Sexual violence in Haitian camps of the displaced

This is the third and final post in our “on-the-ground in Haiti” series

By Chiara Liguori, Caribbean researcher for Amnesty International

So what is happening we asked ourselves. Have we got it wrong? Have we over-estimated the risks? Or, is it that women are too scared to report? Are we talking to the right people?

It was Malya, one of the co-founders of KOFAVIV, a women’s grassroots organization dealing with the medical and psychological needs of rape victims, who started to clarify the issue. Malya’s house and office were destroyed in the earthquake, together with Eramithe, also a KOFAVIV co-founder, she is living in Champ de Mars, one of the biggest makeshift camps in Port-au-Prince.

haiti-blog3-300Even though they have lost all their belongings, they have not lost their will to fight sexual violence against women and girls. In two months, 19 women and girls living in their section of the camp have reported cases of rape and sexual assault. Even though they encouraged women to lodge complaints with the police, none of them would. They were too afraid, either because the attackers were living in the camp, or in nearby areas, or because they had no other place to go. Not trusting the police to protect them and knowing that the justice system is paralysed since the earthquake, they preferred to keep quiet. Those who have relatives in other parts of the country chose to quit. The victims are fleeing while the perpetrators are still around, probably looking for the next victim.

In the absence of a centralized system for recording cases of sexual violence, grassroots organizations working in the camps are the only source of information. Living alongside women and girls in the camps, they are able to identify who needs help.

Margaret, a social worker for the organization Zanmi Timoun (Friends of children) has reached out to dozens of girls living in camps who have been victims of rape and incest either before or after the quake. We interviewed 5 of them.

The sadness of these girls, their low voices, their pains and their fears speak clearer and louder than any data or number. One of them is pregnant, another is afraid of being pregnant, some are terrified of being killed by their attackers. They look resigned and submissive. When we asked them what they want most in life, all of them assertively said they wanted to continue to go to school. One of them gave us a message to pass to the authorities: “You need to protect the girls, because I don’t want anybody to suffer what I have been going through”.

Editors Note: Living free from violence is a human right. Yet millions of women and girls around the world encounter rape, domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence. Join Amnesty in calling for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act, the first comprehensive piece of legislation in the U.S. aimed at ending violence against women and girls around the world.

A day in the life in Haiti

This is the second post in our “on-the-ground in Haiti” series

By Amnesty International delegates on mission in Haiti

It might be one of the most common dishes in Haiti but for the 5,000 persons camped on a football pitch in Jacmel, white rice and beans has been their only daily meal since the earthquake, complaints about the quality or lack of nutrients are rife. Despite the crunching feeling of an empty stomach, many decided not to queue under scorching sun for the three-spoons dished up in a bowl, a jug, even a plastic bag. However, the 34 vats of food were emptied in less than an hour. The distribution of meals attracted camp neighbours, mostly children.

The makeshift camps on Champ-de-Mars are home to more than 10,000 people © Amnesty International

The makeshift camps on Champ-de-Mars are home to more than 10,000 people © Amnesty International

Dozens of women and men were involved in the camp cooking site. The food items were delivered to the camp by the World Food Programme. One of the camp committees decided that instead of distributing food rations to every family, they would cook it and share it amongst everyone.

Some pregnant women we met said they would not eat camp food because they feared being sick due to the poor quality water used for cooking. Taking vitamin pills they received from international doctors operating a basic clinic in the camp on week days caused them stomach aches without any food. Signs of malnutrition were apparent among them.

Scarcity and shortages of potable water are a big concern and all the persons we interviewed pointed out that “water is health, health is life”.

When we visited the camp, the two water bladders provided by one international aid agency were totally flat. The water had run out four days earlier and since then, the delivery truck did not come. A UNPOL officer present during the distribution of meals told us that one of the few trucks delivering water in Jacmel had broken down and it was most probably the same truck that normally delivered water to this camp. Until the water supply is re-established, the camp inhabitants will have to walk a long distance to fetch non-potable water. This was a task traditionally carried out by women and children but given the needs of the camp population, men got involved and agreed that it demanded a strenuous effort.

Not even rice and beans

For others eating rice and beans would be something.

Like many other communities not affected by the earthquake, the village of Las Cahobas, located 70km from Port-au-Prince in the Plateau Central, has welcomed hundreds of displaced people. Most of them live with host families; those who have no family links in the village are reassembled in makeshifts camps and depend on the generosity of local residents. In both cases, they feel forgotten by the State and the international community. Humanitarian aid almost never reaches Las Cahobas.


Amnesty on the ground: The daily struggle in Haiti’s camps

By Gerardo Ducos, Amnesty International delegate on mission in Port-au-Prince Haiti

Two months after the earthquake, thousands in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere still await a first glimpse of humanitarian aid. In the four makeshift camps we visited during our first days in Haiti, life is a daily struggle and conditions are dire to say the least. People are without water, food, sanitation or shelter. Resilience and solidarity with each other are the only things these camp-dwellers can rely on.

A canal clogged with garbage in the Cité Soleil camp

A canal clogged with garbage in the Cité Soleil camp

There are camps everywhere. Every single open space, on public or private land, is occupied by hundreds or thousands of people. They are sheltered mostly under sheets and towels, in tents, under tarpaulins or, for the most industrious, in structures of recycled wood and tin.

In the camps we visited in Cité Soleil, Delmas and Champ-de-Mars, local committees have been created, improvising and taking charge of basic camp management tasks: coordination, security during the night, registration of families, activities for children, digging latrines or demarcation of common space. However, women’s participation and representation in the committees is limited.

That said, most women are out and about in the streets of Port-au-Prince selling goods and trying to earn what they can to feed their families. At some distribution points, other women are patiently forming orderly queues to receive rice or other items from humanitarian organizations under the watchful eye of the heavily armed US soldiers or UN blue helmets.

The destruction in the city is vast and most of the government institutions have collapsed or are damaged beyond use. The authorities, like thousands of other Haitians, are literally camping and working off the road.

The Port-au-Prince police station is located a few hundred meters from what was the Presidential Palace and overlooks Champ-de-Mars, one of the city’s open spaces – now occupied by more than 12,000 people.

This police station hosts one of the few units set up to respond to violence against women. It so now reduced to a dusty table on the pavement and is manned during the day only. Since the earthquake, several pages of a log book have been filled with complaints of sexual abuse and violence from women and girls, while in the camp on Champ-de-Mars, just across the road.

The day we visited the police station, a male officer on duty at the table unwillingly counted for us the number of cases registered in the log book: 52 cases of physical and sexual violence since the earthquake.

He said that many victims were minors, aged between 11 and 16, and that most of the assaults took place at night. Although he knew where to refer victims for medical attention after a sexual assault, he was unable to explain why, on the previous night, a mother seeking police assistance in the attempted rape of her 17-year-old daughter by four young men, was told that the police could not do anything and that the security in the camps was the responsibility of the President of the Republic. Quite a blow for the population’s confidence in the police…

Life begins among the rubble
Wilson, a baby boy, was born the night before our second visit to Cité Soleil, a makeshift camp of 272 families. The mother gave birth in the most unsanitary conditions imaginable: on the dirt, a few metres away from a canal of stagnant and putrid water, clogged with garbage and covered with flies and mosquitoes.

Another woman from the camp assisted Wilson’s mother in what was described to us as a difficult delivery, without clean water, towels or sterile tools to cut the cord.

The one-day-old Wilson rested calmly in his mother’s arms, unperturbed by our presence and the swarm of mosquitoes that invaded the space under bedsheets tied up with strings. That’s the home where he was born. This improvised shelter provided little more than some shade, with no protection at all against other hazards. It leaves three children and their widowed mother exposed to the rain and the recurrent flooding in Cité Soleil and vulnerable to infectious diseases.

The rainy season looms and all the people we talked to fear the worst. Shelter is what they need and what they ask for. That is their priority.

President Obama Extends TPS to Haitians

This afternoon Janet Napolitano, Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, announced that the administration will extend temporary protected status to Haitians in the US. Providing work authorization through a TPS designation empowers Haitians to share responsibility for the relief and rebuilding of their own country, and it enables the US to meet its human rights obligations under international law and standards. AIUSA commends the administration for its generous and prompt humanitarian response to the disaster that is unfolding in Haiti. Haitians fleeing persecution or other serious human rights violations have a right to seek protection in the US. Accordingly, we hope that in the coming days the administration will also suspend the policy on interdiction during this time of crisis.

Haiti Through Satellite Images

Click to enlarge (c) Digital Globe 2010

Click to enlarge (c) Digital Globe 2010

Satellite images of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince show the effect of the major earthquake that hit the island earlier this week. In addition to destroyed houses, the images also capture displaced people gathering in open spaces – like soccer fields – as there is no place left to go (and to be safe from aftershocks). The previous blog post outlines our human rights concerns, and urges President Obama to grant temporary protected status to all Haitians in the United States. The satellite images only provide one more piece of evidence why no-one should be returned to Haiti at this point.

In a different example of how geospatial technologies are being used to respond to the crisis in Haiti, our colleagues from Ushahidi have put out a Haiti platform in order to track developments on the ground and to support relief efforts. Check it out (works best with Firefox at this point).

See additional satellite images at the Huffington Post.

(c) Digital Globe 2010

(c) Digital Globe 2010

President Obama: Protect the Human Rights of Haitians

Haiti is devastated.

According to media reports, the earthquake has resulted in thousands of deaths, more injuries, and likely countless people missing and displaced. Amnesty International researchers are monitoring the situation. The US government quickly reacted on Wednesday by pledging humanitarian, technical and financial support to the people of Haiti, and this is to be welcomed. The Department of Homeland Security stated that it is temporarily halting all deportations to Haiti, which will provide some relief to the Haitians already here, and their family and friends in Haiti who will likely rely on them for financial support.

At the same time, however, there has been no move to provide protection or secure status to Haitians in the US, or suspend specific immigration policies that discriminate against Haitian nationals. Haitians fleeing persecution or other serious human rights violations have the right to seek protection in the US, but in flagrant violation of international law, the US government stops them on the high seas and returns them to Haiti (interdiction).

President Obama Should Extend Temporary Protected Status to All Haitians in the United States
Temporary protected status (TPS) is a form of protection provided to foreign nationals whose countries have experienced environmental disasters or armed conflicts posing a serious threat to the personal safety of foreign nationals if returned. By definition it is temporary in nature and provides protection and work authorization.

TPS also provides a critical lifeline to the family and friends of people remaining in the home country because TPS beneficiaries can work legally and provide financial support overseas. The US government has made very clear that Haiti is in critical need of financial support. Ensuring that Haitians in the US have the opportunity to work complies with US human rights obligations under international law and standards, and by enabling them to support their families in Haiti, helps indirectly to provide financial assistance to that country.