In the U.S., rape is seen as one of those universal taboos. We know it is wrong, and we believe those who commit such horrific acts should be dealt with severely. Prior to 2005, however, rape in Port-au-Prince, Haiti went unpunished. Hundreds of women and girls, some younger than six were raped, oftentimes by police officials and pro-Aristide (the president at the time) gunmen called chimres. According to Haitian women's shelters, these public commanders acted with immunity from the law.
It has been known for some time now that rape has never been on the forefront of issues on the island. In reference to the crimes, Yolette Jeanty, director of the women's rights group Kay Fanm stated, "The adult women, they don't consider it rape. There is this mentality that if you're not a virgin, it's not rape." In Haiti rape is considered to be a crime against honor. Taking someone's virginity can often be easily compensated with a monetary payment to the woman's family. Judges sometimes even propose marriage as reparation.
Sadly, the aftershocks of the recent Haitian earthquake hit especially hard among displaced women who faced an outbreak of sexual violence. Often sexual violence increases in times of emergencies, when normal structures have broken down and women and children struggle to meet the basic needs for food, water, shelter and hygiene. The tragic quake left more than 200,000 dead and 1.2 million people homeless. Displacement camps created to shelter and protect survivors became one of the richest spots for sexual violence against women and children.
Aid agencies deliberated ways to cut these instances from occurring. The agencies underlined the need for more secure lighting and security in the camps, safer food distribution, private, non-communal washing rooms and greater accessibility to health services for women who have been assaulted and raped. All of these measures, if adequately implemented, would contribute to making women and children safer.
In the long term, we need to make sure there is a greater awareness of Haitian women's rights, and how they will be protected during the reconstruction phase. After the basic security needs are met, the most important issue will be rebuilding the power and capacity of local women's organizations that can help lead the efforts against violence. Strengthening these groups and individuals will be key to protecting Haitian women and girls.
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