Via the Daily Beast comes some rather distressing if entirely unsurprising news. In the wake of the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti, sexual violence against women is also on the rise, and beginning to turn into a crisis of its own. (Trigger Warning on the linked article.)
On top of the catastrophic earthquake that has left more than 200,000 dead and 1.2 million people homeless, the sexual violence felt to me like an unimaginable betrayal of humanity. But once you’ve seen the camps for Haiti’s displaced, it is easy to understand how the abuse of women and girls can happen.
During our mission, we were in 15 of the largest camps for displaced Haitians, and we documented four gang rapes in Parc Jean Marie Vincent camp alone. The camps are unsafe places, and many women live with strangers, having lost contact with family members and friends. Their access to food and water is compromised. They bathe and wash children in public places. Although some latrines have been provided, there is no separation of facilities for women and men—and no lighting—so these are unsafe after dark. Three weeks after the quake, Parc Jean Marie Vincent camp had not received any food, contributing to an atmosphere of anger and anxiety. There were no police or U.N. forces patrolling. The camp is on open ground, allowing anyone to enter the camp and the shelters.
Horrific though it is to consider, and unbelievable thought it may be, sexual violence usually tends to rise in disaster situations, wherever and however they occur. As in times of calm and normalcy, rapists generally seek out access to victims who are the most vulnerable, whether it be because of intoxication or unconsciousness, or (for example) prejudice regarding disability or gender identity that can be easily exploited. When disaster strikes, when so many lose so much, everyone automatically becomes more vulnerable to everything, from weather, to food shortages, to predators. To rapists, those newly vulnerable women look like potential victims.
In order to abuse people, rapists first abuse circumstance. This story is not about what Haitians do in a time of crisis. This story is about what rapists do in a time of crisis.
Though the article notes that — like in most countries — rape was a problem in Haiti before the earthquake (rape apparently only became recognized as a crime in 2005), the fact is that even with the best starting point, laws do extremely little when there is no order to work with. And when misogyny and a male sense of entitlement over female bodies is more or less a worldwide norm, some will choose to rape. Put these two together, and you’ve got an epidemic. With the rebuilding process in Haiti expected to be so slow and difficult, and the long-term international aid expected to be much less abundant than the immediate aid was, there is even greater room for concern.
As noted in the article, what is needed in the short term is vastly improved shelter and privacy, greater security, and actual stability in terms of reliable food, water, and health care access. I imagine that non-rapist men, who almost certainly still make up a majority, are also needed to actively take up the cause against violence. And in the long-term, what Haiti needs is for countries like the U.S. to start taking responsibility for their own part in exacerbating this crisis, and to respond by rectifying those wrongs with real justice.