness of the day-to-day atrocities that women and girls are facing there. Right now food, water, and shelter are critically needed and in short supply. But if we address these basic needs while neglecting the education and empowerment of women, we will continue to leave them and their daughters vulnerable to rape and the prospect of bearing children of rape for years to come.
In Haiti, women are the centerpost—the potomitan—of our families and society. The reconstruction of Haiti will only succeed if we strengthen its centerpost by educating and empowering our country's women and girls.