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As Sexual Violence Increases, Women in Haiti Organize to Protect Themselves

July 16, 2010

This week marks six months since an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, killing an estimated 300,000 people and displacing 1.9 million from their homes. As the hurricane season begins, the slow progress of rebuilding and recovery are rendering Haitians, who are still living in temporary camps under exposed tarps and tents, at risk of further devastation. Women and girls are especially vulnerable given that rape and other forms of sexual violence are rampant at camps. As Democracy Now! reports, the camps render women and girls extremely vulnerable to violence because they sleep in unenclosed areas. Furthermore, many of the rapes go unrecorded, making it difficult to keep track of the number of cases. The United Nations’ MediaGlobal also cites activists as being worried that the nation might see a rise in new cases of HIV infections as a result. Seeing as the Haitian police and UN forces have done little to ensure safety at camps, the women have organized efforts to protect themselves. In an interview (video above), Malia Villard Appolon, chair of KOFAVIV, the commission of women victims for victims, described two of the initiatives they have implemented. Whistles have been distributed to women at various camps and when blown, serve to alert the people around them to come to their assistance. Also, the commission has also coordinated with several men to patrol the camps at night. However, the long term solution to this problem is the empowerment of Haitians to rebuild their own country. The United Nations recently issued a report saying that “less than 2 per cent of the $10 billion pledged to help rebuild the country had been received.” In response, an Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IRHC) has been set up, to address the lagging efforts. Earlier this week, President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, co-chairs of the commission, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times describing the work of that they plan to do. Yet, for Patrick Elie, a Haitian human rights attorney and survivor of the earthquake, the IRHC triggers warning bells in his head seeing as its members include Gary Lissad and Reginald Boulos, who were both instrumental in the military coup against the popular Jean Bertrand Aristide in the 1990s. Others, like Naomi Klein, have also warned about aid efforts to Haiti being used as a guise for disaster capitalism, that is introducing policies to restructure the economy that ultimately privilege corporate interests . Even as the social fabric and civil service around them disintegrates, the women taking charge of their own safety is prove that Haiti can rebuild itself. As Elie says, “We are a people who can fend for ourselves. We have a vision of where we want to go. So we do need friends but we don’t need people to think for us, or to pity us. That is probably the attitude that’s playing a part in the aid not being forthcoming. Our friends, if they are friends, should trust us."