Haiti’s Women Need More Than a Trickle of Aid Money

Source: The Nation

Preventing further sexual and economic violence will require a more equitable distribution of resources within the country and the hemisphere.

It’s been four years since Port-au-Prince collapsed, and Haiti’s women are still working through the damage—both physical and mental—left by the catastrophic 2010 earthquake and its aftermath. The cameras and reporters have gone, but the twinned scourges of violence and exploitation continue to haunt Haiti’s ruins.

In the days after the January 12 earthquake, as survivors flooded into cramped displaced people’s camps, sexual assault emerged as a second wave of trauma in the devastated capital city. Though violence against women had been prevalent long before the quake, the disaster left women deeply vulnerable, with little security in the shelters and already-anemic legal protections for victims obliterated. Four years on, despite initial media coverage of Haiti’s “rape epidemic” and overtures of legal reforms, the crumbled social infrastructure has left victims with little recourse and bleak futures. Aid money has washed in and out, but now the spasm of global compassion has ebbed into a stream of predatory “development” schemes. And still, the social fabric continues to corrode under the pressure of entrenched global inequalities, both within the country and across the wealth divide between Global North and South.

Ravaged Landscapes, Scarred Bodies

After the quake, the emergency camps immediately became sites of extreme brutality, as gaps in safety protections—simple things like proper lighting in the shelters, or having to venture out alone to find clean water—exposed women and girls to attack. Surveys of survivors in the camps revealed rates of sexual-violence victimization as high as 22 percent of displaced people—not counting all those who might have been too frightened to come forward. In the following months, with some 1.5 million left homeless and all residents left with virtually no infrastructure, activists noted an emerging trend of women turning to “survival sex,” or the exchange of “transactional” sex for economic resources due to a lack of other options.

In the following months, which saw temporary shelters evolve into long-term makeshift settlements, women and girls were beset with what rights advocates called “gender aftershocks”—a wrenching knot of social and economic traumas that deepened longstanding gender divides. According to a broad analysis of post-earthquake violence by the advocacy coalition PotoFanm+Fi published in late 2012, international humanitarian authorities documented a sharp increase in post-quake pregnancy rates, linked in part to “sexual assault as well as transactional sex,” and warned of “consequences for young girls whose developing bodies are at higher risk for complications of pregnancy.” After the massive uprooting of so many families left women no means of supporting themselves, younger women in particular suffered “increased vulnerability to sexual assault and abuses,” especially in the chaotic camps. Yet outside the tent cities lay even more uncertainty.

The government has for months been sweeping away the last of these encampments (an aggressive eviction campaign drove the official displaced population count from roughly 280,000 to 172,000 between last June and October—though where they have been resettled, and their access to permanent housing, remains unclear).

But activists warn that the government’s primary vehicle for forced “transition” of the displaced is essentially shoving people toward more precarious circumstances. Even now, many poor women are struggling just to start rebuilding their lives, while inequities they faced prior to the quake have returned with a vengeance—from sexual violence to wrenching poverty and a tattered healthcare system.

These days, survivors encounter more ingrained security threats—like the paucity of decent housing and a massive health crisis wrought by the catastrophic cholera epidemic that erupted in 2010—which render women intrinsically more vulnerable to violence and exploitation in their households and workplaces.

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