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One year after quake, fear of rape reigns in Haiti’s refugee camps

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2011-01-12

Women and young girls live in constant fear in Haiti’s squalid refugee camps where hundreds of them have fallen victim to rape. In most cases, the perpetrators walk away scot-free.

Life is dreadful for women and young girls living in Haiti’s sprawling refugee camps, which are home to at least two million earthquake survivors.

“The situation in the camps is really bad. Sexual assaults are a daily occurrence,” says Yolande Bazelais, vice president of FAVILEK (Fanm victim levé kanpé, or Rape Victims, Rise to Take Action), an aid organisation for rape victims. Founded in 1994, the association has 850 members in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

In Haiti, rape has often been used as a tool of political repression. It was only in 2005 that rape was declared a criminal offence. But the situation for women became unbearable after the devastating quake on January 12, 2010. At least 250 cases of sexual aggression were reported within the five months after the earthquake, but most activists believe that the actual number of victims is significantly higher.
 
Dark, jittery nights
 
Anxiety sets in as soon as darkness descends upon the camps. Lack of security in the obscure dimly lit camps and the freedom perpetrators enjoy makes life a nightmare for more than half a million women and young girls living there.
 
At night, armed men rip open tents with their knives, rape women, beat them and take away whatever few belongings they possess. Victims often come under attack at water spouts and toilets, which are located at a distance from the camps or in the isolated narrow corridors between the tents.
 
Last week, 21-year-old Barbara was attacked in broad daylight in a cemetery. “I was forced to enter the cemetery and I fell unconscious […] when I regained consciousness, I was naked,” she recounted. “There were two men. They told me they molested me because they had to make a sacrifice to the devil (a Voodoo ritual),” Barbara explained in a barely audible voice.
 
FAVILEK aid workers rushed Barbara to the hospital for medical examination. Barbara will be spending a few days at the FAVILEK centre. “It’s important that she talks about her experience and meets other women who went through a similar ordeal. She needs to realise that she isn’t a lone victim,” says Yolande, also a rape victim. She was molested by a group of military soldiers “on 07 May 2003” – a date etched in her memory forever.
 
Assailants walk away scot-free
 
Yolande’s assailants didn’t face a single trial. Nor will Barbara’s. The latter could not identify her attackers and she will not file a case with the police like in most rape cases. “When the country’s judicial system is not functioning, the police are inefficient to the point that it does not even register complaints related to sexual aggression, it is discouraging for women who want to take action against criminals,” explains Gerardo Ducos, a researcher for Amnesty International.
 
In most cases, victims who try to take legal action face a deadly backlash.  “A mother and her daughter were killed after they filed a complaint against the assailants,” says Marie-Esther Félix, a lawyer working closely with FAVILEK. In the past six months, she has managed to send only five perpetrators to prison. In 2005, rape was made a criminal offence with a minimum 10 years in prison. However, none of the five men will spend more than five years behind bars. “The judges, mostly men, lack information about this law,” explains Gerardo.
 
In the months ahead, some victims may see their attackers go to prison, but many more will continue to suffer their ordeals in silence.

 

Date created : 2011-01-12

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